Hanging by a Thread: Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine

Suzy Benzinger, the costume designer of Blue Jasmine, chose iconic brands like Hermès, Louis Vuitton, and Missoni to serve as visual shorthand of what the modern-day wealthy socialite wears, but it is the white Chanel jacket that follows Jasmine from the beginning of the movie to the end which tells its own tale of what is happening to its owner.

When we first see Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) she is flying first-class from New York to San Francisco to see her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins). On the flight she dazzles a fellow passenger with the story of how she met her wealthy businessman husband Hal (Alec Baldwin). Or so she thinks. When that passenger arrives at the airport terminal she complains to her husband that she was trapped on the flight next to a lady who would not shut up. It is in this initial scene that Jasmine wears the lovely white Chanel jacket with black trim which appears throughout the film.

Ms. Benzinger, on a $35,000 budget to costume the entire cast, explained to The New York Times’ Guy Trebay for the article “In ‘Blue Jasmine,’ Suzy Benzinger Turns Clothes Into Characters” that she relied on the largesse of designers to help her clothe the actors and many brands came through, chief among them, Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel. Within two days of her request, which came at the height of Paris Fashion Week, Benzinger had not one, but two, of the white Chanel jackets required for use in the film.

Peter Saarsgard as Dwight Westlake and Cate Blanchett as Jasmine Francais. The Hermès Birkin is Jasmine’s only handbag which, like her Chanel jacket, she holds onto as a comfort blanket.
Peter Saarsgard as Dwight Westlake and Cate Blanchett as Jasmine Francais. The Hermès Birkin is Jasmine’s only handbag which, like her Chanel jacket, she holds onto as a comfort blanket.

A Chanel jacket, a status symbol since 1954 when Coco Chanel reintroduced herself to the high-fashion world after a self-induced retirement at the start of WWII, typically runs in the mid-four figures (and up) and is something director Woody Allen himself insisted be in the film. Benzinger told The New York Times, “Woody is not one of these guys that talks about things endlessly, but he threw out that Jasmine should be wearing Chanel.” Allen knew that Chanel is a go-to brand for today’s socialite and it was a sure-fire way to give Jasmine instant credibility – a woman of her social stature would have at least one Chanel jacket in her closet. And if that same woman suddenly found herself with nothing, as Jasmine goes on to tell Ginger, not a penny to her name since the government took it all, she would only be left with the clothes on her back. Jasmine’s mind hasn’t caught up with what has happened to her world so she thinks nothing of walking into Ginger’s apartment wearing Chanel, and toting a Hermès Birkin and personalised Louis Vuitton luggage.

Jasmine’s new financial circumstances force her to move in with Ginger while she comes to terms with the upheaval of her life. Hal was involved in a Madoff-like scheme of bilking investors and after his arrest Jasmine has to remake her life without the wealth she had grown used to, or the husband she was married to. It is then that the Chanel jacket goes from elegant wardrobe piece to talisman-like security blanket.

The Chanel brand was specifically requested by director Woody Allen for the societal and financial status it afforded Blanchett’s character.
The Chanel brand was specifically requested by director Woody Allen for the societal and financial status it afforded Blanchett’s character.

To earn money for school, where she intends to study interior design, Jasmine takes a job as a receptionist at a dentist’s office; one she feels is beneath her and moreover is pathetically ill-suited to perform. When we see her wearing her Chanel jacket, just draped over her shoulders the way another receptionist might wear a humble cardigan sweater, it’s impossible not to feel sorry for her – it is clear she is losing her grip on reality. While the jacket might have been something she’d shrug on in her old life to go out to lunch with the ladies at an expensive Manhattan restaurant, now it is looking slightly more used, and she wears it to warm up in an office she does not want to work in, and perhaps hoping it will have the protective power to ward off the unwanted attention of her employer, Dr. Flicker (Michael Stuhlbarg). It does not.

Jasmine’s luck starts to turn around when she meets a widowed diplomat named Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard) at a party. He not only recognises everything Jasmine has on but, since his deceased wife was a fashion editor, uses her clothes and bag as a way to vet her within seconds and proclaim her as someone with taste and style. Jasmine is both thrilled to have met a potential suitor (and savior) and smitten with Dwight instantly. She is also determined that he not know anything of her past.

Still feeling emboldened by her former position of wealth and security, Jasmine does not hesitate to criticize Ginger’s choice of men, both her current boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale) and her former husband and the father of her two kids, Augie (Andrew Dice Clay). In her opinion both are beneath Ginger. The disagreements between the sisters underscore the tensions they’ve always had between them, as they were both adopted from different mothers. The irony that Jasmine has lost everything and is in need of far more help than what Jasmine claims Ginger needs is not lost on Chili or Augie. Both men advise Ginger that Jasmine is using her.

By the close of the story, Jasmine’s now shabby Chanel jacket is vividly representative of her own existence.
By the close of the story, Jasmine’s now shabby Chanel jacket is vividly representative of her own existence.

Flashbacks show how Jasmine’s errors in judgment and denial of reality had a hand in Hal’s downfall, ruining their life together. And the challenges of the life she is trying to put together threaten to overwhelm her existence.

The Chanel jacket crops up throughout the movie, looking sophisticated at first, but, like Jasmine, is becoming more worn-looking with time. It being white with black trim serves two purposes – not only is it symbolic of the Chanel brand itself, where the colours white and black feature prominently, and therefore making the jacket an iconic wardrobe item, but white, so pristine, so easily sullied, shows every bit of the struggle Jasmine is going through. The jacket highlights her transformation from rich and charming socialite to vodka-swilling, Xanax-popping middle-aged woman with wild mascara-smudged eyes, who often talks to herself, cannot deal with the demands of the real world, and has no money, and very few prospects, to her name. The sadness and pathos of Jasmine’s situation comes through by way of the white Chanel jacket.

A chance meeting on the street with Augie when she is about to look at engagement rings with Dwight changes Jasmine’s fortunes for good, and not for the better. By the time we last see Jasmine, in a park, on a bench talking to herself, in much the same way as at the beginning of the movie – but this time with only pigeons for an audience – the Chanel jacket is shabby, streaked with dirt, frayed. It is barely recognizable as the sought-after and elegant article of clothing it once was – and the perfect mirror to what has happened to Jasmine’s world and mind.

By Jill Burgess, creator of Everything Just So.

Also for Clothes on Film, Jill has written about Kate Hudson’s Kelly bag in Le Divorce, Sandra Bullock’s wardrobe in The Proposal, and the glamorous thirties fashions of W.E.

© 2014, Lord Christopher Laverty.