Commentary Archive

Dissertation Discussion: Daisy

What is the working title of your dissertation?

‘A Class of Football … Well Worth Watching’: Women’s Football Clothing, 1915-1921

What led you to choose this subject?

I’ve always been a huge sports fan, although growing up in Devon I would choose to watch rugby over football every time! But I started playing football with a team in London a year and a half ago and absolutely fell in love with playing the sport. My Dad and I have discussed women’s sport a lot since I started playing as I feel this is a real moment in history for women in sport; many individuals and teams are finally getting recognition for their talents while there is funding coming in at a grassroots level that just wasn’t there previously. My Dad mentioned a documentary he’d watched on women’s football during World War One; how popular it was, gathering crowds of up to 53,000, and how it was subsequently banned in 1921. Unbelievably, the ban wasn’t lifted until 1971. As someone who has benefited so much from playing sport, I found the idea of so many women being banned from playing football really shocking and sad. I also feel that so many people don’t understand this important moment in the history of women’s sport and why, in consequence, women’s football is significantly underdeveloped compared to the men’s game. I was already planning on focusing my dissertation on the period of the 1910s, because I think it is such a sudden period of change from the old Victorian values to the modernity of the 1920s, so to focus on women’s football in this period seemed an absolutely perfect topic!

Favourite book/article you’ve read for your dissertation so far and why?

A match report of a women’s football match in Preston from 1918. The journalist seems so enthused by the sport and so in support of the female players, it’s really heart-warming. My favourite quote is: ‘The attendance at Deepdale on Saturday shows there is distinctly a public for Ladies Football in Preston and … the girls play a class of football that … make[s] the game well worth watching’.

Favourite image/object in your dissertation and why?

An image of the Yorkshire Ladies and Dick Kerr Ladies in front of the large crowds at Deepdale stadium.

Yorkshire Ladies and Dick Kerr’s Ladies, 1921, postcard, Alice Kell Collection, National Football Museum Archives, Preston (Photo: National Football Museum).

Favourite place to work?

I’ve really enjoyed working in the Library Study Room at Vernon Square; it’s got big mullion windows which let in the sun and frame the view of the trees next to the building. I also love working in the Periodicals Room at Senate House Library which has comfy Chesterfield sofas where you can curl up with your laptop. Although sometimes it’s slightly too comfortable to be conducive to work …

Dissertation Discussion: Ellen

What is the working title of your dissertation?

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.

Dissertation Discussion: Lacey

Figure 1. Dissertation moodboard: 1. Chema Madoz, Untitled 2. Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride 3. John Everett Millais, Ophelia 4. Miss Havisham (Gillian Anderson) in Great Expectations mini-series 5. John William Waterhouse, Echo and Narcissus 6. Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee portrait 7. Edward Gorey’s ‘peachable
widow with consolate eyes’ 8. Charles Allan Gilbert, All is Vanity 9. Elsa Schiaparelli and Salvador Dalí’s skeleton dress 10. Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia 11. James Whistler, Whistler, Symphony in White, No. III 12. Caravaggio, Narcissus 13. Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides

What is the working title of your dissertation?

‘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.

Kirsten Dunst in Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia (2011)

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.

Reflections on Gordon Parks and Anthony Hernandez

During a class in February, we discussed Gordon Parks’ 1956 series of photographs entitled Segregation Story. They were originally published in Life magazine as a visual documentation of the Jim Crow-era American South. His photographs highlight moments in the daily lives of African American subjects throughout Georgia and Alabama. At the time they were published, these photos were intended to foster empathy among white northern readers who were provided a powerful visual of how systemic racism permeated even the most basic activities: eating ice cream, going to school, or stopping at a drinking fountain.

Gordon Parks, Department Store, Mobile Alabama, 1956. Credit: High Museum of Art, Atlanta

Though I had seen many of these images before, one stood out to me in particular. Department Store, Mobile, Alabama depicts a woman and her young daughter standing outside of a door marked ‘Colored Entrance’. They wear their Sunday best, mother in a stylish pale blue dress, and daughter adorned in white frills, yet the neon sign above them reminds the viewer that systemic racism has relegated them to the position of second-class citizens. This image contrasts the fashionably dressed subjects in an otherwise serene moment with the glaring reminder of the segregation, hatred, and violence that impact every aspect of life. In this scene, notions of fashion and shopping are implicated into fraught negotiations of race and power in the American South.

