Well, that didn’t go quite as we planned it.
After we wrote a piece on Shug Avery’s “Miss Celie’s Blues” dress from The Color Purple, we started thinking about film costumes worn by more than one character in a film and how they can illuminate both the differences and the similarities of the respective wearers. And when you start thinking about such things and trying to come up with other examples, it’s pretty much inevitable that the jacket in Desperately Seeking Susan will spring to mind first.
It may be one of the most famous articles of clothing in film history and it’s definitely iconic in the sense that almost everyone recognizes it as soon as they see it or can picture the rough details when you mention it.
But when we sat down to watch the film for the first time in decades, it dawned on us that as memorable as the jacket is, and as important as it is to the plot of the movie, it’s not really a film costume laden with a lot of hidden meaning or subtext to it. Which is fine; not every costume is or has to be heavily symbolic.
Which isn’t to suggest that the costume has no meaning in the film. It’s the tool by which bored New Jersey housewife Roberta Glass (Rosanna Arquette) escapes her pastel-heavy suburban existence, and it’s the McGuffin (along with the stolen Egyptian artifact earrings worn by Roberta and Susan) by which the entire plot is set into motion, but … that’s pretty much it, really. A memorable film costume that allows one character to change her life by emulating (badly) the life of another character.
What strikes us as a bit ironic is how Madonna’s costume wardrobe in the film was clearly inspired by her own style — the film’s costume designer Santo Loquasto has said that many of the pieces she wore in the film came from her own wardrobe — but the iconic jacket (designed by Loquasto) is probably the least “Madonna” thing she wore in the film. The mesh tops, ankle booties, lace gloves, bustiers and garters she wore throughout the film all became associated with Madonna and were fashion mainstays for a whole generation of Madonna wannabes in the 1980s. Cropped jackets with gold lame detailing? Not really a thing anyone associates with Madonna’s classic and highly influential ’80s style.
The jacket — which is coveted by the character of Roberta because she wants to be more like Madonna’s character of Susan — is the one piece of her wardrobe that didn’t wind up getting replicated in the real world. Like Princess Leia’s costume in Star Wars, it became so associated with one character in one film that as a costume piece, it’s sui generis. No one wanted to replicate this look, not in film and not in the real world. Not really.
The other ironic aspect of the jacket is that, while it really doesn’t lend itself to deep analysis, it is nonetheless heavily imbued with symbolism; specifically the Great Seal of the United States, complete with the Latin inscription “Novus Ordo Seclorum” (roughly: “New Order of the Ages”) and the number 1776 in Roman numerals.
Sure, you could talk about why there’s a pyramid and a reference to a new age, but there’s literally nothing in the film to suggest that these things have any deeper meaning to them, except in the sense that Roberta, by appropriating the jacket, experiences a new sense of herself and a rejuvenated approach to how she’s living her life. It’s perhaps a bit too on-the-nose to suggest that the jacket is the gateway to Roberta’s own “new age,” but nevertheless, there it is.
There’s also the idea that, because the Great Seal appears on the dollar bill, the jacket is saying something about Susan’s tendency to steal things or Roberta’s moneyed suburban lifestyle or even (if we really wanted to get all film school about it) the death of capitalism, but again, we find such connections to be a bit tenuous and easily overstated.
The thing about the eighties and its aesthetic (in fashion design, interior design and even in literature and films) is how much post-modernism affected it and how easily it rendered classic symbols and ideas meaningless by appropriating them. We tend to look at the symbolism of the design from that perspective, which underlines Susan’s character nicely. If you asked her what it meant, she’d have likely shrugged and asked why it mattered to you.
The pyramid clearly coordinates with the Nefertiti earrings, but aside from that connection, there’s no more meaning to be found in the design. Nor does the reference to Jimi Hendrix (Susan claims it was his jacket before trading it for a pair of boots) have much to say about it either. It’s just a bit of seasoning to make the garment all the more memorable.
When you look at how Roberta dresses when she has the jacket on, it’s notable that she really doesn’t come all that close to Susan’s style, even when she’s pairing it with pieces from Susan’s own suitcase. Loquasto made sure to give Roberta a look decidedly brighter, more colorful and sometimes even flashier than Susan’s too-cool-for-school DGAF style, which often relied on pairing basic menswear pieces with lingerie (a bustier with high-waisted black pants and pair of flat shoes, a men’s dress shirt paired with garters, a bra paired with boxer shorts), which underlined how much Susan simply stole items of her look from the men she meets.
Despite her attempt to have a more Susan-like life, Roberta winds up not with Susan’s boyfriend, but a friend of his (that Susan hasn’t even met); not with Susan’s job, but her friend’s job. She circles around Susan’s life, but only really on the edges of it, never truly coming close to pulling off an impersonation of her. Despite the memorable design of the jacket, she never manages to appropriate Susan’s actual style while wearing it.
And in viewing the film and paying attention to how the jacket is utilized in it, we felt like our suspicions about its relative lack of deeper meaning were confirmed by the fact that, despite all the work spent filming its details and all the mentions and descriptions of it in the script, the jacket is abandoned about three-quarters of the way into the film and has nothing to do with either the climax or the happy ending. As soon as Roberta gets her memory back and decides to ditch her marriage by sleeping with Dez, we never see the jacket again, even though there’s another 30 minutes of screen time.
In this case, the garment is less about symbolism and more about being as memorable as possible in order to explain literally everything that happens in the film. In other words, it has meaning as a costume, but all of that meaning is purely on the surface. It’s iconic because it’s so distinct and because it’s one of those film costumes that more or less functions as an extension of the script and storytelling. That, and it just looks cool onscreen, even now, almost four (!!!) decades later.
[Picture Credit: Orion Pictures via Tom and Lorenzo]
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