Thursday, November 28, 2013

A Critical Analysis of the Costumes in 'Road House.'

There are many well-crafted takedowns of this movie already online, so I've chosen a different tack. Now, I could handle this one of two ways. As a professional costume designer, I could say, "Let's take a break from eviscerating movies with the vigor of a petty thief knocking over a Duane Reade, and actually talk seriously about the interesting meaning behind filmic costuming." Or, I could say, "Let's just keep going and talk about how fucking ridiculous [awesome] the costumes are in 'Road House.'" I mean, I teach costume design for a living and I'm all serious and shit about it. So why should I be serious here? Unless by 'serious' I mean 'deadly serious, as discussing bad 80s costumes should be elevated to an art form and I should consider writing a dissertation about it.'

First, a refresher. 'Road House.' 1989, a very good year for real films, like 'Dead Poets Society,' 'Born on the 4th of July' and 'My Left Foot.' But an even better year for shitshows like 'Teen Witch' (PLEASE NETFLIX GODS HEAR MY PRAYER) and 'Road House.' Patrick Swayze (RIP) plays a cooler (which, in this world, is a glorified bouncer) named Dalton who gets mixed up in shenanigans. Mullets, offensive misogynistic/homoerotic dialogue, you get it; OK, now you're G2G.

We know it's gonna be good when the opening shot involves a pair of black 80s stilettos stepping out of a red Ferrari.

Luckily for us, the camera then tilts up to reveal the wearer of the heels in a spandex black and yellow minidress, wearing a yellow flower in her hair. THE STAGE IS SET!

She's headed to a bar, which we know is classy because it's populated by guys in wide-shouldered heather gray blazers with white t-shirts and gray-on-gray houndstooth collared shirts with the sleeves rolled up over the elbows (shades of 'Sleeping with the Enemy'!), and women wearing pearls and sweetheart-neckline or strapless dresses with wide stretch belts. A dude in one of the sharper heather gray blazers has jazzed it up with a black pocket square (YES) and a bolo tie:

I'm smelling Structure here, people. Bolo tie = boss, this is costuming code we all recognize.

Dalton, when not on the clock, dresses in somber drop-shouldered suede blazers with the requisite padding, blousy linen pleated pants and linen long-sleeved shirts:

There is meaning behind this: he is fucking ZEN, and simple natural fibers and colors make us think of the ZEN-NESS of a karate uniform (called a gi), which is a magnificent line of thought that I just came up with. Karate in the movies is so 80s (a natural extension of the American obsession with Japan during that time, Jesus Crust I SHOULD write a dissertation on this), and Dalton will not disappoint. Check it out, you guys. Check it out:

See what I mean? I'm RIGHT!? Dalton wears this shirt at the end, when he almost kills the bad guy with his signature throat-ripping-out move. The shirt tells us he's going to be Zen and let the bad guy live, so that Cooter, Unky Jeb, and all the rest of the town old-timers have the satisfaction of shooting the shit out of him instead.

The clientele at the next bar we spend most of the time in - the Double Deuce - reflects the plot at any given time. At first, when it's a shithole, everyone looks like a trucker or a hooker, except for Jeff Healey, the blind guitarist leading the bar band - that guy, rather like Paul Walker in 'Timeline', is obviously wearing whatever he happened to put on that day before showing up on-set.

Hang on, you guys. Sidebar. May I direct your attention back up to a previous image, where Dalton is being chatted up by that elegant young lady? We have in these 2 images here some excellent examples of hooker costuming. Now, you may argue that those women are not actual hookers, and I am judging them on the fact that they have been costumed wearing a)a white Slut Dress (TM, b)off-the-shoulder animal print spandex, and c)an aerobics outfit outside of the gym. However, as Dave Chappelle wisely said, "All right, lady, fine. FINE. You are not a whore. But you are wearing a whore's uniform, I'll tell you that shit right now!"

Back to my original point, which is that the costuming reflects the story (*cough, erp, ahem, gack*). When Dalton gets the Double Deuce cleaned up, we go from truckers and hookers to 'Less Than Zero.'

Bandanas become hats, wifebeaters become polo shirts, et. al. Even Jeff Healey cleans up his mullet and starts imitating Dalton's costumes - white t-shirt with a droopy open collared shirt over it. We also see abundant evidence of a staple of late 80s costuming, the vest. See the singer up there? That's Carrie the Kindly Waitress, wearing a droopy long vest which is the progenitor of the ugliest vest in the history of costume design:

Demi Moore actually wore 2 ridiculous vests in the early nineties: one in 'Ghost,' and one in 'Indecent Proposal.' The Kindly Waitress's vest, which finds its origins back in the New Wave style coming out of the punk club scene (shit...I'm still veering dangerously close to being serious here), was much better when Molly Ringwald rocked it, thank you very much.

