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Sons of Anarchy: Identity and the Outlaw: Women of SAMCRO

Part two of our essay looking at sartorial identity in Sons of Anarchy, featuring exclusive insight from series costume designer Kelli Jones. Catch up with part 1 HERE.

The women of SAMCRO include porn stars and pole dancers, but the club matriarch is Gemma played by Katey Sagal, formerly known as Peg Bundy in Married with Children. Gemma is the Queen of this world so her look is regal rock chick, “to make her look badass without looking like a slut. This sexy mama bitch doesn’t need to TRY” costume designer Kelli Jones says. With her background in music (she has performed with the likes of Bette Midler, Gene Simmons and Bob Dylan) Sagal’s own style has clearly influenced Gemma’s look, “from a Stevie Nicks vibe (season one and two) to more of an edgy fitted sexy glam rock star.”

Gemma’s look is hugely sought-after by female fans of the show and Kelli seems to have spent much of her time in interviews explaining how to imitate it and which labels to buy, such as Guess, Seven and Citizen jeans, Frye boots and Elizabeth and James heels. Royal Underground leather jackets (a label owned by Mötley Crue’s Nikki Sixx, genuine rock royalty) have been used throughout the 6 seasons alongside various custom pieces. Gemma’s fitted leather jackets and hip belts have become such a trademark that Kelli has developed some of them for sale through FX’s website.

Maggie Siff as Tara. Tara's look is not as overtly wild as Gemma, but she is channeling a similar vibe, especially in later episodes.
Maggie Siff as Tara. Tara’s look is not as overtly wild as Gemma, but she is channeling a similar vibe, especially in later episodes.

Tara’s journey has taken her style from Chicago doctor to Junior Gemma and beyond, so although her workwear remains consistent throughout the show, off-duty Tara’s look becomes sexier: the more time she spends in the world of the MC the more her wardrobe reflects that with much more cleavage on show and hair and makeup to match. She wears a lot of grey and beige rather than Gemma’s typical black, “looking hot and strong” as Kelli says, showing “more of a Gemma vibe” but still stands out as her own woman. This image change is not for Jax’s sake; he has clearly always loved her, and intimate scenes between the two are never glamorous: we never seen Tara in Gemma-style satin robe and negligee. In season 6 her look changes again, and her makeup and clothes become plain and basic. Without the rock chick edge, her grey clothes look like she is trying to disappear into the background, reflecting her plans to escape this world.

Gemma and Tara’s look is not just about being sexually appealing to their man but about their power within the club. Part of that power is their sexual allure, not just to their partner but to all of the club. Gemma’s interactions with other members of the club are often charged with physical attraction as an element of their respect for her. Just because they don’t often dare actively demonstrate that attraction doesn’t mean that it’s not part of their relationship. Even Darby, one of the club’s enemies, is clearly attracted to her and treats her with respect: “How’s the beautiful queen of bikers?… You look real good, Gemma.” The effect on the other women of the club is not dissimilar; part of Tara’s journey in season 2 is to win respect from the women that surround the club, whether it be the Crow-Eaters or Ima the jealous porn star. It is true that women don’t really dress to please other men; if they did they’d all dress like the porn stars. Both Gemma and Tara display times when they ‘power-dress’, within the constructs of this culture. Wendy’s typical look also involves the same trademarks: plenty of cleavage, fitted leather and lots of fine chain layered jewellery.

The November Rain inspired wedding dress worn by Winter Ave Zoli as Lyla. This photo is from costume designer Kelli Jones' own Twitter account.
The November Rain inspired wedding dress worn by Winter Ave Zoli as Lyla. This photo is from costume designer Kelli Jones’ own Twitter account.

As for the porn stars, we see Lyla and Ima on and off duty and Kelli says, “For the porn stars, I get to go wild. It’s FX. Slutty as shit and as long as I don’t have them showing their woo has we’re all good.” It’s clearly a chance to have fun and she has items made to order or customised and even buys pieces from extras. There’s a lot of customisation goes on in these subcultures and as a costume designer it’s obviously an enjoyable part of the process. She continues: “Their day clothes are fun too. Lyla is as white trash slutty as they come and Ima is that whore who wears Bebe leathers with short booty shorts and heels because she thinks it’s classy. Hooker fabulous.” We also got to see what a porn star might wear to get married to her dream outlaw biker. “Lyla’s wedding dress was my favourite! I wanted to do a white trash version of the dress from the November Rain video and I think I pulled it off.” Their costumes are sexy and funny and provide a colourful visual break from endless black leather and jeans. It’s also given Kelli some fantastic anecdotes about costuming real-life porn actresses as extras:

Outside of the various lawbreaking factions who inhabit this world, we do see a few rare individuals, with some standout costumes amongst them. I have my own favourites: Elliott Oswald, legitimate local businessman, has an uneasy relationship with the outlaws but dresses like an urban cowboy in bootcut jeans and western style slim fitting shirts. US Attorney Lincoln Potter arrives on a Triumph, a British bike, wearing a leather jacket looking similar to Belstaff’s vintage styles. At first we don’t know what to make of him: he’s a biker, but not one like the Sons. Even when we learn that he’s law enforcement, he still doesn’t quite fit into the picture, and his character fulfils that promise. Sherriff Roosevelt is always seen in uniform, but when we first see him in civilian clothes after his wife is killed we realise he is no longer morally bound by law. Retribution achieved, he is next seen wearing his badge again.

Jimmy Smits as Nero Padilla. Seriously who else on TV could make a cardigan look badass?
Jimmy Smits as Nero Padilla. Seriously who else on TV could make a cardigan look badass?

Nero Padilla is introduced in season 5 and has been one of Kelli’s favourites to dress. The brothel owning former gang leader occupies an interesting place in the Charming community. Not a conventional businessman, they felt they couldn’t put him in a suit, so Jimmy Smits wears cardigans, in shades of grey, over his wife beater vest and heavily tattooed torso. The cardigan is the velvet glove over his Latino gangster iron fist; it superficially conceals his toughness which we expect to see even more of as we move into the bloody final season.

The next big project for Kelli Jones, now that her work on Sons is all but over, is the NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton, set for release in August 2015. She will be able to bring her experience in convincingly costuming gang members to the task of depicting the rise of gangsta rap; she has already tweeted pictures of stacked boxes of Air Force One trainers as also worn by Jax. With her movie and TV work increasing, we think Miss Jones is going to rapidly become the go-to girl for portraying urban subcultures.

By Lesley Holmes.

Lesley likes movies with space and dinosaurs, and B&W screwball comedies. She is fascinated by fashion history and particularly obsessed by underwear. She sells repro 1940s style knickers at her site Dorothy May Lingerie; she also conducts fashion talks on various topics.

With thanks to Kelli Jones.

© 2014, Lord Christopher Laverty.