Gender and the Sartorial Worlds of Jennifer Johnson & Mike Mills

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Annette Bening as Dorthea and Lucas Jade Zumann as Jamie, '20th Century Women'
Annette Bening as Dorothea and Lucas Jade Zumann as Jamie, ’20th Century Women’

“She smokes Salems because they’re healthier, wears Birkenstocks because she’s contemporary…and she never dates a man for very long,” explains 15-year-old protagonist Jamie in the beginning scenes of 20th Century Women. He’s trying to describe his mother, Dorothea, in a way that’s simple enough for both the audience and him to understand. “I remember him wearing a purple sweater when he told me this — but actually he wore a robe,” narrates Oliver, the wayward son and protagonist of the film Beginners, in recounting the moment his father told him he was gay.

A graphic designer and music video director, it’s no surprise that filmmaker Mike Mills is aware of the power of aesthetics—clothes, accessories, colors. We saw hints of this in Beginners—Mills’ 2010 romantic comedy about a young illustrator whose 75-year-old father comes out as gay, just five years after the death of his mother—which set a million hearts afire for Mélanie Laurent and quickly brought boot cut jeans and kimonos back in style. But in 20th Century Women, Mills’ tour de force feature about three women of different generations working together to raise a teenage boy in 1979, the clothes are not merely an accent. The clothes are a character—a sort of a Greek chorus, giving the audience not only a deeper look into the characters themselves but also a rare glance at the expansive worlds that created them.

And the worlds they come from are ones largely influenced by gender. Not so surprisingly, clothes do a better job of punctuating these themes than could any dialogue. Clothes, like gender, are an external expression of a self. Sometimes the clothes are at odds with what the characters do and say. Sometimes they’re almost completely intertwined. This is a part of the design process, says the costume designer for both films, Jennifer Johnson, to ensure “that set, environment, motivations of psychology, intention of character, a person as a whole has been considered. That the clothing represents authenticity and ownership, that it reflects the inner workings of a person.”

Not so surprisingly, clothes do a better job of punctuating these themes than could any dialogue.

If 20th Century Women is an anthem for a society of women at a crossroads, an expansive exploration of femininity at specific places and times, Beginners is an equally deep examination of the masculine. And Johnson is at the helm of both films, using clothes to simultaneously subvert and confirm the characters’ relationships to themselves, and the identities they choose to express.

Christopher Plummer and Ewan McGregor in 'Beginners'
Christopher Plummer and Ewan McGregor in ‘Beginners’

 

Consider the Collar

“She’s from the Depression,” is Jamie’s simple explanation for most of his mother’s secretive, brave-face behavior. But we already know a lot about Dorothea before we fully meet her, regardless of Jamie’s explanations. We know, for example, that she is thrifty (Depression-era thriftiness) from her sophisticated usage of secondhand clothing. We know from her inclination toward loose, collared, jean jumpsuits and wide-leg pants that she isn’t afraid of workwear—something that, according to Johnson, is a direct allusion to women’s inclusion in the workforce in WWII (where Dorothea got her start as a draftsperson). We can tell that Dorothea is for many—if not all—intents and purposes, a feminist, but she probably wouldn’t admit that. We know it from her actions. And we know it from her clothes.

Dorothea’s somewhat unstated relationship with gender and femininity is reflective of her expression of her own identity—it’s rare that she’ll discuss her feelings and regrets. “Wondering if you’re happy… it’s a great shortcut to just being depressed,” she says to her son in her signature dialect of severe wisdom and naivety. Her costuming’s androgynous shapes and feminine accents, allusions to early-century female tradition combined with contemporary, masculine frames, make her difficult to pin down from the start. And as we continue along the trajectory of 20th Century Women, we discover that’s exactly how she likes it.

“Dorothea is a feminist without realizing she is. It’s just a part of who she is,”

“Dorothea is a feminist without realizing she is. It’s just a part of who she is,” says Johnson. “It’s important that her clothing rejects the rules of what woman are supposed to wear. Dorothea’s costumes move, she can work in them. She is not wearing clothing for men.”

Annette Bening as Dorothea in '20th Century Women'
Annette Bening as Dorothea in ’20th Century Women’

There’s something slightly secretive about the way Dorothea dresses—she wears baggy, often shapeless shirts that mask her body, and accents masculine tailoring with feminine, floral designs so as to not commit too far to one side or reveal too much. Her stiff collars and workwear reflect a rather workman-like, head-down rejection of intimacy that we see in Dorothea’s own character, in her core beliefs about the way to live and interact with the world. But there’s also something defiant about it—Dorothea can live and breathe in her clothes. She is unattached and mobile. She nods to the past while marching, however hesitantly, forward into the 1980s.

