I am very picky when it comes to tv series. This is probably due to the fact that I don’t have much free time, so I carefully select what seems interesting; if it IS interesting, I keep watching it, otherwise I quit. This happened with 2 Broke Girls and Bunheads: I watched the first seasons, but I realized they weren’t THAT interesting, so I decided to focus on something else. At the moment I’m watching The Carrie Diaries and Pretty Little Liars only, and I’m waiting for a favourite of mine (Smash) to come back with a second season. Despite my picky attitude, a series I’m still loyal to is American Horror Story, created by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk. I loved the Murder House season (aired in 2011) and appreciated Asylum, whose finale was aired just a few weeks ago. Apparently the two seasons have not much in common , but an attentive viewer can realize both of them cast a mysterious and disquieting shadow on what being human means.
When it comes to costumes, Asylum didn’t give us much to talk about: most of the characters wore nun uniforms or plain patient gowns, which had the function of erasing differences between them. Life in this asylum was surely characterized by terrifying moments, but what remains beyond the antics and the madness is a deep sense of sadness, coming from the idea that these people were doomed to stay there, to spend their days there, reduced to mere bodies and guilt. Some characters (Kit Walker, Grace Bertrand, Lana Winters) emerged, but the feeling we get is that all those silent presences in the asylum were taken away from the world and put there, deprived of freedom, mental sanity (many of them were not mad at all, see the amazing story of Anne Frank) and personality.
As I said, Lana Winters (played by Sarah Paulson), the brilliant and ambitious journalist who first goes to the Briarcliff Mental Institution to learn more about the serial killer Bloody Face (Kit is accused of being him), is the character who suffers more from the process of de-personalization. At the beginning she’s in charge of herself and of her own life, but she’s quickly reduced into a body with no rights (she’s committed to the asylum because she’s a lesbian). In most of the episodes she appears on screen wearing a patient gown, a cardigan sometimes, or a night gown, but in some rare episodes her clothes tell a lot about her.
Her first appearance is unforgettable: she’s wearing a green tweed skirt suit with a turtleneck sweater in a matching shade and she’s carrying a handbag. The story is set in 1964, and the fashion of that decade is mirrored by Lana’s clothes.
The jacket, for example, has 3/4 sleeves, shawl collar with flat lapels and is fitted, a detail which emphasizes the feminine body. Her wavy hairdo and the gold brooch with the initial of her name, pinned on one lapel, complete a proper and prim outfit. Lana’s style speaks of her job (she’s not wearing clothes that are too showy or trendy), but her personality peeks through.
In the same episode she sports another outfit, which she’ll wear when she leaves the asylum. This is more interesting than the green suit: it includes a mustard sheath dress with blue details and a blue coat with mustard details (the collar and the inside of the sleeves). Her accessories include another staple in the 60s closet – a frame handbag – and a small wrist-watch.
During her stay at Briarcliff, Lana becomes the patient of Dr. Thredson (the real Bloody Face, played by Zachary Quinto), who tries to “cure” her sexuality and promises her to get her out of the asylum (this will eventually happen). Lana trusts him and fantasizes about what could happen after leaving the place. She’s a journalist, so she dreams of being awarded with a literary prize for her report of what happens there.
In this dream sequence, she’s wearing a lovely mustard Paisley-print short-sleeved dress with belted waist and full skirt. The idea of traditional femininity is back (along with her flawless hairstyle), but with a twist, I guess due to Lana’s uncomplaisant attitude. It’s interesting to see the setting of the scene – the common room where patients spend some of their time.
Lana soon discovers the truth about Dr. Thredson, when he takes her home. Now she’s trapped there, unable to move (she’s been chained to a bed) or to seek help. She learns some details about his past, but at the same time dreams of leaving her prison and her torturer; again, she fantasizes about being recognized for her job – revealing the truth about the doctor. In this dream sequence, she’s wearing a dark sweater/skirt combo, along with a dark red overcoat with a plaid collar. Her L gold brooch is back.
