On June 17, 1970, Barbra Streisand’s third film, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, was released. Box-office wise, the film was a flop. Costume-design-wise, it was smashing. Thanks to the knockout design team of Arnold Scaasi and Cecil Beaton, the marvelously chic fashions of 1970s New York and outrageously lavish outfits of 17th-century London ultimately play a supporting role to Streisand’s lead. The film is a big-budget musical directed by the venerable Vincente Minnelli, who had had gold-star success with the genre (Brigadoon, An American in Paris, Gigi). But multiple script changes and extensive edits left a film that wavers between amusing and tedious. At least we can thank the movie gods for the clothes.
A Plot as Neurotic as Its Protaganist
In the story, Streisand plays fast-talking, neurotic Daisy Gamble, who seeks out the help of psychiatrist Marc Chabot (Yves Montand) to hypnotize her into kicking her excessive smoking habit so she can placate her straight-laced fiancé. Chabot gets more than he, er, gambled for, when the sessions with Gamble reveal ESP-like-powers and a past life as Melinda Tentrees, a posh society gal who lived in London around 1814. Yep, this is the plot, but it makes more sense when you learn that the writer, Alan Jay Lerner, penned it while being prescribed amphetamine. (Perhaps we, the audience, are also meant to partake in a little sumthin’-sumthin’ before viewing?) To further complicate things, Chabot—wait for it—becomes emotionally interested in this past-life-lady.
The incessant flip-flopping between 1960s New York and Regency-era London proves problematic for the plot but, lucky for fans of fashion, it offers great opportunities for the film’s inestimable costume designers. Scaasi, a favored designer for a number of First Ladies, was reportedly paid one of the highest salaries ever for his work for On a Clear Day, while photographer/designer Beaton was a legend, having won Oscars for his work on Gigi and My Fair Lady. So how did these two giant personalities manage to collaborate on dressing Streisand? Beaton created the flashback costumes while the stylish Scaasi designed outfits for modern-day New Yorkers. Their combined talents insured that Streisand would look fabulous no matter what the century.
Wrapped in Minks and Batiks
Of all of Beaton’s costumes for Melinda, the take-away is the ivory empire-waist gown covered with rhinestones, faux pearls and silver floral embroidery created for an elaborate party scene. (To be honest, the dress is probably comes in third behind Streisand’s barely contained cleavage and a rotund, pearl-encrusted turban.) Beaton admits the look was quite bold, and that the turban “would have been wasted and somewhat ludicrous” on anyone lacking Streisand’s star power.
The designer’s creative flair for millinery doesn’t end with the turban: a veiled and fringed scarlet top hat resembles a lampshade with a purple scarf thrown over it and in another scene an extra appears to be wearing a tiara of giant gold lollipops. Over the top, yes, but Beaton’s costumes are all scene-stealers. He chose luxe fabrics in bold colors that flowed freely away from Streisand’s ubiquitous decolletage. Beaton’s dressing imbued the Melinda character with all the sex appeal that neurotic Daisy lacked in what he called “those dreadful mini-skirt creations” by Scaasi. Sadly, many of Beaton’s costumes were cut from the film when it was shaved down from three hours to 129 minutes. The designer blamed the poor script and commented, “It may be said that I was well paid for the job and that is all I should worry about. But…I really sweated to see that things were perfect.” On a Clear Day would be the last film that Beaton sweated over; the knighted artist tragically suffered a stroke in 1972 and retired from Hollywood until his death in 1980.
Scaasi’s costumes for Daisy fared better than Beaton’s and, for the most part, managed to survive the edits. Daisy’s character deftly captured many of transitions real women experienced from the ’60s into the ’70s. Wool mini dresses are always paired with monochromatic, perfectly matched jackets, hats, shoes, bags and gloves. Ever the perfectionist, Scaasi admitted that one pair of matching taupe tights “had to be dyed three times to get the exact shade” to properly coordinate with a pink-lined taupe coat and a pink wool dress. There’s much thoughtful detailing throughout: coat linings, hosiery, hats and even the floral bed sheets and wallpaper used in Daisy Gamble’s apartment are all carefully coordinated to the garments create a singular statement. It’s a trippy visual effect that pushes the film’s camp factor over the top.
As the movie progresses, the costumes mirror the growth of Daisy’s newfound empowerment. Pantsuits with wide lapels and bellbottoms—the seventies power suit—round out her evolution. When she finally tells her fiancé what’s what, her Indian-print vest and headscarf (perfectly coordinated, natch) declare her saucy rebirth. —Rachel Chambers
Cinemode is OTDIF’s ongoing compilation of the world’s most stylish films, a must-see list for fans of fashion. From Klute to Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Shaft, some of the greatest style inspiration comes from the characters and costumes in film. Bookmark Cinemode and check back often to read the growing list. The reviews, written with an eye specifically toward fashion, are added to On This Day In Fashion on the anniversary of the film’s release date.
Photo credits: All photographs from the Streisand Archives. Top and middle: two costumes by Cecil Beaton; bottom: a Scaasi design that was tragically cut from the film.