As the 1920s and 1930s ushered in a new obsession with health, and the healthy body, women across the UK, the US, and beyond, began developing new techniques, regimes, and moves designed to create the elongated limbs and taut torso which was desired at the time. One of the most well-known groups to come out of this was the Women’s League of Health and Beauty, a group who encouraged movement as a way to achieve peace. The league held women-only classes, had uniforms and rules, and focused on synchronised, repetitive movement. This allowed the League to develop into something much more than just a weekly exercise class: it became central to friendships, romances, health, and for many women, life.
Another key player at the time was Margaret Morris Movement (MMM). Morris was born in London in 1891 and from a young age starred in plays and ballets. Through Raymond Duncan (Isadora Duncan’s brother), Morris learnt Classical Greek Dance, which through its focus on lyrical dance, she felt offered more freedom and movement than traditional ballet. In the early 1910s, Morris set up a hugely successful dance school, and her style of unbound movement was growing in popularity. By the mid 1920s, the school was opening branches in French, Scottish, and English cities.
A 1923 newsreel courtesy of the British Film Institute shows a group of MMM students performing their dance moves on Harlech beach, in North Wales. Appearing under the title ‘Miss Margaret Morris’ Merry Mermaids’ the women and girls dance along the waters’ edge with fervent energy. The dancers simultaneously appear to be free, flowing, and natural in their movements whilst also clearly performing a choreographed and synchronised set of movements. The women then form a circle through their joint hands and run around in this formation on the damp sand. This frame feels familiar in the way that it is reminiscent of Henri Matisse’s 1910 painting, ‘The Dance’. Matisse’s painting depicts five figures holding hands and dancing in a circle on the grass, with a blue sky behind them.
** This blog post contains spoilers for Mad About Men (1954), La Piscine (1969) and Mahogany (1975) **
Sometimes I want to watch a film, not really for the plot, but for either the fashion, the cinematography, the set design or even just the general aesthetic. So, just in case anyone else has the same penchant for beautiful films, I’ve comprised a short list of three recommendations from the 50s, 60s and 70s respectively.
Mad About Men (1954):
Mad About Men is the charming sequel to the 1948 comedy film Miranda in which a lonely mermaid captures a young man and only offers to release him on the basis that he will take her to London. In Mad About Men, set in Cornwall, Miranda Trewella (Glynis Johns) returns and convinces her distant relative and doppelgänger Caroline Trewella (Glynis Johns) to let her take her place whilst Caroline goes on a biking excursion with a friend. In order to do this, Caroline fakes an accident which leaves her wheelchair bound, explaining Miranda’s inability to walk and need to keep her ‘legs’ covered with warm blankets. The pair also hire Nurse Carey (Margaret Rutherford), who knows Miranda is a mermaid and helped her in the first film too. However, even though Caroline is engaged back in London to the dull but stable Ronald Baker (Peter Martyn), Miranda playing as Caroline cannot help herself when she meets some of the town’s most handsome men, and she flirts, dates and kisses both Jeff Saunders (Donald Sinden) and Colonel Barclay Sutton (Nicholas Phipps). When Ronald comes to visit ‘Caroline’ in Cornwall, Miranda takes an immediate dislike to him and ends up pouring cold fish soup over his head. The Colonel’s wife is suspicious of ‘Caroline’ and ends up discovering her secret, so, in a plot to expose her, she agrees to let ‘Caroline’ sing at a charity concert and plans to reveal her mermaid tail on stage. However, Caroline gets back from her trip and takes Miranda’s place on stage whilst the Nurse feeds the microphone down to the cove where Miranda lives so her siren-esque singing voice can still be heard. The film ends with the real Caroline and Jeff Saunders sharing a kiss whilst Miranda is safely back in the Cornish Sea.
Despite mentioning earlier that plot isn’t important when watching for purely aesthetic reasons, this film is so fun and light-hearted it is difficult not to enjoy the story and fall in love with Miranda whilst you watch it. However, where this film really shines is in highlighting the wistful and whimsical beauty of Miranda and the more prim and proper styling of Caroline. Joan Ellacott’s costuming and Glynis Johns’ acting allows for viewers to differentiate easily between the Trewella girls. Here are some of the best style/aesthetic moments…
If you’re craving some warmth, you must watch 1969’s La Piscine, a film where the Southern French sunshine seems to seep through the screen. This film is the epitome of ‘embodied viewing’ where you can feel the sun and water on your skin, and you can smell the heat in the air. La Piscine is set in a villa on the French Riviera where a couple, Marianne (Romy Schneider) and Jean-Paul (Alain Delon) are enjoying the summer. After finding out Marianne and Jean-Paul are nearby, the couple’s old friend Harry (Maurice Ronet) and his daughter Penelope (Jane Birkin) come and stay. Whilst this initially consists of old friends catching up and new memories being made through extravagant parties, tensions soon begin to rise when Jean-Paul realises that Marianne and Harry were once lovers. The situation further complicates itself when Jean-Paul decides to seduce Harry’s 18-year-old daughter Penelope. The two men, whilst drunk, end up getting into a fight which culminates with Harry falling into the swimming pool. From here, instead of helping him out, Jean-Paul proceeds to drown him and then stages the scene to look like an accident. Marianne eventually finds out what Jean-Paul did but both continue to lie to the police and eventually the case is closed with Harry’s death being marked as an accident. The film ends with Penelope returning to her mother and Jean-Paul seemingly forcing Marianne to stay with him at the villa.
