Pictures for this film have been dribbling out all week and we kinda held our tongues for a bit, but when we caught Jessica Chastain’s pink ensemble, we decided to open our big fat mouths again. There’s something about the costume design here that bugs us a little.
The film is Mothers’ Instinct, an English-language remake of the 2018 French film Duelles, which was based on the novel Derrière la Haine. As Variety put it, “Chastain and Hathaway will play best friends and neighbors who both live an idyllic traditional lifestyle with manicured lawns, successful husbands and sons of the same age. The story, set in the 1960s, will see the perfect harmony suddenly shattered by a tragic accident as guilt, suspicion and paranoia combine to unravel their sisterly bond.” So the almost preternatural perfection of their costumes can be considered to make a certain amount of thematic sense. It’s not that we think these costumes are wrong or bad or ill-advised. So many middle-class American families have pictures of matriarchs in their Sunday best looking quite a bit like this, so we aren’t suggesting they’re inaccurate. They just happen to represent something that’s getting a little played out in popular culture. From the 1980s to about 2010 or so, the popular image of the 1960s was almost exclusively represented by the counterculture. Hippies, in other words. When Baby Boomers were in charge of creating popular culture, they valorized one aspect of the 1960s (the most self-flattering one) and treated the bouffants and crew cuts of the period as either quaintly charming or worthy of ridicule. When Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men captured the attention and fervor of a small fanbase of influential critics, journalists and Hollywood professionals, that focus shifted, largely by design. Weiner has said in countless interviews that he wanted the critically acclaimed series to focus on a particular class of highly influential people (white mostly upper class northeastern people in big business or the creative class) from that era, yanking the focus away from the bell-bottoms and brown acid crowd. In the decade-plus since, that shift of focus has since over-corrected, so that now, whenever someone makes a film or TV show about the 1960s, everyone is dressed impeccably, in gleaming cars with perfect hair. The dominant image of the 1960s in the popular imagination has gone from hippie chicks to perfect housewives. Collectively, all of these rather repetitive pearls-and-pencil skirts portrayals, tend to give a rather skewed perspective on the time and place. The point to a character like Betty Draper is that she was literally the image of the ideal woman of that time and the show spent seven seasons unpacking how limiting and damaging that image actually was to her. In other words, she was meant to look supernaturally perfect a good deal of the time by design, not because that’s how every woman looked back then. Even Mad Men understood that working class women, Black women, and younger women of the period didn’t necessarily subscribe to – or have the privilege of – Betty’s idea of perfection.
Our point here is not to say that Chastain and Hathaway look bad, or that these costumes are misguided, or that there’s no accuracy in the way they look. Accuracy in period costumes is highly overrated and probably the least interesting way to talk about them, in our opinion. We’re just saying that if we absolutely must keep revisiting the 1960s, maybe the “perfect white middle class housewife” character can take a bit of a rest for a while. We reserve the right to still be a little excited about Don’t Worry Darling, however.
[Photo Credit: Jose Perez/INSTARimages.com,]
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