Anthony Hernandez, Rodeo Drive #68, 1984. Credit: The Art Institute of Chicago

When I considered this image again in class, I was reminded of another photograph, taken nearly thirty years later which shares similar iconographic elements, and perhaps likewise raising questions about how constructs of race and power are played out through fashion, shopping, and consumer culture. Anthony Hernandez’s Rodeo Drive #68, part of his 1984 series, shows an African American family posing for a photograph in front of the Gucci store on the prominent shopping street in Los Angeles. This series of candid photographs of anonymous subjects documents those who were out to see and be seen. Most of the subjects in this series are dressed in bold styles of the power dressing era, acting out a narrative of the decade’s fashion on a street filled with its vendors. The majority of these subjects are white and captured in action as they move down the street. For this reason, the family in Rodeo Drive #68 stands out, particularly because we see them stopping to be captured in front of the shop. The Gucci storefront connotes a particular association with luxury fashion and commodity culture, and perhaps posing with the curling gold text of the brand name serves as a memento of the visit. As Rebecca notes in her post, it is unknown if they went inside. Both of these photos, though taken in enormously different contexts, raise questions about how shopping can be simultaneously social, personal, and entertaining, and implicitly entwined in the nettles of race, class, and gender dynamics. Parks and Hernandez help viewers interrogate how we read constructs of race and identity in relation to fashion culture, and how elitist and exclusive spaces are imprinted with power.

Sporting Style: Tennis Outfits in the Early-Twentieth Century

Tennis has always had strong associations with fashion. This link is most clearly demonstrated, argues Phyliss Tortura, in the Jean Paul Gaultier Autumn 2010 show in which the runway was made to look like a tennis court and much of the collection was inspired by sportswear. I recently visited the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Archive, which has a large collection of vintage postcards featuring famous tennis stars of the past. These postcards show the numerous and changing styles of female sporting dress that have adorned the tennis court.

Jean Paul Gaultier Runway Show, Autumn 2010

Jean Paul Gaultier Runway Show, Autumn 2010

The modern game of Lawn Tennis first emerged in the 1870s and female players in these early years usually wore their ordinary clothes, often a smart ‘tea dress’, in order to play. This would have included a corset, a skirt with a bustle and various other trimmings. While the decorations were pared down over the years to the classic Wimbledon white, corsets remained a regular feature in women’s tennis outfits. Right up until the late 1910s female tennis players engaged in this vigorous and strenuous sport whilst wearing this boned and laced garment which would restrict both their breathing and their freedom of movement.

Mrs McNaire, ca. 1910s

Mrs Satterthwaite, ca. 1910s

It took the glamorous and daring Suzanne Lenglen to challenge this norm, and she was met by great shock and outrage when she took her place on court at the 1919 Wimbledon tournament wearing no corset. She also made a radical change to the length of skirts for women in tennis, with the skirt of her 1919 outfit stopping at her calves. This modification soon caught on, with hemlines gradually rising across the following decades, giving female players a greater capacity for movement in the game. Lenglen’s signature headscarf also caught on, adding a sense of glamour and chic to the sport.

Suzanne Lenglen, ca. 1920s

Senorita De Alvarez, ca. 1920s

Many players accessorised their outfits, and spectators at the interwar Wimbledon tournaments would have seen everything from geometric cardigans to fur coats. Other modifications in women’s tennis dress were gradually made over this period, eventually coming to value practicality over the Victorian demands of modesty. Stockings were worn under tennis dresses until 1932, when they were finally discarded.

Miss G. Sterry, ca. 1920s

Mrs Satterthwaite, ca. 1930s

Women’s tennis dress changed dramatically in the early twentieth century, creating a more practical and comfortable costume, suitable for the sporting prowess of the players. However, a touch of glamour and style still didn’t go amiss.

Tennis Photos Courtesy of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Archive

References

Phyliss G. Tortura, Dress Fashion & Technology: From Pre-History to the Present (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015).

Ted Tinling, The Story of Women’s Tennis Fashion (Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum, 1977)

Valerie Warren, Tennis Fashions: Over 125 Years of Costume Change (Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum, 1993).

The Transformative Nature of Dress-Up

Coming across a picture of myself at the age of three, I realised this was about the age I became conscious of dressing myself. Even though my clothes were of course chosen by my mum, I was responsible for assembling this eye-wateringly pink get up. I really enjoy the fact that it’s Christmas, I’ve clearly just woken up – courtesy of the ruffled hair and sleep deprived expression – and I’ve put all my Christmas presents on, creating a hybrid ballerina princess.