This film is beautiful all-round. The French Riviera location, the impressive villa, the cast and, perhaps most importantly the dressing and undressing of bodies. The theme of the body is central throughout this film, with long, toned and sun-kissed limbs filling the poolside shots. Here are some of the most beautiful outfits, shots and scenes…
First things first, the men in this movie are awful. Truly, every single one of them is just unbearable. But with that aside, Mahogany is firm favourite in every fashion lovers’ movie list. The film stars a post-Supremes Diana Ross as fashion student and department store secretary Tracy Chambers. Set in Chicago, the film shows Tracy living in the ‘slums’ of Chicago’s South whilst working at a high-end department store and harbouring dreams of becoming a high fashion designer. Tracy meets and begins dating Brian Walker, an activist fighting against the demolition of housing in primarily black neighbourhoods. Brian, whilst seemingly having a good heart and high ambitions for himself routinely brushes off Tracy’s goals as trivial and devoid of real meaning, insisting fashion is unimportant compared to his work within the neighbourhood. This means that when Tracy meets and befriends the renowned photographer Sean McAvoy who sees her as having real potential as a model, Tracy jumps at the chance to find an in to the industry which means so much to her. After a fight with Brian, Tracy moves to Rome to pursue modelling with Sean, who gives her the stage name Mahogany. A classic movie montage shows Mahogany’s modelling career take off and her charm and charisma capturing both the wider fashion world’s attention as well as Sean’s, who is interested in pursuing her romantically. Sean becomes increasingly possessive and struggles with Tracy’s free-spirited nature and inability to be controlled. Brian visits Tracy in Rome and gets into a fight with Sean involving a gun; Brian leaves Rome alone. At their next fashion shoot in which Tracy is posed inside a sports car, Sean is trying to ‘capture death’ and ends up getting into the car and begins driving erratically. Eventually, with Sean at the wheel, the car crashes leaving Tracy badly injured and Sean dead. In the aftermath of the accident, a wealthy count lets Tracy recover at his villa and sets up a design studio for her there. Instead of feeling fulfilled by finally reaching her dream career, she is left feeling frustrated, lonely, and unhappy despite the huge success of her first official collection. Tracy realises that success means nothing without Brian by her side and she returns to Chicago to be with him.
Despite Tracy’s life being littered with frustrating men who seem desperate to keep her potential hidden away, she does look incredible throughout the film. As a little sidenote, Diana Ross actually designed a lot of Tracy’s outfits as she trained in dressmaking before her career took off! Here are some of her best looks…
Here begins Jûzô Itami’s Tampopo of 1985. A mobster and his mistress, both glamorously suited head-to-toe in white, saunter to the front row of a movie theatre and set up their champagne feast. Our unnamed ‘Man in White Suit’ wastes no time addressing us, confidently leaning into the other side of the screen to see what we have brought to snack on during the feature, so long as it is nothing involving “crinkle wrappers”. After hysterically threatening to kill a man in the audience who dared to rustle about his chip packet, the movie theatre fades into darkness. The movie starts.
Tampopo is a visually delicious tale of food and love. The movie has always been a firm favourite of mine as a self-proclaimed ‘foodie’: each scene highlighting the etiquette of eating, the art of selecting the perfect ingredients and, above all, the momentous pursuit of the perfect bowl of ramen. Steam wafts from the surface of the hot broth so that you, behind the screen, can almost smell it. Chopsticks plunge into the soupy pool and retrieve long golden bands of noodles, followed by the menma and vegetables, and then succulent pieces of meat. Finally, the broth is sipped until the bowl is empty. I have never sat down to watch Tampopo on an empty stomach. It would be agony.
The central plotline of the movie – a parody of the American ‘Western’ genre – follows the eponymous Tampopo as she works to rejuvenate her rather mediocre ramen shop into one beyond compare. After a chance encounter with Gorō, a mysterious man on the road with an unparalleled knowledge of the dish, the pair toil to refine Tampopo’s ramen recipe, with a little help along the way. Punctured by a series of vignettes which explore other characters’ unique relationship with food, whether it be haughty French cuisine or hearty Italian pasta, Tampopo makes us fall in love with food again.
