Tag: social uniforms

Social Uniforms in Film: The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)


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.




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.



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.



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.


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.

Social Uniforms in Film: Danny Deckchair (2003)


Continuing my new series on social uniforms in film, I’d like to talk about one of my favorite feel-good movies, Danny Deckchair.

Inspired by the real-life figure of Lawnchair Larry, the film centers on Danny (Rhys Ifans), a construction worker in Sydney who is known for thinking up weird (stupid) ideas like a “human slingshot.” He dreams of flying to faraway places and camping out in the wild, but he doesn’t have any serious goals for himself. Trudy (Justine Clarke), his partner of several years, has recently worked her way up from being a secretary to a real estate agent, and her ambitions expand after she meets Sandy Upman (Rhys Muldoon), a local sports newscaster. It’s clear they have grown apart, and when Trudy calls off their planned vacation the two resort to passive-aggressive games to play out their growing resentment towards each other. At a barbecue with friends Danny decides to try out his latest idea: tie a host of oversized balloons to a deckchair and test if they’ll hold his weight. Turns out, they do, and he’s unceremoniously shot into the air without any supplies, then pulled into a storm before he crash-lands in Clarence, a small rural town in the northern part of the country. Given a cover story by the woman whose backyard he falls into (Glenda, played by Miranda Otto), Danny is quickly welcome by the townspeople, and finds himself blossoming in ways he never expected.

With an over-the-top premise, a lighthearted script, a quirky cast of characters, and a cute love story, Danny Deckchair fits easily into the romantic comedy mold, but it also functions as a kind of man-finding-himself story. When we first meet the title character, he is happy enough in his daily life, but there seems to be an underlying lack, a quiet dissatisfaction that he staves off once a year with a vacation. His accidental landing and week-long stay in Clarence open up a sea of possibilities for him: a place where no one knows who he is, and a group of people who have no idea what he is (or isn’t) capable of. Glenda gives him an impressive cover story, claiming he is an old professor of hers from college, and with that lie he receives immediate respect and personal interest, which intoxicates him. His social high leads him to spread his considerable energy throughout the town, becoming campaign manager for a local politician, inspiring a live-drawing art class, and encouraging the reserved Glenda to come out of her shell.


Since he arrived with nothing but the weather-beaten clothes on his back, Danny is given a new wardrobe by Glenda. Both her parents are dead, and she lives in her childhood home, surrounded by all of their things. She lends Danny clothes that belonged to her father, most significantly a “suave” (and slightly over-sized) black suit for a town-wide dance they attend together. Putting on this suit, after also cutting his shaggy hair and shaving his beard, allows him to become a completely different person. He no longer presents as working class and unimportant (“one of the little people,” as Trudy terms it), but as a highly educated, put-together “professor” with ideas and opinions worth hearing. After the dance, he continues to wear the suit for most of his stay in Clarence, befitting his new status as campaign manager for loudmouthed wannabe politician “Big Jim” Craig (Anthony Phelan). He moves around the town meeting people, apparently charming everyone he speaks with (except Glenda’s jealous coworker), exuding confidence and goodwill. Gone are his feelings of inadequacy raised by the over-ambitious Trudy, gone is his restless wanderlust likely brought on by his unfulfilling job and the claustrophobia of a big city.

Glenda’s father is never named or spoken about in detail, but his absence (and that of her mother) is felt in her house through the set decoration and some scattered references in dialogue. Danny uncovers an old motorcycle sitting unused in her shed, and we learn that her parents were “original hippies, Easy Rider and all that,” who traveled extensively by bike in the 60s. When she was a child her father used to take her for rides in the country, unbeknownst to her mother. We know early on that Glenda is seen as something of a misanthrope within the town, preferring to be alone rather than join in community festivities. (Working as Clarence’s only traffic cop likely hasn’t won her any friends, either.) With Danny’s arrival, she gradually opens up, newly welcomed by the town that so readily welcomes him, and becoming an active participant in town life. The first man to come into her life in a meaningful way in a long time, Danny wears her father’s clothes, and later fixes her father’s motorcycle and encourages her to drive it, not so much literally standing in for him but clearly representing the joy and contentment that had left Glenda’s life with the death of her parents.


As in Trust, that the social uniform in question belonged to a love interest’s parent increases its power as a symbol. With this suit (and haircut), Danny can immediately take on a totally different life, while also forging a deep connection to the person who gave it to him. He keeps it on even after he’s been discovered by Trudy (who has in his absence become closer to news anchor Sandy Upman, but soon sees Danny’s new-found fame for his bizarre stunt as appealing in her once ho-hum boyfriend), stunned into near-silence during his welcome-back party. The next day he goes back to work, back in his loose sleeveless shirt, ripped jeans, and work boots, and within minutes he realizes he truly does belong in Clarence, in Glenda’s home, and, of course, in that suit. Though I do hope he eventually buys a few of his own.


Social Uniforms in Film: Trust (1990)


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.