Ballerina princess hybrid

This love of dress up was also explored by my siblings. For our local village carnival, we would dress up each year in our favourite characters of the moment. One year, I was Cinderella in a dress painstakingly made by my mum, and Chris and Sand were Kuzko and Pacha from the Emperor’s New Groove. Sadly, no pictures survive but we uncovered some from the year Chris went as a strikingly convincing Noddy, and Sand, who as a baby had no choice, was a disgruntled bunny.

Noddy??

Disgruntled bunny

Even now, I distinctly remember my favourite outfits, such as the wedding dress from the Little Mermaid and a fitted vest with a massive poofy skirt, modelled below by me and my frequent playmate/neighbour, Kate. In each image, we’ve carefully curated the whole outfit, with matching tiara/veil and tiny heels completing each look. In another image, I’ve gone for a more dressed down, princess-about-town look with my massive skirt exploding underneath my much more practical cardigan.

Kate and Me

Striking a pose

Princess-about-town

Seeing the tiny heeled shoes made me realise how much my years of dress up still resonated with me, as I bought a pair of heels for a formal event, mostly because I absolutely loved how plastic and bright they were. Seeing these images again linked my dress up heels with my adult self, with a sense of pink frivolity still clearly ingrained in my sense of dress.

Plastic heels

When I first saw these images, I wondered why are children so encouraged/drawn to dress up? What struck me was remembering the transformative quality of dressing up. This isn’t to say I necessarily believed that I was a princess/bride/ballerina, or when I played with my older siblings one of Robin Hood’s merry men – we had wooden swords from a visit to Sherwood Forest – but more that it fed my imagination by being dressed in a certain way. In my youthful career of dress up, I portrayed many roles and many genders. However, I naturally gravitated towards the most girly girl outfits I could get my tiny hands on. In my ordinary day as a young child, my outfits comprised of much more practical clothing, including hand-me-downs from older siblings. As Amanda Rock writes, dress up allows children to socialise but also builds up their vocabulary and confidence. In my experience, dress up gave me a chance to experiment with my femininity, fashion and a very short lived acting career.

Reference: Amanda Rock, Benefits of Playing Dress Up for Kids https://www.verywellfamily.com/the-importance-of-dress-up-play-2765056

Dressing, Possessing

*Spoilers for All About Eve, series 1 of Killing Eve*

‘If I ever give you perfume, wear it, and know that I have designs on your soul’, I wrote a few months ago. This notion of dressing and possessing has followed me to New York, where I re-watched Killing Eve with my best friend, once more to Paris – yes, I did get a little bottle of Chloé eau de parfum – and back to London, to the Grand Circle of the Noel Coward Theatre.

All About Eve – which I keep accidentally referring to as Killing Eve – isn’t so much about Eve as it is about subsuming your idols and becoming yourself.

Eve Harrington (Lily James) waits breathlessly for a chance to meet Margo Channing (Gillian Anderson). Becoming her personal assistant and understudy, adored by everyone, Eve appears to peak as Margo, a caricature of the ageing starlet, mourns her own premature death.

Eve occupies Margo’s dressing room, helps her undress, manages her personal life and, in a telling moment in an early scene, offers to put away her costume. Margo steps into the bathroom, and instead of sending the period dress off as promised, Eve slips her arms into it. She holds it against her chest and stands before the audience – the real, present audience doubling as her imagined, future audience. Eyes closed like an ecstatic Saint Teresa, she bows, blissful … until Margo presses up against her, and she tears the dress away from her body.

Lily James and Gillian Anderson in All About Eve. Photography by Jan Versweyveld.

If this is the ‘dress rehearsal’, Eve’s big reveal should come as no surprise. Having literally usurped Margo’s seat, Eve sits at Margo’s vanity – her vanity? The majority of the play takes place in what was at least initially Margo’s dressing room, as set design contributes to the identity slippage – and begins removing her stage makeup. Huge screens loom over the stage to show the audience what Eve sees in the mirror: her face slowly morphing into Margo’s.

