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THE BIRDS: Telling the Story through Wardrobe

Hitch and Head on “Family Plot” 1976

Edith Head is the most Oscar winning and revered costume designer in movie history. Alfred Hitchcock was known for making the clothes in his films a vital part of the characters portrayed. Put them together on “The Birds” and you come out with a wardrobe masterpiece.

Early in her career, Edith Head worked with Ingrid Bergman on two films; “For whom the Bell tolls” (1944) and “The Bells of St. Mary” (1945). Even though Edith was under contract with Paramount, Bergman was so pleased with her Habit on “Bells”, she requested Edith be loaned out to Hitchcock and RKO for “Notorious” (1946). It would be their first time working together and they would become long time collaborators for years to come.

Concept Sketch and Inspiration

Edith Head sketch for Grace Kelly, “Rear Window” 1954

Working together again on “Rear Window” (1954), Edith perfected the “Eau de nil” (Nile water) colored green suit for blonde Grace Kelley. While she bucked the trend and used a gray suit on the very blonde Kim Novak in “Vertigo” (1958) (gray on a blonde was thought to be a “no-no”), Hitch wanted to use a lot of green in “The Birds” (1963), so Edith went back to the Eau de Nil color in force, using it in more of a Chanel style suit on blonde star, ‘Tippi’ Hedren.

Concept Sketch and Inspiration

Edith Head sketch for ‘Tippi’ Hedren, “The Birds” 1963

“The Birds” opens with our main character Melanie Daniels (‘Tippi’) walking down a San Francisco street in a blacksuit with seagulls circling in the background. What is Hitch telling us here? IS she actually the “evil” cause of all of this that she is blamed for in the Café (and slaps the woman for calling her out)? After all, Hitch did put Janet Leigh in black lingerie when she decided to steal the $10,000 from her boss in “Psycho” (1960). Maybe he gives us the answers to the violent mystery of nature right from the very beginning.

Concept Sketch and Inspiration

Our Heroine, Melanie Daniels in a black suit

We first meet the main characters, Melanie and Mitch (played by Rod Taylor) in the Pet Store, among many cages (Hitch’s imagery of man’s inhumanity to nature), they are both in black and gray. Is Melanie Daniels a raven, crow, predator herself? After all, she does seek to find the good-looking mysterious man she encounters in the Pet Store and hunts him all the way back to his home—literally.

The predators first meet at the Pet Store

This is where the Eau de Nil green suit comes in to play…in pursuit of her prey, Melanie Daniels’ Wardrobe goes from black, to greens and browns—colors of the earth. In one Shot, Hitchcock turns the Protagonist from predator to prey: portraying earth, sea and sky (she’s even wearing a fur coat!). She delivers birds in a cage as a flirtatious gift to her new attraction, but once her gift is delivered, she is attacked by a Seagull. The tables have now turned!

Melanie Daniels; Earth, Sea and Sky.

Melanie Daniels; Earth, Sea and Sky…and prey

Melanie then comes into her first encounter with the town’s schoolteacher, Annie Hayworth. Melanie eventually learns that Annie and Mitch were once and item and Annie is still in love with him. And what is Annie wearing when we are introduced to her? Red. She is the only character throughout the movie who ever wears the color. Red for love and eventually (spoiler alert!!) …blood.

Annie Hayworth

Annie Hayworth…in blood red

We can even see her chances diminishing in the red piping on her robe as Melanie agrees to stay in town for a Birthday Party (red on a white robe…Hmmm). Poor Annie. She is never seen in red again. She even tries to be like Melanie at the infamous Party—seen in a darker version of green, but after that, only brown. To the earth she returns.


Red piping on a white robe

The Mother of Mitch, Lydia Brenner (played by Jessica Tandy) is first seen wearing a speckled tweed black and white coat. Um…hot and cold, shall we say?

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Lydia in her tweed coat

At one point Mitch is wearing a tweed jacket, much like the one his Mother wears. His shirt is white (hero) and his carpenter pants—nearly the same color as Melanie’s suit. He and his Wardrobe is tied to both of these women (this is the genius of Edith Head, folks!!). Towards the end, Mitch takes off the tweed jacket (Mother) and never dons it again. For the duration of the movie, he is in his white shirt and green pants. From that, we can infer he will be forever after with Melanie.

Me and Tippi 2009

Me and Tippi 2009

I asked Tippi when I met her back in 2009 at an autograph signing in Bodega Bay (I told you I was obsessed!) what was it like working with Edith Head, she said that she was a really smart, lovely woman, and loved working with her. Edith was able to get Hitch to see things her way when rarely no one else could. She also said there were 6 different Green Suits made for the movie. One suit was made specifically with stretchy material for the scenes where Tippi needed to run and there was action. Other suits needed to be destroyed in stages according to the story of the movie. Where are those suits now, I wonder…

Folks, next time you watch and study a movie, watch it with the eye of how the clothing tells the underlying story of each character and how they relate to each other. I highly doubt you will come close to a movie that holds as much visual and psychological detail as “The Birds”.

Thank you for sharing your talent, Edith. Thank you.


With fear,
Sarah Kreutz