When the word “giallo” (Italian for “yellow”) is used to describe the horror sub-genre of films, it's literal — in the 1920s, book publishers used bright-hued covers to attract the lowbrow readers' eye. Their lurid pulp art promised that a thrilling, sexy, mystery-driven story would be found inside.
In the movies, “giallo” means the same thing, and often with a slasher’s twist of the knife, offering up plenty of bloodletting, unnecessary nudity, and a wickedly wily killer whose targets often include fashionistas or socialites of some sort. (Italy is, after all, the fashion capital of the world.)
Auteur Mario Bava is arguably the pioneer — Sei donne per l'assassino (Blood and Black Lace) heralded the genre’s entrance in 1964 — but directors like Lucio Fulci, Umberto Lenzi, and Sergio Martino helped to popularize it in its 1970s heyday.
When I think of giallo films, I think of über-saturated splashes of tint: vivid reds, rich greens, bright yellows, and bold blues. Color is everywhere, from the women's eyeshadow to the drapes in their bedrooms.
However, it’s the lightless hue of black which is most prevalent in these movies… from the killers’ black gloves, dark sunglasses or ski mask, to his (or her!) trench coat, it’s all about the prowler shielded in shadow.
From designer Coco Chanel’s signature “LBD” to Elie Saab’s Black Beauty Fall 2013 couture collection unveiled at Paris Fashion Week, black is still red-hot.
Let’s take a perverse peek into the dressing rooms of the five most fab and glorious gialli.
Directed by Mario Bava
Starring Cameron Mitchell, Eva Bartok, Thomas Reiner
Costumes by Tina Grani
Why it’s fashionable: The story is set at the house of Christiana Haute Couture, and the central character is a lingerie model.
What it’s about: The mystery centers on the damning diary of murdered model Isabella (Lea Krugher), and the scandalous secrets it contains, spilling all about her colleagues at Christiana Haute Couture. The madam-like Christiana (Eva Bartok) lords over her girls and is not above going to extremes to keep her fashion house's reputation intact. When one of the models, Nicole (Ariana Gorini), takes the journal home, she finds out that there is more than just one person interested in its contents.
Most fashionable moment: Christiana Haute Couture is more haunted mansion than fashion house, with its blood-red velvet-flocked dress forms, dark dressing rooms and creepy closets. It sets the perfect stage for murders most foul; in one scene a model in a black teddy runs for her life through a maze of menacing mannequins… but not fast enough.
Trivia Tidbit: Tina Grani did the costume design on nearly all of Mario Bava’s early horror films, beginning with Black Sunday in 1960.
Directed by Lucio Fulci
Starring Jean Sorel, Marisa Mell, Elsa Martinelli
Costumes by Lucia Mirisola
Why it’s fashionable: Sexy streets of San Francisco in the 60s, shot on location in its swankiest strip clubs and coolest cocktail lounges.
What it’s about: When a doctor's wife dies under mysterious circumstances, and another woman who looks just like her appears in a burlesque show (authentic locations were used here, showing off San Francisco's famous strip clubs, pasties and all), suspicion is aroused. When the medical man is put under the lawman's microscope, he and his mistress take matters into their own hands to solve the crime and prove his innocence.
Most fashionable moment: A luscious yet lascivious SF is a strange setting for a giallo, but even in the seedier side of the City by the Bay, Fulci makes even the gutters gorgeous. Not a lot of gilding was needed to make Marisa Mell drop-dead gorgeous, but put her in head-to-toe white leopard and have her strip on top of a huge chopper? DOA!
Trivia Tidbit: Lucia Mirisola has won several awards, but most notably for her costume design on Jesus of Nazareth in 1977.
Directed by Paolo Cavara
Starring Giancarlo Giannini, Claudine Auger, Barbara Bouchet
Costumes by Fiorella Gaetano
Why it’s fashionable: Some of the prettiest girls in cinema are featured, and each one of them is dressed and coiffed deliciously.
What it’s about: In this blend of horror and high fashion, a deranged assassin is injecting stunning women with the poison of a rare wasp, paralyzing them and forcing them to witness their own murders as he trowels through their bellies and removes the juicy bits — much as carnivorous insects do away with their prey.
Most fashionable moment: The lovely Annabella Incontrera plays Mirta Ricci, a fashion designer who, while closing up shop and dressed to the nines, has no idea she’s soon to be put six feet under. In a truly suspenseful chase through the textiles, she is finally caught in a midst of mannequins and succumbs to the killer’s blade.
Trivia Tidbit: Three of the killer's foxiest fatalities went on to become Bond Girls (Claudine Auger, Barbara Bouchet, and Barbara Bach).
Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni
Starring David Hemmings, Vanessa Redgrave, Sarah Miles
Costumes by Jocelyn Rickards
Why it’s fashionable: Supermodels, randy photographers, and rock stars. The fashion trifecta.
What it’s about: David Hemmings plays a swingin’ 60s style shutterbug, who lives only for short-term thrills. Sometimes, he takes pics just for kicks, too: snaps of a couple making love proves deadly when he enlarges the image and suspects murder. The film and pictures are stolen from his studio, and the body vanishes.
Most fashionable moment: When the photographer is shooting a lanky lady (played by real-life fashion icon Veruschka, and which produced the single-most iconic still from the film) in his studio, which is festooned in plumes of feathers, as she gyrates in a skimpy beaded black dress. “On your back… go on.”
Trivia Tidbit: One of the most fashionable rock bands of the 1960s, The Yardbirds, have a pivotal scene in the film… and you’ve just gotta dig guitarist Jeff Beck’s white white pants and trendy suede leather ankle boots in the close-up as he stomps the life out of his guitar.
Directed by Giuliano Carnimeo
Starring Edwige Fenech, George Hilton, Annabella Incontrera
Costumes by Silvio Laurenzi
Why it’s fashionable: Some truly outrageous fashion shoots with a myriad of scantily clad models make for fun, funky montages.
What it’s about: Luscious model Jennifer Lansbury and her fun friend Marilyn move into swank new digs shortly after the previous tenant is violently dispatched. Nothing a little soap and elbow grease can’t fix, but pretty soon the girls are being stalked by the mysterious murderer. Is it not an intruder? Could it be someone already living in the building? A wild cast of wild cards is introduced one by one, but who’s the one?
Most fashionable moment: Originally titled Perché quelle strane gocce di sangue sul corpo di Jennifer? (What Are Those Strange Drops of Blood Doing on Jennifer’s Body?), you actually see more of Edwige Fenech’s skin than you do her clothes. But no matter; I can still find something fashionable in that. There’s one hilariously over-the-top photo shoot in which Jennifer is clad in nothing but well-placed paint daubs.
Trivia Tidbit: Silvio Laurenzi has credit on a cheesy, forgotten 80s giallo starring Miles O'Keeffe, called Fashion Crimes. Yikes. Throw away the key.
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