Du Maurier, Danvers and dress: clothes and characterisation in Rebecca

In light of Ben Wheatley’s new adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Rosie Best returns to the novel and explores how writer and director manipulate one character’s dress to both disguise and reveal the intimate lives of many others.

Clothes occupy an important place in Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel Rebecca. Throughout this infamous gothic thriller, the nameless narrator is plagued by the memory of her new husband’s deceased first wife – the titular Rebecca – who never appears but whose presence lingers on in the behaviour and remarks of the other characters, the objects and décor of the house and, most clearly, in the clothes she has left behind.

Writing in The Fashioned Body, Joanne Entwistle discusses the link between the body and dress extensively, describing dress as ‘an intimate experience of the body’, adding that ‘dress in everyday life cannot be separated from the living, breathing, moving body it adorns’. In Rebecca, du Maurier regularly draws upon the close relationship between clothing and the body, using dress to evoke the first Mrs de Winter so clearly that, at times, both the reader and the characters wonder if she really is gone: ‘[i]t’s almost as though I catch the sound of her dress sweeping the stairs’, muses creepy housekeeper Mrs Danvers.

As the novel progresses, du Maurier continues to draw upon this relationship between the body and clothing to evoke the mysterious Rebecca and the importance of this connection crystallises in a crucial scene from chapter fourteen.

Having caught the second Mrs de Winter in Rebecca’s bedroom, Danvers begins discussing Rebecca’s wardrobe in great depth, taking out garments one by one and insisting that the narrator touch them, hold them, even try them on:

‘Look, this is her dressing gown. She was much taller than you, you can see by the length. Put it up against you. It comes down to your ankles. She had a beautiful figure. These are her slippers […] She had little feet for her height. Put your hands inside the slippers. They are quite small and narrow, aren’t they?’

Playing Mrs Danvers, Judith Anderson shows the second Mrs de Winter (Joan Fontaine) Rebecca’s nightdress in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 film adaptation of Rebecca. Photo: Selznick International Pictures.

In Danvers’ speech, the unique capacity of clothing to recall – even record – a particular body is made explicit: Rebecca’s long elegant dress remembers the shape of her figure, her nightgown demonstrates her height, and the wear on her slippers evidences her small, delicate feet. In this passage, the author’s emphasis on clothing seems to echo Entwistle’s assertions that dress is inseparable from the ‘living, breathing, moving body it adorns’ and that it is an ‘an intimate aspect of the experience and presentation of the self’, as our encounter with Rebecca’s clothing paints us an eerily detailed picture of both her physicality and her character. We, like the narrator, begin to understand her as the perfect example of elegance, style and beauty – a matchless first wife.

But, at the same time as highlighting the close link between dress, the body and the self, du Maurier exploits this connection, using it to mislead and surprise her readers. Instead of shedding light on her character, Rebecca’s clothes allows her to remain elusive, until she is eventually revealed to have been a far-from-perfect wife. In fact, Rebecca’s clothes reveal more about those who interact with them than about the wearer herself.

When describing Rebecca’s clothing, Danvers’ tenses fluctuate between the past and the present: although she acknowledges that ‘[s]he was much taller than you’, she also affirms that ‘this is her dressing gown’ and ‘these are her slippers’. For Danvers, Rebecca’s clothing truly is inextricable from her former mistress’s living self and, when describing Rebecca’s dress, her repeated slippages into the present tense depict Danvers as an unstable character who remains both in denial of and obsessed with Rebecca’s absence.

The housekeeper’s language and her familiarity with the first Mrs de Winter’s clothing also opens up the possibility of a queer reading of Danvers’ character. In light of Entwistle’s statement about the inseparability of the body and dress, Rebecca’s clothing can be understood as a proxy for its wearer and as Danvers encourages the narrator to put her hands inside the slippers, to touch the nightdress, she reveals her own habit of doing so. Danvers’ obvious (and obsessive) overfamiliarity with the minutiae of Rebecca’s dress implies an unspoken and intimate relationship between the pair during Rebecca’s lifetime, although the latter’s absence means that this cannot be confirmed. Earlier on in the passage, the narrator even describes Danvers’ voice as ‘low and intimate’.

In addition to shaping our understanding of Danvers, Rebecca’s dress also informs our reading of the second Mrs de Winter. While hinting at an intimate relationship between the housekeeper and Maxim’s first wife, the treatment of clothes in the passage above also serves to alienate the narrator, whose unfamiliarity and discomfort with Rebecca’s clothing (the slippers are ‘forced’ over her hand’ and she realises ‘with a sick, dull aching in my heart’ that Rebecca’s nightdress is still wrinkled from wear) mirrors her sense of unease in her predecessor’s home.

Lily James as the second Mrs de Winter, Armie Hammer as Maxim de Winter, and Kristin Scott-Thomas as Mrs Danvers in Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of Rebecca. Photos: Netflix.

In Ben Wheatley’s recent adaptation of Rebecca dress also plays an important part. Throughout the film, Lily James wears pale and muted colours that allow her to blend into the landscape that surrounds her. In the image above, her light pink blouse blends into the orange-pink houses behind her, while her blue trousers echo the ocean. Likewise, when she arrives at Manderley, her pale grey palette melts seamlessly into the grey Cornish cliffs and, in the scene depicted above, into the silvery tones of Rebecca’s bedroom.

But while on-screen characters are clearly constructed through costume, the film also raises the question of how a central but absent character might be constructed and communicated in a visual medium. As a result, the film’s directors manipulate dress in much the same way as the novel does, using costume as much to mould our impressions of other characters as those of the wearer. Indeed, by comparing James’ looks with those of Kristin Scott-Thomas (note her dark blue suit) and Arnie Hammer in his bright yellow ensemble, we understand that her character is easily dominated by others. But it is also by observing James’ dress that we begin to form an image of Rebecca, again through comparison. Throughout the novel and the film, the difference between the first and second Mrs de Winter is underlined and James’ muted, self-effacing, even dull looks encourage us to see Rebecca as the more vibrant of the pair, not just in looks but in character. Indeed, the only fleeting image of Rebecca that we get is of a red dress and a shock of dark hair – an altogether more vivid look.

In Fashioned Theory, Entwistle articulates a generally accepted notion that dress is intimately linked to the body of the wearer, and that dress is closely bound up with the presentation of the self. In Rebecca, author Daphne du Maurier and director Ben Wheatley exploit this connection and turn it on its head, using dress to inform our understandings of the wearer but, equally, to subtly but deliberately guide our conceptions of others too.