The ‘Stepford’ syndrome returns in a campy new movie, with a fashion-forward look that borrows heavily from the past
– Sylvia Rubin, San Fran Chronicle Fashion Editor
Sunday, May 30, 2004
Who needs a big-bucks Hollywood remake about plastic, unlined “Stepford” wives when they’re all around us, multiplying as fast as cicadas?
We live in a beauty-obsessed time — witness the recent spate of reality makeover and plastic surgery shows — in which Botox is a household word and the ability to frown so heinous, it may become extinct.
Women are less and less inclined to age gracefully if they aim to marry well more than once, or to keep the marriage they have. And powerful men, seeking the adoring looks of a Stepford-esque spouse, still are inclined to trade in their wives for ever-younger versions.
So there still seems to be relevance in the soon-to-be-released Paramount remake of “The Stepford Wives,” starring Nicole Kidman as rebellious wife/television network exec Joanna Eberhart. And certainly, judging from movie stills, the new version is just as much a fashion movie as the original.
The original 1975 “Stepford” movie, starring Katharine Ross and Paula Prentiss (in lots of midriff-baring tops), and based on Ira (“Rosemary’s Baby”) Levin’s best-seller, quickly became a cult feminist thriller. In that dark spoof, sinister husbands longing for the good-old pre-feminist days replace their wives with adoring robotic substitutes. The new, improved (and bustier) versions wear long skirts, ruffled blouses, white gloves and Easter parade hats.
The remake, which also stars Matthew Broderick, Bette Midler, Christopher Walken, Faith Hill and Glenn Close, is being promoted more as a comedy than a thriller.
Either way, it may hit a familiar nerve for the fashion obsessed. Dressing women in ruffles is hardly outlandish or a fantasy these days; just look at any fashion magazine. After a decade of power shoulders in the ’80s, followed by years of deep palettes and sleek, slim suits, today’s women are not averse to wearing color and playing up their femininity again, especially outside the workplace. This season’s frilly dresses are as frothy as a coconut cream pie lovingly taken out of the oven by a Stepford wife.
Fashion designers tend to look to the past when a harsh present offers little inspiration.
“The return to more feminine, frilly fashion was peaking around Sept. 11, ” says Sass Brown, a professor in the fashion design department at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.
“All the chiffon and georgette dresses shown in Bryant Park for spring were soft and unstructured, fabrics were cut on the bias, they were pretty and feminine,” she adds. “Designers are looking at the world through rose-colored glasses to happier, simpler times.”
In the remake, the Stepford women wear the bright, sunny colors of an eternal summer, unbothered by mosquitoes or humidity. They wear pretty floral dresses with cinched waists, petticoats and heels.
“The hair is so perky, isn’t it?” says Brown, after looking at stills from the movie. “The clothes in the stores today are softer; these clothes are quite structured but still pretty; the women look extremely nonthreatening, extremely willing to please.”
“Stepford” redux costume designer Ann Roth — whose long list of credits goes back to the ’60s and includes “Klute,” “The English Patient,” “The Hours” and “Adaptation” — disputes the idea that she was looking back to the Eisenhower era. “I wasn’t going for a ’50s look — not at all,” she says. “A circle skirt could go back to the 18th century, for example. I was trying to get into the heads of these demented men. These nerds and scientists. I wanted the audience to think, before the transformation kicked in, how did these guys get a girl like that?”
The remake is overpopulated with Stepford wives — about 150 of them.
At the big country fair scene, “there is not a woman in pants,” she points out.
“They are all in a shape you will not find now: a dress with a real bust line, a waist cincher, a half-circle skirt. I wanted them slightly unreal, but not like blow-up dolls.”
Many new lines from top designers, notably Patrick Robinson for Perry Ellis, reinterpreted the ’50s for fall with softer, more colorful versions of full skirts, cardigans with sequined edges, multiple sparkly flower brooches and pencil skirts.
In the new “Stepford,” the women also look as if they are from another era, even if it’s hard to identify exactly which one. Ultimately, Roth says, she wanted her Stepford women, including Faith Hill and Glenn Close, to be a combination of “Breck Girl, hooker and trophy wife.”
“I wanted them to look like the wives of very successful captains of industry, and women who were (also) acceptable to other women,” Roth says.
“There is a lot of psychology in the colors and styling,” Brown observes. “There is nothing powerful about them.”
Early in the movie, Kidman, who plays a driven, network executive, is dressed in cool charcoals and severe black suits, her brunette hair pulled back . In the original, Ross wore soft silky blouses with slacks, short dresses or hip-hugger jeans. As Kidman’s character tries to assimilate into her strange new world of compliance and conformity, she puts a little pink into her wardrobe.
“I made her pink jeans, pink slippers and a T-shirt with a sequin,” Roth recalls. “I also made her a pink-and-white seersucker dress with white rickrack trim. I defy you to buy that dress anywhere today.”
(Actually, there are dozens of strapless pink-and-white seersucker dresses at the downtown San Francisco Old Navy store, with bows of white grosgrain ribbon tied at the cinched waist instead of ric-rac trim. )
Given the current trend toward ’50s style, with even more women splitting time between work and home, perhaps the perfect woman today is one who is well aware of the harsh realities of the world but still feels optimistic enough to wear pink pumps.
Still, the filmmakers are clearly hoping that the themes of the remake will remain relevant and continue to resonate in a new era.
Even though the days when the feminist movement seemed most threatening may be behind us, Paul Rudnick, who wrote the screenplay for the “Stepford” remake, believes men are still as anxious as ever about gender issues.
“Straight white males act like the angry new endangered minority,” he told the New York Times last year. “Men still want a babe and don’t care about her earning power. Women want a rugged poet or musician with a private jet.”