Social Uniforms in Film: The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

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Wes Anderson’s films offer the most consistent examples of cinematic social uniforms (the idea of a single costume or variation on one that a character wears as an everyday outfit, separate from a school- or work-related uniform), aside from those of Hal Hartley (who is a clearly a major influence on Anderson). His characters typically sport one specific outfit, or variations on one, or, at times, literal uniforms related to a job or association. They come to define the characters in some way, and allow the actors to blend into Anderson’s meticulously-crafted visual worlds. My favorite Anderson film has remained The Royal Tenenbaums, and it is rife with social uniform goodness.

The Tenenbaum family dynamic is laid out in a prologue detailing their lives 22 years prior to the main narrative, setting up the interests, personalities, and styles of mother Etheline (Angelica Huston), father Royal (Gene Hackman), oldest son Richie (Luke Wilson), adopted daughter Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), younger son Chas (Ben Stiller), and young neighbor Eli (Owen Wilson). Though considered a “family of geniuses” at the time, the following years are marred by failure, betrayal, drugs, death, and regret. When the long-shunned Royal decides to come back into their lives by faking cancer, he unwittingly alters the relationships of everyone associated with his family. Tellingly, each adult character is introduced in a series of tableaux looking into the camera as a mirror and primping in some way. From the beginning, each individual’s personality and position is in a sense defined by their appearance, and specifically by the look they create for themselves to present to the world. Most of them maintain the same style over the course of 22 years, and for the few who change, the switch signals a major emotional shift.

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Etheline is a steady, intelligent, and loving woman who dedicates herself to her children’s education, and later to the study of anthropology. Her look is thoughtful and no-nonsense, thanks to a range of color-coordinated dress suits, tinted glasses, and pulled-back curls. Her palette is soft, with pastel blues, pinks, and tans, all perfectly matching shirts, skirts, blazers, and coats. Her appearance is assured and confident, but warm, reflecting her kind, nurturing personality combined with a professional edge. Like his ex-wife, Royal oozes confidence in his appearance, but its effect is more slimy, and more of a facade. His grey, double-breasted pinstripe suite, paired with fine silk shirts and striped ties in playful pinks and purples, allows him to maintain his delusions of grandeur as he holds on to his once-impressive status as a top lawyer and model patriarch. Along with his wool winter coat, he dons an old-man cap and cane as affectations, symbols of seniority and life experience. His ego and charisma are all he has left, and he needs his look to match. His foil is Henry Sherman (Danny Glover), Etheline’s accountant and suitor, whose standard outfit is almost comical, clearly contrasting with Royal’s elegant attire. His bright blue suit, checkered shirts, and jaunty bow ties present an unintimidating, un-self-conscious man. To Royal, Henry is barely worth worrying about, but for Etheline, he is the kind of respectful, unassuming, good-natured man she could suddenly find herself falling for. He is in many ways Royal’s opposite, but shows himself his equal, and though his clothing is a little bit on the silly side, that bright blue of his suit clearly represents a bolder man than we at first realize, one who tries to do the right thing while fighting for the woman he loves and the family he’s ready to join.

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Richie and Margot Tenenbaum do not change their look from childhood into adulthood. As a child, Richie is an amateur painter and talented tennis player, going pro as a teen but retiring early after suffering a nervous breakdown on the court. In the years that follow, he continues to present himself (and be viewed by others) primarily as an athlete, maintaining his Bjorn Borg-esque look right down to the long hair. He is most often shown in his striped polo tennis shirt, customized “Baumer” wristbands, striped sweatband, and aviator sunglasses, with a tan-colored suit jacket and slacks that somehow normalize the fact that he’s always wearing athletic accessories. Richie is the most well-adjusted of the Tenenbaum children, the most accepting of his father’s efforts to reconnect, and generally the most collected in his temperament. His lifelong love of his adopted sister Margot haunts him, but he rarely allows that to show, and so his appearance is, like Royal’s, a facade of stability. His outfit connects him to his past success as a well-known tennis player–even causing strangers to recognize him and request a photo or signature–but it also marks him as a man in stasis, literally wearing his arrested development on his sleeve. He has not changed his appearance because he cannot move on from Margot, or (to a lesser but still notable degree) from his failure in his career. He may physically travel around the world but he himself remains emotionally stuck. When he finally decides to make a change–not so much in clothing choice but in shaving his hair and beard–it is right before he attempts suicide, reflecting how closely connected his outward appearance is linked to his internal conflict.