While food really is the main focus of the movie, Itami’s use of costume plays into his shrewd satire of the traditional Western genre, while contributing to the overall indulgent and sensual appeal of this food epic. Perhaps the most pertinent and ironic costume in the film is Gorō’s cowboy-esque look. His character is always dressed in a well-worn shirt – often with a neckerchief poking through in true Indiana Jones style – tucked into a pair of sturdy jeans. The Western look is completed with his trusty Stetson, which Gorō refuses to remove even in a scene where we see him in a bathtub. At times conniving, like the Western cowboys his character mocks, he encourages Tampopo to spy on other ramen shops to steal elements of their recipes. Gorō thus emerges as a comical play with the hero of the American Western. Like them, he is an adventurer. But he is an adventurer in search of good ramen, and the
only showdowns he engages in are with those who stand in his and Tampopo’s way.
Throughout the movie, Tampopo herself undergoes a Cinderella type transformation both in her culinary skills and her fashion. When she begs Gorō to be his ramen-apprentice at the beginning of the feature, she wears a simple white uniform and a protective scarf to cover her hair. This white uniform appears rather fragile, wrapped in clouds of steam and cigarette smoke as Tampopo works relentlessly at her broth. When the ultimate recipe is near completion, Tampopo goes through a classic movie makeover, first showing off a new professional chef’s outfit and then sporting a stylish ensemble to accompany Gorō to dinner. Upon seeing her in this particularly fashionable outfit, Gorō moans that she now looks “hard to talk to”. Her red polka-dot dress, complemented by her matching red lipstick, gives Tampopo a renewed sense of conviction as she edges towards being crowned ramen chef par excellence.
One of the most famed vignettes of Tampopo is the undeniably erotic ‘egg yolk’ scene between our mobster and his mistress. The couple pass between their open mouths a raw egg yolk, never allowing their lips to meet in a kiss, until it bursts in a moment of suggestive ecstasy. The golden liquid drips from the mistress’s mouth onto her dress, and transfers to the mobster’s lapel. Similar to those worn by the likes of Al Pacino in American gangster movies, his white suit was once a sign of his untouchable status. The indelible stain of the egg yolk on the once-pristine costume, however, speaks to the corruptive power of lust. And yet, this not merely a lust between man and woman, but between man, woman and food.
Raunchy interactions with eggs aside, Itami also uses the relationship between costume and food as a shrewd social commentary. One of the funniest vignettes (in my opinion) occurs when an old white gentleman sits down to eat dinner in an Italian restaurant in Japan. After ordering, he eavesdrops on a ladies’ society upstairs, who are being instructed by their leader on the ‘proper’ way to eat pasta like an Italian. This leader of the group, with her neatly coiffed hair and prim gold suit jacket, orders the women to never audibly slurp their spaghetti as this “is absolutely taboo abroad”. Much to her disdain, however, her commands are interrupted by the old man who is scoffing his spaghetti, and making a great noise while doing so. After watching him devour his meal, the ladies’ society and their leader succumb to mimicking his way of eating. Not a napkin in sight to protect their obviously pricey ensembles and accessories, regard for dress is thus cast aside – enjoying the meal is of the utmost importance.
Throughout Tampopo, Itami sets up a subtle yet provoking interplay between Western dress and etiquette, and Japanese tradition. His characters sport largely Americanised dress following the tropes of classic Hollywood genres which, according to Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney, signifies the Japanese sense of the self in relation to other nations. The conservatively dressed ladies’ society, the Western look of Gorō, and the Americanised glamour or Tampopo at the end of the movie might, at first glance, point towards an overwhelming European and American influence on Japanese culture. However, this imitation of Western eating habits and dress is exaggerated by Itami to the point of parody. What prevails is the art of ramen. Our movie closes with a visit to Tampopo’s new professional kitchen, where she prepares a final meal for her fellow ramen enthusiasts. They devour every last morsel, drinking the broth one after the other before placing their bowls down for the last time. We leave Tampopo behind, and accompany Gorō as he climbs aboard his truck once more. Our ramen cowboy slinks into the distance as the credits roll, ready for another adventure full of flavour.
During the wintery months of 1969, something unusual happened in the Cornish seaside village of St. Agnes. That is, a group of eccentric, unemployed, and, crucially, strangely dressed ‘beatniks’ arrived and began living in the off-season holiday cottages. This occurrence was notable enough to warrant coverage by local television station Westward Television. In this twelve-minute piece of black and white archival footage, Del Cooper interviews both the ‘suspicious’ local residents and the ‘unconventional’ beatniks, capturing a unique moment of fashion microhistory.
Before delving into analysis, it is important to first set this film in a temporal and geographic context. Alternative style was not necessarily new: indeed, by 1969, a variety of subcultural styles and countercultural thought existed in the UK. Since the mid-1950s, Jazz Fiends, Beatniks and West End Boys, stylistically spearheaded by West Indian immigrants, challenged the constrictive post-war aesthetic of adulthood. In the 1960s, Mods and Skinheads similarly used their dress to be socially disruptive. And while Beatniks are not as readily associated with 1960s subculture as Mods, in June 1965, beat poet Allen Ginsberg nevertheless drew a crowd of 7,000 to his four-hour-long poetry reading.Yet, while counterculture and alternative style was a real possibility in this era, visible street style was often limited to London and other cultural hubs. So, when a group of fashionably long-haired Beatniks arrived in a village at the extremity of southwestern England, they signified something new, and disrupted the social ‘norm’.
