Fewer motion pictures have warranted so much over analysis as The Big Lebowski (1998). The Coen Brothers, extraordinarily talented as they are, simply did not write all the hidden meanings that magazines, blogs, and now even books have subscribed to the piece. The Big Lebowski is a far-out fun detective homage, just not as deep as some people think.
So without disappearing on our own magic carpet ride, let’s have a look at the film’s costume design by Mary Zophres (Ghost World, 2001; A Serious Man, 2009) and tell you why it rocked so hard in an almost completely non-subtextual way.
The Coen bothers are technical writers. It may appear on the surface that their movies are made up as they go, or as some misguided journalist once intonated to Ethan Coen, written over a ‘case of beer’. This could not be further from the truth. They plan each detail of plot and character meticulously. Not insomuch that it has to make sense, the twisting narrative of Miller’s Crossing (1990) a possible exception, but that their story is consistent within its own reality.
Coen protagonists are often drawn with flamboyant surface characterisation. ‘The Dude’ for example (played by Jeff Bridges) is the sum of his parts, and not really much more than that. He starts out in the story as bone idle and ends as bone idle; it is his journey that is significant. Each player in The Big Lebowski, minor and major, is defined first by how they look. Deep character is revealed by their actions. Who they are on the surface is what they wear.
The film is focused directly on The Dude, who, in traditional Raymond Chandler style, is in practically every scene. His uniform is the towelling robe or dressing gown. It is the uniform of the loser; someone who does not even bother to don clothes for a trip to the supermarket. If loafers always wear tracksuits (an irony that never gets tiresome) then losers live in dressing gowns. How far this item of loungewear has fallen; from silk gentleman’s attire in late nineteenth century drawing rooms to grubby and worn as an overcoat by The Dude and his ilk.
Whenever our leftover hippie hero does decide to get dressed, his clothes reflect a seventies and also early nineties vibe (when the story is set). Washed out colours for his loose fitting and raglan tees, plain hoodie, long cotton shorts and elasticated waist ‘pregnancy pants’. Anyone who coveted a trendy ‘Global Hypercolor’ t-shirt that changed colour through the application of heat (i.e. perspiration) will see a resemblance in The Dude’s faded tees – a clever thing straddling two very different time periods with one costume, speaks volumes about how fashion is recycled every twenty years or so too.
The Dude’s closest companions, bowling buddies Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) and ‘Donny’ Kerabatsos (Steve Buscemi) are both costumed distinct from each other and The Dude.
Walter is generally seen in his safari vest and amber lens aviator sunglasses. A fiery, Vietnam obsessed but generally decent guy who runs his own security company, Walter is the polar opposite of The Dude leading them to bounce off each other constantly. They find common ground in bowling, however, and one can only imagine this pastime is how they met in the first place. Walter’s safari vest is a signifier that he is permanently ready. Though, saying that, all the pockets do seem to be empty.
Calm, softly spoken Donny is different again. His chosen attire is a bowling shirt. Nearly a fresh colour for every time we see him, which admittedly is not much. The Lebowski bowling scene is largely comprised of overweight males in shiny man-made fibres, yet Donny is slim and well presented. Walter rags on him constantly, though you can tell they are best of friends with history.
The bowling shirt is an interesting item. Popular from the 1950s onwards, it first made inroads into Europe after WW2, along with Chinos and khaki desert shirts as America’s response to rationing shortages. It is identifiable by a flat, Byron style tab-collar, comfortable fit (to enable ease of play) and block colour schemes, sometimes with player names sewn onto the chest. Clubs generally have their own name and logo printed on the back.
The Big Lebowski features a lot of walk-in, walk-out characters, often with little to say but plenty to do in moving the plot forward. Early on in the story we meet Brandt (Philip Seymour Hoffman), assistant to the ‘Big Lebowski ‘of the film’s title, Jeffery (David Huddleston). Brandt wears a conspicuously nineties fitting dark grey suit, white suit and patterned silk tie. For the most part his employer dresses similarly. They both represent ‘the establishment’ in their deliberately formal get-ups. Even though Jeffery is really just a fraud playing white collar; The Dude on the other hand has never lied about who or what he is.
Jeffery’s daughter Maude Lebowski (Julianne Moore) is a world away from her father, The Dude, and just about anyone else we come across. She is a feminist, an avant-garde artist painting Pollock-alike works in the nude while suspended from a harness.
She wears several different voluminous, Issey Myake style velvet and ribbed cotton, Nehru and shawl-neck robes over her bare body. Maude intends to feel as free as possible and so dresses as near to naked as she can get away with for polite society. Moore’s bizarre transatlantic accent is as clipped as her close bob hair. She is devious and undoubtedly smart, despite her pretentious leanings and over use of elaborate language.
‘Pederast’ bowler Jesus (John Turturro), as Walter refers to him (and that is ‘jee-zus’ not ‘hay-zeus’), and the German nihilists that attempt to extort money from both Lebowski’s, provide the film’s lightest relief. Though being as this is the Coen Brothers nothing is ever quite that simple.
Jesus is an explosion of characterisation. Turturro plays him as loud, twitchy, bolshie, while dressed in a royal purple belted jumpsuit, matching silk socks, shoes and jacket (the same ensemble is later repeated in cobalt blue), with knuckle-duster gemstone rings worn over his talon-like, witchery fingernails. Oh, and he is a child molester.
