TBT: The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing (1955)

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The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing (1955) is a sanitized look at the true story of artists’ model Evelyn Nesbit, her affair with famed architect Stanford White, and his June 1906 murder at the hands of Nesbit’s husband, rail and coal tycoon Harry Kendall Thaw.

Joan Collins plays Nesbit, who started modeling for photographers, painters, and illustrators in New York City around age 15. She soon became the most popular face for the covers of magazines including Vanity FairHarper’s BazaarThe DelineatorWomen’s Home CompanionLadies’ Home Journal, and Cosmopolitan. 

Evelyn_Nesbit by Rudolf Eickemeyer, Jr., 1901

Evelyn Nesbit photographed by Rudolf Eickemeyer, Jr., 1901.

The Eternal Question (Evelyn Nesbit) by Charles Dana Gibson 1901

The Eternal Question (Evelyn Nesbit) by Charles Dana Gibson, 1901.

She began an affair with the married White that centered on the pivotal “Red Velvet Swing” that hung in White’s apartment. According to her own memoirs, White drugged and raped her; in the movie, the sex is VERY consensual, with Nesbit in love with and pursuing White, who attempts to resist. Their consummation is implied through a HILARIOUS scene in which White pushes Collins as Nesbit in the swing higher and higher. Collins plays Nesbit as sickly sweet and incredibly naive, despite her grumpy mother essentially shaking her head constantly.

Eventually, things fade with White, and she ends up marrying the insanely jealous Thaw, to whom she confessed her previous relationship. In the film, he couldn’t be more controlling or angry — he’s the literal poster child for an abusive husband — and just like in real life, ends up shooting and killing White during a performance at the rooftop Madison Square Garden theater (famously stating,”I did it because he ruined my wife!”). A sensational trial followed, and the film ends with Nesbit unhappily portraying herself in the red velvet swing in vaudeville. [Editor’s Note: This historical incident is also part of the 1981 film ‘Ragtime,’ starring Elizabeth McGovern!]

The costumes were designed by Charles Le Maire, who was wardrobe director for about a million films, and designed a smaller number, including Napoléon love story Désirée from 1954.

1955 The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing

A young and naive Evelyn (center) performs as a “Floradora girl,” while her costume maker mother (left) works behind the scenes.

1955 The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing

Here’s that stage costume in color. It’s all very Disney.

1955 The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing

More stage costume!

1955 The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing

Evelyn poses for an artist in her turn-of-the-century-ish bathing costume.

1955 The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing

She goes to a party where Stanford White observes her and is smitten. That’s a lot of yellow.

1955 The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing

He arranges for a fellow dancer (in EXCELLENT stripes!) to bring her by his apartment for lunch.

1955 The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing

Evelyn is all unsuspecting…

1955 The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing

But she CAN’T RESIST WHITE’S CHARMS!!

1955 The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing

A sketch of the gown Collins wears for that fateful meeting, by Charles Le Maire.

1955 The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing

Evelyn is in deep smit, while mom tries unsuccessfully to warn her about older, married men.

1955 The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing

But Evelyn can’t stay away! Swinging as metaphor for sex must occur! I don’t totally understand this dress.

1955 The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing

Along the way she meets Thaw…

1955 The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing

Another of Le Maire’s costume designs from the film. I can’t figure out which dress this is, unless it’s the swing dress and they went REALLY different in the execution!

1955 The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing

Evelyn is in love (in a painted-on ensemble – is that a knit??), White Has Concerns. He eventually sends her to boarding school, trying to do the right thing by her but also in a gross Gigi sort of way.

1955 The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing

But Thaw keeps throwing himself at Evelyn, and mom Highly Approves.

1955 The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing

One of mom’s costumes.

1955 The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing

Which looks MUCH better as a sketch!

1955 The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing

Eventually Evelyn marries Thaw, he gets controlly on a glacier in Switzerland, they go back to New York, he kills White. This is what Evelyn wears for the fateful shooting.

1955 The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing

Well what would you wear when your current jerk of a husband kills your One True Love?

1955 The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing

Evelyn has to testify at the trial.

1955 The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing

And eventually goes full widow’s weeds.

 

Have you seen The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing?

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About the author

Kendra

Website

Kendra has been a fixture in the online costuming world since the late 1990s. Her website, Démodé Couture, is one of the most well-known online resources for historical costumers. In the summer of 2014, she published a book on 18th-century wig and hair styling. Kendra is a librarian at a university, specializing in history and fashion. She’s also an academic, with several articles on fashion history published in research journals.

15 Responses

  1. Saraquill

    I haven’t seen the movie, though I do have a book on the subject. It’s part of Rick Geary’s Treasury of XX Murders series, under the title “The Madison Square Tragedy.” I like how it follows Ms. Nesbit’s life after the trial, her struggles as a single mom, and her eldery passion as a sculptor.

    Obsolete Oddity on YouTube also has a decent video about Ms. Nesbit’s early life and the crime.

    Reply
  2. Terry Towels

    I watched the movie as a kid (on tv). Never saw it in color, now must look it up. The swing dress– as I remember (vaguely) lingerie was pleated in the 50s. So, it was to give the illusion of bedware?

    Reply
  3. Roxana

    Poor Evelyn. White certainly victimized her, Harry Thaw was right about that much, too bad he was mad as a hatter. She doesn’t seem to have had much luck with men.

    Reply
  4. Boxermom

    There is an excellent book about Evelyn Nesbit called ” American Eve” by Paula Uruburu. It looks at her life, from her childhood in Pennsylvania through the murder of Stanford White and the subsequent trial of Harry Thaw. I like the movie, but after having read this book, I kept yelling at the screen, ” That didn’t happen, etc.” :)

    Reply
    • Boxermom

      Am in the middle of watching ” Land of the Pharaohs”. It’s a Joan Collins film festival! LMAO with these awful costumes, not to mention Joan Collins in brownface. I swear the Pharaoh was wearing pleather in at least one scene.

      Reply
  5. Elizabeth Kerri Mahon

    I haven’t seen the movie although I think I read about it one of Joan Collins’s memoirs. I’ve been obsessed with the story for years. I must have 5 or 6 books on the subject including one about Winston Churchill’s cousin, William Travers Jerome, who was the New York district attorney at the time of the case. The hotel where Evelyn and her mother lived still exists but the building that contained White’s studio collapsed a few years ago. I have to say the costumes are typical Hollywood of the 1950’s, just period enough but not really.

    Reply
  6. Hannah Peterson

    The heck?! I just listened to a podcast about yesterday and discovered this movie’s existence. Weird coincidence.

    Reply
  7. Lexy

    Thers is a great graphic novel on the subject, Eve Sur la Balançoire ( don’t know the English title) that shows that her mother pimped her to artists then to White, who raped her and whose relationship with her was very squicky ( all with the permission of Mama Dearest). DOes the movie mentions her love story with John Barrymore, who genuinely loved her and asked for her hand?

    Reply
  8. M.E. Lawrence

    P.S. Joan Collins’s greatest performances were as the sexy, but wicked, stepmother AND the unpleasant, and wicked, witch in Faerie Tale Theatre’s “Hansel and Gretel.” (She clearly relished being the witch.)

    Has FF ever looked at Faerie Tale Theatre’s costuming? I like the different visual styles: Beardsley-inspired for “The Princess and the Pea,” more Rackham and Cocteau in “Beauty and the Beast.”

    Reply

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