Analysing this film through the lens of dress and fashion, therefore, is extremely valuable. It is the Beatniks’ dress that is the main disturbance to St. Agnes. Their unusual and sometimes flamboyant style is a stark juxtaposition against the conservative villagers and the local television reporter. This non-fiction film is illustrative of an important representation of fashion on a micro-level, separate to the world of high fashion and London.
If, as fashion scholar Carlo Marco Belfanti argues, fashion is defined by ‘an increasing passion for change and an insatiable search for novelty’, there is nothing more novel than the juxtaposition of a trendy subcultural dress with an underpopulated tourist destination in winter. Accordingly, the film opens with a static shot of Del Cooper standing against a backdrop of usual activity in St. Agnes. He seems to embody the orthodox, respectable and masculine. His grey hair is cut short and only slightly windswept, and he is dressed conservatively in a monochrome polo-neck jumper and clean-cut wool jacket. Behind him, a woman in a headscarf exits Webb’s Store, and a Jacob’s van pulls up across the road to unload a delivery of cream crackers. This scene of total normalcy, however, is soon unsettled by subversive dress. As the camera pans right, the viewer’s eye is drawn to a group of women and men making their way through the village. They are wearing loose-fitting, layered garments, accessorised with patterned scarves and a random assortment of hats; all of them with genderbending long hair. At this moment, Cooper, addressing the camera, answers the unspoken question: ‘Well, of course, it all depends on what you mean by Beatniks. If you mean young people with long hair and rather unconventional clothes, then the Beatniks are here, in St. Agnes, right now.’ A group who have fashioned themselves so conspicuously, their desire for novelty and change is palpable.
It is important to note Del Cooper’s definition of ‘Beatnik’. There are only two elements of this definition: their novel clothing and their long hair. While their actual behaviour is mentioned in the film – sharing money and belongings, strict vegetarianism, and inclination to burn joss-sticks in the local pubs – it is their dress that makes them Beatniks, including their decision to grow their hair long, a body modification that clearly communicates to other human beings that they are unconventional.
As the camera follows the Beatniks through the village, a man and a woman lead the group, five or six paces ahead. The man wears dark, flared jeans, pointed heeled boots, and a sparsely buttoned-up patterned shirt over a ruffled scarf. A cropped fur coat shrouds this outfit, that he wears undone with his hands resting casually in the pockets. His hair is slightly longer than shoulder length, accessorised by an askew cowboy-style hat. The woman is casually dressed in all black: a loose-fitting dress that reaches her ankles and leather boots. Over this, she wears an oversized, lightweight jacket and a carelessly knotted scarf around her neck. Her long hair flows behind her as she walks.
Following behind them are six more long-haired members of the group. Another woman in all black pushes a pram while four men walk alongside her, all in flared trousers and casual shoes. Their winter coats are a trench coat with the belt hanging loose at the back, a hooded duffle, and two double-breasted peacoats, respectively. One man wears a beret, while another wears a Russian Cossack-style fur hat, and they have on a hodgepodge of scarves. Another woman brings up the rear, dressed in a more masculine style, with loose-fitting trousers, a shirt, and a chunky waistcoat. She does not wear her coat but drags it along in her left hand, with a lit cigarette in her right.
What about these people’s dress draws them together? They are undoubtedly a collective, with loose and layered flares, long hair, and patterned scarves. Crucially, these clothes must be thrown on their bodies carelessly, unbuttoned, with pockets to rest the hands. Casualness defines this style tribe. Yet their clothes incorporate a range of cuts, styles, and materials, from paisley cotton scarves to striped woollen scarves, from fur coats to duffel coats – a nod to the growing interest in second-hand clothing in the late 1960s. This exemplifies the paradox at the heart of fashion. As Sheila Cliffe has put it, ‘humans have a need to be both a member of a group, which provides security and also distinguish themselves from the group and assert their individuality’. This is highlighted through the community’s differences in dress and fashioning themselves – they accessorise with individual styles of hat, scarf, and sometimes coat.
This casual, loose, and layered style would not be nearly as striking if it were not juxtaposed with the relatively plain and certainly traditional style exhibited by the long-term residents of St. Agnes. Yet, as the film begins to interview the locals, it is clear that the exhibition of dress is of far less importance to the filmmaker. While the camera angles ensured to include plenty of full-body shots of the unusual Beatnik outfits, the shots of the interviewees are only static close-ups. And to a degree, this is understandable: if fashion is novel, in constant change, and both individual and group-based, the St. Agnes citizens are not particularly fashionable.