Spilt Milk is probably my favourite episode because the main three characters (Lana, Kit and Grace) are able to leave the asylum. Tension is palpable when Mother Superior Claudia takes Lana down a staircase and out of the building. Sister Jude (the ever-amazing Jessica Lange) is now a patient of the asylum and asks the nun to save Lana from that place. While she’s going down the stairs, she nearly meets Dr. Thredson, who’s talking to Kit about Lana. The use of the split-screen technique and a beautiful editing make this scene amazing.
She also wears a brown silk scarf with orange trims on her head. The scarf has an autumnal leaf-print, symbolizing the end (or the death, as you prefer) of the most terrifying period of her life. What comes next will be just as hard, but at least she will get her revenge.
Well, she takes a bit of revenge while leaving Briarcliff. Sitting safely in a taxi, she gives Thredson the middle finger, showing him she has the recordings of their conversations, where he exposed his plot to make Kit appear as Bloody Face. This was really an epic scene.
Revenge will strike hard on Thredson: Lana waits for him at his place and shots him dead. I love this scene, where Lana appears as a femme fatale, gun in her hand. She’s wearing a 3/4 sleeved blue dress with boat neck and Paisley print, reminiscent of the mustard dress seen in the first dream sequence.
Wendy Peyser (played by Clea DuVall) is Lana’s true love: she was brutally killed by Bloody Face but Lana never forgets her. She clearly feels guilty for what happened to her, but at the same time I think she goes through the revenge plan for her, too. After killing Thredson, we see her in mourning attire, visiting Wendy’s grave. She’s there with two friends; the three of them are dressed in black, but Lana literally shines like a cinema star.
Everything in this outfit is flawless: the collarless coat with big buttons, the gold pendant earrings, the perfectly styled hair, the natural-looking make-up. We know Lana is pregnant with Thredson’s child, so maybe the intention was to show her glowing from the inside. Whatever the case, she’s never looked so beautiful.
When she leaves the masoleum, she wears a pair of black gloves and cat’s eye sunglasses. The uber-chic ensemble is emphasized by a small frame handbag. I think this outfit marks the passage from the past to the future: Lana is leaving her horrible experience at Briarcliff behind, not because she wants to forget, but because she’s back to her role of journalist; now she has a new mission: saving Sister Jude and getting the asylum closed.
She goes to the police and exposes the truth about the mental institution. Now her pregnancy is visible, but her condition doesn’t tone her down. In this scene she utters the words which I have chosen for the title of this post: “I am tough. But I am no cookie”, she says, and we can believe her words. In this scene, set at a police station, she’s wearing a maternity dress, a nice short-sleeved plaid piece in neutral shades; see the romantic touch of the leather bow on the front of the dress.
The beige handbag seen in the previous screencap can be seen again in another scene, when Lana and two policemen go to Briarcliff to ask information about Sister Jude. Monsignor Timothy Howard (played by Joseph Fiennes) explains Jude committed suicide the night before, so Lana can’t do anything for her. I love the girly outfit she sports in this scene: she’s wearing a 3/4 sleeved pink dress with a small bow on the front; the same decorative element can be found on the handbag.
The accessories are exquisite: white gloves, pearl earrings and white enamel and gold brooch. This fundamental episode closes on Lana giving birth to Johnny; the next time we see her, things have changed a lot.
One of the strongest points of American Horror Story (both seasons) is the time setting. Time is seen as a stream, and sometimes it’s not even important. When it comes to Lana’s style, time is actually important because it marks a further change in the character. In 1969 she’s an established writer who has become successful thanks to a tell-all book, Maniac, where she goes through her experience with Bloody Face. The fierce side of her character has overcome the other sides of her personality: she’s a public figure now and she loves it.
Her style has changed a bit: her hairstyle is curlier and a bit puffier, and she’s wearing a bright blue dress with a double row of crystal buttons on the front. She’s a bit stroppy, too, as Kit will soon realize.
