Not too many films about prostitutes inspire women to go out and dress like them. Julia Roberts, for instance, was a very pretty woman, but if men had been paying her for her fashion sense, she’d never turn a trick in her life. But cast a gorgeous and no-nonsense Jane Fonda as the hooker, give her a look the Sartorialist would soil his trousers over and you’ve got one of the most envy-inducing fashion films of the 1970s.
On June 25, 1971, Klute, starring Fonda and Donald Sutherland, was released in theaters. Fonda is Bree Daniels, an aspiring New York actress by day and high-class call girl by night. When a John disappears, the man’s best friend, detective John Klute, pays her a visit. Klute (a shy and boyish Sutherland) persuades Bree to help him navigate the red-light world where he believes the answers to his friend’s disappearance lie; the trail, however, leads them to a string of dead prostitutes and the likelihood that Bree might be next.
It could be the Pretty Woman of the 1970s—a movie whose heroine was a hooker destined for better things, a woman with brains, inner strength and beauty who can simultaneously pull off thigh-high stiletto boots while seeming like she could be anyone: you, your sister or best friend.
But that’s where the similarities between Julia Roberts’ Vivian and Bree end. Vivian has a rockin’ fashion montage full of late 80s dresses and suits that announce “I’ve arrived,” and then—poof!—is delivered from her life of sexual servitude because her Prince Charming is loaded beyond belief. Klute, on the other hand, is dark, suspenseful and disturbing; it’s tender, but a happily-ever-after love connection hardly seems like an option. Bree has leagues more depth than her 1990 counterpart (Fonda’s portrayal won her an Academy Award that year). If she is ever to rise above the life she knows, it would be on her own (G-rated) talents rather than some sugar daddy’s assets.
Gritty character aside, it was Bree’s haircut that stuck with many audience members more than the storyline. The world had caught a pre-Klute glimpse of Bree’s shag-a-licious style the previous year in Fonda’s mug shot, of all things, when she was arrested at the Cleveland airport on her way back from speaking at a Vietnam protest rally in Canada. She had allegedly kicked a cop after being detained with a large cache of pills in her bag. (They turned out to be vitamins.) The now-iconic image showed Fonda with her fist raised in defiance and her hair cut into a choppy, shoulder-length, peek-a-boo shag. It was a stark departure from the long, fringeless Marsha Brady tresses that were the norm of the day. Fonda’s audacity and attractiveness inspired a trickle of women into their hair salons to get the look. After the movie was released, the trickle became a deluge, and the ‘do earned its own name: the Klute shag.
For Fonda, walking into the salon the day her shag was born was a lashing out. She was married to director Roger Vadim, who had directed her in the campy outerspace orgy Barbarella, and was doing a swell job of sucking the very identity out of her through his hedonistic lifestyle.
“I had just finished filming They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? in New York when I made my way to Vadim’s hair stylist in the Village, Paul McGregor,” she writes in her autobiography. “There I had my first deep hair epiphany. Hair had ruled me for many years. Perhaps I used it to hide behind. The men in my life liked it long and blond, and I had been a blonde for so long that I didn’t even know what my own color actually was. I simply said to Paul McGregor, ‘Do something’ and he did. It was the haircut that became famous in Klute, the shag, and he dyed my hair darker, like what it really was. I didn’t look as if I were trying to imitate Vadim’s other wives anymore [he had been married twice before, to blond bombshells Brigitte Bardot and Annette Vadim]. I looked like me! I knew right away that I could do life differently with this hair. Vadim sensed immediately that my cutting my hair was the first volley in my move for independence, though he did little more than grumble about it.”
Shortly after, she was sent the script of Klute, “with a wonderful character named Bree Daniels. I immediately agreed to do it the following year.” The couple divorced in 1973.
The shag was sexy but not trashy, and Bree’s clothes followed suit. She rarely looked like a hooker, just a sexy, confident woman who knows what looks good on her. She dares to don a leg-covering midi-skirt during a year when most women wouldn’t be caught dead in anything below-the-knee. In a ruffled tuxedo shirt and suede vest she’s as rock star as Keith Richards. And when she needs to pay the rent, she rocks that, too—but inside that painted-on black sequined dress, you have a feeling a designer label is stitched into the seam. From her multicolored hippie vests to her vixenwear, the complicated genius of Bree’s character is that she keeps you guessing, not only with what’s on the outside, but what’s going on in her adorable head—just when you think she has it all unshakably figured out, she turns into a vulnerable lamb. Except for her complete immunity to bad hair days, she’s just as flawed and jumbled up as the rest of us.
This is Jane Fonda at her best. She treats us to a profound look inside the mind of a woman who sells her body and why. She makes no apologies and revels in the power she exercises over men. It’s a sleepy film; dark, slow and somewhat meandering. But it’s a timeless character study and enduring in its style. It might even make you want to go out and cut your hair. —Cody Bay
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.
Image: courtesy mptvimages.com