It does not take long to realise all the recurring themes in Desperately Seeking Susan (1985), are explicably linked to one jacket that may or may not have been worn by Jimi Hendrix, and now worn by infamous Susan (Madonna), a New York drifter whose carefree life is followed via the personals section in a tabloid by a bored suburban housewife living in New Jersey named Roberta (Rosanna Arquette).
The film’s costume designer is Santo Loquasto, but the jacket in question is unmistakably Madonna, in that it’s totally unique and difficult to forget. The khaki green metallic fabric is perfectly offset by a brash black and gold swirling pattern on the lapels and cuffs while the gold and red brocade pyramid under an eye, much like a dollar bill, plays up to the involvement of some stolen Egyptian earrings.
When Susan disappears it is the jacket that people look for, be it her long-suffering boyfriend or an annoyed café shop owner. The jacket, of course, may comprise a large portion of the plot but it is a small indication of the impact Madonna’s personal style in the early-mid 1980s had on the film before subsequently influencing a generation. The black bracelets up to her elbows, fold down pixie boots, swathes of black lace that barely conceal her underwear, bleached hair and more than a few rosary chains are some of the hallmarks still popular today.
Director Susan Seidelman had numerous young starlets, including the studio’s first choice Ellen Barkin, Melanie Griffith and Rosanna Arquette herself, up for the part but plumped for Madonna as she best represented the film’s connection to downtown New York. Seidelman took a chance by hiring the singer and letting her style, attitude and music video appearances have free rein. Desperately Seeking Susan acts as a time capsule from a period in New York when vintage, or ‘second hand’, outfits could be bought for a few bucks or even a swapped for something else. Pre-Giuliani the city was grimier, dirtier and far more dangerous to a New Jersey housewife who prefers insipid mauve granddad cardigans and sling-backs over diamante pixie boots and backcombed hair.
But while this was an introduction of New York’s bourgeois style and attitude to the masses, it was also a counterculture to the burgeoning ‘yuppie’ sensibilities that were bubbling on Wall Street, the physical and social opposite of bohemian Bleecker Street. Even Roberta’s husband reacts with dismay and confusion after she purchases the jacket that so reflected the attitude of the time yet seems horribly outdated now, “You bought a used jacket? What are we, poor?”
As the story progresses there forms a direct correlation between Susan’s effect on Roberta and the effect Madonna was yet to have on several generations of women. The purchase of the jacket is only the beginning of Roberta’s transformation; soon she starts curling her hair (far too neatly for Susan’s style) and teams the jacket with red roll down ankle boots, purple jeans and a bow in the hair so large it adds a few inches to her petite frame.
The clothes are a reflection of her carefree attitude that Roberta dreamed of emulating as she stared out at Manhattan’s skyline. Once Like A Virgin and her brave (at the time) sexualisation of religious virginal imagery hit MTV and the news, every woman did the exact same, so much so that dressmakers advertised replicas of Susan’s jacket in newspapers.
While the visible nipples, red lips and bare midriffs are all potent and somewhat obvious links to female sexuality, Madonna also flirted with masculinity before tackling it head-on for her Blonde Ambition tour. The lace trimmed bustier and white gloves are teamed with harem pants and scuffed brogues, making for a far more interesting look than, say, high heels and a mini skirt. Similarly in the film’s last act she confidently struts into a newspaper office and past some ogling identical triplets in nothing but white lace stockings with the garter belt over some rolled up boxer shorts, a white vest and man’s pinstriped shirt.
Constantly flirting with gender, sex, religion and acceptability, Desperately Seeking Susan represents a moment in time most cannot remember, whether they were there or not, before Madonna arrived and changed everything.
By Limara Salt
You can watch Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan at LOVEFiLM.com.
Read more of shy and retiring Limara’s work at her award nominated blog Your Turn Heather.
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