A spoiler-laden look at the clothes that make the characters in David Lynch’s masterpiece
From the Double R diner uniforms of Twin Peaks to the show-stealing python blazer of Wild at Heart and that blue velvet robe, it’s impossible to separate the characters who populate David Lynch’s strange universe from their clothing. Who would Agent Cooper even be without that black suit? (Answer: unrecognisable. Seriously, I have no idea who this man is).
In 2001’s Mulholland Drive, the characters’ looks – created by costume designer Amy Stofsky – contain both keys to their personalities and crucial hints to unravelling Lynch’s twisted story of love, death and despair in the Hollywood Hills. First up, there’s the cameo cast. The eccentric Coco, an aged Hollywood landlady in Chinese robes and pin curls; Billy Ray Cyrus as the mullet-haired, vest-wearing, wife-stealing pool boy; that totally weird cowboy; and hell, even Justin Theroux as the man with a megaphone and utterly uncompromisable creative vision – all of them and more seem to embody stereotypes straight outta the movies. I mean, what did you expect? This is, after all, a film about Hollywood and its capacity to suck you in, break your heart, destroy your dreams (wahey) and convince you to hire a hitman to take out your ex-girlfriend. So it’s no wonder they seem like an ensemble cast from something that might have gone straight to VHS, really.
But I digress. The film’s main plot, of course, revolves around two women. Well, four women. If like me, you subscribe to the ‘it was all a dream’ analysis (which I like to imagine was DL throwing a cheery middle finger up at a school teacher who told him that was a weak way to end a story) then you don’t just have the imaginary Betty and Rita – played by Naomi Watts and Laura Harring – but really Diane and Camilla too. So what happens when two actresses play two different people? It’s a shapeshifting identity-crisis headfuck of a narrative where clothes play a very important part. So let’s get into it.
Fresh off the plane from Canada, bright, blue-eyed blonde Betty is ready to start her big Hollywood adventure with the bounce in her hair almost as big as the one in her step. (“I’m in this dream place!” she declares with giddy excitement). In an inoffensive, bland vest, and a somewhat more offensive pink cardigan, she’s like a Sunday school teacher without the crucifix (and with some ill-advised diamantes to accessorise her knitwear. Remember 2001!?). It gets better – at home she wears girlish pyjamas and a fluffy pink dressing gown, while for her big audition, Betty dresses in her best outfit – modest skirt, high neckline, string of pearls. The look is important in this scene, and the film’s use of clothing more broadly – the performance she delivers is in such contrast to her outfit that it’s stunning on the first watch (and the next seven). Before our eyes, the naïve girl with a Nancy Drew-like knack for not keeping her nose out of things warps into a seductress. It’s a sign that identity isn’t stable, and that we can’t trust our expectations about characters.
When we meet the beautiful amnesiac Rita, who borrows her name from a poster featuring screen siren Rita Hayworth, she’s all dressed up with somewhere to go and an attitude to match. The camera graces us with her striking beauty – red lips, expensive jewellery, designer bag, and slinky black dress. One car crash, bemused walk through LA, and nap under Betty’s kitchen table later, and Rita is transformed. Stripping off her clothes (it’s symbolic, guys) and assuming her new identity, she’s docile, fragile, a victim. Her own possessions are foreign to her – the DKNY bag stuffed with cash and the mysterious blue key is a stranger’s. With her half moon manicure, dark waves and red pout, she’s more Hollywood heroine than ingenue; while she oozes sexuality, in her hands it’s clumsy and accidental – an unwanted inheritance. It’s no coincidence that the first outfit Betty has her in is a white shirt, that famed blank canvas. Or that her dramatic new look comes via a blonde wig that bears a remarkably close resemblance to Betty’s own hair.
As the narrative shifts sharply in the last chapter of the film, plunging us into the unfamiliar ‘real world’ of Diane and Camilla rather than Betty and Rita, it’s interesting to see what happens to characters’ clothing. Diane’s change of appearance is stunning: gone are the teenage accoutrements like the PJs and the fluffy pink robe – they’ve been swapped out for a dirty white dressing gown, silk camisole set, and the frenzied look of someone who hasn’t slept for three weeks. Her preppy look – representing the innocence of her younger, pre-Hollywood self – has been totally replaced by something grungy and hard around the edges. Betty was proper and almost prudish; the choppy haired Diane walks around topless in ripped denim shorts.
As for ‘Rita’, the woman we first meet in the back of the chauffeured car in Diane’s dream is just Camilla, glamorous as usual, and headed up to join a party with the director she’s left Diane for. With her amnesia comes her total loss of identity, and in her vulnerable new state she becomes pliable – she’s the perfect dream lover, totally reliant on Betty in ways Camilla never was on Diane. With the wig, Betty moulds Rita into an image of herself, demonstrating that she’s just a figment of her own mind, totally under her control.
In a set where draped velvet hung haphazardly from walls, pillars lay like abandoned props across the floor, and visions of a prowling cat and female shadow were projected, the women of Prada AW13 emerged onto the runway. As Tim Blanks noted at the time, they had something distinctly Rita about them. With hair wet like hers when she steps out of the shower and lips her same shade of vamp red, they carried with them the same sense of old Hollywood glamour come slightly undone. For the campaign, Steven Meisel shot a series of models as auditioning actresses getting ready for their close ups – repeating lines about jealousy, infidelity, and seduction. “A dance between reality and fiction, these women are not who you think they are…” declared Prada. Sound familiar?