Six different locals are interviewed, and either express distaste or indifference to the unorthodox new arrivals. In a few minutes, viewers meet a range of characters: a woman, without make-up, her white hair tucked into a dark fur pillbox hat, and a paisley scarf knotted around her neck; a middle-aged man in a wool coat and trilby hat; a young woman, bare-faced with a messy bob haircut; a woman with dark hair tied up in a loose bun, both make-up and accessory free; an old lady in a fur bonnet; a local councillor with neat curls and cats-eye spectacles; and a man in a stiff-collared coat, white shirt and tie. Dress, at its most fundamental, can signify ambivalences inherent in humans. Here, the functional and stylish – but not particularly trendy – fur hats help to signify a woman’s age. Likewise, the local councillor’s well-ordered spectacles and hair signify her – relatively – public-facing occupation. The man in a coat, shirt and tie suggests professionality. Most fundamentally, the men have short hair while the women have long. Therefore, while not everyone self-fashions to be novel, trendy, or individual, the interviews with the Cornish people signify that on some level, everyone self-fashions to reveal a subconscious element of themselves.
As the film moves to interview the Beatniks, however, deeper elements of the inner self are visually expressed. As Daniel Miller argues, dress can often be used ‘as an appropriate exploration of who one really is’. The television reporter, Cooper, seems quite aware of this innate connection. While interviewing Toni, a single mother who wears a string of sparse beads wrapped around her neck twice, reminiscent of hippie love-beads, and a black button-down blouse with delicate embroidery and slightly puffed sleeves, he asks, ‘The people of St. Agnes are very suspicious of you because you’re very unconventional in your dress. Are you also unconventional in your morals?’.
Additionally, the non-fiction news segment shows snippets of the travelling artists undertaking their crafts and passions. We see people engraving slates, painting, forging jewellery, and playing music. And, in line with Miller’s theory, each person’s dress seems to reflect their own inner talent. The jewellery makers wear thick metal rings on nearly every finger, and the performer dresses the most flamboyantly, in a beret, with long hair and white-rimmed sunglasses – impractically worn indoors. Not only do these accessories help these artists with their self-expression, but they also embody a further definition of fashion. That is, prioritising form over function. It is certainly not practical to wear so many rings, nor are sunglasses fulfilling a practical function when worn indoors. These Beatniks are using dress and accessories purely to portray themselves how they desire.
And as the short film comes to a close, an atmospheric shot pans out of shabbily, artistically dressed Beatniks, listening to a poem being read aloud against the crashing waves of Cornwall. Miller’s concluding argument seems apt: a study of clothing should evoke feelings, both tactile and emotional. Perhaps, then, in the bitter winter air, their layered outfits, hats and scarves are keeping them warm in the wintery air. Or perhaps a breeze blows right through the loose-fitting dresses. Perhaps their chunky, hand-knitted woollen jumpers are itchy. Perhaps they enjoy feeling the sea breeze in their long hair.
The film ends, panning in on the waves after Del Cooper makes his closing statement:
What bothers the 4,000 odd residents of this charming, attractive and rather conventional seaside village is that the community with unconventional clothes and rather unorthodox ways will, as they put it, give the village a bad name and drive away the holiday visitors. They want them to go. But whether you call them free-thinking artists, Beatniks, or the vanguard of a new movement to make England great again, they’re here to stay. And St. Agnes will never ever be quite the same again.
Here, the importance of fashion and dress is notable: this strangely dressed yet fashionable community has altered the microhistory of St. Agnes.
By Kathryn Reed
A Beatnik Community in St Agnes. Presented by Del Cooper. BFI (South West Film & Television Archive), 1969. https://player.bfi.org.uk/free/film/watch-a-beatnik-community-in-st-agnes-1969-online
Arnold, Rebecca, Fashion: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2009)
Belfanti, Carlo Marco, ‘Was Fashion a European Invention?’ in Journal of Global History 3 (2008)
Cliffe, Sheila, ‘Think Fashion or Tradition?’, The Social Life of Kimono: Japanese Fashion Past and Present. (London, 2018)
Davis, Fred, Fashion, Culture and Identity (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1995)
Donnelly, Mark, ‘Wholly Communion: Truths, Histories, and the Albert Hall Poetry Reading’, Journal of Cinema and Media 52 1 (2011), pp. 128-140
Eicher, Joanne B., and Roach-Higgins, Mary Ellen, ‘Definition and Classification of Dress,’ in Ruth Barnes and Joanne B. Eicher, Dress and Gender: Making and Meaning in Cultural Contexts (Oxford, 1993)
Miller, Daniel, ‘Why Clothing Is Not Superficial,’ in Stuff (Cambridge: Polity, 2010)
Tulloch, Carol, ‘Rebel Without a Pause: Black Street Style & Black Designers’ in Juliet Ash and Elizabeth Wilson (eds.) Chic Thrills: A Fashion Reader (Berkeley, 1993)
Welters, Linda, ‘The Beat Generation Subcultural Style’, in Linda Welters and Patricia A. Cunningham (eds.) Twentieth Century American Fashion (London, 2005)
In the middle of research for my dissertation, I procrastinated by watching the Jonas Brother’s music video for their single ‘Sucker’. I can’t say I’m a close follower of the band but I was drawn in by their reunion and I feel that they are genuinely hilarious, indicated by this Paper cover.
I’ve since become hooked on the song, but the most significant part of the video for me was the location: the stately home, Hatfield House. This is because a key part of my dissertation was based on the locations used in Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite, especially Hatfield, which was used for Queen Anne’s palace.
