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The Grifters: Be Careful What You Wear

Neo-noir is an unusual genre from a costume perspective because although rooted in reality it is generally not specific to one era or setting. This means a variety of influences fill the screen incorporating past, present and future suggesting a particular story could be told anywhere at any time. Yet with noir’s literary and cinematic heyday belonging to 1940s, certain period details are necessary in order to satisfy that vital element of the genre and its all subsidiaries: atmosphere.

The Grifters_Angelica Huston, John Cusack, Annette Benning split side_cap

The Grifters_Angelica Huston white suit front_cap

The Grifters (1990, directed by Stephen Frears) is about as bleak as noir gets. Its central characters are shysters; they live on the wrong side of the law, fleece the innocent and, like addicts, remain locked in a cycle of risk and repeat, trapped by the thrill of the grift. The film is set in contemporary Los Angeles with familiar genre nods to the past, anywhere from the thirties to eighties, and a watchful eye on fashions of the future. Costume designer for The Grifters Richard Hornung passed away in 1995 after a career featuring the likes of Natural Born Killers, Miller’s Crossing and The Hudsucker Proxy (he was the Coen Brothers’ regular costumer before Mary Zophres). His assistant costume designer on The Grifters was recent Oscar winner Mark Bridges, who fills in the blanks as we journey through a most enduring example of memorable costume design:

‘I think Richard Hornung was trying to do film noir without getting caught. I know during the preparation period director Stephen Frears had a list of films to watch, noir classics like The Maltese Falcon, (1941, directed by Angelica Huston’s father), Detour (1945), Double Indemnity (1944), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), and more. I believe the idea was to get the DNA of noir without doing specific period and the costume choices followed that idea. No choices were ever arbitrary for Richard; everything had a reason for drama, concept and character‘.

The Grifters_Annette Benning black dress full_cap

The Grifters_John Cusack Armani suit top_cap

Helpfully The Grifters begins by introducing all the three protagonists at the same time via split screen. Apparently unconnected at this stage, their shared profession is obvious. Lily (Angelica Huston), an atypical beauty, the wrong side of forty with platinum blonde hair dressed in a single breasted cream suit with sloping hip pockets and carrying a large black leather bag scams her gangster employer Bobo at a greyhound track. Roy (John Cusack), mid twenties, in a ventless brown Armani suit with padded shoulders and white stripe button-down shirt pulls a minor con in a bar and receives a ferocious gut punch for his trouble. Myra (Annette Bening) sells her body for a better return in a jewellery store; she wears a tight black dress with stand collar and bolero, opaque tights and high heels. Each character represents a different era: Lily, the forties, although her suit sports an angular silhouette also reminiscent of 1980s Thierry Mugler (it actually was); Roy, the eighties, his boxy suit an obvious throwback; Myra, the nineties, minuscule length of skirt and dark tights prophesying the look of the decade. Bridges continues:

‘I think it all comes back to the trying to visually reference the noir look and still make it 1990. Lily’s white suit was Thierry Mugler’s 40‘s-90’s noir shape. I remember once in fitting a reference to Lana Turner in “The Postman Always Rings Twice” and how spectacular that was – all in white with platinum hair. Lily’s suit and dress shapes echo the silhouettes of the past yet are recognizable and comfortable to the modern eye. All noir guys wear suits and ties. And that concept reveals itself in dressing Roy in Armani suits and ties and clothes that reference an earlier era in a modern Los Angeles of tank tops, Hawaiian shirts and shorts and sneakers.’

Myra’s sexy con woman’s first appearance, slim skirted dress with a 1940s inspired bolero making a sweetheart neckline worthy of Gloria Graham, was a copy of a modern dress. Her leopard print pants and sweater top make reference to 50’s “bad girl” styling. The navy blue satin she wears in the hospital is reminiscent of late 1940s Frederick’s of Hollywood, yet the skirt was Jean Paul Gaultier. The Alaia sweater and faux fur skirt are a perfect riff on 40’s sweater girl. There’s even a black chiffon negligee a la Veronica Lake. It’s all there. Subtle and not so subtle. Sometimes successful and sometimes not. Ironically, last year, (not knowing I had been the assistant costume designer of the film), a producer referred to wanting to avoid their film looking like “The Grifters”, because they had been so confused upon viewing whether it was a period movie or not. Roy still looks classic and good (if maybe just a little 80’s!). It was 23 years ago, for heaven’s sake!

The Grifters_John Cusack leather jacket, Eddie Jones hat_cap

The Grifters_Angelica Huston_pale pink dress rear_cap

As Roy lounges on the bed in his apartment, he daydreams of learning the grift. A ghostly vision of his mentor Mintz (Eddie Jones) stands in front of him wearing a white linen suit, stubby tie, braces and snap-brim hat. Mintz would not have existed looking this way during the timeline of Roy’s life but he evokes a Maltese Falcon-esque vibe, perhaps from an era when his was a more elegant profession. In the flashback Roy is cocky in a 1950s bi-swing leather jacket, further evidence that The Grifters cannot be pinned to any particular period. Amazingly however the costumes never appear muddled. They are consistent precisely because they are diverse; they are intended to induce atmosphere not reflect real life.