The sullen and mysterious Margot is a promising playwright as a child, but has not written for several years, living a reserved life with her doting anthropologist husband, Raleigh (Bill Murray). The narrator notes that she “is known for her extreme secrecy,”  and her attire reflects that quality. She is typically depicted in a large, knee-length fur coat and brown loafers, with a barrette in her hair and dark, smoky eyeliner. Underneath her coat she wears an assortment of striped, form-fitting polo dresses. Like Richie, she too is stunted, though she doesn’t know how or why (she acknowledges only that she is “in a rut”), and her clothing reflects her apparent entrapment between childhood and adulthood. She dresses exactly as she did as a young girl right down to the childish barrette, but has lost the triumphs and confidence of that time. She attempts to make up for her own feeling of failure and creative stagnation by cultivating a mystique, wrapping herself figuratively in enigmas and secrets of her own making, and literally in an oversize fur coat. She clings to her status as an outsider (her father’s frequent references to her adoption reinforcing her “otherness”), intentionally setting herself apart and shielding herself from more open emotion or deeper connections. Her unconventional but hip outfit conveys an eccentric, controlled, closed-off person, which is exactly what she wants.

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The two characters whose looks wildly change from their childhood selves are Chas and Eli, though their reasons differ. Chas is mourning the loss of his wife, grown paranoid for the safety of his two young sons and seeking solace in the house where he grew up. Throughout the film he primarily wears a bright red Adidas tracksuit with white stripes, with matching sets for his children (who also share his messy dark hair). The effect is primarily comical to viewers, this goofy-looking family that matches from head to toe, and it’s easy at times to forget the incredible pain they are all in. Chas has been a brilliant businessman his entire life, hard-working and capable, and yet we rarely see him in that capacity. Instead he is anxious, unsure, and irritable; one might deduce that his chosen outfit–simple, comfortable, generic–is such because he is unable to handle his usual day-to-day routine, his suits and ties and conference calls. He puts on clothes that suggest exercise and health, in a color that denotes confidence, because his own fear of death and especially the loss of his children is suddenly too much to bear. Like Margot, he shrouds himself through his clothing, and like her he seems to find difficulty in accepting gestures of love or care from others, instead closing himself off. I’ve always found Chas’s arc the most affecting, and his realistic grief juxtaposed with his silly appearance speaks to Anderson’s somewhat dark sense of humor and Hartley-esque approach to pathos.

Eli Cash was a chubby, awkward boy who lived with his grandmother and spent as much time as he could at the Tenenbaum house. As a child he is always shown in his maroon school uniform, with a bland look on his face and a bad haircut. As an adult, he has made himself over completely, gaining acclaim as a novelist in the Hemingway/London vein (manly, wildernessy), and so he dons a fringed leather jacket, cowboy hat, and various western-style shirts, with a Southern accent to match. He has lived his life in the shadow of the Tenenbaum family, wishing he could be a part of their wealth and genius, and indeed even as he eclipses their fame he feels the need for their acknowledgement, calling Margot frequently and sending Etheline his article clippings. He seems to have attained all he wanted, but only by creating an over-the-top persona to slide into, a well-spoken cowboy who glams up his professorial lifestyle with sex and drugs. Of course, like most of the characters in this movie, his appearance is something of a facade. He continues to feel inadequate, falling deeper into serious addiction, though he never sheds the image he’s made for himself, maintaining it even in rehab, so it seems to have worked for him.

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Wes Anderson dresses his actors the same way he dresses his sets: meticulously, nostalgically, and with personality. He uses objects to suggest personal history, and clothing to evoke certain character traits. Actors are made up so that they fit snugly into his perfectly orchestrated worlds, visually suited to their vintage ephemera and monogrammed everything. There is a kind of stationary-ness to his settings, a sturdy there-ness that puts them squarely in his familiar aesthetic (and outside of the real world, where things are messy and always rearranging). The rooms are dressed so carefully it seems unlikely anything will change, and his characters are often the same. Their clothes are an extension of themselves, and their selves are generally fixed in place. Anderson’s world is comforting in its consistency, its reliability, and he gives the same quality to his characters, who maintain specific, intentional appearances that ensure their place within that world. And ultimately, I think the appearances of the Tenenbaums really do say it all.

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