Costume designer Anthea Sylbert was prolific following her work on Rosemary’s Baby (1968). Roman Polanski’s atmospheric horror was essentially her big break and, by her own admission, one of her toughest challenges too.
Rosemary’s Baby tells the story of young newlyweds Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse (Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes) who move into an apartment building that turns out to be a haven of witches lead by old timers Minnie and Roman Castevet (Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer). On the promise of a big career, Guy allows the witches to impregnate Rosemary with the seed of the devil. Rosemary is left trapped and alone, surrounded by an evil conspiracy and forced to drop the spawn of Satan on her due date.
The main focus of costume is Rosemary. She is a fashionable girl, her personal style rooted in the mid-sixties’ mode for clean, leggy lines. Anthea Sylbert created a look for actress Mia Farrow that suited her delicate build perfectly. Consisting mainly of unstructured mini-dresses and short fitted double breasted coats, Farrow looks similar to model Twiggy, particularly with that severe Vidal Sassoon haircut.
Sylbert felt the challenge of the piece came from its recent period setting. Although set only a few years before, trends moved so fast during the decade that she must have needed to scour old copies of Vogue to ensure accuracy. By the late 1960s when the film was made, fashion was moving towards mainstream hippie. Rosemary though is wearing Mod-like clothes, sharply cut, unembellished with little jewellery and, of course, very short hemlines.
The influence is ‘Youthquake’. Epitomised by Mary Quant, who along with André Courrèges invented the mini skirt in the early sixties and then a couple of years later the mini-dress, Youthquake was soon refashioned for the high street via the likes of Barbara Hulanicki’s Biba, a kind of Top Shop or even Primark of its day, and later Granny Takes a Trip based in London’s King’s Road. Biba in particular was Mary Quant on a budget; an entire look under one roof. Skirts, tops, coats, they could all be coordinated at Biba.
Rosemary is more Quant than Biba, so she must be working through Guy’s savings (we can only assume he made serious money doing commercials). She wears matching dresses, ballet flats and minimal accessories. Her first outfit, worn as she and Guy view the apartment, is typical Rosemary: monochrome and chic. Although she does wear patterns, mainly flower prints, the cut is always straight up and down.
The very first shot of Rosemary in her all-over white ensemble tells us something about her character. White is pure and angelic obviously, also virginal. Rosemary is not intended to be sexy, despite her sky high hems and barely there shifts. She is a homely, classy girl. Note her first intimate scene with Guy in the new apartment, in her own words it is “make love” not ‘sex’. Contrast too when she meets the Castevets’ first victim Terry (Victoria Vetri) in the laundry room. The girl (a recovering drug addict) is cheap with excess make-up, chaotic colours and a trashy wig. We can immediately see why the coven is so keen to impregnate spotless Rosemary; she would be the Devil’s ultimate abomination.
Moreover Sylbert’s clothes for Rosemary determine a change in climate throughout the film. Rather than a lot of superfluous dialogue about Christmas or birthdays, it is possible to tell what time of year it is, in other words where Rosemary is in her term, by checking what she is wearing. The winter months seem to correlate with her coldest moments of isolation, then when pressure is on near her due date temperatures go through the roof, 90-100 degrees in the New York sun, with Rosemary ready to pass out.
Of course there are other characters in the story, and most as wildly different as can be. Part of the fun of Rosemary’s Baby is its characters; they are so diverse, yet somehow relatable. Edward ‘Hutch’ Hutchins (Maurice Evans) is clearly an empathetic personality with his kindly nature and healthy scepticism, as is hapless Rosemary herself.
The Castevets are perhaps more potty than any elderly couple currently roaming the streets, certainly on their private time, but their clothes are eerily familiar. Minnie especially has picked a style that she feels comfortable in, probably from her forties, and kept on wearing it; a sort of Quentin Crisp in Florida look. Leave your house early enough in the morning and you will see it littering the streets like bohemian confetti.
Really, Rosemary’s Baby is fun. It is intense and terrifying, but the tone is blackly comic as well. Any time we see the Castevets they are amusing, at least at the start of the story.
