Film Style: Dressing the Cougar

Pity the tawny mountain lion, its moniker usurped by a 21st century obsession with “women, usually over 40, who hunt younger men, or cubs, and shower them with a tantalizingly experienced kind of love.”

I’d been thinking about cougars in film, and then—as I sat on a bench late last Saturday night escaping a distressing evening with visiting parents—Thomas appeared. He made me forget my troubles. Handsome Thomas, charming Thomas: wavy brown hair and the fresh skin of a man nine years my junior.

In my movie, James McAvoy plays Thomas. Any coincidence that the actor is married to a woman 9 years his senior.

Our meeting, while G-rated, had the impromptu timeliness of an “ah-ha moment” in film—just what I needed when I needed. Of course it also cemented my interest in Hollywood’s portrayal of the older woman. It also lead to a deeper question: if this was a movie and I was to pounce, what would I wear?

I'm played by Cate Blanchette, in sexy but age-appropriate grey suiting.

I’m happy to report that Hollywood’s cougar* stands out as a particularly “stylish gal,” as Paul Varjak (George Peppard) calls 2E (Patricia Neal), his sugar mama in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Unfortunately, great style does not equate a happy ending. In truth, Peppard’s full quote to Neal was, “you’re a very stylish gal. Can’t we end this stylishly?”

Nina Foch as Milo Roberts in An American in Paris (1951)

A cougar clothed in class.

As she stalks Jerry Mulligan (Gene Kelly) in this Technicolor extravaganza, much can be learned by comparing the tones and lines of Milo’s wardrobe with that of the young and lovely Lise (Leslie Caron). Upon first approach of her prey, Milo dons a Dior-worthy grey suit with a soft pink bowtie blouse. The effect is gracious and non-threatening. But later, for cocktails in her hotel room, she bares the wares in a white off-the-shoulder gown, which exposes a vast expanse of décolletage. “That’s, uh, quite a dress you almost have on,” Jerry comments. “What holds it up?” “Modesty,” she replies.


Modesty is fleeting.

Later, they travel to a Montparnasse bar, where lovely Lise is drinking with friends. Lise’s youth is highlighted by the fact that she doesn’t need to expose skin. The high collar of her white blouse is trimmed with primary black and red, small oval cut outs on the bodice lend texture and verve. Throughout the film, Lise’s clothes are rich in pigment (with a consistent theme of black and red) while Milo wears colors recognized as more forgiving to older skin.


At the film’s closing, the Art Student’s Ball, both women wear white. Milo’s halter gown is low cut and sleek (did it influence a young Halston?) while Lise’s flouncy number exudes the innocence of an enthusiastic young bride. Nonetheless, Milo makes a stylish exit: when Jerry admits he is in love with someone else, she responds, “I need a glass of champagne,” and disappears into the crowd.

Patricia Neal as 2E in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)

Isn't he delicious?

Although 2E’s fall is the hardest—little surprise considering she is up against Holly Golightly—she is the coolest of the cool. It’s even there in the name—the fussily named “Emily Eustace Failenson” becomes streamlined and modern as 2E. Her wardrobe is armor, pure and simple, as is her purring voice and confident stance. While covered up, her look is not one that shirks attention but demands it.


How much is that cub in the window?

Inspired by the work of urbane designers such as Pauline Trigere, 2E owns her space—which nonetheless becomes increasingly small as Golightly encroaches. I’ve always thought she shares a cool detachment and visual power with another 1961 film star, Cruella de Vil (101 Dalmatians).

The grand dame of greed.


Anne Bancroft as Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate (1967)

A cougar in appropriate garb.

The inspiration for Mrs. Robinson’s animal-inspired wardrobe was a Henry James story, “The Beast in the Jungle.” Her leopard and tiger prints were also used in objects in her home, for example the lighter she uses to ignite her cigarette during Benjamin’s (Dustin Hoffman) first visit. While her clothes work to distinguish her as a predator, they also exude subtly. The lines are classic and appropriate to a Beverly Hills housewife of her time—it is in the prints, their consistency and predominance, which expose her as a threat. Undressing, she chides Benjamin, “Haven’t you ever seen a slip before?” And in many ways hers is an unexceptional slip, with the great exception of the leopard print.(1)

And then there are her furs, on which the production spent $25,000 (a value of approximately $167,000 today).

Just a regular gal who takes her stockings off one at a time.

Other decisions on the part of director Mike Nichols and production designer Richard Sylbert helped to create a character that visually embodies the everyday. Her tan lines, for example, exposed when she first strips down, were an intentional attempt to achieve this goal. “We wanted beautiful actresses,” said Nichols, “but we wanted them to look like real people.”

Susan Sarandon as Nora Baker in White Palace (1990)

“Poor people are a hoot, aren’t they,” Nora chides her wealthy lover Max (James Spader) when her electricity is turned off. Nora is the lone blue-collar cougar in this group and the only one who gets her man. Is it no wonder that the most telling outfit of this coupling, which begins with some very sexy sex, is Nora’s nude body on the bed as Max leaves the first morning? She has real curves, a small belly (Hollywood belly, of course, no flopping here) and a small butterfly tattoo on her hip. The effect is vulnerable and real, a very different figure from the perfectly aerobic-toned professional women Max is likely used to.


1. Kashner, S. “The Graduate.” In: Carter, G. [Ed]. Vanity Fair’s Tales of Hollywood. Penguin Books, New York, 2008.


*The cougar I focus on here is the huntress, but other older woman–younger man couplings that ring less “hunter and prey” can be found in All About Eve, Harold and Maude, and Something’s Gotta Give.

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1 Comment

  • Toby Wollin September 20, 2011 01.37 pm

    Wow – how cruel was this in An American in Paris: Gene Kelly was born in 1912 – he was 39 when AAIP was released. Nina Foch was born in…. 1924. She was 27 (and obviously playing a much older woman and playing someone who was supposedly older than Kelly). And she was supposed to be the cougar?


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