As a newly restored version of The Graduate returns to UK screens, we decode the costumes of its complex leading lady
In December 1967, Mike Nichols’ cinematic masterpiece The Graduate graced the silver screen, replete with brilliant performances, exquisite art direction and editing, a killer soundtrack courtesy of Simon and Garfunkel, and a near perfect script, featuring one of the most iconic lines of the 20th century: “Mrs Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me. Aren’t you?” It launched the career of a young Dustin Hoffman, at its helm as the disenchanted, young graduate Benjamin Braddock, and announced the arrival of Anne Bancroft – in the role of the notorious seductress and wife of Benjamin’s father’s partner – as an acting force to be reckoned with.
The part was initially set to be played by Hollywood legend Ava Gardner, but as Bancroft herself once noted, “There was nobody else who could play [it] like I did.” And it’s true: who else could strike such a measured balance of dry wit, cool calculation and brooding sexuality one minute, and present such an intense portrayal of vulnerability and jealousy the next? Bancroft is aided in her performance by her now-iconic costumes, dreamt up by designer Patricia Zipprodt. Here, as a marvellously restored version of the film returns to UK cinemas to mark its 50th anniversary, we decode the symbolic wardrobe of cinema’s most inimitable “older woman”.
The Signature Style
Mrs Robinson is first and foremost synonymous with the copious amounts of animal print with which she adorns both her house and her person; her wardrobe is said to have included $25,000 worth of furs. “I kept thinking about [the Henry James novella] The Beast in the Jungle,” Nichols once recalled. “Let’s have animal skins.” Mrs Robinson is, after all – at least for the first part of the film – a predator on the prowl. We first meet her at a party held by Benjamin’s excessively doting parents to celebrate his newly achieved scholarship. Sitting smoking in a chair, with heavily kohled eyes and a voluminous beehive, Mrs Robinson is the picture of refined cool among a room full of dolled-up suburban housewives. Benjamin escapes to his room, and Mrs Robinson follows suit, her cocktail dress a metallic, zebra-print covered in a transparent chiffon. Her intentions are equally clear: she insists he drive her home. Thereafter begins the film’s hilarious and suspenseful seduction sequence, which sees Hoffman play the skittish mouse to Bancroft’s amused and toying cat; when she finally lures him into the bedroom and strips down to her stockings and underwear, her bra and slip are both leopard print.
Soon after, the duo’s silent fling begins in earnest, Mrs Robinson donning various iterations of her favoured print for her nightly liaisons with Benjamin in a low-lit, single room at the Taft Hotel. It is there one night that Benjamin, fed up with the lack of conversation these encounters have so far comprised of, strikes up the famous pre-coital dialogue that makes up one of The Graduate’s most memorable scenes. He begins to pry into Mr and Mrs Robinson’s loveless relationship, asking why they married – a shotgun wedding, it turns out, prompted by her pregnancy with their daughter Elaine. Mrs Robinson lies naked during the discussion, covered only by a white sheet, her tan-lined shoulders exposed. This is easily read as a metaphor for the superficial nature of the hitherto unshakeable character’s confident veneer – talking about her past reveals her as the frustrated, middle-aged wife she never wanted to be. Her susceptibility is enhanced by Benjamin’s mention of Elaine – now the same age as him and soon to return from college – whom she forbids him from ever taking out on a date.
The famous mother-daughter love triangle ensues, which sees Benjamin lose his heart to the baby-faced, pastel-adorned Elaine, thereby driving Mrs Robinson into a fit of rage, envy and despair. This comes to a climax as Benjamin sits in a car outside the Robinsons’ house, waiting to collect Elaine. The car door opens, but the pair of lithe legs, topped by black silk, belong not to Robinson Jr. but Robinson Sr. She sits rain-drenched in the passenger seat, her normally pristine make-up running down her face, her hair held back by a headband. The silk dress, we discover, as the camera zooms out on the scene’s final frame, is in fact just a dressing gown. But Mrs Robinson hasn’t relinquished her control or her finery quite yet. The final time we see her is at Elaine’s wedding – to Carl, not Benjamin: the result of Mrs Robinson’s vicious scheming. She is once again immaculate in a two-piece skirt suit, jacket collar lined with leopard fur that matches her pillbox hat. As with everything in Nichols’ magnum opus, however, the moment is short-lived, drama, and a lingering sense of uncertainty, lying just around the corner.
The Modern Manifestation
While Mrs Robinson’s wardrobe is undeniably a key facet of the film’s dense symbolism, there is much to be gleaned from both the attitude and undeniable style of the glamorous temptress. In the first place, there’s certainly no harm in dressing to achieve (although we certainly aren’t condoning such a predatory seduction). Mrs Robinson uses her appearance to construct the character she wants to portray: a sensual woman, who is both chic and empowered in her sartorial decisions. Happily, for those who share her fondness for animal print, many of the A/W17 collections provide the perfect means for bold reinterpretation in the coming months. Demna Gvasalia conjured a voluminous, a-symmetrical leopard print coat for Balenciaga, complete with a giant tote of the same fabric; while Zhu Chongyun offered an array of unique, animal-inspired prints for Krizia, including oversized, zebra-striped sweaters and matching skirts, and abstract patches of leopard print embellishment on sharply tailored jackets and A-line skirts.
The Graduate is re-released in cinemas nationwide from June 23, 2017.