It is typical of the Coen genius that they manage to make such a horrific individual both funny and likeable. Jesus’ ‘civvie’ costume (as seen in a brief flashback) is as retro as The Dude’s, but pitched more towards a fitted seventies vogue. His purple jumpsuit must prove a quandary at conventions. It is heavily symbolic and impossible to ignore, yet who really wants to dress up as a paedophile? Well, in just a quick search of ‘Lebowski Jesus purple jumpsuit’ on Google and, as you find, plenty of people actually.
The Kraftwerk alike German nihilists are less controversial but no less amusing. They are epitomised in a quaintly serene moment ordering pancakes at a diner. Lead by Karl Hungus (Peter Stormare) they maintain the German cliché as a nation whose fashion sense spluttered to a halt some time in the early eighties.
Karl’s girlfriend (played by singer Aimee Mann) is right on the mark in her round glasses, pale denim jeans and cowboy boots. Her slight build and gloomy facial expression combine impeccably with the outfit. As anyone who has travelled to metropolitan Germany will recognise, she is exactly who you might see waiting for a tram outside der Supermarkt. The rest of the group favour hoods, tie dye, pseudo-punk styling and black leather – all as tight as possible. They are a motorcycle gang, but one gets the impression that black leather would be mandatory even if they all drove Volkswagens.
Other characters worth an honourable mention for costume are the ‘conscientious objectors’ hippie bowling troupe in their purple cut-off-sleeve shirts, Ben Gazzara as pornographer Jackie Treehorn sporting Malibu beach threads with more than a hint of Don Johnson in Miami Vice, Tara Reid as Bunny Lebowski, easily identifiable by her green toenail polish, something that is used as a plot device more than once during the story, and, of course, Sam Elliot as cowboy clad ‘The Stranger’.
The Big Lebowski is a plentiful experience that insists on several repeat viewings. Among a barrage of memorable scenes such as The Gypsy Kings’ Jesus introduction, Walter bashing up an innocent man’s new Corvette and The Dude standing on a cliff edge covered in Donny’s ashes, amongst all these classic scenes and more remains the movie’s standout whimsical moment, and a musical one at that.
The ‘Jackie Treehorn Presents’ Busby Berkeley promo is not the creative licence you might expect either. Hallucinatory scenes when the protagonist has been drugged do pop up in several film noirs of the forties/fifties. Maybe not quite like this though.
There is The Dude dressed up as Karl the cable guy in khaki jumpsuit and tool belt with gold and silver shoes, Maude as Boudicca complete with bowling balls breast plate, and the chorus girls, all wearing fantastic matching bowling pins headdresses, red tennis skirts and Mary Jane shoes.
Set to Kenny Rogers & The First Edition’s ‘Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)’, the number builds from a towering Tim Burton-ish nightmare to The Dude’s ascent into Heaven via a welcome mat no God would ever be kind enough to lay out, and finally to that comedown, when the nihilists drop by in skin-tight red bodysuits threatening to cut of his “chanson”. It is a short trip but one that has significance. Yep, you can almost hear the Coen brothers exhaling…
Evidently The Dude fantasises about being dominated sexually by Maude, yet he fears castration if he allows her to, hence the ‘snip, snip, snip’ as his dream gradually blends with reality. This is a classic heterosexual male fantasy, to be dominated but to fear this domination as emasculation. It tends to inspire aggression. However in The Dude, with his fondness for avoiding hostility wherever possible, it inspires horror.
Yet paradoxically for such a carefree character, certainly on the page, The Dude loses his temper, or perhaps more accurately his patience, an awful lot. It appears that every time The Dude is set up to be happy, e.g. listening to bowling sounds while having a nap, relaxing in his hot tub, offered easy money by Treehorn, the pay-off is either punched unconscious, bathing with an angry ferret, or slipped a Mickey Finn. As soon as the tide turns, it rolls away from him again.
The Dude is a born loser, though somehow he muddles through. Not because he is laid back, as this is clearly not always the case, but because he refuses to change himself. As epitomised by his costume, consistency is what makes The Dude who he is. “The Dude abides” is the film’s sincerest line.
Loosely based on a real life ex-hippie living in Los Angeles who actually does call himself ‘The Dude’, the Coens’ Dude is not typical of the LA populous. He is scruffy, overweight and not at all concerned with appearance. This is where the story’s comedy comes from; that he is the least likely detective ever embroiled in a mystery that he does not really care about or understand. To start with all he wants is his rug back, by the end all he wants is to pack it in and go home. Maybe even paint his French tips, as we see him doing in the bowling alley at one point.
With a little help from ‘Aunt Mary’, however, The Dude is adept at cheering himself up. The scene where he has recovered his stolen car, bashed up with the interior reeking of urine, he wears a bulky yarn Cowichan cardigan and sings merrily to himself. As The Stranger notes, “Somehow I rest easier, knowing The Dude is out there takin’ er easy for our sins”. Shame then he crashes his car thirty seconds later (accompanied by the girliest scream imaginable for a heavy guy, 6′ 1″ tall). But this is The Dude’s lot; set up like bowling pins only to be knocked back down again.
For the final scenes in The Big Lebowski, Jeff Bridges’ costume has smartened up slightly. He wears a pressed yellow and brown bowling shirt to scatter Donny’s remains; cannot manage trousers, but this is probably a climate issue more than anything else, and he is respectful enough to wear a black armband when bowling later. This is an oft-seen costume clue at the end of a movie, the protagonist neatly turned out in fresh clothes as if to signal an end in one phase of their life and the start of another; a kind of cleansing, confirming that the character has evolved since the start of the story.
In the case of The Dude, however, he has not changed at all. Just had a bath and visited the laundrette. “Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man”. And who would have him any other way?