Or when your costumes look like a building. Odile Dicks-Mireaux’s designs for High Rise (2016) are far more than that. But for a film set in such a heavily stylised world, especially one created by sci-fi author J.G. Ballard, homogeny is everything. In fact homogeny is terrifying. Everything is reflected in the aesthetic. The building towers, Tom Hiddleston’s trouser legs tower, and Luke Evans towers over everyone.
Director Ben Wheatley has claimed that he did not want High Rise to look like a ‘greatest hits of the seventies‘, but really that’s exactly what he’s got, certainly in terms of costume design – and that’s okay. It might not be the 1970s that everyone lucky enough to be around and partying in those days remembers, yet it is the one we as viewers want and expect to see. The building, the first of creator Anthony Royal’s (Jeremy Irons) to be completed and so ‘ground zero’ in his social experiment, is arranged according to wealth and/or status. So, poorer families at the bottom, rich toffs at the top. Dr. Robert Laing (Hiddleston) is kind of situated in the upper section, though not enough that he doesn’t need to climb. ‘Climbing’ is a major part of the high rise experience. It seems that to fit in you need to strive, although those at the top would rather you stayed exactly where you are.
Tom has one grey suit, well at least two but they are the same in cut and colour. A Savile Row tie marks him out as a social climber. His suit is classic mid-seventies in style, which if we take the book’s original publication date into account, 1975, even though it is a vision of the future (keep up), then this makes perfect sense. It’s a beautiful thing, made even more beautiful fitted on Hiddleston’s superior, aka “perfect specimen”, frame: jacket with pagoda shoulders, two button fastening, high double vents; frogmouth pocket trousers, high waist, kick flare; plain white shirt and knitted tie.
Clothing deconstructs in line with Laing’s mind. He ‘settles’ as the building does. Finally comfortable with a ripped shirt, trouser legs rolled up past his knees and covered in paint. Ironic for a man who, according to Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller), “looks better out of clothes”, he regimentally adheres to codes for a large portion of the story. His only variation of outfit is for sport, work, and function. That Laing eventually ends up exercising in his mutilated suit echoes the cohesion of his sanity. He is levelling out; in his mind the near total rejection of society’s sartorial dictates his progress. He is literally on a higher plane. Can’t leave the tie off though. Why? Because he is still climbing.
Fashionable attire exists for all in High Rise; the only concession perhaps is Nathan Steele (Reece Shearsmith) in a non era specific plain grandad neck shirt and zip cardigan and then later orthodontist coat wrapped in brown sticky tape. ‘It’ girl and keeper of Royal’s love child, Charlotte, is the most forward: slingbacks, jumpsuit, Lurex…if she ever travelled further than her balcony, Charlotte would be just another face on the club scene. As it is, the high rise gives her exclusivity. She is a big fish in a small pond craving the attention and (in all but one scene) the control it affords her. Later Charlotte becomes the blonde contingent in a heavily symbolic reference to the Brides of Dracula, exacting bloody revenge on a central character. Her costume journey, like Laing, is to ‘come undone’ and be reborn.
Costume ‘codes’ in High Rise are attributable to their suitability in context. In this scenario codes are labels. Laing wears logo’d Lacoste whites to play squash; Richard Wilder (Luke Evans) is the reckless, though in time most humanised member of the building in double-denim shirt, jeans and cowboy boots. The brand? Wrangler of course, as clearly identified by his shirt (Levi’s heritage is associated more with mining). The most amusing code, really for anyone who grew up in the seventies are the plimsoll shoes worn by Toby (Louis Suc), clearly seen bobbing into shot during the film’s final scene. Toby’s mind, dependent on your interpretation, has either been completely corrupted or freed. Essentially though, despite Toby’s inherent wisdom he is still a kid – dressed by his mother. Laing, Charlotte, Wilder; these characters are all interpretable by what they wear, at the start of the story, and most importantly at the end, Laing in particular is completely emblematic of the building, with which he is now one.
High Rise is currently on general release.
© 2016, Lord Christopher Laverty.