Internal Affairs (1990) is an excellent stone cold thriller. The costumes are a subtle tease, revealing personal information that the characters never say out loud. Like many movies released in the late 1980s/1990s, Internal Affairs radiates uneasiness caused by shifting societal attitudes – anything that threatens a straight male chauvinist black-and-white world.
Costume designer Rudy Dillon punches through this black-and-white world with ensembles that poke fun at the status quo and subsequently subvert them with eroticism, perhaps ironically using only a colour scheme of black and white.
The straight white male chauvinist is Dennis Peck (Richard Gere), a police officer in Los Angeles who controls his colleagues by involving them in extortion and other illegal acts. Raymond Avilla (Andy Garcia) joins the Internal Affairs Division (I.A.D.) assigned to partner Amy Wallace (Laurie Metcalf). Their role quickly becomes complicated when Raymond and Amy start digging and threaten to expose Peck’s corruption.
Richard Gere plays a beat cop who has no ambitions of a higher position in law enforcement, but instead likes being on the streets, where he can obtain drugs and freely cheat on his wife with prostitutes. The first time we see Peck he wears his navy blue police uniform, but in a proceeding scene with protégé Van Stretch (William Baldwin), he wears a taut T-shirt and acid wash jeans that cling to his body. He is a monster sexualized by Dillon; a man who acts ugly but looks pretty. Apart from jeans and a scene when he briefly dons a lounge suit, Peck does not wear many further costumes.
Peck resents ambitious Raymond, whom he labels as a “selfish yuppie”. Although Peck doesn’t care about family, his simple wardrobe evokes his working class roots and narrow worldview. Raymond, on the other hand, wears tailored suits and bold ties to work, while married to a beautiful woman (Nancy Travis) who works as an art museum curator – Peck sees this as a stuck-up yuppie lifestyle.
Rudy Dillon gives Nancy Travis’s character Kathleen Avilla the look she gave teen queen Heather Chandler in groundbreaking dark comedy, Heathers (1989). Kathleen wears skin-tight mini dresses and pumps to art exhibitions with a wild mane of blond hair, just as Heather Chandler (Kim Walker) wore red mini dresses to frat parties with similarly extreme blond locks. Sometimes Kathleen pairs these mini dresses with double-breasted jackets if wanting to project authority at her job, or as protection when she enters her home alone.
The only other central female character in the film, Amy Wallace (Laurie Metcalf of Roseanne fame), is a stern woman who is all business; she wears a white shirt buttoned to the neck with a collar brooch and a dark prairie skirt. It is a matronly style from the eighties carried over to the nineties. As Raymond gets to know Amy over Pepsi fountain drinks, he learns she is a lesbian – all from watching a tall blonde in a white tank top and mini skirt walk past.
When Raymond calls Amy to confer about work, she arrives at the office strutting in a black mini dress and pumps with a clutch purse her hand; evidently she must have been on a date. The dress looks to have a paisley pattern, but on closer inspection is not paisley but a repeat pattern of monkeys with coiled tails. A clever reference to the so-called ‘monkey suits’ that policemen wear? This is when Raymond grins devilishly as he did over drinks, summoning an unspoken attraction to his tough lesbian partner. She is dressed similarly to his wife Kathleen, so this must have an effect on him. Amy wishes to be desired as a ‘feminine’ woman in the traditional construct.
In a scene where Amy arrives at a crime scene, she wears an oversized leather coat, pajamas and chukka boots, a look that while not particularly feminine is not particularly masculine either – it’s sexless. The coat looks to belong to a man; maybe her father, brother, lover (hinting at possible bi-sexuality), or maybe just something that took her eye when shopping. We can read as much as we wish to.
Rudy Dillon uses clothing in Internal Affairs to confirm a stereotype and then shatters this model by undermining audience expectation. It is thrilling to watch, plus a reminder that any film’s success owes credit to costume design – costumes that can push social buttons, and make people think.
By Christopher Cole
Chris loves movies about power dynamics and loves anything with people in clothes that look good enough to eat. Also some day he would love to live in Cher Horowitz’s big White House in Clueless. Chris has written about some of these things on his blog No Harm in Charm.
Screencapped and publicity images have been cropped to better highlight costume details.
© 2014, Lord Christopher Laverty.