“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/