For the most part the music video matches the theme of the song, with the brothers literally falling at their wives’ feet. There was also a chaotic atmosphere, which I felt resembled a mad hatter’s tea party through the exuberant outfits and actual tea parties. In this sense, the grandeur of Hatfield suits the excess in the video; lounging in a bubble bath in a diamond hairnet should be an everyday ritual.
However, having obsessively looked at Hatfield onscreen and in person, there were some definite nods to The Favourite. I’ve narrowed it down to these three moments:
In The Favourite, Queen Anne has seventeen pet rabbits, which represent the real monarch’s number of miscarriages. They are a key visual motif throughout the film, communicating the Queen’s tragedy and eccentricity. In Sucker, Sophie Turner and Danielle Jonas lounge on deckchairs in the distinctive Marble Hall (think of the scene in the film with the dance mash-up of voguing and waltzing), while a herd of rabbits surround them.
2. The Long Gallery
This expansive corridor is used many times throughout the film to convey the idea of isolated spaces, with the gallery often manipulated by the use of fisheye lenses to enhance the length and add a period look to the film. In the music video, Priyanka Chopra strides down the corridor, and there is the same gilded ceiling and wooden panelling which makes it so distinctive in The Favourite.
3. The Library
The library is used as Sarah’s bedroom in the film, distinctive for its floor to ceiling bookshelves and ladders lining the walls (think of Sarah throwing books at Abigail, if the room isn’t coming to mind). In the final moments of the music video, the band and their wives pose in front of the shelves as their portraits are painted.
Hatfield House, with its distinctive Jacobean architecture, is a popular film location, and this could be the reason why the Jo Bros chose it for their music video. However, assuming those moments are references to The Favourite makes me enjoy the video and the film so much more, so I can only thank the band for some mid-dissertation distraction.
I haven’t decided on a snappy title yet, but right now it could be called ‘Bodies and Borders in Jean Paul Gaultier’s Carnival Space’.
What led you to choose this subject?
I’ve been interested in looking at Peter Greenaway’s 1989 film The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, for which Gaultier designed the costumes. During an early tutorial, Rebecca suggested that I consider it in terms of Bakhtin’s theory of the carnivalesque, which has proven to be a perfect lens through which to view Gaultier’s work, and really captures its spirit. I’m now treating the film as a culmination of his work until that point, so I can look closely at the early years of his career, just before his fame really soared to another level when he did Madonna’s costumes for the 1990 Blond Ambition tour.
Favourite book/article you’ve read for your dissertation so far and why?
Initially, I loved Nita Rollins’ ‘Old Masters, Fashion Slaves’ essay because I love how she writes about the baroque sensibilities of Greenaway’s film and how Gaultier’s costumes operate within that. This is part of what sparked my excitement for the film. Since diving into Gaultier, I’ve really loved Colin McDowell’s book called Jean Paul Gaultier. It describes his work really nicely, but also integrates quotes from the designer which I’ve found to be amazing insights into his ethos and thought process.
Favourite image/object in your dissertation and why?
Greenaway’s film has been an amazing visual resource to spend time on. The colors are super saturated and it has this really dark, vile underbelly contrasted with the over-the-top interiors and costumes. I like that it can be so beautiful and appealing, and so grotesque at the same time. That feeling of discomfort is what appealed to me in the first place, and has been very useful for setting up discussions about Gaultier and Bakhtin. Plus, Helen Mirren stars in it and looks fabulous in all of her costumes.
Favourite place to work?
Senate House Library! I like to find a corner near a window in a section of a totally unrelated discipline to minimize any kind of distraction.
Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite: The Significance of Anachronism in Period Dress – felt cute but might delete later.
What led you to choose this subject?
I’ve always been really interested in costume in film. I was originally going to do a comparison between Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006) and The Favourite (2018), but realised that would be far too much and actually I found that The Favourite was … my favourite (bad pun, I know). Also, I love that this film is so different to conventional period dramas, and it interested me that anachronism is usually seen as a bad thing or a mistake, whereas here it is purposefully done. I also love Yorgos Lanthimos, and that this film could have followed the path of many a period film, but it is completely altered by his involvement.
Favourite book/article you’ve read for your dissertation so far and why?
I’ve read a lot of great texts while researching, but I would have to say it’s been the films I’ve watched that have been my favourites. I think the most significant one is The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982), as I’m focusing a lot on the monochrome colour palette used, and this film is such a clear influence. It’s also absolutely baffling, which I enjoy.
Favourite image/object in your dissertation and why?
It’s got to be Hatfield House. I don’t know if that counts as an object, but it’s the main location for the film, and it’s the basis of one of my chapters. I visited the other week and it’s a Jacobean house with dark wood interiors (makes for a creaky floor) and really rich tapestries, so being there was literally like stepping into a different world. It’s also such a key aspect of the film, and I think the house plays such an important role in the genre of period drama in general, so it was really important for me to go and visit it. I also love its black and white marble floor, and the fact that the Jonas Brothers’ latest video was filmed there.
