Certain films come along where costume design is so essential to character and narrative, that to alter it even slightly would change the tone and perception of the story. Drive (2011, costume design by Erin Benach) is one example of this. The white satin scorpion jacket, tight indigo jeans and most importantly, leather driving gloves. Gloves were symbolic of The Driver’s intentions; when he slipped on the gloves he became himself. Stoker (2013, costume design by Kurt Swanson and Bart Mueller, aka ‘Kurt and Bart’) employs a similar concept – a costume sign – only here it is all about shoes.
India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) is something becoming. It is not evident what at the start of the story, but heavy suggestion leads us to believe she is unlikely to quit moping and open a flower shop in the suburbs. After the death of her father in a car accident, India’s uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) comes to stay, a handsome and imposing man with designs on India… for something. India’s mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) is a borderline drunk, not terribly saddened by her husband’s death and rather taken with his mysterious brother. Most of the film takes place in and around a cold, empty country house to become lost or be lost in.
India is a composite coming together. At the start of Stoker she wears her father’s belt, mother’s blouse and shoes her uncle gave her. Without these individual items India fails to become, with them she has accepted herself; her journey toward fate, sexual maturity and adulthood is complete.
The clothes worn by all three central characters in Stoker are typical of the beautifully repressed; soft fabrics, straight lines, little adornment and not period specific but leaning toward the early 1960s. India is reminiscent of Séverine in Belle de Jour (1967, costume design by Yves Saint Laurent and Hélène Nourry), an inhabited young woman on the verge of change, her mind confused yet interminably focused. Like Séverine, India’s clothes, a mix of high-waist short pleated skirts, blouses and slip dresses, reflect her evasive personality. To those around her this manifests as aloofness, an aura of being too special for the world. Pretty people wear nice clothes, they make an effort; beautiful people do not need to, they wear plain shades and only splashes of pattern. That their clothes are so fundamentally ordinary makes them stand out from the rest.
Most important to India, and to us if we choose to read the film as director Chan-wook Park clearly intends us to, are her shoes. With important exception, India only wears one type of shoe during the whole story, a black and white Muffy’s leather saddle shoe. This shoe comes in various sizes throughout her life but always in the same style. She outgrows them, she gets a bigger size, and so the cycle continues. These shoes represent the absolute control of India, we assume firstly by herself, but actually by her uncle Charlie. Look closely and you will see he wears a similar type of shoe, a two-tone derby brogue. He believes they are simpatico. Someone utters a comment to India near the beginning of the story that she has outgrown her shoes. This distresses her greatly because they reflect who she is. If India cannot wear these shoes anymore then who is she? What is she to wear?
If India is wearing any footwear at all it will be her saddle shoes. The Christian Louboutin high heels she has to work for. Like Luke Skywalker being passed his lightsaber or Indiana Jones his fedora, without the Louboutins, India – new India – is incomplete. Photograph by Mary Ellen Mark.
When the moment is right, when she has made enough progress toward becoming, Charlie gives India her eighteenth birthday present – a pair of crocodile high heel Christian Louboutin shoes (crocodile because India is a predator). She covets them immediately, yet it turns out Charlie had misread her. He was too early. India changes back into her saddle shoes one last time and then, when she knows the moment is right, slips on the Louboutins and seals her destiny. They are not called ‘killer heels’ for nothing.
Stoker fetishes all clothes, but shoes especially. Chan-wook Park makes no secret that we should read everything we see and hear in his film. The colour yellow is significant, glimpsed on Charlie’s sweaters, India’s umbrella, even tennis balls bouncing around a hitherto unused court. Yellow can be the colour of obsession, such as Travis Bickle’s prowling cab in Taxi Driver (1976). However India’s rudimentary saddle shoes are her most potent symbol of obsession, and she only ends this obsession by achieving perfection (Louboutins). At this point India in vindicated – not when she accepts the shoes but when she puts them on herself. Only then is she free to explore the liberation such perfection has afforded her.
Stoker is currently on general release.
© 2013, Christopher Laverty.