Yet as elusive as Dorothea can be, there is something distinctly warm and real about her character and the way she presents herself. We believe her. Her clothes breathe with life. Perhaps this is because Johnson and Mills worked closely on modeling her style after her real-life inspiration. “Mikes mom’s spirit was always with us,” Johnson recounts, “Literally, Dorothea wears Mikes mother’s silver jewelry throughout the movie.”

If Dorothea is somewhat lost between two worlds, the old and the new, the same can easily be said about Beginners’ Hal, a newly-out, 75-year-old man, recent widow, and father to an adult child. Finally attempting to live an out, gay life in earnest, Hal goes to clubs and is adorably befuddled and delighted by house music. He attempts to enlighten his son about the rainbow flag’s gay pride symbolism, assuming his son has no idea (“Pop, pretty much everyone knows that that means gay pride,” his son Oliver responds to the lesson, just a bit insensitively). Both Hal and Oliver are torn about what it is to be a man and what it is to be intimate—seemingly fumbling their way through being both. Johnson costumes Oliver, a son whose previous notions of masculinity and love are under siege after his father comes out, in timeless masculine ensembles. Rather than adopting the trendy, boyish Los Angeles style of 2003, when the film’s story takes place, Oliver dresses in loose button-ups and high-fitting slacks, simple tennis shoes and sweaters. Like his understanding of himself, Oliver’s understanding of masculinity is just a little too easy, a little too understated and noncommittal to be true.

Goran Visnjic and Christopher Plummer, 'Beginners'
Goran Visnjic and Christopher Plummer, ‘Beginners’

But this collar-heavy costuming choice pays off in a scene that I frankly didn’t really notice the first time I saw the film, realizing its profundity a great deal later—a testament to the subtlety and immense power of the role clothes play in Beginners. Oliver walks in on his father and his new boyfriend dancing around the house, waltzing in celebration of the next step in their relationship (moving in together). When Hal sees his son enter, he reaches out his arms to dance. Awkwardly at first, the two men—both in their ironed slacks and collared button-ups—dance. Their arms don’t fall effortlessly on each other’s shoulders. The love the father and son have for each other is new, unfamiliar, and restrained. Their collars, their buttons, and their prohibitive notions of masculine intimacy make the connection challenging and the motions less than fluid—but still they are there, dancing. This is love. The scene is beautiful; the simplicity and potency of the starchy button-ups as they move stiffly in their dance send a small, almost imperceptible dagger to the heart.

 

Power and Detachment, Wigs and Punk Rock

“She saw The Man Who Fell to Earth and dyed her hair red.” This is one of the first things we learn about Abbie, the sophisticated punk and professional photographer boarding in Dorothea’s ramshackle Santa Barbara house, the second of the three women who attempt to raise Dorothea’s angsty teenage son. It’s a good way to encapsulate the way Abbie dresses and expresses herself: derivative but somehow totally autonomous. Abbie is perhaps the only 20th-century woman of the film to have an acute sense of self, a meditated reasoning for the way she dresses and why. In fact, if one were to ask Abbie why she wears the angular short shorts, the patterned pants, the tights and red heels and red hair, she’d probably have a very coherent answer (after all, she’s read all the second-wave feminist literature to intellectually verbalize the social context for her decisions, and she’s ready and willing to share).

“Abbie’s style is directly influenced by her time in New York. The music and style of Bowie, Blondie, Lou Reed, and Brian Eno. New York had a sexy kind of glam punk disco that was completely at odds with what was going on in California,” says Johnson of costuming the character. “Abbie is so much cooler than anyone in Santa Barbara. She’s an insider who now is an outsider. It was important for her not to fit into any particular scene once she returned to California.”

Greta Gerwig, '20th Century Women'
Greta Gerwig as Abbie in ’20th Century Women’

Abbie tells Jamie that in her time studying in New York, she realized the power of her sexuality. She realized how she could manipulate it and exert it. Abbie’s style is angular and androgynous, but still somehow sexy and glamorous. It’s a style of someone who wants to be seen. It seems the world of traditional femininity has failed Abbie—she has returned home to Santa Barbara because she is recovering from cervical cancer, leaving her at special risk if she chooses to get pregnant—and so she decides to subvert it. “Abbie uses clothing to assert her sexuality and subvert men’s expectations,” says Johnson, adding credence to the way Abbie is at once both masculine and very, very feminine. She finds power in her ability to experiment, artist that she is, creatively with identity and gender.