Myra and Roy’s sexual relationship is established when she meets him at the apartment that evening. She is contemporary in black trousers with thin buckle belt and black halterneck vest top. Far from the past, this outfit is actually forward thinking for 1989/90. In the morning Myra departs before Lily arrives. Classier than at the dog track, Lily wears a pale pink dress with long gathered sleeves and revere collar. She is softer and sexier, gently implying the bizarre relationship with her son Roy. Although still reeling from the bartender’s punch Roy tries to appear as relaxed as Lily. Leaning against the wall in a plain white tee and Armani jacket, he fails and crumples to the ground. It is up to his mother to take care of him.

The Grifters_Angelica Huston scoop neck top_cap

The Grifters_Angelica Huston pale pink front, Annette Benning_cap

We see a glimpse of a white neckline watching over Roy in the hospital, not the same dress Lily was in at the apartment suggesting a late inserted shot or perhaps the passage of time. When Roy awakes Lily is – even at this early stage – uncharacteristically mellow in a pale pink dress and matching ribbed wool cardigan. She meets Myra for the first time and takes an immediate dislike, basically because she is encountering a younger version of herself. Plus Myra is a rival for Roy’s affections which Lily will not tolerate. Myra wins the clash, however, her chest bursting forth from a black bustier. She may be cheap, but first impressions count. As far as Myra is concerned, Lily is a pushover.

All the central characters in The Grifters are manipulative and their clothes reflect this. They dress to provoke a reaction in those around them. At the hospital Lily is dressed for Roy in pale pink, but unexpectedly meets Myra so needs to re-exert authority. As Roy recuperates Myra switches to a signature mode in a gold/brown raglan turtleneck, short leopard print skirt and giant gold earrings (point of note: The Grifters features some wonderful dangly earrings). Myra wears lots of gold tones, a colour symbolic of her goal; if this were a cartoon she would have dollar signs painted on her eyeballs. Having been beaten before, Lily will be damned before it happens again. She arrives at the hospital in a strawberry red silk suit with peplum, red opaque tights, red stilettos and silver ankle bracelet. It is a warning: red for danger. The suit is just a little tight across the midriff between the darts, perhaps implying that Lily dug it out the back of her closet for this special occasion. As if to stamp the point home, she then wiggles her bottom in Myra’s face. Bridges explains:

‘It was important to see a little competition there between the women, and you get the feeling Myra wants to be Lily when she “grows up” and Lily wants to assert herself as a still desirable woman. So much of our work is putting an outside skin to what’s going on inside the character’s mind.

The Grifters_Angelica Huston red suit bottom, Annette Benning_cap

The Grifters_Angelica Huston red suit front, John Cusack_cap

Roy is on the sidelines at the moment. Appropriately he looks like a little boy in his white and blue seersucker night gown as these two women fight over him. Incidentally, although Lily and Myra are at loggerheads throughout the story they only share two scenes together; as with much of The Grifters atmosphere alone is enough to create tension. Myra is silly and childish, but good at what she does. Avoiding paying her rent by changing from the black ruffled bodice dress she wore when meeting Lily (plus amazing leopard print stilettos) into a long black negligee to seduce her landlord is just Myra swapping work attire. Her apartment is a pigsty; she lives like a teenage girl. Leopard skin is Myra’s signature, yet she is most comfortable nude. Here she lacks the responsibility her uniform projects, she even giggles during sex.

Background players contribute to the film’s timeless feel too. Keep an eye out for Roy’s landlord Simms (Henry Jones). Simms is dressed in a 1970s wool jacket and tattersall check shirt. These touches bestow a theatrical air while remaining credible in context. Bridges expands this idea:

Looking at the film now I see the choices that were made to sell the noir concept. We dressed background players at the race track and the Bennigan’s restaurant at the beginning of Roy’s story with more suits and ties than would be in reality. The doe-eyed nurse taking care of Roy in the hospital wears a starched nurse’s cap (which was obsolete by 1989 but was a reference to classic noir nurse) or a group of sailors on the train to the La Jolla racetrack harkened back to American train travel at the end of World War II. The noir clothing vernacular of the trench coat is used for Lily and for Roy, both subtle reference to Humphrey Bogart and Alan Ladd’s antiheros of the 1940s. Where I see the film looking dated is the fact that the 1980s made sunglasses synonymous with mystery; an affectation of style and a legitimate fashion accessory, and Richard uses them in a way that was new in 1989. And then there are the earrings. Their scale and presence was very much of the moment and takes some of the “curse” off of some of the more obvious noir reference clothing choices. Unfortunately, they didn’t age well, and, in my opinion, now distract from the otherwise classic look Richard created for the film.

The Grifters_Sailors, John Cusack raincoat_cap

The Grifters_Annette Benning black dress top, John Cusack_cap

Read part two of our analysis of The Grifters HERE, including the “per…per…permanent damage” white dress and during the film’s final scenes, Lily’s blood red sartorial damning to hell.

With thanks to Mark Bridges.

© 2013 – 2014, Lord Christopher Laverty.