We unravel some of the sartorial teachings from What a Way To Go!, one of the most jubilant and under-celebrated films of the 20th century
If you’re reading this article and haven’t yet had the pleasure of watching the blissfully camp 1964 black comedy What a Way To Go!, then you find yourself in an incredibly dire situation that must be rectified post-haste. Starring Shirley MacLaine as perennial widow Louisa May Foster – and Paul Newman, Robert Mitchum, Gene Kelly and Dick Van Dyke as her string of rich husbands who all meet with a series of slapstick deaths – the film chronicles Louisa May’s struggle to find happiness amidst a flurry of ball gowns and splendiferous millinery created by Edith Head (for which the costume designer received an Academy Award nomination).
Head said of working with MacLaine that she was “a fine clothes chameleon who can look like a little girl, a beatnik, a hoofer or a high-fashion model”. We’d like to add ‘inadvertent gold-digger’ to that list, for through her starring role in What a Way To Go! the actress portrayed a woman who has – by no fault of her own – become the richest in the world, amassing a fortune of “two hundred eleven million five hundred eighty-six thousand dollars and 79 cents” from the estates of her deceased spouses, acquiring a wardrobe appropriate to such a sum in the process. Intrigued yet?
1. Get yourself into therapy
The film opens with Louisa May in therapy; understandable, as losing four husbands in a row would be enough to induce post-traumatic stress disorder in even the most robust of women. Her woe-riddled tale of love and misfortune is recounted through a series of flashbacks to her psychiatrist, played by Robert Cummings, who ultimately also ends up proposing marriage to Louisa – does he have a death wish? Sessions include a tan leather chaise lounge atop a mechanical podium, suspending the distressed Louisa in mid-air, and Pepto-Bismol pink mood stabilisers that she is instructed to chew on. Disclaimer: probably not available on the NHS.
2. Make the act of mourning a fashion parade
In 1865, social historian Henry Mayhew remarked that “Women had to put aside all their ordinary clothes and wear nothing but black, in the appropriate materials and with particular accessories, for the first stages of mourning.” Whether Louisa May had been reading up on the history of mourning dress or not is up for debate, but what certainly remains evident is that with each husband who parts from this life, she enjoys sporting a different inky ensemble to mark his passing. Oversized hats with organza veils feature heavily, thinly obscuring the fact that she obviously hasn’t shed a single tear, for her doe-like false lashes and pearlescent coral lipstick both remain fully intact.
3. Don’t marry an artist, an actor, or a musician
Poor Louisa May. She’s made the fatal mistake of falling in love with and marrying an artist. Doesn’t she know that she’ll forever be second best to his ego? It’s easy to understand why she has succumbed to his charms, however, for after the death of husband number one, she moves to Paris and meets this bohemian painter in the form of Larry, played by the delicious Paul Newman. Months into their nuptials, she is exasperated over being treated as a mere object: “What kind of life was this? I was just another canvas to him – just another catalogue,” she laments. Fortunately, Larry meets an untimely end when he is violently attacked by his own painting machine.
Not one to remain single for very long, Louisa later shacks up with Pinky, played by Gene Kelly who appears on screen in full Singin’ in the Rain mode, if Don Lockwood had also been taking methamphetamines. Pinky could be described as the most irritating man on the planet (the name alone is possibly a clear enough indication of this), bursting into song at every inopportune moment. Finally, Pinky realises his dream of becoming a successful actor and is trampled to death on the red carpet by his adoring fans, whilst Louisa watches on wearing a fetching shade of bubblegum from head to toe.
4. Change your clothes every 20.8 seconds
In between her marriages to Larry and Pinky, Louisa ‘quadruple-barrelled-surname’ May, meets and falls for the business tycoon Rod Anderson. She dreamily remarks over how her life with Rod felt like “one of those glamorous Hollywood films, where it’s all about love and ‘what will she wear next?’” What follows is possibly one of the greatest fantasy sequences in the history of cinema, where Shirley Maclaine changes costume not just once or twice, but 15 times in the space of a 5.21-minute-long clip, working out at a different outfit every 20.8 seconds. The only thing that will do this scene justice is to watch it for yourself via the above video.
5. Selling your soul to capitalism is never a good idea
The overarching message of the film appears to be thus: marry for love and not for money. All of Louisa May’s husbands who become corrupted by greed, ultimately end up meeting grizzly ends in one way or another, drawing comparisons to some kind of kitsch fable from the Aesopica, if the renowned storyteller had been really into haute couture. Eventually, Louisa May ends up settling down on a farm with a man called Leonard Crawley who she knew from her youth and has recently lost his vast fortune, now working as a janitor. “You’re the only man in the world I ever really hated,” she tells him. “Hate is a very strong emotion you know. But the thing I hated the most was that deep down under that small town emperor there was a human being that I wanted to know.” So, off they both gallop into the agricultural sunset, to sit around on tractors reading 1960s editions of Walden for the rest of their simple lives.