FYI, we haven't completely given up on the trucker costuming, even though things have a lot more class an hour or so into the movie. The thugs who are constantly harassing Dalton are best described by this gentleman, charmingly named Tinker. Tinker has the dubious honor of delivering the final line in this movie, which is, appropriately, "A polar bear fell on me."

Caterpillar hat, sweaty shirt, jeans cuffed at the ankle and wide red suspenders. Not enough guys wear suspenders unironically nowadays, but the rest of Tinker's outfit sure as shit has stood the test of time!

All right, then, let's get to the classy part of things. There are two characters who are all-class in 'Road House.' The first is Brad Wesley, the evil overlord who likes to pretend he's a Colombian drug dealer by having breakfast while all his henchmen (including Tinker) stand around and watch him. Terrifying Brad dresses like a gentleman farmer who looks like he would own slaves if he could, meaning sometimes he's wearing outdoorsy khaki costumes with an Orvis flair, sometimes he's rockin' a cream-and-neutral Colonel Saunders vibe, complete with ascot, pocket square (again, YES) and hat.

Shit, that costume comes with a helicopter!

Here's how we LIKE to think of Ben Gazzara, the actor playing Brad, though. Here he's dressed for his garden party - you know, the garden party he's going to have to eject the Dude from. Guy really knows how to wear a white suit.

The other character who embodies class is the Doc, the foxy ER doctor that Dalton bones. Now, Kelly Lynch usually classes the shit out of her roles. A glorious example is this, one of the many exquisite costumes she wore in 'Cocktail':

Made of win. But in this movie - well, at least, until she takes it all off and barebacks Dalton on his roof while Brad watches from his front porch - she dresses quite classily. Her white doctor's coat paired with glasses does a nice job of telling us she's a Smart Doctor; her denim shirt tucked into acid-washed jeans tucked into cowboy boots (gurk) tells us she's a Tough Cookie; and her flirty yet demure floral rayon dresses tell us she's Unaware of her Sexuality; but they have nothing on the girl-next-door dress she wears when she and Dalton hang out at the diner.

Wearing a tablecloth - which, incidentally, I also did at my own wedding, but it was old-timey lace, not picnic-table red and white - is definitely classy, as is the late 80s/early 90s hairspray wave she's got going with her bangs and her temples. Okay, maybe 'classy' isn't the right word. Stupid? Is that the right word?

There are a few other characters who help round out the visual cornucopia of this movie's costume design. First up is Sam Elliott, Dalton's drifter cooler buddy. In my mind Sam Elliot is usually known as 'The Stache,' for obvious reasons, but he should maybe also be known as 'The Hair.' That guy's hair is...there are no words. Gorgeous. I'm not kidding. Most humans on this planet should be so lucky to have his hair.

The Hair dresses like a bad boy version of Dalton, which makes sense, as he shows up basically to kick ass, mac on the Doc in front of Dalton honey-badger style, and take a knife in the chest. So, black or gray shirts, black jeans, black leather jacket, boots and a leather cuff. And, in one startling shot, no underwear. Actually, that's all pretty hot. I'm not gonna make fun of The Hair. He's the only one with any style.

Cooter, whose screen name I can't remember and can't be bothered to look up because regardless his name should be Cooter, is possibly the worst costuming cliche in the whole movie. Cooter is the wise geeze who rents Dalton his room at his scrappy farm.

Therefore, it makes sense that Cooter would look like Uncle Jesse.

No, not that Uncle Jesse - THIS Uncle Jesse!

Of course an older man from the country would ALWAYS wear a red union suit under a work shirt and coveralls, because it's fucking 1875, right? Give me a break. Shit, Cooter's red union suit gets big screen time when Jimmy the Analrapist sets his farm on fire and Dalton has to save him.

Jimmy is the last character worthy of mention, mainly for his infamous dialogue - "I used to fuck guys like you in prison!" - and not for his costumes.

But luckily for him the costume he wears when he delivers that line of dialogue is fairly idiotic, so he makes the cut.

Remember, denim-on-denim crime should never go unpunished, especially when some of the denim involves a shirt with the sleeves torn off. Also: gold slave bracelet (!), sterling silver single cross earring (!), and a beaded bear claw necklace. Jimmy deserved to get his throat ripped out by Dalton, frankly. 

I have such nostalgia for the look of the late 80s when I think about it. There's something comforting about the combinations of ill-fitting pants and really loose shirts that is my jam. Christ, I still dress like that!

Looks like somebody else enjoys the late 80s too!


  1. Blowing my mind. This was so much fun to read. Please more please!

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