After that horrific scene where Terry’s body is discovered, apparently having jumped to her death from their apartment window, the gruesome twosome march into view wearing clothes even sixties New Yorkers might baulk at. Minnie blinds in a feather hat and flowery smock dress, while Roman sports a candy striped jacket, pink trousers, bow tie and trilby. How can these two old fools possibly be a danger to anyone? Just look at them! How little we knew.
When Rosemary and Guy have their first proper introduction to the Castevets at dinner, the conspiracy against her really clicks into gear. Guy is quickly charmed by Roman’s flattery; Rosemary meanwhile struggles through her shoe leather steak with uncomfortable politeness. She finds the couple odd, not dangerous, but knows that something isn’t right. A noteworthy costume detail is visible when Rosemary strips off for bed later that evening – her stockings. Tights in myriad colours and weights may have been the decade’s most significant hosiery innovation, but stockings were still worn, certainly in the summer months. Again Sylbert has characterised the era without jumping too far ahead.
We see confirmation of how deeply Guy is taken in with the Castevets during the apartment party sequence further in the story. Strictly for young people so neither Castevet is invited, despite Minnie’s best efforts to butt her way in. Evidently they have placed responsibility of keeping Rosemary from raising suspicion at her sickly appearance in Guy’s hands.
This is one drawback to the film, which is otherwise believably executed from start to finish. Guy is so loyal to the Castevets that he never has a single doubt over what he’s doing to the woman he supposedly loved enough to marry? It is quite a leap of faith. Although, as ninety-percent of the narrative is told from Rosemary’s point of view, we only get the most minimal shots of regret over his actions.
The boisterous party sequence is full of fashionable outfits, hairstyles and glitzy make-up. Short fur coats, one of which is animal print, plus colourful shift dresses and long boots are all in evidence. The men though are surprisingly muted, still wearing shirts and ties even for such an informal function. Times had not changed so much after all. Not yet anyway.
Probably Mia Farrow’s most important costume is the red trouser suit worn during her evening of copulation with the devil (or drug induced dream, however you choose to read it). The colour is noteworthy, a dramatic blood red. The fit is loose, again drawing attention to Rosemary’s fragility; the influence is Ossie Clark, a loose, deep v-neck with big bow and puffed sleeves, all in splendid flared chiffon – it’s a luxurious item.
Ironically though, Rosemary tends to be at her most assertive the less she is wearing. In the morning when Guy acknowledges essentially raping her as she slept, Rosemary is visibly annoyed for the first time ever. Beneath her meek exterior we get the idea there is a line she does not expect crossed. Much later when she is in bed wearing a thin nightie recovering post birth, Rosemary is not willing to be pushed around by the coven either. She defies them almost as soon as she wakes up.
What is also striking about Rosemary’s costumes are how differently clothes back then are viewed now. Not so much the hemlines of her mini-dresses, or even the ballet flats, but more the quilted dressing gown, loose unstructured shifts and fluffy slippers. The unstructured shift dress has largely become the preserve of pregnant women. Those without child would likely pull in the waist with a belt, thus echoing a more voluptuous fifties fad. The quilted dressing gown and furry slippers were probably en vogue in the sixties, but now tend to be reserved for grandma only.
It is easy to see why a retro revival, especially from the sixties and seventies, is so popular in the world of fashion. What is now ironic was once upheld as the height of style, meaning there is always opportunity for reinvention. With so many outfits to peruse from Rosemary’s seemingly backless wardrobe, selecting her finest is a matter of personal taste.
There are those that work well as narrative costumes, the red trouser suit, white shift and shoes for example, and those which are trend pieces chosen mainly, it seems, for stylistic reasons, like the blue mini-dress with chiffon sleeves worn at Hutch’s funeral or the matelot sweater and slacks for the moving-in montage.
Her fitted coats have probably stood the test of time most convincingly. Perhaps never worn quite that short again without trousers or a skirt peeking underneath, they were Anthea Sylbert’s main contribution to a century of movie style, whether she wanted to make such a statement or not.
The final scene of Rosemary’s Baby is memorably chilling. Rosemary sneaks into the Castevets’ apartment wearing her quilty dressing gown, kitchen knife at the ready, and shuffles into the middle of the coven. After the barbaric suffering they have inflicted on this poor girl and how homicidally furious she must be, all one of them can say upon seeing her with the knife is “What are you doing, Rosemary? You shouldn’t be up and about”.
She really was no threat to them whatsoever.