Favourite place to work?
Probably the British Library as other people working shames me into working, but at the same time I like working from home as I find playing music sometimes helps if I’m in a writing rut.
‘Buried Brides’ (+ some subtitular arrangement of ‘dysfunction, surface, bodies, femininity, et cetera, et cetera’)
What led you to choose this subject?
I don’t want to say a lot yet, since I think sharing too much about projects before they’re fully actualised jinxes them. But essentially, I developed this idea of the white dress doubling as wedding dress-Baptism/ Communion gown and burial shroud-ghost sheet in my first formal essay of the year. I really love doing alchemy – taking one thing and transforming it through theory and juxtaposition. Bride becomes corpse, black becomes white, surface becomes depth and back again.
Favourite book/article you’ve read for your dissertation so far and why?
Caroline Evans’ Fashion at the Edge has been my constant this year, and I finally read Ulrich Lehmann’s Tigersprung.
Favourite image/object in your dissertation and why?
This still of Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia is everything I’m talking about. The film opens with a kind of avant-garde, apocalyptic montage, and at one point, Dunst’s character Justine runs in slow motion in her wedding gown as tree branches and roots wrap around her limbs and claw at her. It’s just the perfect visual metaphor: the fashionable, fertile woman in white struggling against time and nature. Melancholia isn’t one of my case studies, but I need to find a way to work this image in anyway. I’ve been thinking of pulling a Lehmann and including thematically insightful pictures alongside my direct illustrations, just to get this in.
Favourite place to work?
I’ve been quite boring this year. In the past I’ve habitually claimed tables at the Hungarian Pastry Shop in New York and the Finnish Institute in Paris, but as of now I’ve exclusively written my dissertation at my desk at Duchy House. I will be better.
Since the UK release of Jordan Peele’s Us (2019) in late March, I have seen the film a total of three times: 1) in Reading (where I live) with my partner; 2) in Exeter with my family; 3) alone in London. I am a firm believer that the people with whom you see a film and where you see it are vital components to your cinematic experience. The first viewing left me stunned; in the second, I was obsessively working through a plethora of Reddit theories I had poured over and memorised between screenings; and in the last, I was just elated to be in the presence of my new obsession again, mesmerised.
We have Australian costume designer Kym Barrett (@kymbarrett.design)—Strictly Ballroom (1992), Romeo + Juliet (1996), The Matrix (1999) and the upcoming Charlie’s Angels (2019) reboot—to thank for one of the many visual layers in this film. The costumery in this film acts as a textural representation of the misfortune that is to imminently befall its core characters (and their mirror-selves).
*This is not a spoiler. I will however be discussing content that some may view as ‘spoilerific.’ Do not read if concerned (you have been warned!)
Us offers its viewer too much: Peele curates too great of a visual feast for us to devour. In this limited amount of spaceI couldn’t possibly attempt to tackle each in their full manifestations, but I have given a couple of my favourites a go!
The importance of a well-placed tee
There is a multitude of strategically placed t-shirts throughout Us’s duration, so let’s begin with the most prominent and well-discussed: the Michael Jackson Thriller t-shirt. The film’s unsettling 1986 prologue places our protagonist, a younger Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), at Santa Cruz’s boardwalk. Her father wins a prize at one of the fairground stands, and Adelaide selects a t-shirt emblazoned with the album artwork for Michael Jackson’s Thriller (1984), much to her mother’s despair. The spectral figure of Michael Jackson looms over this clothing item and Us’s 1980s tone at large.
In an interview with @mashable, Peele confessed that he harbours a longstanding fascination with the peculiarly singular place Jackson occupies in pop-culture: ‘Michael Jackson is probably the patron saint of duality… The movie starts in the 80s—the duality with which I experienced [Jackson] in that time was both as the guy that presented this outward positivity, but also the ‘Thriller’ video which scared me to death … [In the wake of Leaving Neverland (2019)] The irony and relevance is not lost on me now that the discussion has evolved to one of true horror.’ The Thriller music video is a filmic pop-culture moment stamped in our collective consciousness, so we all know its main premise is Jackson’s transformation into a zombie. His personhood is metamorphosed and split in two, man and monster.
This is not the only late-twentieth century mythic beast addressed in Us’s tee-game. Adelaide and Gabe’s (Winston Duke) youngest child Jason (Evan Alex) wears a Jaws (1975) t-shirt during their ‘present day’ return to Santa Cruz beach. Again, those familiar with Spielberg’s horror-at-sea B-movie classic will know that Jaws centres around the gruesome attacks of a gargantuan man-eating great white shark. Could this tee-nod be a symbol of incoming danger? An ominous creature that stalks a subterranean realm, lying in wait and ready to attack the evolutionarily ‘superior’ above-ground species…
Fun honourable tee mentions:
Jason’s tuxedo-style pyjama top
Josh Tyler’s (Tim Heidecker) black ‘FRAGILE’ tee (the slogan strategically placed above a broken wine glass)
Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) wears two rabbit-themed tees: her baby-blue bunny t-shirt worn in the film’s early scenes and a green, short-sleeved hooded sweatshirt that reads ‘THỎ’ (rabbit in Vietnamese)
Gabe’s Howard University sweatshirt (an acute cultural symbol)
The most instantly recognisable dress symbol in Jordan Peele’s Us is THE iconic red jumpsuits that Red (also played by Nyong’o) and her Tethered doppelgänger family don. The Wilsons’ mirror-image family unit are not the only Tethered outfitted in this (on-trend) boilersuit attire—it is the uniform that binds the Tethered army together as a unified whole.
