Dressing, Possessing

*Spoilers for All About Eve, series 1 of Killing Eve*

‘If I ever give you perfume, wear it, and know that I have designs on your soul’, I wrote a few months ago. This notion of dressing and possessing has followed me to New York, where I re-watched Killing Eve with my best friend, once more to Paris – yes, I did get a little bottle of Chloé eau de parfum – and back to London, to the Grand Circle of the Noel Coward Theatre.

All About Eve – which I keep accidentally referring to as Killing Eve – isn’t so much about Eve as it is about subsuming your idols and becoming yourself.

Eve Harrington (Lily James) waits breathlessly for a chance to meet Margo Channing (Gillian Anderson). Becoming her personal assistant and understudy, adored by everyone, Eve appears to peak as Margo, a caricature of the ageing starlet, mourns her own premature death.

Eve occupies Margo’s dressing room, helps her undress, manages her personal life and, in a telling moment in an early scene, offers to put away her costume. Margo steps into the bathroom, and instead of sending the period dress off as promised, Eve slips her arms into it. She holds it against her chest and stands before the audience – the real, present audience doubling as her imagined, future audience. Eyes closed like an ecstatic Saint Teresa, she bows, blissful … until Margo presses up against her, and she tears the dress away from her body.

Lily James and Gillian Anderson in All About Eve. Photography by Jan Versweyveld.

If this is the ‘dress rehearsal’, Eve’s big reveal should come as no surprise. Having literally usurped Margo’s seat, Eve sits at Margo’s vanity – her vanity? The majority of the play takes place in what was at least initially Margo’s dressing room, as set design contributes to the identity slippage – and begins removing her stage makeup. Huge screens loom over the stage to show the audience what Eve sees in the mirror: her face slowly morphing into Margo’s.

All About Eve ends with a tightening and an unraveling of identity for Margo and Eve respectively. Margo adapts to the idea of ‘ageing gracefully’, embracing new roles and accepting the love she was too insecure to trust before. Eve, who never actually was the ‘Eve’ she made herself out to be, is blackmailed into continuing the act, her entire life a performance. Eve tried to possess and thus ‘kill’ Margo, but she only succeeds in loosing possession of – killing – herself.

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While the second series of Killing Eve is airing in the US, its UK release has yet to be announced … and so all I can do is re-watch it again. What stands out this time is not Molly Goddard’s pile of pink tulle or the blue and gold balloons of a faux-birthday party, but how Villanelle/Oksana (Jodie Comer) and Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh) dress one another, with varying degrees of autonomy and consent.

Starting in the third episode, ‘Don’t I Know You?’, Eve and Villanelle play a game of mortal dress up. Villanelle steals Eve’s suitcase in Berlin, appropriating her green zebra print scarf for herself and trailing Eve to a boutique. There, she lurks outside Eve’s dressing room and surreptitiously provides her with a belt, that ‘missing something’ to complete her outfit. Villanelle later stabs Eve’s friend as Eve watches helplessly, still accessorised by the assassin.

Stills from Episode 4, ‘Sorry, Baby’, of Killing Eve.

Back in London, a shattered Eve unzips her returned suitcase, only to find it full of new, luxurious clothing, still packed with tissue paper. But the most devastating is Villanelle’s calling card: a bottle of La Villanelle perfume – her name and identity bottled in a fragrance that her ‘nemesis’ will physically absorb. Eve’s terror transforms into another unnameable emotion, when she not just opens and smells the perfume but daubs it on her wrists. She holds the black heels against her slippered feet before undressing and stepping into a new dress, smoothing her hands across her body in an amalgamation of fear, daring, disgust and attraction.

Minutes later, Villanelle breaks in to Eve’s home, confrontationally violating Eve’s personal space for the first time. But, in wearing her clothing and perfume – with a purposely ambiguous antecedent – Eve had already let Villanelle inside.

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‘You know when your outfit is missing something but just don’t know what?’ Eve thinks aloud to her friend before Villanelle fatefully delivers the finishing touch. So rarely is the missing feature proven to be ‘a psychopath’, but such is the case in All About Eve, Killing Eve and a myriad of other body-snatchings by way of make-over.

Without going in to problematic representation of psychopathy, perhaps, with dress and bodies at a borderline, the psychopath is the stand-in for past, present and potential identities and the unfixed self. Of course, I don’t want to devour, efface, become those I adore; I know the line between my body and theirs. But I do have a certain red velveteen camisole and dress with military buttons stashed away … don’t you?

Fashioning the Dangerous Woman in ‘Killing Eve’

Villanelle wearing a Molly Goddard dress. Costume design by Phoebe de Gaye. BBC America/Sid Gentle Films, 2018.

Killing Eve’s female-led approach to the spy thriller reverses a number of gender stereotypes. However, reversing a stereotype is not always the same as challenging it, and one which the series struggles to challenge is the trope of the dangerously fashionable woman.

In Killing Eve, this woman takes the form of sharply dressed assassin, Villanelle. Her passion for her work is matched only by her passion for designer clothes, and she stalks the streets of Europe in an array of the latest fashions. A hit in Tuscany requires a lace-trimmed Burberry dress, for example, while one in Bulgaria calls for a satin Miu Miu bomber jacket. In Berlin, she dons a frilly JW Anderson top to hide in plain sight as she spies on MI5 agents, before changing into a brocade Dries van Noten suit to stab one of them. Then, of course, there is the striking Molly Goddard dress and Balenciaga boots ensemble that she wears to visit her psychiatrist in Paris. Villanelle’s fashionable clothes are both her tactical wear and markers of her confident, fearless character.

Crucially, Villanelle’s fashionable appearance also contrasts her with Eve, the unassuming MI5 agent tasked with hunting her down. Eve favours ill-fitting suits and anoraks, and is so decidedly unfashionable that Villanelle feels compelled to send her a selection of designer clothes. Eve cannot let herself enjoy them, though, for they represent all that she feels she is not. Over the course of the series, her unfashionable appearance thus becomes associated with a certain rationality and self-control, thereby distancing her from Villanelle both visually and characteristically. As such, Villanelle’s fashion sense might appear confident and fearless in and of itself, but it can also be read as unruly and ostentatious when contrasted with Eve’s appearance.

Eve. Costume design by Phoebe de Gaye. BBC America/Sid Gentle Films, 2018.

In some respects, it is exciting to see a woman as fashionable as Villanelle on screen. Fashion and costume are so often viewed as mutually exclusive, but Villanelle’s costumes show how fashion can be utilised in costume design without appearing distracting. Furthermore, it is unusual for a female character to embrace fashion without fear of being perceived as frivolous or overly feminine, and to completely own her appearance. In turn, Villanelle’s costumes are refreshing because they allow both her and the viewer to unashamedly indulge in fashion.

However, this also makes it all the more frustrating that Killing Eve then associates Villanelle’s fashionable appearance with wrongdoing, for the trope of the dangerously fashionable woman is as old as the moving image itself. More often than not, the fashionable woman is also confident and assertive, independent and liberated, and her fashion sense, as a visible manifestation of modernity and change, comes to symbolise these characteristics. There is a reason that the vamp always wears a short dress and bobbed hair, and that the femme fatale has a fondness for shoulder pads and red lipstick; her fashion sense others her, often prefiguring her downfall.

Villanelle’s fate may not yet be known, but positioning her as the dangerously fashionable woman nonetheless renders her character as dated as it is enjoyable. Might the characterisation of Killing Eve’s leads feel different, perhaps, if Eve were the fashionable one?