Todd Haynes’ most subversive style moments

The seminal New Queer Cinema director is premiering May December at Cannes. Here’s a tailored look back at the finest costumes in his filmography.

Of all the directors premiering this week at the 76th Cannes Film Festival, Todd Haynes is perhaps the most curiously complex.

Since the early 1990s, the gay filmmaker’s formula has included a heady spell of eroticism, oddly subversive narrative structures and fearless political themes, evocatively exploring the Aids epidemic during its height, as well as explicit depictions of sexuality and gay sex. Along with Gregg Araki, Derek Jarman and Laurie Lynd, Haynes was one of the seminal directors of the New Queer Cinema movement of the 90s.

His first film to be properly noticed, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987), set the template for a gloriously unconventional, hugely celebrated directorial career. A singular re-telling of the singer’s tragic life, it depicts her struggles with anorexia and death by cardiac arrest in 83 – with all characters played by Barbie dolls. An early Haynes classic, its irony in no way negates the tragedy of the narrative, told through the (doll’s) eyes of Carpenter’s mum.

Nearly four decades later, Haynes is about to release May December, starring Natalie Portman and four-time collaborator Julianne Moore. The latter plays Gracie, a woman once embroiled in a national tabloid frenzy over her relationship with a man 23 years her junior, Joe (Charles Melton). Portman plays actor Elizabeth, who moves to Georgia, where Gracie and Joe live, to dig up the past and get camera-ready for an upcoming film about the couple’s past. All sounds a bit meta, dunnit?

Many of Haynes’ biggest hits fixate on extraordinary characters, such as David Bowie, Bob Dylan and the Velvet Underground. And, so, transgressive style has lent itself to the director’s rip-roaring story-telling. Below, we take a look back at Todd Haynes’ films, as told through costume.

Poison (1991)

Haynes’ Poison arrived at the height of the Aids crisis and became a mainstay in decade’s culture wars. Opening with a title card that reads The whole world is dying of panicky fright”, the film is split into three interweaving stories. First comes Hero, the tale of seven-year-old Richie, who shoots his violently abusive dad and then flies out of the window. In middle section, Horror, a scientist accidentally drinks his elixir of human sexuality” and turns into a murderous leper. Lastly, Homo sees a man fall in love with a fellow prisoner from his past. Throughout the raw depictions of gay sex, the impolite explorations of identity and the urgent message of Aids awareness, the film is undercut with religious influences such as Tony Pemberton’s Jesus-like crown of thorns, netted veil and roses-as-accessories. There’s no better way to inflame conservatives than messing around with Him, right?

Safe (1995)

The first of Haynes’ films to feature Julianne Moore, Safe may hit a little too close to home, what with its themes of isolation and monotony, and the presence of a mysterious illness. Hmm. In this mesmerising feature – which is often referred to as one of the greatest horrors of the 90s – Moore plays Caroline White, an unremarkable housewife in the San Fernando Valley who one day finds herself struggling to breathe. The film’s costume designer, Nancy Steiner, who had styled Kurt Cobain, Björk and, later, Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation, dressed Moore’s character as a typical Valley housewife in cutesy pastels and patterns. But, as her illness advances, White slowly switches to soft clothing exclusively in eerie, bleached-out tones. By the end of the film, she almost resembles a ghost – pure, obsessive, clinical – as she struggles to grasp control of anything besides the clothes she throws on her back.

Velvet Goldmine (1997)

Velvet Goldmine hits every note of the early-’70s glam rock era it’s based on. It’s hedonistic and gender-bending, a whirlwind of flamboyant, unadulterated debauchery. Based on a fictional, bisexual, Bowie-esque pop star Brian Slade (Ewen MacGregor), who fakes his own death when journalist Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale) attempts to find the reason for his sudden withdrawal from fame, the film depicts rebellious youth culture at the turn of that decade through parties, music journalism and rock shows, as well as the public’s homophobic attitudes. The costumes of feather boas, men in eyeliner and platform boots in a technicolour palette only underscore the freedom and possibilities of the film’s characters and storyline. There’s little wonder costume design legend Sandy Powell won a BAFTA for her work on the film. And while the film is set in the 70s, the costumes’ rock star androgyny was brought back to the fore by 90s artists such as Placebo’s Brian Molko, Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker and Suede’s Brett Anderson. Unsurprisingly, some scenes wouldn’t look out of place in a Britpop music video.

The Velvet Underground (2021)

At Cannes 2021, Haynes premiered The Velvet Underground, a documentary chronicling the rock band some 50 years after their inception in New York. While not technically a feature film and technically doesn’t feature costume design, you can’t deny the grubby style allure of one of the greatest bands ever. Seeing Lou Reed in a cropped leather biker jacket, straight-leg trousers and square black sunglasses in the 60s feels oddly, brilliantly contemporary (see: Celine), while the monochrome turtlenecks and casual suiting of Doug Yule, Sterling Morrison and co. are undeniably chic. And then, of course, there’s Nico, the troubled It Girl and Andy Warhol muse, with her miniskirts, dark eyeliner and uber-cool blunt fringe brushing her eyelashes. Their transgressive look provided a delectable antidote to the flower-power styles of 60s youth – and all with a great big heap of attitude that still inspires runways, Gen Z and cool kids to this day.

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