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Noomi Rapace in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Playing computer hacker Lisbeth Salander, Noomi Rapace embodies the character in such a exhaustive way that picturing anyone else in the role was, until recently, impossible. Defined by copious piercings, a ragged biker leather jacket and skinny jeans, Lisbeth is a blatant symbol of unconformity. From author Stieg Larsson’s creation to costume designer Cilla Rörby’s interpretation for the screen, Lisbeth harks back to the mid-1970s; the early days of punk and a desire to skew superficial expectations.

Lisbeth’s costume changes for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009, directed by Niels Arden Oplev) are faithful, certainly in spirit, to Larsson’s Millennium novels. The overall shock factor has been toned down somewhat, likely because Rörby did not want Lisbeth to appear distractingly outrageous. Too OTT and Lisbeth becomes a joke, which over the course of 152 minutes (180 minutes if you watch the extended version) would stretch believability of the character to breaking point. Lisbeth as a heroine is already a tough sell; this is what makes her so memorable. Yet rebellion of any kind, particularly with costume, must be considered in context.

There is a pivotal scene early on in the film where we are introduced to the full severity of Lisbeth’s retraction from society into sub-culture. Taking the unusual step of meeting a client enquiring about her investigation into journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), Lisbeth is revealed in a single shot wearing her studded black leather biker jacket with white trim (Rapace’s own), black skull print t-shirt, wedge sole boots covered in straps, ripped black leggings with one leg partially patched in leather, black scarf, black lipstick and a choker necklace of pointed silver studs. Amusingly she accessorises the outfit with fishnet, fingerless gloves.

Lisbeth understands how to twist her femininity; she enjoys provoking a response. It is a defence mechanism meaning she remains in control. A pre-emptive strike, as it were.

The biggest mistake certain characters make about Lisbeth is that her appearance is correlated with unorthodox sexual practice. Unless one considers bisexuality unorthodox, Lisbeth’s sexual preference is, from what we can judge during her consensual dalliance with Mikael, perfectly normal. She is promiscuous but only to the extent that she enjoys the freedom of several sexual partners; after all she is not in a committed relationship. Nils Bjurman (Peter Andersson), a closet sadist appointed Lisbeth’s probation guardian, rapes her on their first meeting. In plain grey t-shirt and signature leather jacket, she is alluring to him as gutter sex. He even refers to Lisbeth’s personal hygiene before unzipping his fly and forcing himself into her mouth. Bjurman misjudges Lisbeth as a victim, and it costs him.

Throughout The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Lisbeth wears either grey or mid-blue skinny jeans, Converse style hi-tops or black leather buckle boots (also Rapace’s), plain grey, black or brown skull print t-shirt, brown pill fleece hooded top and black biker leather, or blue and white leather motorcycle jacket with matching over-trousers. Occasionally there are variations, such as her complete costume personality reversal in the final scene from black to blonde, biker to business-woman, and a loose fisherman’s rib jumper worn with black leggings. Her clothes appear old, frequently washed and distressed. The biker leather jacket in particular, likely something Lisbeth has had rotating in her closet for a decade, even features loose folds of orange lining jutting beyond the cuffs.

The brown skull t-shirt is an important fixture. Its scrawled back print, ‘Beat the Bastards’, can clearly be seen following Lisbeth’s trip to a tattoo parlour; somewhere she purges and punishes herself and ultimately gets the idea to punish Bjurman, too. “How big is the thickest needle..?” she asks the tattooist. That Lisbeth has “Been there, done that, got the t-shirt”, actually a quote from Mikael in The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets Nest (print), is symbolic of her attitude to life.

Lisbeth’s extreme punk style is toned down slightly when she meets Mikael and they work on the Vanger case together. Blue and white motorcycle leathers are her first splashes of colour. Perhaps because her subversiveness softens, perhaps because she would appear too fish out of water outside of Stockholm, this is also the only time in Lisbeth’s life that a (comparatively) young man to whom she has close ties wants something from her besides sex.

Cilla Rörby’s overall look for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is relaxed and modern. Nearly every character is granted an air of clean European chic, from co-owner of Mikael’s left-wing magazine ‘Millennium’, Erika Berger (Lena Endre) in immaculate trouser suits and midi-length trench coat, to wealthy Martin Vanger (Peter Haber) in his zipped-up Barbour, to Mikael himself in long sleeve buttoned t-shirts, blue or grey v-neck sweaters, plain white shirt, indigo Lee jeans and trendy short leather jacket. Ironic that it should take director David Fincher’s remake of this film to inspire a tie-in collection from Swedish fashion retailer H&M when Mikael seems to have been sporting their clothes from the get go.

Mikael is an activist not a stuffed shirt; he does not even wear a suit for his sentencing in court at the start of the story. He dons a grey flannel lounge jacket for his postscript with Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube) but even that is teamed with blue jeans and white shirt. He is the flipside of Lisbeth because his own vaguely radical style is seen as customary whereas hers is unacceptable. Mikael can be slobby, just like Lisbeth, and is just as comfortable in exposing his body.

Despite not being a svelte man, Mikael has no qualms being surprised while dancing in his underpants listening to music. He and Lisbeth function well as a team; an initial contrast veils that they ‘get’ each other. Mikael is open to radicalism (Lisbeth is, like most radicals, deep down desperate to be accepted by society). He gently teaches Lisbeth that she can learn to trust men, or rather some men, and allow her guard to drop.

