Creating the Character: Baby Jane

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Bette Davis gives a tour de force in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? as the resentful and bitter Baby Jane. Behind her jaw-dropping performance was also a team working to create a unique and horrifying character through her look.

While the saying goes “you can’t judge a book by its cover”, that's where Baby Jane began. Davis’ costumes were designed by Norma Koch.

At the age of 12, Koch taught herself the craft, by copying designs out of the newspaper, and eventually, got a job with Hollywood design legend Edith Head, who costumed Ingrid Bergman, Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, and Bette Davis in All About Eve.

At the advice of Bing Crosby, Koch began freelancing and her work eventually lead to Baby Jane, for which she won an Academy Award. Koch would also work with Davis in Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte.

For Baby Jane’s character, Koch had three distinct changes – sloppy Jane, out-about-town Jane, and grown-up Baby Jane – all of which demonstrated the character’s out-of-touch nature.

The cherry on the top was, of course, Jane’s performance dresses which were essentially adult-sized versions of the vaudeville dresses she wore as a child.

Interestingly, Joan Crawford contributed something to Davis’ look as well. After trying on several wigs, one of which was similar to Shirley Temple’s hair, Peggy Shannon (Crawford’s stylist) styled a wig from MGM that fit the look. What Davis didn’t know was that the wig had been worn by Joan Crawford in her musical days.

Shannon also spoke into Davis’ make-up design. Bette wanted her character to be extremely white with her eyes and mouth outlined dramatically, along with a little beauty mark on her cheek.

As Davis said, “I wanted to look outrageous, like Mary Pickford in decay.”

Shannon suggested that Davis layer her make-up on top of other layers, as if her character never took it off – something she had noticed the stars in the old musical days had done.

When Baby Jane’s look was finally completed, it was quite the shock to everyone on set – including Bette. When she saw herself in costume for the first time, she cried, worried that she actually looked like her character. 

For her terrifying character's appearance, Davis was nominated for an Oscar, and today, Baby Jane is considered one of her finest roles.