Barrett discusses the jumpsuits as a formal sign of rebellion—not too dissimilar looking from the all-red figures in the Hands Across America (1986) campaign imagery—that Adelaide’s Tethered-self Red utilises to outwardly convey her pain: ‘She completely enshrouds her being with this red. It’s a symbol of aggression, a screaming mission. You cannot miss it.’ Barrett discussed with The Atlantic’s Tanisha C. Ford how she and her team worked hard to produce a shade of red that would feel unsettling to look at: ‘It’s half the colour of wet blood; it’s half the colour of dried blood. It’s like an old wound.’
Overalls such as these are a recognisable dress trope that signify a labour-defined workforce: they are functional and allow for a body of workers (detainees, recruits, allies, etc.) to be established in an act of formalised aesthetic unification.
Notable jumpsuit accoutrements:
The single, brown leather palm gloves: Barrett states that this costuming element was incorporated from a practical standpoint. Barrett and her team learned early in the design process that it is incredibly easy to cut yourself when handling large shears (the Tethered’s weapon of choice). The gloves – another nod to the King of Pop – are protective gear to prevent the ‘slashing’ of hands.
The scissors: technically weaponry, more arsenal than accessory, the scissors serve as another symbol of duality – two singular blades, forged as one, that serve to cut and splice. Scissors are a tool designed to sever, to split a tether.
As Ford concludes in her article on Barrett’s costuming, the garments of Jordan Peele’s Us speak for themselves. They ‘supplement and enrich the story rather than distract from it’ and deserve individual consideration. The costumes are contextually rich visual markers that ground Peele’s puzzle-like narrative. On repeat viewings – we are collectively coming to understand Peele’s work is designed to be enjoyed through repetition – the story unfolds a little more, and the costumes act as clues to a much larger picture.
We often associate film stars with their onscreen personas, which are inextricably linked to the costumes they wear while portraying their most iconic characters. Audrey Hepburn will forever be linked to Hubert de Givenchy’s black evening gown in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, just as Judy Garland’s blue gingham pinafore in The Wizard of Oz became a part of her lasting image. Identification between star and character can lead to typecasting and an audience expectation that a star will appear as a certain type of character. For example, Joan Crawford was the rags-to-riches girl. Crawford’s characters were often working-class girls who, through luck and hard work, were able to climb to the social ladder to their happy ending. One of Hollywood’s earliest manipulations of star into character, was Theda Bara.
Theda Bara, often cited as Hollywood’s first sex symbol, was one of the silent-film era’s most famous stars, second only to Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford. Her career last from only 1914-1919, perhaps the reason why her name is not as well-remembered today as some of her contemporaries. After her first film A Fool There was (1914) her image as the vampire, in this case a woman who destroys men using her sexuality, was cemented. Fox Studios was so committed to this image that they fabricated a backstory for Theda, in which she was an Arabian princess raised in Egypt, trained in Paris, saved by director Frank Powell from the horrors of war in Europe, and brought to America. This outrageous story concocted to support her onscreen image linked Bara to her characters in the eyes of the audience.
Bara’s most famous film, Cleopatra (1917), created a Queen of Nile that mixed popular styles of the day, Egyptian motifs, and burlesque costumes to display a Cleopatra who would be both irresistible to the public, and maintain Bara’s public persona. Her costumes reflected her mysterious image. Her costumes were extremely revealing, and accentuated her voluptuous curves. Theda Bara biographer notes that “The Cleopatra costume created quite a stir because it cost $1,000 a yard and Theda seemed to be wearing only ten cents’ worth…the Plain Dealer declared that ‘Of all the Vampires of Screen There’s None So Bare as Theda’”. While Bara strove for historical accuracy in her portrayal of Cleopatra, the revealing costumes did more to enhance her existing image than transport the viewer back to ancient Egypt. Fox carefully controlled this sexy, mysterious persona, even going so far as to contractually insure that she did not appear in public without a veil. While studios would regularly control a star’s story and persona in the Golden Age of the Hollywood Studio System, Bara presents one of the earliest examples of this deception. Through her costumes and characters Bara projected the image of the Vamp and the femme-fatale, and helped to define their look in Hollywood.
Landis, Deborah Nadoolman, Dressed: A Century of Hollywood Costume Design, (New York: Collins, 2007)
Landis, Deborah Nadoolman, Hollywood Costume, (London: Victoria and Albert, 2012)