The Good Eye: Killer Outfits - Julia Cotton's Armani Suit
You would kill for this suit
In the weeks leading up to Halloween, I'll be discussing women's fashion in my favorite horror films. Women make exceptionally good subjects for horror, where they are reduced, as they so often are in life, to flesh, to internal organs, to objects in the great charnel house of the mise-en-scène. Getting dressed every day can be a nightmare, but every once in a while the perfect outfit feels like it could save your life.
The year is 1988. An oversized white suit walks into a white-carpeted room. It's a man's suit, but the notched lapels frame a woman's bare chest. The chest glistens red; the woman in the white suit has no skin. The white suit isn't really white anymore.
This is Julia Cotton of Hellbound: Hellraiser II, raised from the dead by an evil doctor after doing time in hell with some BDSM-loving demons called the Cenobites in the first movie, which was based on a novella by Clive Barker. This is the first outfit of her new undead life.
"Well?" she asks the doctor, striding past a modernist painting.
The doctor stammers. "You look – "
"... Strange? Surreal? Nightmarish?" she asks.
"No, no," he protests. "You look ..."
She picks up a glass of Chardonnay and takes a long swig.
The costume designer responsible for Julia Cotton's white suit is British artist Jane Wildgoose, who had designed costumes for Clive Barker's theatrical troupe, the Dog Com
pany, back in London. The first two Hellraiser movies are her only film credits. Nowadays Wildgoose lives in the hazy nexus between performance art and academia, putting together conferences on organ theft and curating something called the Wildgoose Memorial Library, the online portal to which describes it as "a private reference resource, which may be accessed by persons wishing to consult & make free associations on subjects pertaining to the mysteries of the living in relation to the dead, and on memory & immortality."
Wildgoose has always been praised for her Cenobite designs, which Barker told her to invest with a "repulsive glamour." She did. Seemingly inspired by Barker's fascination with Berlin fetish club wear, the Cenobites wear fantastical black leather and PVC sculpted to reveal elaborate, ritualistic wounds. But the Cenobites' popularity was the films' undoing. After the second Hellraiser film, the Cenobites, supposedly thrill-seeking humans who voluntarily gave up their souls through an addiction to pain and pleasure, just keep on multiplying. In Hellraiser III, to which Barker barely consented to attach his name, a former-club-DJ Cenobite named "CD" torments his victims by throwing CDs at them – either a testament to how cool CDs were in 1992, or to how uncool the Hellraiser franchise was. Either way, Cenobite fever means that in interviews with Wildgoose, nobody ever asks her about Julia's white suit.
That's fair; it's only onscreen for about 30 seconds. The poor doctor, frozen in panic by the most symbolically freighted question a woman without skin can ask, doesn't tell her how she looks. Instead, he watches, mesmerized, as she approaches him and removes the lit cigarette from his hand, leaving sticky welts of red on his fingers that he nervously wipes off. She takes a drag from his now-spoiled cigarette and blows the smoke in his face. Cut to the next scene, in which he wraps her in bandages, Invisible Man-style, and zips her into a pretty evening gown of pale blue silk.
The whole white-suit scene is, from a narrative standpoint, entirely unnecessary. Unless you think it's intended to be an Armani suit, and you know what that means.
In the late Seventies, Giorgio Armani turned the men's suit into a kind of skin. Gutting the jacket of its lining and excess padding, he reimagined it in a single layer of lightweight linen, with soft, easily rumpled trousers. Armani suits looked powerful because they pared away the defensive pomp of menswear, leaving a loose but perfectly tailored shell, a bulky silhouette that could flap open at any moment, a facade that was already bored with facades. Armani says you don't need armor.
After Richard Gere slithered into Armani in American Gigolo in 1980, Italian suits became the official status menswear of the decade, their wide shoulders and slightly dropped buttons looking at once casual and authoritarian. Miami Vice actor Don Johnson wore his pastel Armani suits over a T-shirt and accessorized them with a submachine gun. Jean-Michel Basquiat supposedly painted in Armani, then wore the paint-spattered suits to events he attended on Andy Warhol's arm. The Armani suit wasn't just a luxury, but a statement of a preference for the louche that was outside the mainstream, even slightly perverse.
Hellbound: Hellraiser II was released Christ- mas week of 1988, weeks after the first World AIDS Day had been announced, months after Basquiat died of a heroin overdose. Miami Vice was on its way out. In a few more years, Nineties-style minimalism would strip mens' suits of any trace of this devilish, hedonistic display.
Just before the suit scene, Julia Cotton smashes the mirror with her peeled red fist and says, "I'm cold." In life, Julia Cotton was beautiful, seductive, and perfectly coiffed; resurrected, she's pulpy, exposed, and perpetually bleeding. A raw nerve, uncertain whether she's happy to be back in a man's world that is, based on this apartment, overly air-conditioned, antiseptic, and exceedingly white.
Imagine the unfilmed sequence where Julia Cotton walks into the doctor's closet to pick out her skin. The doctor is a wealthy, powerful man with expensive tastes. She fingers his navy satin pajamas. She runs her bleeding hands over charcoal pin-stripes, brown tweeds, a tuxedo the color of midnight. Maybe she even sees the pale blue silk gown drooping off a padded hanger, waiting just for her. And instead, she selects the white Armani suit, essentially signaling her intention to use this man's wardrobe, his cigarette, the whole white landscape of his apartment, for her personal tampon.
She looks amazing.