Fashion & Fiction in the South:
“Judith Kane” by Elizabeth Spencer
Back in college, I used to idolize Marlene Dietrich to the point where she’d make regular appearances in my dreams. Sometimes it would be 1930s Dietrich, slinking around in silk, her face an art deco masterpiece set off by expert lighting and the perpetual haze of cigarette smoke. Other times I’d get a visit from 1950s Dietrich, “the world’s most glamourous grandmother,” still eerily perfect in her new Dior suits and old jewels. It didn’t really matter which Marlene Dietrich showed up, because she’d always give me the same reception: one of amused disdain. Sometimes she’d arch those already arched eyebrows as her magic eyes took in my messy hair and early oughts thrift store getups. Or maybe she’d smile half-pityingly before launching into her attack, doling out clothing advice and beauty tips like razors or Blitzkrieg bombs, just as she did to poor Jean Arthur’s hapless Midwestern character in A Foreign Affair. I didn’t want to be like Jean Arthur’s middle-aged ingénue, corny and cornfed in her Iowa department store clothes. I just wanted to be Dietrich—the ice queen, aloof and always impeccably turned-out.
The nameless narrator of Elizabeth Spencer’s short story “Judith Kane” feels the same way about the title character, at least at first. Judith is “beautiful, tall and put together like a Greek statue.” When the narrator first runs into Judith and learns that they both will be sharing the same house, she is at first in awe, hit by a wave of schoolgirl admiration. But then she worries. She feels that she has “no looks or clothes or any asset to hold a candle to” Judith’s. In her “limp dirndl skirt” and dirty white blouse, she may as well be Jean Arthur to Judith’s glamorous Marlene Dietrich. The game is fixed.
“I had sat brooding the whole time she was dressing,” the narrator says of her first day with Judith. “Whoever came to take me somewhere, any fool could plainly see, was bound to get interested in her.”
Which turns out to be exactly the case. Judith is both beautiful and intelligent; she reads “a lot of highbrow things” like Proust and T.S. Eliot, which already makes her a hit with the boys from the college. And then there are her clothes. The lime green summer dress, the fresh white shoes, the “white linen dress with sea horses worked on the front in dark brilliant thread.” She lounges about in these things, draping herself across a chair in the hall, sipping on lemonade as sheer white curtains billow around her in the breeze. It makes for a beautiful scene, and Judith knows it.
Marlene Dietrich knew her best angles by heart, posing for still photos in front of mirrors so that she could position her face and body to perfection. Judith, meanwhile, looks at herself through the mirror of men’s eyes. When a male neighbor accidentally glances up at her window and sees her naked, he moves away as soon as he can, rejecting Judith in the process. She becomes “thrown off balance” and obsessed. Crazy, even. “‘He saw me as I am, and he does not care.’”
The narrator just becomes disgusted. She, too, sees Judith as she really is and stops caring. Stops looking up to her, at least. She’s no longer fooled or taken in by her housemate’s statuesque beauty or by the clothes she wears—clothes that no longer even fit properly by the end of the story, once Judith’s obsession has taken its toll, leaving her gaunt and frail, a woman to be pitied rather than admired.
Somewhere along the line my love for Marlene Dietrich faded away, too. I replaced my film star idols with new ones and switched out the femme fatales for the comediennes, who are so much more likable and relatable anyhow. I used to share Dietrich’s feelings about Jean Arthur (in real life she cattily referred to the American actress as a “plucked chicken”), finding her annoying and unexciting, but now she’s one of my favorites. Have you seen her drunken scene in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington? Dietrich could never top that. Not for all the ostrich-feathered, silk charmeuse Travis Banton costumes in the world.
Still, every once in a while I come across an old photo of Marlene Dietrich or see something that reminds me of her, and a bit of the old feeling comes back—that mix of admiration and inadequacy. Last year a friend gave me a box of vintage dresses that had been stored away for years, and as I was going through them I found a long gown from the ’30s, made of purple velvet and cut at the bias. It’s simple and elegant, and it made me think of Marlene Dietrich, who must have been one of the few women who could pull such a regal dress off. I certainly couldn’t. After all these years, I’m still awkward and my hair is still a mess. The gown would be all wrong on me. It was meant for someone statuesque, someone with extraordinary looks and scrolled-up hair. I bet Judith Kane would have been a knockout in it.