From start to finish, sight trumps sound, and Casey Storm’s costume beats Scarlett Johansson’s voice! In Spike Jonze’s film Her, it’s really the visual against the aural, and I like the seen more than the heard. Sometimes, the voice of a woman, no matter how alluring, cannot, over two hours, out-seduce the turnout of a man.
Her is set in LA of the not-far-off future, where the computer communicates by voice rather than by text or icon. Yes, it’s Siri as operating system and personal assistant! In comes Theodore Twombly, a letter writer (played by Joaquin Phoenix) for an e-commerce site. As expected, he falls for the seducer of an operating system Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) and goes on what Kraftwerk had called in 1981 a “data date”. Theodore appears to be an average guy with the usual taste in women, but his skill in written correspondence and taste in clothes are far from average.
If costume plays an important role in shaping a cinematic story—defining character and delineating culture, Her’s is no exception. The thoughtfully conceived wardrobe of the protagonist illustrates that in a future society too comfortable with personal tech that may cause unease, comfortable clothes, like those of today, can exist because of man’s humanity rather than a mainframe’s algorithms. In fact, the film’s costume has more impact on the viewer than the expected throaty (hence sexy?) and coquettish seduction of the OS. Garb can turn you on more than spiel.
I was attracted to the protagonist’s clothes for their kooky stylishness as well as the antithesis of a futuristic world they represent. There’s no stereotyping, too, for a man can wear loose shapes, choose bright colours, and adopt not-the-usual pairings as naturally as maneuvering the landscapes of projected fantasy RPGs.
Unfortunately, Theodore’s clothes are not, by many SG women’s still-unchanged standards, supremely conventional. As two of them pushed past me to leave the cinema, one was heard saying, “His clothes are weird,” followed by the other, “The pants are ugly” (or as Cath Clark, TimeOut London’s film editor, called them, “worrying high-waisted dad-slacks”).
Why are Theodore Twombly’s outfits peculiar and his pants offensive?
Let’s first look at the pants: high-waist and low-crotch—made, often, out of nubby fabrics. The daring cut, unbeknownst to a generation of skinny jeans wearers, is rather old-fashioned, and is, in fact, as pointed out by Casey Storm, based on riding pants of the 1800s. The version that appeared on screen is clearly roomy, but not baggy. The high waist is not so alien since it has been offered by Lanvin, Neil Barrett and Comme des Garcons and the low crotch, too, is not unfamiliar since it has been done by Vivienne Westwood, Damir Doma, and Rick Owens.
It is interesting that there are SG women who take issue with the high waist when so many have, for the past five years or more, been wearing slacks, shorts, and skirts above their belly button, sometimes all the way up to just below the bust line. But when men re-position the waist so that they bring attention to the torso, they’re considered unattractive. Has this challenged presently acceptable machismo and attendant sexiness, where male sexual magnetism is centred above the crotch? Have the pants of Theodore Twombly become an affront to the unceasing love for the svelte and hot silhouette of limb-hugging jeans, pants that are so clearly absent in the film? Or is this a case of when women do, men shouldn’t dare?
Then, there are the collarless shirts (and the one in plaid with the collar deliberately turned inward to show only the collar stand). Once popular in the Nineties (especially those by Armani), they are now considered the poor sibling of the tailored, collared shirt (with stays, no less!), so prominently vended by retailers such as Raoul and Benjamin Barker. What’s truly interesting is how the collarless shirts are styled in the film: they’re not only worn on their own but also as an outer over a polo or collared shirt! Is this too off-beat for women to submit to?
Perhaps for a film so manifestly about the years ahead, the clothes shouldn’t be identifiably retro. But so much of the visual aspects of the films are at odds with future tech: the all-in-one PCs are shaped like (or housed in) old-fashioned picture frames (anti-Apple?) and the GUIs shown on the screens are decidedly old-school (handwriting fonts!). Even Theodore Twombly’s home is warm and woodsy rather than a cold marriage of glass and metal, supposedly future’s preferred interior and exterior materials. In his bedroom, where a significant part of the plot unfolds, his bedside table is really a tall stool with a wooden seat, on top of which sits the table lamp.
In creating folkways and environments peculiar to the future, Spike Jonze, together with production designer K.K. Barrett, has conceived a world that, despite garrulous OIs dominating lives, is rooted in what’s comfortable and real—a comfort and reality not so different from what we pursue today. He may have lost in his computer love, but in the style stakes, Theodore Twombly won out.