We all have that pair of friends who, almost-siblings in forbidden love or not, decide to dress up as Margot and Richie Tenenbaum of Wes Anderson’s “The Royal Tenenbaums” for Halloween. She wears a pinstripe Lacoste tennis dress. He wears a shaggy-wig-headband combo that falls over shoulders in a Fila tee. Their costumes are a hit, though nobody at the party knows who they’re supposed to be. After they spill the beans, the party-goer nods and smiles like they’ve “maybe seen the end of that one on HBO,” and the one guy they’re mutual friends with who never stops talking about Wes Anderson grins at all the poor uninitiated souls. When the Richie-and-Margot-for-a-night pair get home, they post a picture of their fits on Etsy and get added to a government database somewhere of all the people to call if our alien invaders’ one weakness is the inability to see humans dressed as quirky characters from early-aughts indie movies.
These two outfits, along with Chas Tenenbaum’s iconic red Adidas jumpsuit, make “The Royal Tenenbaums” one of the most thematically costumed films in Anderson’s catalogue. Not only do the three individual outfits feed into the characterizations of the siblings who wear them, the presence of the outfits, and how they exist as tokens of the characters’ traumas, plays into the film’s atmosphere of a childhood disaster that will never end.
Going one by one, the outfits Richie, Margot and Chas wear are all tied to the grief each of them are trying to beat. Richie wears the remnants of his tennis ‘fit, but he hides it under a camel-hair coat and trousers. He even hides his face, covering it with a beard and long hair, searching for a way to free himself of the embarrassment of his past — both athletically with tennis and romantically with the adopted Margot. Chas’s red jumpsuit (and the identical jumpsuits he makes his two boys Ari and Uzi wear) signal a father on high alert. Terrified of the dangers he and his kids face at every moment after their plane crashes, killing his wife, Chas forces the whole family to pack light, to wear clothes that make them ready to run or fight at a moment’s notice.
Though Margot is never seen participating in any athletic activities, she too wears a sporty ‘fit, usually a Lacoste dress covered by a lush fur outercoat. Her outfit’s incongruous link to the passion she’s never hinted at can be explained by her lost, repressed, forbidden love for her stepbrother, resident tennis star, Richie. And whew, man, Wes could have done better on this last one. Not great, giving your one female lead an outfit that characterizes her as being all-encompassingly hung up on a guy while Richie and Chas’s costumes are so individually and vocationally driven. Too bad.
In a film about “getting over it,” everything links back to trauma. The house on Archer Ave. is as much a character as any of the Tenenbaums in the film, and the way it’s decorated (the house’s “costume”) plays a big part in illustrating how the incidences of the Tenenbaum’s childhood has forever come back to haunt them. The walls in the Tenenbaum house are covered with moments of success from the children’s childhood. Karate medals and trophies hang next to colorful watercolor paintings of family and friends. In Richie’s room, joyous little pictographs of his father and his family fill the space between a pulsing green and blue. Everything in the house is a reminder of what should have been, of how things should have turned out, of the successes of old that never translated into the future. These moments exist frozen in time in the Tenenbaum house, and as the movie progresses, we see it takes all three characters returning (“That night, Etheline found all of her children living together under the same roof for the first time in seventeen years”) to the scene of the crime before they’re able to exorcise those demons, to be able to finally beat what’s been holding them back for their entire adult lives.
What I love most about a meticulous director like Wes Anderson is that, with everything in his movies so hyper-specific — every lamp, rug, Sharpie mark on a polka-dotted rat seemingly chosen by him—there are these opportunities for totally tangential meaning-making (the whole reading into the costumes of the characters and the house above) that might not have anything to do with what Anderson was thinking when he made the choice. I find this misalignment to be incredibly exciting. To make an artistic decision off of pure instinct and to have it still wrap around into some theme or characterization you’re not aware you’ve been building along the way has to stand as a great testament to the artist’s gut. In the director’s commentary for “The Royal Tenenbaums,” while talking about why each of the characters dresses how they do, Anderson pauses when he gets to Chas. “The red jumpsuit, I’m not sure,” he says, “I guess I just thought it was funny.”