Twin Peaks's weird clothes

As Ralph Lauren auctions his vintage Americana, we look at how Sarah Markowitz constructed a dark wilderness from flannel and denim while dressing Twin Peaks

Annie and Cooper
Annie Blackburn (Heather Graham) in plaid ruffles with Agent Cooper Sara Markowitz & David Lynch

Fashion writer and editor-at-large of Danish magazine the Horse Rider’s Journal, Susanne Madsen writes every month about the awesome energy of fashion and film under Costume Dramas.

Last week, Ralph Lauren unveiled RL Vintage, a collection of original archive pieces curated by the designer himself and sold online as one-offs. First up from the Ralph Lauren vault is this season’s Western-themed edit that looks as if it could have walked straight off the set of Twin Peaks. There’s Donna Hayward’s suede fringe jacket from that episode when she clearly felt like breaking out of her fuzzy jumper rut and the Native American blanket coat that Catherine Martell wore to call a truce with Benjamin Horne while he was re-enacting the Civil War. There’s also a Buffalo-checked skirt in the vein of Laura Palmer, Sheriff Harry S. Truman’s trusty duster and a shearling denim jacket that would send Horne’s Department Store’s menswear expert Dick Tremayne into a fashion-induced frenzy.

It’s been almost 23 years since David Lynch’s eerie cult drama first aired, but the sartorial choices of its oddball characters are still lurking in the collective fashion psyche thanks to costume designer Sara Markowitz, who also brought Bret Easton Ellis’ bleak teen universe to life in the movie adaptation of Less than Zero. While Lynch’s long-time costume favourite Patricia Norris dressed the pilot episode of Twin Peaks, Markowitz orchestrated the rest of the series before going on to mastermind spray-on jeans for Coyote Ugly and outfitting science nerds for The Big Bang Theory. With her work on Twin Peaks, Markowitz hit a nerve. She created a sense of realness in a very surreal universe, balancing totally off the rails with ill-fitting Levi’s 501s, the perfect costume match for Lynch’s ability to unnerve his audience with a seemingly harmless setting.

In his nondescript Men in Black suit, Agent Cooper was fashioned as the calm and correctly attired centre in a town where everyone had a dark secret and at least seven items of clashing plaid clothing. But in stark contrast to the current shows on networks like the CW and ABC – where all that’s missing from each glossy frame is a fashion credit in the bottom hand corner – every character on Twin Peaks looked like they wore clothes from actual wardrobes and maybe smelled of cheap fabric softener and mothballs. It was authentic, right down to Bobby Briggs’ faded flannel shirts and Donna and Laura’s dodgy floor-length pleated skirts, which were probably eighties hand-me-downs from their mums. In Twin Peaks, even evil incarnate wore a casual greasy denim shirt, whether it went by the name of Leo Johnson or happened to be an abstract demonic being called Bob.

And long before Sarah Lund stalked dimly lit Danish buildings in her Gudrun & Gudrun Fair Isle jumper on The Killing, Twin Peaks was the original murder mystery knitwear show. There was an endless parade of warm and fluffy crew necks and oversize motif knits, something which few ‘sexy’ shows today would have the guts to dress their leading ladies in, even if they did show off a sweater girl silhouette like Twin Peaks’ resident femme fatale, Audrey Horne. For all its lumberjack realness (even Agent Cooper eventually gave in to its muted earth tones in what his colleague Albert Rosenfield called “a form of fashion suicide”), Markowitz’s costumes also riffed on all the glamorous 1950s signature trappings of a David Lynch project. In an old-fashioned town somewhere out in the sticks where ladies had conversations with logs, the logic of an early nineties teenager dressing like a fifties Elizabeth Taylor seemed almost normal.

By the second season, the show was established enough to throw in some meta-commentary, with Markowitz and the producers spoofing their own universe by choosing a blindingly naff matching tartan scarf and tie as the sheriff office’s wedding present for the awkward January-December Milford wedding. Similarly, Markowitz’s styling of Dick Tremayne’s print extravaganza fashion show at the Great Northern also brilliantly parodied both her own wardrobe work and Tremayne’s status as a first class fashion victim. And as the show drew to a close, she finished on a high and appropriately bad taste note. Underscoring the town’s rising female death toll, she dressed the contestants for the Miss Twin Peaks pageant in clear plastic raincoats – a subtle nod to the opening scene of the show, where Pete Martell calls in Laura Palmer’s body with the ominous words: “She’s dead, wrapped in plastic.”    

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