Scorsese's Soho And A Beige Suit Gone Bad
A closer look at the wardrobe behind Martin Scorsese's 1985 film, 'After Hours.'
By David Kobe
Soft Focus is a monthly column about how clothes make a movie. For each installment, David explores how wardrobe contributes to a film’s impact, mis-en-scene, and culture at large.
The night’s just started, and Paul Hackett’s only $20 bill has flown out the window as an erratic cab driver screeches 50 blocks south to Howard Street in Soho. This is the first of many unlucky events that are inflicted on Paul. For the night, he’s a blank canvas, a paper mache sculpture both literally and figuratively, and his beige suit becomes thrashed, muddied, tattered, torn, drenched, soaked, and scuffed as a byproduct of the chaos of the night and the iconoclastic cast of downtown characters inflicting misfortune upon him.
Hours prior, After Hours opens with the protagonist Paul, played by Griffin Dunne, a simple office "word processor" (essentially, a clerical worker) training one of the new employees on a painfully dull computer process. The trainee rattles on about how he doesn’t intend to do this forever. He’s a wanna-be critic hoping to start a magazine. He sounds painfully naive, and Hackett’s attention fades. He’s bored, uninterested, and disenchanted.
Paul’s relaxed beige suit, crisp shirt, and red tie project normalcy. In the Criterion Collection bonus commentary, The Look of After Hours, the film’s costume designer, Rita Ryack, mentions that her intention was for the suit to make him blend into the drab and colorless surroundings of the office. He’s fading into the background, and a trip downtown after bonding over Henry Miller with the alluring Marcy, played by a beautiful Rosanna Arquette in a pristine white scoop neck top and matching pleated skirt, is a siren song calling him to misadventure and a remedy for his boredom.
But when Paul arrives at Marcy’s loft, he is greeted by her roommate/friend/artist Kiki who is working on a paper maché sculpture of a trembling screaming man. Kiki invites Paul to work on the piece while she rests. When he gets paper mache on his shirt, an ominous mark, he changes into a black pinstripe shirt Kiki offers him. This subtle change, from his white shirt and necktie to this black shirt, signals his transition from the waking world to the Soho dreamscape of a comically nightmarish New York. There, he is the artistic project of the night: a living-in-human installation, a rat trapped in a maze of cobblestone streets and cast iron architecture.
Ryack has worked on an impressively diverse range of films, such as How the Grinch Stole Christmas, for which she was nominated for an Academy Award, Apollo 13, Casino, Hairspray, and the legendary Bad music video for Michael Jackson. In her early career, Ryack worked primarily in theatre, and After Hours was her first film. Her involvement in the film speaks to the bare-bones nature of the production and its almost student-film-like quality.
After Hours is more natural compared to Ryack’s later work costume work. Many of the pieces, like Kiki’s lacy black bra, were found in shops like Trash and Vaudeville, still open in the East Village today, and the long-forgotten leather bondage shops that could be found on the west side near the river. Some characters, like the bartender played by John Heard or the raging punks at Club Berlin, simply wore pieces from their own closets.
In The Look of After Hours, Ryack likens costume design to writing – that there is a specific intuition that a writer may follow for a character. This is certainly the case for all the minor characters who make a major impression in After Hours. Julie, played Terry Garr, in her typical 60s style sheath dress, gives you a whole history of a waitress still stuck in the free-love era, and Marcy Franklin, played by Rosanna Arquette, in white, projects virginal sanctity despite her character’s haunting past, while Paul, in his uniform suit, serves as a conduit for us to experience the mayhem. Although he’s the main character, his wardrobe paradoxically reveals very little, and he is easy for us to project ourselves onto.
Paul’s suit contrasts him with every sculpturer, barkeep, and cocktail waitress below Houston, both stylistically and in demeanor. This contrast, even superiority at times, is played for comedy. As Paul's surreal and ill-fated series of events continue to play out throughout the night, so does his frenzy to return to his clean, almost sterile home uptown. Throughout the film, his wardrobe and its desecration embody his increasingly hysterical mental state and distance from his tidy yuppie lifestyle.
In the film’s final act, he is forced to hide after an angry mob mistakes Paul for a serial burglar. A sympathetic sculpture named June covers him in paper mache. As the material calcifies, he becomes frozen in a position eerily similar to Kiki’s sculpture from the beginning of the film. Paul has become the terrified sculpture – immobilized and trapped. Eventually, the real burglars show up and steal “the sculpture” that Paul is trapped in. He finally catches a break as the burglars are heading uptown, and he coincidentally rolls from the back of their rickety van, and the plaster shatters on the road right in front of his office. His suit is covered in paste and debris – the aftermath of his nightmare. He sits at his desk without a flicker of notice from his co-workers. He’s right where he started, and the audience can’t help but wonder if Paul should have never left his quiet enclave and saved himself the trouble and laundry bill.
Both Paul and the suit are intact, but they’re both ruined and spent. Ryack and Scorses’s commentary comes through as Paul exits the dreamy Soho nightmare and returns to the sober “real world.” He has stumbled through the worst night of his life, which included being the target of an angry mob, almost having his head shaved, and suicide. His suit bears the scares of a nightmare, but the details are humorously lost on those around him. He blends back into the office despite being covered in paper mache residue. He is just as hidden from those around him as he was when he was covered in paste, trapped inside the sculpture.