In the follow up film, The Girl Who Played with Fire (2009), Lisbeth’s look becomes more about disguise. To begin with she needs to maintain her new identity hiding abroad while enjoying the life of embezzled millions. When we catch up with Lisbeth in the Caribbean, she no longer needs the blonde wig yet still has all her piercings. Due prominently to climate she chooses white instead of black and cotton instead of leather.

Upon Lisbeth’s return to Sweden she wears the same biker leather jacket (presumably something she could never part with) along with her ‘Beat the Bastards’ t-shirt. Ruffling the feathers of an estate agent eager to assume she could not possibly afford the riverfront property he is selling, she is now viewed as a vaguely comedic presence. This echoes the tone of the plot at this juncture. It is easing us into a new mystery; one that will turn Lisbeth’s content and now placid lifestyle upside down. This suggestion that Lisbeth is no longer presented as intimidating or hostile is reflected by her need to remain incognito throughout most of the story.

Certainly two cocksure bikers misjudge Lisbeth at their peril. Cloaked in grey ‘New York Yankees’ hooded top, black Yankees baseball cap and blue track pants, her tiny frame is hidden beneath loose clothing. She dispatches both men with pepper spray and a stun gun before making off with the first assailant’s leather jacket and chopper bike. There is no consideration of vanity here; Lisbeth needs this jacket to be safe on the bike, although a crooked smile indicates that she is enjoying herself just a little. As soon as she dumps the bike she dumps the jacket. Later Lisbeth wears a blue and white track top to storm the secluded farmhouse of her father. She has left the comfort of a defiant subculture and is hiding in plain sight.

This answers the question of how you make someone with such a memorable look fade into the background. Removing her piercings helped, a blonde wig, loose clothing too (even her pale jeans have evolved from skinny to slim) and a particularly unflattering waterproof coat hides all trace of build. Yet Lisbeth’s occasionally glimpsed wig seemingly has the opposite affect by drawing even more attention to her natural beauty. Nonetheless, dismantling Lisbeth Mark 1 was a process of necessity for the plot.

Mikael, however, remains almost the same in terms of costume from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. He wears a new leather jacket with tab collar although the cut is still recognisable, plus the knitted sweaters and long-sleeve t-shirts return. His look is as consistent as his character. Likewise Erika, who in a belted cashmere poncho and wool rollneck is just as elegant as ever.

The final instalment of Millennium, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest (2009), again flips our expectations of Lisbeth’s appearance. This is principally achieved by placing her convalescing in a hospital bed for the first part of the story, before re-establishing Lisbeth Mark 1 for the proceeding courtroom scenes. At this point it is as though Lisbeth is daring someone to challenge her; to prove their ignorance.

Striding into court wearing a black Lyrca bodysuit over fishnet tights covered by ripped green vest, studded choker, abundant piercings including devil’s head earring and chunky stainless steel necklaces, wedge sole boots and Mohawk, is Lisbeth’s most blatant act of defiance. She cannot defend herself physically, or even verbally, so instead chooses clothes as a means of conveying her non-conformity. Basically she is inviting judgement; one member of the public gallery even comments, “What does she look like?” proffering the opinion that somebody who looks that way was surely asking for the life she has endured. The most essential factor to understanding Lisbeth is that one must peer beyond the mask.

Mikael becomes noticeably scruffier during this story. His clothes are changed infrequently; apart from re-emergence of the same leather jacket he wore throughout The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, much of his original charisma has evaporated. Those around him continue to prove interesting, especially his elegant sister Annika (Annika Hallin), who in a droll moment of ironic hindsight purchases a grey jersey tracksuit from H&M for Lisbeth to wear in prison. Also Millennium magazine’s researcher, Christer’s (Jacob Ericksson) red check shirt and brown wool cardigan with suede inserts, maroon coat and plaid trousers hint at concealed creativity behind his typically studious facade.

Lisbeth’s grey tracksuit ensures that she appears as minuscule and fragile as possible. Even her prosecutor remarks, “She was so tiny. She looks like a little girl” – perfect counter to the brash punk ensemble she dons a few scenes later (note too the many safety pins; a distinctively punk element). In this film more than any other in the trilogy those of implied respectability, such as Dr. Teleborian (Anders Ahlbom) hide behind a suit while the real heroes, unkempt hacker Plague (Tomas Köhler) for example, are viewed with distrust simply because they do not dress to conform. If there was ever filmic justification for not judging someone by the way they dress, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series provides it.

Towards the end of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest, Lisbeth returns to her typical attire of biker leather jacket and skinny jeans with trainers. In affect she is the Lisbeth we encountered in the first movie, only with nothing left to prove and an entire life left to live. One wonders where she will go next. Wherever it is, that battered leather jacket and faded skull t-shirt will surely go with her.

You can watch Noomi Rapace in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo at

© 2011 – 2014, Lord Christopher Laverty.


  • Charlie Elliott

    Love this post. The evolution of Lisbeth’s fashion to portray her defiance is something I find really interesting when watching the films.

  • Hannah Forster

    I love the fact that the trimmed leather jacket is Noomi’s. Love her lol

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