American Psycho (2000, costume designer Isis Mussenden) is a late 1980s set film that highlights the importance placed on external appearance and the disparity that can lie between this and the true nature of a person. The ‘Psycho’ of the title, Patrick Bateman (played by Christian Bale) is outwardly flawless. He has an extreme and involved personal beauty regime, consisting of special shampoos, body washes, face masks and scrubs, complemented by a strict diet and exercise plan that he completes daily and without fail. He believes in looking after himself – or at least his external self.
Beneath this perfectly glossy exterior is emptiness – a lack of humanity, of compassion, emotion or any concept of the value of human life. As he himself says, on the surface is where his similarities to those around him end: “There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me, just an entity, something illusory”. However empty he is, he understands the necessity of appearance in an almost mechanical way. It is paramount to be flawless.
This obsession with looks is carried through, as would be expected, into every item of his carefully selected apparel. He wears beautifully tailored suits that give him power and stature. His shirts are either plain or striped in a variety of blues, whites and greens, sometimes with a contrasting white collar. His ties are in a range of jewel tones, reds, greens and yellows with classic yet snappy patterns. He often wears braces, as much as a symbol of belonging to the class around him as he does to hold his trousers in precisely the right place. Nothing is an afterthought, nothing is sloppy; it is all a carefully considered uniform, a display of great showmanship that hides the monstrosity within.
The people Patrick Bateman associates with are outwardly like him. Wealthy, loud and obsessed with money and position, they dress in the same uniform of business suits, smart shirts and patterned ties. It is a code of dress that highlights a certain group of people, of a certain class, but more than that, of a very definite attitude; that your worth is synonymous with the label in your suit or what restaurant you can get a reservation at. However, while the code of dress may be the same, Patrick’s direct associates, his male friends from work, sometime appear more relaxed within their clothes – jacket undone, lounging back in their chairs. Even though we see Patrick without his jacket several times, mostly in the private space of his office, this always serves to highlight the correctness of the braces, the shirt always tucked in, the tie always perfect. These clothes do not become part of him or form a true and adaptable identity as they may for others. They remain as merely a uniform – selected because they are correct, because they create the right impression, the desired persona, rather than because they are liked or comfortable or personal.
That said, Bateman is protective of his clothes above all else. In the infamous scene where he murders Paul Allen with an axe, he dons a clear plastic raincoat over his immaculate double breasted suit, pale blue shirt with white collar and dark red patterned tie. The coat glares pre-meditation, causing the drunken victim to ask “Is that a raincoat?” while laughing at the preposterousness of his host’s attire. Had he been more sober, clearly this would have been a warning. To the viewer, this item of clothing helps to build the suspense, as the audience knows what is coming and questions whether the victim will escape or meet the foretold grizzly end.
Bateman dances in the raincoat as he gets ready for the murder, excitement building up as he prepares to release the ever simmering rage within. As he stands behind Paul, we are shown a shot of the glistening axe head resting on the floor beside his gleaming, polished shoes – both a weapon in their own way; one commits the violence, the other protects the perpetrator from suspicion. As Bateman swings the axe and delivers his blow, vivid red blood spatters onto his protective mac and his face. A few more blows and it is over, and he wastes no time in removing the raincoat, dissociating himself from the distasteful stain on his person. His clothes are unsullied and he is unaffected and composed. Even though his face is splattered with blood, this doesn’t seem to disturb him, as he sits, calmly smoking as the blood pools cover the floor.
Bateman ‘smuggles’ the body out of the building (although this may not be the best description as he makes no obvious attempt to hide it) in a large black sports bag, which he throws in the boot of a waiting taxi. While loading the body, he runs into some friends. The viewer waits on tenterhooks to see if he will be discovered, yet they merely ask him, with envy “Where did you get that overnight bag?” to which he replies, irritated, “Jean Paul Gaultier”.
Labels are a big part of the sartorial competitiveness displayed in the film between Patrick and his associates, with designer names being thrown around as if they are poker chips. Interestingly, it is said that there was some difficulty getting certain brands to agree due to the controversial nature of the film, with some designers feeling the association would hurt more than promote.
The character of Bateman not only places value upon the labels he wears and the overall effect of his appearance, but he strongly reacts to his apparel being touched, even in envy. When at a business meeting a colleague touches his suit, he responds angrily, brushing them off. When in bed with two prostitutes, he snaps “Don’t touch the watch”. Other people, people that he feels no similarity to, touching his apparel is akin to them testing his façade. Not only does he have intolerance for his personal appearance being sullied, but it is almost feels like this physical contact could break through the carefully controlled composure and unleash the rage beneath.
In a scene where he is about to commit a murder caused by his anger over the superiority of a potential victim’s business card, he dons a pair of black leather gloves with which to strangle him. Rather than merely using these gloves to hide his identity, he uses them as a barrier. Not only would bare hands not leave fingerprints but he would be above suspicion with his perfect appearance. However, this barrier does not serve to dissociate him from the violence. Far from being troubled by it, this is something he enjoys and uses as a release. But the gloves do function as a barrier to distance him from the repulsive sympathy of his victim, the distaste which he feels for all other humans and their, as he sees them, inconsequential lives.
It is also worthwhile noting that when detective Donald Kimble (Willem Dafoe) comes to his office for the first time, Bateman feigns a lack of attention by pretending to be finishing up a phone call. During this conversation he pretends to give an associate sartorial advice on the “Definite dos and don’ts of wearing a bold striped shirt” by “combining it with discreetly coloured and patterned suits and ties”. While it may seem strange that a man who is potentially under suspicion of murder could consider fashion tips to be a conversation worthy of keeping a detective and new visitor waiting, what he is really doing is attempting to assert his superiority. To Bateman appearance is key, and so appearing to have mastered the art of dressing to such an extent that he is not only turned to for advice on the matter, but is able to confidently and nonchalantly disperse said “expert” advice, is a display of his success and respected position among other men. However to the simply dressed detective Kimble, such preening is not worthy of respect or esteem. While the two men both wear suits, they could hardly be more sharply contrasted. Kimble wears a plain brown suit, with plain, less expensive looking shirt and tie. Everything about him is matter of fact and utilitarian; he wears what it takes to get his job done. In this way, the two men are more similar than they may think, both employing clothing for the same end, although one does it deliberately as a peacock, and the other without too much thought, simply conforming without dressing up.
American Psycho utterly reverses the idea of physiognomy – that those who look good are good. With the emphasis placed on beauty and appearance in the modern world, it is no wonder that we all aspire to look good, thinking this will make us into better people. A monster that looks like a monster may be scary for a second, but once the horror of their appearance is revealed the fear subsides because we can recognise them. A monster, however, which is hidden behind a façade of immense beauty, is truly scary. How can we know them? How can we help being drawn to them? And worst of all, how can we ever expect to catch them when their appearance puts them above suspicion? Patrick Bateman’s flippancy in the face of his atrocities can be amusing, mainly because he seems so downright insane. But one question which American Psycho does seem to ask, over and over again, is this: Is it funny, or is it just terrifying?
By Bonnie Radcliffe
Bonnie loves clothes and their power to transform and create characters. She has worked in a variety of roles in costume for film, television and theatre, and wants to share her love for the power of costume design through her writing. She has recently starter a travel blog at Holiday Girl
© 2014, Lord Christopher Laverty.