Betsy Heimann was the costume designer for both Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, and I interviewed her about her work behind the cult look of Pulp Fiction.
Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction was the film of the 90s that came to represent the post modernism of that decade. Every dose of blood spattering violence was served up with humour and every scene runs to a hip, kitsch soundtrack that, with obscure songs like Son of a Preacher Man and Miserlou, became a favourite for BBC montages and TV ads.
The cool black suit and skinny tie was the essential guise for every hit man, and Uma Thurman sparked mass purchasing Chanel’s Rouge Noir varnish and fitted white shirts.
With the influence of blaxploitation, Kung Fu movies and Elmore Leonard novels, it was a self consciously cool tribute to the pop culture favourites of geeky former video clerk. Travolta and Samuel L Jackson’s casual conversation about cheeseburgers on the way to a kill was immediately imitated by countless scriptwriters, while his dance with Uma Thurman at a 1950s diner knowingly referenced the disco of his past career.
Uma Thurman said: “That dance scene was so camp, I couldn’t pass it up. To dance with Travolta was like being able to do a Western with John Wayne you’d happily play some bar room slut just for the opportunity.”
Betsy Heimann said that the trends that came about from her costume design were more influenced by the coolness of the characters and their situation.
“When you write interesting characters, the audience relates to them, so it’s more about wanting to be the bad guy than wearing dark suits. I’m not thinking about setting trends, all about character, giving the actor a tool that he or she needs to portray their character, and I’m not thinking about anything else.”
The turnaround for Pulp Fiction’s costumes had to be lightning fast. “I had no time to draw pretty little sketches,” said Betsy.
Quentin Tarantino’s fresh approach allowed her free reign on the costumes which sprung from her imagination. “My research for Pulp Fiction was Reservoir Dogs, and my research for Reservoir Dogs was, I had $10,000. It was basically me with my tape measure at the thrift store.”
“Lawrence Bender first introduced me to Tarantino for Reservoir Dogs, and Pulp Fiction was continuous from there. I read the screenplay for Reservoir Dogs and knew that it was going to be something special. It was Lawrence’s first film, he was a dear friend of mine, and I wanted to be a part of it, He was calling on favours of the people he knew.”
The black suits and white shirts came out of a conversation Betsy had with Tarantino. He wanted to pay homage to film noir where the characters always wore suits, and she also looked at the practicality of the character’s situation.
“People who had just come out of jail would be able to accomplish the look out of a thrift store, while it also gives them anonymity as they all look the same,” she said.
Jules and Vince
Jules and Vince were a continuation of the characters in Reservoir Dogs, and Vince is brother to Vic Vega, played by Michael Madsen, so they were dressed in gangster black suits, white shirts and skinny ties. But even though Jules and Vince are dressed the same, they are still set apart. Vincent Vega wears his hair greasy, while Jules is topped with a blaxploitation afro.
“Vince is a mess, he’s scruffy. So I put him in linen which crumples and wrinkles, and a spread collar shirt. Jules is the preacher, so I gave him a crisp outfit, with a button downed shirt, like a preacher collar.”
Tarantino considered these black and white suits to be a form of armour for his characters. He said:
“When Jean-Pierre Melville was making his crime films, he talked about how it was very important that his characters have a ‘suit of armour’. (Melville had) the snap-brim fedora and Bogart-like trench coat, Sergio Leone had the duster, Clint Eastwood the poncho. I’ve always said that the mark of any good action film is that when you get through seeing it, you want to dress like the character. That’s totally the case, for instance, with Chow Yun Fat’s wardrobe in A Better Tomorrow. The black suits in Pulp Fiction, that’s my suit of armour”.
Vince and Jules suits get dirtier and scruffier until ‘The Bonnie Situation’, where they must shed their blood spattered suits and put on geeky shorts and t-shirts, giving to them by their friend Jimmy. Their coolness has been eroded as we see their real bodies underneath, and the myth is lost. As Jimmy says, “They look like a couple of dorks”.
In the final sequence after the restaurant hold-up, they swagger out of the restaurant, trying to look impressive and even tuck their guns into their shorts, yet they can’t hide the geek factor of their brightly coloured T-shirts.
Betsy Heimann was more pragmatic about the reasoning behind their change into shorts and t-shirts. She said: “They are criminals – what they got in a suit of armour is protection against being recognised. The guys are in shirts and shorts, because that’s what their friend had in his house. It’s very pragmatic – this guy stays at home, he doesn’t have a job, he sits by the pool in his shorts, and has swimwear in his drawer, so it’s based on reality.”
In the second story thread, gangster moll Mia spends an evening with hitman Vincent Vega at a retro 50s diner, Jack Rabbit Slims. The evening ends in disaster when Mia mistakes heroin for cocaine and ends up with a needle of adrenalin sticking out of her chest.
Uma Thurman’s influential wardrobe was designed to allow Mia to blend in with her violent circle of gangsters. “Mia is a female Reservoir Dog” said Betsy. “Quentin wanted her hair like that, and I pulled the rest together.”
Mia has the immaculate elegance of a kept woman – hair in a sleek black bob, pouting red lips and vampish nails. Her glossy black bob is the haircut of the femme fatale; inspired by Louise Brooks in Pandora’s Box, Anna Karina in Godard’s A Woman is a Woman and Melanie Griffith in Something Wild.
She wears her own feminine version of the gangster suit in a white shirt with large cuffs, black Capri pants, a black velvet jacket and gold ballet slippers. Like Vince and Jules, when her uniform becomes bloodied, she puts on a plain t-shirt, borrowed from Vince.
“Every designer in the world has claimed credit for her white blouse, because they knocked it off,” said Betsy of the white shirt, which was actually created from scratch.
The velvet jacket was from Agnes B, and the cropped trousers were a result of Uma’s six foot frame. “I didn’t have the money to fit trousers to Uma, so I just cut away leg from store bought trousers, and after that it started off a look for pedal pushers, and the gold Chanel slippers was also something that caught on. You get more creative when there’s less money.”
On the film’s release it was reported that nail polish sales increased by 300% and women scrambled to get hold of the shade used on Uma; Chanel’s Rouge Noir, or Vamp as it is known in the States.
The colour was first created when red polish was accidentally mixed with black in a laboratory, creating the seductive black cherry shade. It was used in a Chanel fashion show in March 1994 as a one off, but its release was extended on the back of the Pulp Fiction hype.
Tarantino saw Bruce Willis’s character, Butch, as similar to the tough actors from the forties and fifties. Thinking of Harrison Ford in Hanover Street and Nick Nolte, she suggested an older vintage leather jacket. “He said, ok great, so I ordered one made from pigskin, from a company that made old WW2 jackets.”
Fabienne’s look was emulating someone close to Quentin who he remembered from his past. He told Betsy about the look he wanted, and she was dressed in flowered dresses, denim jackets and boots.
“Eric Stoltz is my favourite look”, said Betsy. “I really treat characters in the screen play as real people, asking ‘who are you?,’ ‘What do you do for a living?’, ‘What might you wear here?’
“He never leaves his house and doesn’t have to get out of bed because he deals drugs from home, so he’s always in his bathrobe. This guy is stoned, with early dreadlocks and a speedracer t-shirt.”
“Creating the bathrobe was labour intensive, dying it, putting it through the washing machine, because I wanted it to be old and ratty, and that mossy green colour. Speedracer t-shirt on. Eric’s an amazing actor, and he really inspired me, while the costume helped him with his character.”