All About Eve ends with a tightening and an unraveling of identity for Margo and Eve respectively. Margo adapts to the idea of ‘ageing gracefully’, embracing new roles and accepting the love she was too insecure to trust before. Eve, who never actually was the ‘Eve’ she made herself out to be, is blackmailed into continuing the act, her entire life a performance. Eve tried to possess and thus ‘kill’ Margo, but she only succeeds in loosing possession of – killing – herself.

***

While the second series of Killing Eve is airing in the US, its UK release has yet to be announced … and so all I can do is re-watch it again. What stands out this time is not Molly Goddard’s pile of pink tulle or the blue and gold balloons of a faux-birthday party, but how Villanelle/Oksana (Jodie Comer) and Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh) dress one another, with varying degrees of autonomy and consent.

Starting in the third episode, ‘Don’t I Know You?’, Eve and Villanelle play a game of mortal dress up. Villanelle steals Eve’s suitcase in Berlin, appropriating her green zebra print scarf for herself and trailing Eve to a boutique. There, she lurks outside Eve’s dressing room and surreptitiously provides her with a belt, that ‘missing something’ to complete her outfit. Villanelle later stabs Eve’s friend as Eve watches helplessly, still accessorised by the assassin.

Stills from Episode 4, ‘Sorry, Baby’, of Killing Eve.

Back in London, a shattered Eve unzips her returned suitcase, only to find it full of new, luxurious clothing, still packed with tissue paper. But the most devastating is Villanelle’s calling card: a bottle of La Villanelle perfume – her name and identity bottled in a fragrance that her ‘nemesis’ will physically absorb. Eve’s terror transforms into another unnameable emotion, when she not just opens and smells the perfume but daubs it on her wrists. She holds the black heels against her slippered feet before undressing and stepping into a new dress, smoothing her hands across her body in an amalgamation of fear, daring, disgust and attraction.

Minutes later, Villanelle breaks in to Eve’s home, confrontationally violating Eve’s personal space for the first time. But, in wearing her clothing and perfume – with a purposely ambiguous antecedent – Eve had already let Villanelle inside.

***

‘You know when your outfit is missing something but just don’t know what?’ Eve thinks aloud to her friend before Villanelle fatefully delivers the finishing touch. So rarely is the missing feature proven to be ‘a psychopath’, but such is the case in All About Eve, Killing Eve and a myriad of other body-snatchings by way of make-over.

Without going in to problematic representation of psychopathy, perhaps, with dress and bodies at a borderline, the psychopath is the stand-in for past, present and potential identities and the unfixed self. Of course, I don’t want to devour, efface, become those I adore; I know the line between my body and theirs. But I do have a certain red velveteen camisole and dress with military buttons stashed away … don’t you?

Vintage Clothes and Modern Londoners

London has long been a hub for subcultures: teddy boys and girls in the 1950s, mods and rockers in the 1960s and punks in the 1980s, to name only a few. What of the subcultures found in London today? One of the least well known is the vintage subculture: a community of people who dress in distinctively old clothing. 

Before we begin discussing the vintage community, let’s first establish some ground rules on what vintage clothing is. There is a difference between antique, vintage, retro and reproduction in terms of clothing, as well as most other material culture items. Items 100 or more years old are generally considered antique, while items 20 (or 30, depending on whom you’re talking to) to 99 years old are considered vintage. Retro items tend to be newer and have a clear inspiration or aesthetic from the past. Finally, reproduction garments are new but closely imitate older items and often are made using similar materials and techniques.

The ‘VintageOOTD’ hashtag on Instagram shows the fashion-oriented nature of the Vintage Instagram community.

The vintage community in London, myself included, embraces all of these classifications. Some members dress only in antique or vintage garments, while most of us sport a combination of older and newer pieces.

What does this community look like, and how does it interact, you might ask?

Unlike some subcultures, which are exclusive and uniform in terms of their membership, the vintage community is incredibly diverse and inclusive. People of all professions, nationalities, races and identities make up the London vintage scene. For example, friends of mine include a Chinese-Indonesian-Australian scientist and a Croatian marketing advisor and model.

Three members of the London Vintage community: @James.L.Richardson, @JeordyRaines, and @NoraFinds. See below to find them on Instagram.

