To dismiss the films of Wes Anderson as cutesy or kitsch based on their stylised nature is to miss their point completely. Bubbling just underneath the sunshine-coated surface are always themes of a very dark, twisted and wholly adult nature. Placing a high importance on the visual aesthetic of his films, more can be revealed about the characters that Anderson creates by their costumes and their surrounding world than perhaps by the dialogue or storyline itself. Here lies the warped layers of depth and feeling that may easily be missed by a casual viewer of the pretty colours.
The Royal Tenenbaums is the connoisseur of Anderson style filmmaking, with the characters clothing playing a vital part in who they are and how we see them. Each of the Tenenbaum children, now in the midst of their 30s, have already long ago reached the height of their success and have since fallen from their great potential. Adopted Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) - the child genius of the family - wrote and staged plays from a young age, Richie (Luke Wilson) was a young tennis prodigy destined for great things and brother Chas (Ben Stiller) was a financial star. After their early successes fell from beneath their feet, each of the children now live for their glory days, unsure what to do next. Their daily struggle with this can easily be seen from their clothing choices.
Margot’s costuming speaks volumes about her inner turmoil. She feels stuck between the trappings of womanhood, the innocence of a little girl and the scruffily glamorous style of a wildly bohemian artist. She clads herself in a vintage-look fur coat paired with 1960s-style loafers and an extraordinarily expensive designer Hermes Birkin bag. She clashes identities further with a childlike red plastic hair barrette and heavy eyeliner, the outer presentation of her dark, complex character. Her style is supposedly said to be inspired by 60s sensation of the darkly cool, Nico of Andy Warhol and The Velvet Underground fame. Alluding to this idea of Margot as a tortured soul, Nico’s song These Days plays when Margot meets her brother Richie for the first time in years.
The Lacoste tennis dresses Margot wears throughout the film are an ode to her brother Richie, once upon a time a would-be pro tennis star. Since her romantic love for him can never become anything physical under the restrictions of society, this is all that she can hold on to. The dresses also play on the jokey aesthetic of dressing a genius such as Margot in an outfit deliberately set to undermine her intelligence.
As with Margot, Richie Tenenbaum is also trapped in the costume of his life’s peak – that of his tennis career. He dresses as if he pictures himself still a serious professional tennis player, clad in preppy whites and complete with both head and arm bands. He uses his costume to hide behind, forever staying in the height of his one-time success and in this way not admitting that his prime time has moved on. His large sunglasses obscure his face and allow him to stay disconnected from the reality of life, as well as disconnected from those around him who may tell him so.
Towards the climax of the film, much is made of the act of Richie shaving off his moustache and beard; such is the gravitas of it as a depiction of his character. For Richie, shaving his beard is a ritualistic act and, as a result, emerges from the past to face his current place in life.
Chas Tenenbaum’s clothing is immediately reflective of and influenced by the tragedies of his life. Once a high-flying money maker, he has long since shed his business suits for tracksuits in the wake of his wife's death. Chas’ life now is all about running away from sadness, danger and above all from reality. His red Adidas tracksuits are perfectly matched to his children’s, in attempt to both protect them and revert himself to the unobtainable safety of adolescence. Throughout the film, we see Chas implementing emergency drills at his home, pushing his sons to run out of the house in time to be saved from the threat of tragedy. It is almost as if by dressing them all in identical clothing, they are now bound by fate to experience the same realities of life, whether they are good or bad.
The Royal Tenenbaums is ultimately a powerful statement on clothing's ability to truly be a visual reflection on who it is that we are and who we present ourselves as to the outside world. As a viewer, we find ourselves hoping that as the film draws to a close, the Tenebaums will finally be able to change their clothes, having figured out first how to change themselves.
Director: Wes Anderson
Costume Design: Karen Patch