Anna, the troubled actress and Oliver’s love interest in Beginners, also realizes this power. When both the audience and Oliver meet Anna, she’s come down with a bad case of laryngitis on Halloween and decides, as a result, to go to a costume party as Charlie Chaplin. Cloaked in a tie, oversized pants, a suit jacket, and wavy short wig, only her face and blonde hair peek out of her man’s ensemble. Dressing Anna as a man is an apt directorial and costuming choice—laying the foundation for much of her and Oliver’s relationship.

Melanie Laurent as Anna in 'Beginners'
Melanie Laurent as Anna in ‘Beginners’

As the couple’s night progresses, Anna is the one to take on the traditional masculine roles. She pursues Oliver across the party. She takes his number and calls him immediately. She invites him to her hotel room. In fact, much of their beginning relationship takes place in her hotel, her waiting for her lover and meeting him all on her own terms. This is the way she feels comfortable. Although Anna quickly ditches the wig and suit jacket for her own cascading blonde tresses and an array of messy, feminine coats and frocks, she likes to maintain the power of the pursuer. Whether Anna knows exactly what to do with this power (she doesn’t) isn’t totally the point—the fact is that she has it, and she wields this subversion of gender roles deftly.

 

Rags and Riches

But where the costuming in Beginners hinted at thematic depth, the outfits in 20th Century Women are, indeed, an outright narrator. There are some things in the film that go unparalleled in both Mills’ and Johnson’s previous work, making it unique unto itself. Julie, the sloppy but sexually dynamic 17-year-old (and the object of Jamie’s unrequited, pining love) has no equal in the nuanced, and narrative quality of her costuming.

At first, Julie’s character and clothes are hard to define. She’s a very sexually active teenager, a veritable badass who smokes cigarettes like a pro, reads (and believes vehemently in) M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled, and knows how to fake a convincing orgasm. But she also wants to cuddle and sleep in Jamie’s bed every night, loves being fed and cared for by his mother (even if she doesn’t show it), and dresses like a demented American Girl doll. Mid-length skirts and t-shirts accompany boyish corduroy pants and plaid; a pseudo-sophisticated view of the world and sexuality accompanies grubby hair and a bubble-gum-chewing youthfulness that is as incongruent as it is unsettling.

Elle Fanning as Anna in '20th Century Women'
Elle Fanning as Anna in ’20th Century Women’

“Julie has psychologically outgrown her style,” says Johnson, and I tend to think she’s also outgrown her era. Julie is coming of age at a pivotal, irreversible time in American history. She is turning 18 at the same time of Jimmy Carter’s Malaise Speech, the advent of at-home pregnancy tests, and the heated proliferation of punk music. She is coming of age in Santa Barbara, a beach town that is at once filled with luxury and beauty both natural and artificial, yet heavy with salty air, disappointment, and ruin. Julie is a reflection of her environment, a woman on the brink of a sexuality she thinks she understands but, ultimately, doesn’t yet.

“Julie is dressed in the innocence of bookish Brooks Brothers. She works at Crabtree & Evelyn selling smelly, fluffy soaps and is at the end of girlhood,” says Johnson. “Her wardrobe represents that last phase of childhood where it’s sort of a death of innocence. Her sweet blouses and corduroy skirts wilt under the heady strain of her sexuality. Her pink button up shirts are dirty, her blonde California hair a mess.”

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What is it to be men and women in the 20th century? Pulling heavily from the director’s own life (Beginners explores the real history of the directors’ father while 20th Century Women is a fairly autobiographical film about his mother), Mills and Johnson have worked together to create films that show us this predicament as much as tell us. If one were to watch both films, especially 20th Century Women, on mute, the narrative would still be clear. The clothes tell the story of people unsure of how to express themselves—at a transitory junction between the old and the new, the masculine and the feminine. Some subvert it, some shrink under it, but all have a unique relationship to the things they wear on their backs and the stories they tell. To be men and women in the 20th century is to be just a little unsure, shifting uncomfortably within the confines of cloth, attempting desperately to connect with someone beneath the surface, under the skin.

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