The concept of ambition, continues to guide the story of Imitation of Life. Throughout the film Lora Meredith (Land Turner) questions her ambitious choices. Lora, a beautiful struggling actress and mother, craves stardom and success. Under the direction of Douglas Sirk, well-known costume designer, Bill Thomas brings Lora’s ambitious personality to life. Lucy Fischer mentions in “Imitation of Life” that along with Thomas, Jean Louis, was “borrowed from Columbia to design 34 outfits, valued at 78,000” for the character of Lora (183). The luxurious wardrobe matched well to show the progression of Lora. Lora’s outfits progress in the 10 year span that takes her from widow, struggling mother to Broadway sensation.Throughout the film Lora’s wardrobe displays her character’s progression.
Lora’s clothing makes for a drastic change, while explain her journey to success. The beginning presents the audience to Lora. She wears drab clothing with a plain color palate. Through the first half of the film, Lora wears bland colors, mostly black and white. The audiences’ first look at Lora Meredith comes while she searches for her young daughter, Susie. Having rather drab clothing options does not stop Lora from being noticed at the beach. The attention heads directly toward Lora, wearing a semi-simple white shirtwaist house-dress. Lora’s attire, the white house dress, personifies her dissatisfaction with her widowed housewife status. Unlike most housewives of the post-war era, Lora adds glamour to the most simplistic things, like the shirtwaist house-dress. Lora pairs the dress with a black belt, this accentuates Lora’s excellent frame. A pinkish bandana, adding some colors, pulls back Lora’s short, and forgettable blonde hair. These accessories have Lora pop among the crowd, while gesturing towards Lora’s longing of stardom in any show. Also the accessories represent Lora’s attempt to cement her status beyond the label of a post World War II housewife.
Lora’s outfit becomes a desperate attempt to fulfill her late husband, a stage director’s dream of his wife obtaining stardom Lora wants to appease her late husband’s wishes, while making her own. Lora seeks the attention of anyone that crosses her path. Thus, Lora’s tight dress, attracts many, especially men, and one in particularly. Steve Archer (John Gavin) takes notice of Lora’s star quality presented by her outfit. Well aware on how to get men’s attention, Lora knows that she must play up her sex appeal. Lora realizes that fame comes to those who present themselves as sexy sirens. Many men, like Steve, pay specific attention to Lora. For her fame seeking benefit, Lora uses her style and sex appeal to capture the male gaze.
Later in the film, Lora goes to great lengths to appeal to the entertainment industry (men). Viewers watch Lora make her way to famous talent agent, Harold Loomis’ (Robert Alda) office. Lora goes into Loomis’ office in the best outfit she owns. In a tailored gray two piece skirt-suit, Lora marches into Loomis’ office, looking to impress Loomis. Lora’s womanly frame is accentuated, but not overtly, in the tailored suit. Instead Lora shows a sense of professionalism in her efforts to get Loomis’ attention. Gray, as the choice of color, tones down Lora’s sexualized personality. Gray alludes to Lora’s serious intentions about her Broadway career. The white blouse shown under the gray suits helps to detract from Lora’s chest. Another sign of the seriousness and dedicated Lora has of becoming successful.
Lora’s ability to imitate her true self successfully fools Loomis’ secretary, as she portrays a famous Hollywood actress. Adding to the impersonation, Lora’s wears white gloves, and has her hair pinned back. Lora’s thought of how the higher society dresses shows through her clothing. In Loomis’ office, the agent is completely aware that Lora has lied, though he does not care. As Loomis exclaims, “You’re pretty”, he relays that Lora’s looks and dress are the solitary keys to success. Marianne Conroy points out in “No Sin in Lookin’ Prosperous”: Gender, Race, and the Class Formations of Middlebrow Taste in Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life”, Loomis “does nothing more than extend her (Lora) habit of assuming a class style above her actual economic station”(115). Lora even points out that she was extremely desperate in her efforts to see Loomis, causing her to lie. Not offended, Loomis matter of fact says “all actresses lie”. Loomis’ desire for arm candy matches well to Lora’s ambition of success. This leads to Loomis having Lora escort him to an important industry party.
A slow transition begins for Lora, when she shows up at night to Loomis’ office. Lora’s intention for fame symbolized through her choice of nightly attire. Aware that many high society people will attend Loomis’ party, Lora methodically sports a black evening dress. Once again, Lora’s frame gives off a fitted feeling. Her waist has a taken in effect. The dress has a capped sleeve, this creates elegance, along with a high-class feel, Lora’s goal. Also, Lora wears the same white gloves from the previous scene. The gloves signify her nicest accessory that Lora owns. Also the white pearls around Lora’s neck suggest the highest class symbol. A black bandana adds to Lora’s already simplistic, but extremely formal look. Loomis envisions Lora’s style very differently than her all dark ensemble. Loomis hands Lora a full-length mink coat, telling the hopeful starlet, “You got to think of my reputation”, Lora questions why she needs to wear the coat. Loomis’ ideology translates through the mink coat, personifying “fashion and taste translate into actual class mobility” (Conroy, 115). Loomis continues to quip “with a complete new wardrobe at my expense” and “I’ll show you how to realize your ambitions”; those ambitions start unfolding and Lora undergoes a style transformation.
Lora’s search for ambition turns out to create the life she only dreamed about. Ten years have passed, and the audience is led backstage to Lora Meredith’s dressing room. Just as Loomis claimed, Lora’s wardrobe has completely transformed. The black, grey and white outfits, belts, and bandanas are gone, replaced by amazing gowns and opulent jewels. Monique Rooney says it best in “What passes in Imitation of Life (1959)”, Lora’s dream for success shows through her costuming that “constrains her body” and she represents nothing more than a “tightly packaged commodity” (1). Lora has landed a starring role on Broadway, her commodity and super-ego drastically increased. Her clothing becomes completely over the top. Lora is draped in a long sparkling silver gown and a large diamond necklace. The necklace paired with equally stunning earrings and bracelet. Also noticeable, Lora’s view of her sex appeal has changed. The gown cuts in the back, and Lora’s back becomes exposed. Lora has the star quality and sex appeal she has longed for, but she lacks complete fulfillment.
Lora questions her new-found stardom. The whole point of success for Lora was to help, Susie. Lora looks at herself in the mirror, her reflection symbolizes the success Lora has achieved. “Maybe I don’t want so much anymore”, Lora exclaims to her trusty confidante and maid, Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore). Unfortunately Lora’s contemplation of success does not last long. Suddenly, Annie adds a mink throw to Lora’s sparkling two-piece evening gown. Ten years ago, Loomis had given Lora his mink coat to wear and the only jewelry she owned, a simple pearl necklace, a stark contrast from Lora’s new fantasy life.
Sirk quickly dispels any intention of Lora walking away from fame and success. The audience realizes Lora’s selfish quality and need for the best that life has to offer.
Curator: Erin Bowers