‘Selling out:’ costuming punk frontwomen in film
Why do some costume depictions of "punk" look campy while others embody badassery? The best movie costuming for front-women belongs directly to the past: to a punkier, more D.I.Y. aesthetic.
In one of the first released clips from the film Vox Lux, Natalie Portman — in character as the pop star Celeste, a grown-up school shooting survivor with both literal and mental scars, and with an accent inexplicably approximating Bobby Cannavale’s in Blue Jasmine — gesticulates. She chews, signs the word “two” with two long, silver-manicured and totally unnecessary fingers. “Thah yeah befaw that, I was unduh a lotta stress from my akssident,” she drawls, sweeping the same hand, lifting it to scratch her ear, jutting her perfect chin, swinging her perfect arms like an extremely perfect Noo Yawk tough guy, narrowing her perfect eyes into the universal sign for getta loada dis one when the journalist who’s interviewing her says the word “resurgence.” What is meant to be the roughness of New Jersey living bred with the jittery itch of trauma feels exhausting, not just like character work but like work, period. Dressed in sheer black, a delicate, bloggerish cross-body harness and a scar-concealing choker, a broad streak of silver paint across each temple making Portman one of two prominent actresses to look like badgers onscreen last year, she appears exhausting, too: a little bratty, gothic bridge-and-tunnel nightmare with the ego of a fifty-year-old famous man.
Celeste’s costuming in Vox Lux is notable as much for what it is not —modern — as for what it is: a rock star’s style as filtered through the campy, very noughties DIY lens of Electroclash. She wears, in no specific order, a white t-shirt reading “FAST” in gothic script; a glitter cat-suit; an enormous-shouldered, Eno-esque fur cape; leggings in an iridescent blue that look like something from Forever 21, paired with blue velvet boots; an honest-to-God gilded obi belt. “I looked at major artists, but in the early stages of their career…All of their aesthetics have a homespun touch to them,” costume designer Keri Langerman explained to Fashionista. “They have this thing about their costumes that it feels like they put it together.” In the interview, she mentions Debbie Harry, Kim Gordon, Diana Ross, Grace Jones and Cher. Watching that clip of Portman, and now poring over the publicity shots for Vox Lux, the first name that springs to mind as a point of comparison is Lady Gaga’s. Circa 2008 or 2009, it seems entirely plausible that Gaga would have released or worn a royal-purple leather jacket printed with her own insignia, and if she did not first popularise Bowie-style bodysuits and cat-suits as stage-wear— this was, no duh, David Bowie — she certainly helped to spearhead the resurgence.
It is interesting that in the year of Vox Lux’s release, Gaga herself has not only helped to craft an intriguing meta-fiction by playing a pop star, Ally, onscreen in A Star is Born, but received notices for her portrayal. When Ally ‘sells out,’ costume designer Erin Benach dresses her as Gaga-but-not-Gaga, a red-haired and proudly inauthentic star whose biggest single is a catchy electronic ode to a great ass. The point is not for Ally to look homespun, but for her to signify a remove from her earlier self by shrugging off country-and-western chic in favour of gold bombers, cut-out bodysuits, sequins and skin-tight, flesh-toned gear. The look, being not quite like Gaga’s at the height of Gaga-mania, feels more contemporary than Celeste’s, albeit not particularly interesting — even for 2008 or 2009, the real Gaga looked to me a little dated in her drag-lite satin and tat, making Celeste in effect a relic twice-warmed-up. The difficulty of creating a compellingly-dressed female megastar in a new movie may be partly down to the fact that now, in 2018, women of this specific stripe barely exist. (Even more dated than a body-suit with shoulder-cages is the idea that a stadium-filling, critically-loved pop star with a truly avant-garde bent, dressed to kill and outfitted like no-one else on earth, would be Caucasian.) Katy Perry, cutting off her hair and pairing up with Migos, nearly killed her fame entirely; Taylor Swift, whose star persona I find not unlike that of personified skimmed milk, is too nice and too tedious to feel like a stadium-filling firebrand, however many stadiums she actually fills. It is no accident that Lana Del Rey, the most cosplayable and Halloween-costumable star of the last half-decade, shuns modernity entirely in favour of an active dialogue with history: Del Rey, knowing that her kind of ultra-white, singular chanteuse is nearly extinct, makes being out-of-date her metier.
The best movie costuming for front-women, accordingly, belongs directly to the past. It also belongs to a punkier, more D.I.Y. aesthetic. In Floria Sigismondi’s The Runaways, a biopic of Joan Jett’s earliest band as riddled with rock clichés as The Runaways’ songs are with very-of-the-era jailbait gags, we first see Kristen Stewart’s Joan Jett shopping for a leather jacket, and Dakota Fanning’s Cherie Curie lifting up her very small and very seventies suede mini to discover that she has her period. Both scenes are understood to be definite, transformative rites of passage, although in Jett’s case it is less clear how much the moment has to do with traditional womanhood per se. “Hey honey,” the punk shop assistant snarls, a joke on her androgyny that helpfully foreshadows her eventual forays into lesbianism, “you’re looking in the wrong section. The women’s section is the other side.” She does not want the women’s section; what she wants to be does not fit any one section at all. “Girls don’t play the electric guitar,” a guitar teacher out of central casting tells her, moments before It’s A Man’s World plays. The movie, unlike Stewart, is at times uncool, and plays it far too straight.
When Curie cuts her platinum hair into a Bowie-style shag in the bathroom mirror, and her sister says their mother will be “so mad,” however, it is hard not to feel nostalgic for a time when angering one or more parents was the apex of sophistication, of extreme cool — if The Runaways is not a great film, Carol Beadle’s costumes are a great reminder of what it is like to be sixteen and desperate to be wild, to telegraph a problem with authority through the surprising medium of hand-stencilled t-shirts. The same energy manifests in an earlier, equally-teenaged and equally-imperfect film by the music executive Lou Adler, the ramshackle maybe-satire Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains; Diane Lane, in an early role and fifteen years old, fronts an awful band, The Stains, in make-up that looks like Celeste’s but mad and blood-red. She is named Corinne Burns, and calls herself Corinne Third-Degree Burns. “I’m perfect,” she informs her audience, “but nobody in this shithole gets me, because I don’t put out.”
“It doesn’t make sense to wear a see-through blouse and no bra,” a newsreader tells her, stupidly, “and say ‘I don’t put out.’” Coupled with the movie’s costuming, which sees Corinne in knickers and in fishnets, and the movie’s characterisation of its heroine, which sees her spitting furiously at most men, it hammers home the dumbness of the idea that nakedness equals sex with a sophistication far beyond its grungy indie scope. Corinne scoffs and snarls. Grown-ups and squares, she thinks, are dumb. What she means is sell out — selling out being the biggest sin for both teenagers and punk front-women alike. She is perfect; or at least, she looks perfect. She looks like she ought to be on a pedestal in the most punk museum.