I have always been interested in clothing, in how an individual’s fashion choices mark them as a certain type of personality and lead to assumptions about their character. Or the opposite: how our coded preconceptions about clothing make us view a person a certain way, because they want us to, but in fact their outfit hides a truth about them, such as tattoos, or scars, or inner desires and thoughts. A conceit within film that I find myself increasingly more attracted to is the idea of characters using clothes as a personal uniform, finding that one outfit that encompasses how they would like to present themselves to the world. These are not necessarily military or superhero or employment-related uniforms, but a self-appointed costume, repeatedly and often exclusively worn, like a cartoon. Many filmmakers employ this concept as a way to subtly communicate something about their character, taking advantage of the visual nature of the medium as well as its unreality. There are various occurrences of this from Charlie Chaplin to the recent Kumiko the Treasure Hunter, and in this series I’ll be discussing some of my favorites.
Almost of all of Hal Hartley’s films have some version of this, which is appropriate considering the exaggerated theatricality and odd, emotive blocking found in all of his characters’ interactions. He creates a world very much like our own, but slightly off, where people don’t connect in the same way we do, don’t speak with the same cadences or vocabularies. His early romantic comedy-drama, Trust, which happens to be my very favorite of his movies, features probably my favorite use of the cinematic social uniform. The main female protagonist, Maria (played by the very much-missed Adrienne Shelly), starts off as a snotty, shallow teenager who accidentally kills her dad with a slap to the face after telling her family she is pregnant and was recently kicked out of school. She is unceremoniously thrown from her home, rejected by her boyfriend and best friend, and left to wander her nameless suburb alone with no plan in mind. She meets Matthew (Martin Donovan), an angry twentysomething computer engineer living with his abusive father (John MacKay), and the two immediately form an intense emotional bond, recognizing something of a kindred spirit in one another despite very different interests and experiences.
Maria spends the night at his house (to sleep! Get your mind out of the gutter, folks, she’s only 16), and after an altercation with his terrible dad she’s left with no clean clothes. Eager to get away–and take Matthew with her–she grabs a dress she finds in a hall closet and they both return to her family’s house. The dress is old-fashioned and conservative, with pale blue stripes, opposing her earlier outfit of trendy crop top and tight skirt in bright colors. It belonged to Matthew’s mother, who died giving birth to him and is rarely mentioned, but clearly a source of friction between him and his irascible father. Except for a brief scene of her in a factory uniform at her new job, it is the only thing Maria wears for the rest of the film, paired with lacy white tights, tan work boots, and sometimes her oversize letterman jacket (presumably her ex-boyfriend’s). She more regularly wears her glasses, too, which she had been too embarrassed to wear before. Her focus shifts from concern with the outer to concern with the inner.
While the narrative of Trust covers various themes–the relationships between Matthew and his father, Maria and her mother; Maria’s pregnancy and eventual abortion; a baby kidnapping; Matthew’s complicated relationship to technology–the center is the relationship between Matthew and Maria, and how they change one another. Maria’s unspoken connection to his mother’s dress is a visual marker of this. After meeting him she seems interested in maturity for the first time, in reaching out to others instead of being self-involved. She admits that she is ashamed of her stupidity, and of her youth, as she had spent her teen years dwelling on popularity and beauty, believing she could marry her high school sweetheart and have his child, never having to complete school or go to work. She is newly modest and resolute, shedding youthful pleasures and ignorance with a commitment to hard work and self-education. It is an extreme switch, partially a result of her mother’s call for penance after she seemingly gave her father a heart attack, and she spends much of the film rationalizing her status between childhood and adulthood, between dependence and self-actualization, the former visually marked by her continued wearing of her high school letterman jacket. The dress belonged to Matthew’s mother, and symbolizes his influence on her, but ultimately it becomes her own. The final shot of the film shows her putting on her glasses so she can better see him as he is led away by police, a strong symbolic moment that cements their strange but unbreakable bond.