Written by Bertie Bowen


Dressing like… Ilsa Lund

Fashion stylist Bertie Bowen channels the clothes and spirit of a fictional character. This week, in honour of VE Day’s 70th anniversary, she takes notes from a woman who refused to let World War II get in the way of looking chic: Casablanca’s Ilsa Lund.

Ilsa in a white outfitWhen Ilsa Lund makes her first entrance in Casablanca, the cinema audience of the time must have let out a collective gasp of delight. Dressed in a white suit jacket and floor-skimming skirt, she seems to glide through the bar, turning heads, her large eyes innocent and glinting along with her large brooch and matching earrings. She looks wondrously chic. As everyone around her wilts in the heat, sweat beading at their temples, she looks immaculate. Now I’m crap and clammy in the heat; Ilsa on the other hand exudes an otherworldly coolness and mystery. So how can we mere mortals recreate her low-key, flawless and enigmatic look? Let’s attempt to style it out…

WEAR WHITE: not for the faint hearted

Ilsa wears a lot of white in Casablanca, I expect partly to keep cool in the heat (and partly because all light colours look white in black-and-white film to my untrained eye). White screams sophistication and adds to her ethereal appearance. Go for top-to-toe white, including shoes and handbag if you dare. Just avoid red wine and coffee and keep a stash of wet wipes close at hand for emergencies. As if you don’t already.

TAILORING: sharply feminine

The war influenced fashion at the time (as I learned at the Fashion on the Ration Exhibition) and military details soon made their way into civilian attire. Ilsa wears lots of neat, tailored jackets not dissimilar to the uniforms worn by the men around her. Cut to accentuate the waist and worn with skirts they become feminine and elegant. Try adding small shoulder pads too – they help define your silhouette. For a formal daytime look wear a buttoned up blouse underneath, but for the evening a collarless jacket worn with a camisole (or nothing, if the jacket isn’t too low cut) is understated and sultry.

SKIRTS: create the drama

For a daytime look a midi skirt is great, but for evening nothing is more dramatic and glamorous than a floor-length skirt. Whichever length you go for it should be A-line in shape. Skirts cut on the bias hang and move well, helping you to achieve grace and elegance. It’s also really fun to spin around and make the skirt billow out (but only when no one’s watching – Ilsa would never do this).

SHOES: modest height

Ilsa’s shoes are not seen most of the time, either because they’re out of shot or under a very long skirt, but when we do catch a glimpse they are practically flat. I have a feeling this may be because Ingrid Bergman was taller than Humphrey Bogart, but who cares about why: flat shoes – rejoice! The comfortable choice can also be the stylish choice as long as you choose something dainty, such as a delicate sandal or pretty slipper.

Rick and Ilsa, both wearing hats

HATS: add to the mystery

It’s a shame hats (bar the bobble hat) have fallen out of fashion these days because they can transform an outfit. Try a beret in cooler weather and a fedora in warmer climes: both are striking yet surprisingly easy to wear. Wear your hat at a jaunty angle and boom! – you’ve achieved mysterious and cool in one simple step.

SUBTLE ILSA: a style tip for the lazy amongst us

If you just want to add a hint of Ilsa without going full-throttle Forties, the white sleeveless dress with the striped top layered underneath that she wears in one scene is simple and somehow very modern. It’s also my favourite look in the entire film and the easiest to emulate. Practically everyone owns a stripy tee. Try wearing it under a sleeveless dress for instant French chic. Extra points if the dress is white.

Ilsa in a white dress and stripy top

Casablanca was made in and set during WWII, which means its costumes aren’t a reminiscent, vintage parody of the Forties, but authentic and realistic. At times Ilsa’s style choices surprise me, just as her character surprises us with her revelations. There are no hard and fast fashion rules with Ilsa. Well, perhaps just one: break the rules. This way you’ll always keep people guessing and maybe achieve just a touch of the Ilsa poise and mystery.


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Written by Bertie Bowen

Stylist, writer and mother living in East London. A clompy shoed, curly haired, Radio 4 enthusiast. www.mothershoppers.com