Somewhat ironically, the vintage community —a group of individuals who all share a love for the past— functions largely through social media, particularly Instagram. Through Instagram, vintage men and women from all over the world engage with and support each other. Oftentimes, someone with whom you have an Instagram relationship with will become a real-life friend when you live in the same city. These interactions are incredibly fashion-based, with outfit photos being one of the primary media of interaction. Via Instagram, the vintage community is able not to only keep in touch remotely, but also to organise events through which to engage in person. One of the most prominent of these events is the Chap Olympiad, a summer garden party and festival of all things odd and antiquated, which rolls around for one day each July. Both social media and events like this bring together a group of people who love old clothes and allow them to discover a likeminded community in a large and sometimes standoffish urban world.

2018 Chap Olympiad at Bedford Square. Jeordy Raines, James. L. Richardson, @MateaInWonderland, and @Telombre. See below to find them on Instagram.

You can learn more about these vintage Londoners and what inspires them on Instagram:
James.L.Richardson
JeordyRaines
NoraFinds
MateaInWonderland
Telombre

All images belong to the author.

“Hell is other people” – or is it Us?

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!)  

The Wilsons and their Tethered-selves from Jordan Peele’s Us. Collage of two images made by the author.

Us offers its viewer too much: Peele curates too great of a visual feast for us to devour. In this limited amount of space I 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. 

Young Adelaide (Madison Curry) on Santa Cruz beach wearing Michael Jackson Thriller-themed tee. Collage and additions to image made by the author.

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…

Jason (Evan Alex) on Santa Cruz beach wearing Jaws-themed tee. Collage and additions to image made by the author.

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 jumpsuits 

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. 

Image and caption reposted from Kym Barrett’s Instagram feed (@kymbarrett.design)

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.  

Us artwork by illustrator Vincent Blake. Click through image to visit Vincent Blake’s Instagram feed (@dre.blake).

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. 

Oh, and please go see this film, immediately! 

Resources

Jean-Paul Sartre cited in Mark Kermode’s review of Us. Kermode, Mark. ‘Us review’. The Guardian (UK). March 24, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/mar/24/us-review-jordan-peele-lupita-nyongo 

Thompson, Rachel. ‘Jordan Peele explains the significance of the Michael Jackson imagery in ‘Us’’. Mashable UK. March 19, 2019. https://mashable.com/article/jordan-peele-michael-jackson-us-movie/?europe=true 

Ford, Tanisha C. ‘To Understand Us, Pay Attention to the Outfits’. The Atlantic. March 27, 2019. https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2019/03/us-meaning-costumes-kym-barrett-interview-red-jumpsuit/585793/ 

The Normalisation of a Fast Fashion Mentality in Films and Television

A famously extensive wardrobe in Clueless. Costume design by Mona May. Paramount Pictures, 1995.

During the earliest years of the film industry, actors would generally wear their own clothes as costumes. In short films set in the present-day and centred on only a few locations and story days, numerous specially designed costumes were simply an avoidable expense. Furthermore, actors’ everyday clothes complemented the ‘naturalistic’ elements of those films which sought to create the illusion of reality for cinema’s largely working-class audience.

By the late 1910s, the draw of extravagant costuming had become apparent, and films, now increasingly aimed at a middle-class audience, began to place greater emphasis on the consumption of clothing. Developments in the technical and narrative complexity of films also demanded more specialised costumes in greater numbers, and sartorial excess – in both design and quantity of costumes – became crucial to the film industry’s role as producer of fantasy.

The growth of the continuing television series from the mid-twentieth century onwards necessitated a similar abundance of costumes on screen, but with the need for frequent costume changes intensified by the high episode count and rapid turnaround time of many series. Moreover, seasonally scheduled series could keep abreast of fashion changes in their costuming to an even greater extent than films.

Viewers have consequently become accustomed to unique costumes for each story day of a film or television series, especially in those produced for a middle-class and/or female audience. Multiple costume changes within a story day are also common, and characters do not often wear the same costume twice in a given production (excepting ‘hero’ pieces worn throughout). This is sometimes true even when an extensive wardrobe cannot be justified by, say, a character’s socioeconomic circumstances. Subsequently, whether they are bought, made, or hired, single-use costumes normalise the fast fashion mentality that clothes should be acquired more frequently than they can be worn.

Costume and fashion are not entirely comparable, of course, but they do impact each other both stylistically and commercially. The practice of using a costume only once in a production thus appears dated within the context of recent discourse on fast fashion. Yet, the effects of this practice on the consumption of fashion, and vice versa, remain undertheorised. The challenge lies in critiquing certain industry customs whilst respecting costume design’s status as art, business, and significant appeal of films and television.