Call-girl, cow-girl and pin-up: Alabama Worley proves that crimes against fashion do pay
1993 was not a vintage year for fashion in films. The top grossing movies, Jurassic Park and Mrs. Doubtfire, gave us safari kit in shades of beige and frumpy cross-dressing. In a year when Galliano showed orient-inspired pirates in Paris, Hollywood costume appeared to offer little. Perhaps if the Tarantino-penned, Tony Scott-directed and star-studded True Romance hadn't bombed at the box office, we'd remember that year-in-film a little differently.
A Bonnie and Clyde tale of obsessive love and violent crime, True Romance centres around Clarence Worley (Christian Slater), a comic store assistant who watches kung-fu triple features alone on his birthday, and Alabama Whitman (Patricia Arquette), a call-girl of four days who is booked to 'bump into' Clarence at the cinema by his boss. They fall instantly, madly in love, and after Clarence is goaded by an apparition of Elvis to kill Alabama's pimp – a scar-faced white Jamaican played by Gary Oldman, he accidentally steals a suitcase of drugs and they elope, driving across America in Clarence's purple Cadillac to start a new life together.
Alabama's wardrobe is the perfect blend of pastels and trashy Americana; bubble gum sweet and steamingly sexy all in one. By the side of a dusty highway, Alabama changes into a cow print high-waisted mini, with almost-matching turquoise bra, belt and cowboy boots, and a polka-dot peasant blouse that stays on for all of about 30 seconds before they are overcome with lust in a phone booth, revealing that her knickers match too.
She may be giggly and girlie, but Alabama is also a total bad ass, as mob henchman Virgil (James Gandolfini) discovers. Sent to brutalise her, he is transfixed: “That's a very nice outfit,” he comments, about her pink leopard print leggings, crab-appliqued sheer top and metallic turquoise wayfarers. “You are unbelievably cute” he tells her, before exploding her nose. Finding the coke under the bed, he turns to see Alabama wielding a corkscrew. Amused, he offers her a shot at his chest – the tables turn as she drives it through his foot, then cracks him over the head with the toilet tank lid, blow-torches him in the face with hair-spray and finally shoots him between the eyes with a shotgun.
Elvis is ever-present in the film, from his voice-of-god pep talks with Clarence, to the influence of his music on the soundtrack, an original score by Hans Zimmer. Alabama's fight scene is interspersed with shots of Clarence ordering food at a burger joint, dressed in rockabilly style with suede shoes, denim turn-ups, a white t-shirt worn under a red Hawaiian shirt and gold Elvis costume shades. Scott had wanted the opening music to be an Elvis track, but the King's estate wouldn't agree to it, so Graceland by Charlie Sexton (backing guitarist for Bob Dylan) stepped in.
In what has become known as The Sicilian Scene, mobster Vincenzo Coccotti (Christopher Walken) is 'persuading' Clarence's father, Police Officer Clifford Worley (Dennis Hopper) to give up his son. Don Vincenzo is the ultimate suave gangster in a broad-shoulder, peaked lapel jacket, pinned collar, red tie and paisley dress scarf. Stoically facing him down, Clifford wears a US Police-issue satin bomber jacket with a navy felted collar. Their intimidating appearances add menace to the already tense, controversial dialogue. In a motif that Tarantino has become (in)famous for, Clifford's speech is littered with racist slurs. It is a device that forces the audience to confront the reality that racism exists, despite having been largely expunged from popular entertainment. It's hard to digest, especially from a sympathetic character.
Tarantino is such an avid appropriator of pop culture that it can be difficult to estimate the cultural impact of his own work. He has perhaps introduced many more people to a diverse range of styles, film traditions and music than those who directly reference him, rather than the original inspiration. That said, two albums in 2013 alone reference the film, True Romance by Charli XCX and You've Got a Lot of Heart, Kid by American pop-punks Ramsey. Young models and actresses regularly cite the cult classic in magazine run-downs of high society's favourite films. Name-checking True Romance has become shorthand for the message Alabama scrawls on a napkin for Clarence while he's closing the drug deal: “You're so cool!"