The very last episode of the series is all about Lana and her revenge. It opens in the present: Lana is a famous tv journalist who has interviewed important public figures. The pictures and drawings hanging from the walls of her sitting room are memories of a successful career. She’s in love with an opera singer and she’s comfortable with her public role. She’s being interviewed by a tv crew, and this will give us the change to go back in time.
She’s older now, but she hasn’t changed much. The hair is lighter, but the style is more or less the same. In this scene, she’s wearing wide-cut pants and a black tunic, accessorized with a hammered gold pendant hanging from a silk ribbon, a gold cuff bracelet and a gold ring which reminds me of Elsa Peretti for Tiffany & Co. creations.
While Lana speaks to the tv crew about her life, we take a hectic trip to the past. In 1971, after realizing the future is tv journalism, she decides to expose Briarcliff’s terrible present conditions. The asylum is now a public facility and patients are treated like beasts, living in ghastly conditions. Her documentary Briarcliff Exposed is the first step towards her final goal: getting the asylum closed. In this scene, set in the hospital, she’s wearing a brown skirt suit with matching silk scarf around her neck. Her earrings, the half updo, the boots and the details of the suit (short buttoned jacket and A-line skirt) are clearly influenced by 1970s style.
While filming the documentary, she finds some documents revealing that Sister Jude was released from the asylum under the care of Kit Walker. Lana pays Kit a visit, who explains what happened to Sister Jude (she lived with him and his children for some months before dying). In this scene, she sports another 1970s outfit, which includes flared grey pants, a blouse in a matching shade, a brown leather long coat and matching boots. This time her hair is styled in a ponytail.
When they move into Kit’s house to have some tea, we see her oufit in detail: she’s wearing a Prince of Wales waistcoat (we assume the trousers have the same pattern); the blouse is made of silk, has a pointed collar and a pussy bow. This is such a nice and modern outfit!
Once getting started, Lana is unstoppable. After exposing the horrors of Briarcliff, she wants those who supported/directed the asylum to pay for their crimes. Her “prey” is Monsignor (now Cardinal) Howard: she chases him with his crew, accusing him of allowing Dr. Harden (played by a stunning James Cromwell) to carry out his terrifying experiments on patients. The Cardinal will opt for self-punishment (he commits suicide by slitting his wrists) and Lana will score another victory. In the scene, set in a parking lot, where she chases the Cardinal, she’s wearing another skirt suit: the short jacket with front zip with round puller and front pockets and the skirt with front pince and asymmetrical pockets, worn with below-the-knee leather boots and sweater in a matching pale yellow colour, is a perfect example of 1970s style.
Lana’s memories take a more private turn when she shares what happened to Kit Walker and his family. She remembers his wedding to a girl named Allison, their wedding party and his adorable (alien) children, Julia and Thomas, who will grow into successful adults. At the wedding party Lana wears a spectacular white dress embellished with tiny beads and sequins. Wearing white at a wedding is usually not a wise choice, but the informal atmosphere surely called for unusual style choices. Her dress looks like a wedding dress itself: long-sleeved, it has buttons on the front, a fitted bodice and deep neckline.
The last time Lana sees Kit, he’s very ill (pancreatic cancer), sitting on a wheelchair. Lana really cares for him and visits him frequently. Through her words to the journalist we learn he disappeared and we see he was abducted by the aliens that had such an important role in his life. In this scene, Lana’s outfit has touches of 1980s style, starting from her flat chain gold necklaces and hoop earrings. She’s also wearing a striped dress with structured shoulders, a white belt and matching pumps. Her hair is styled with a side parting and soft waves.
Despite being totally focused on her own private plan of revenge and on her career, Lana doesn’t forget she’s a mother. She gave Johnny up for adoption soon after his birth, but she’s always kept an eye on him. While talking to the journalist who’s interviewing her, she remembers the last time she saw him, being bullied by an older boy in a park. She feels remorse for deciding not to raise the boy, but she eventually decides not to see him anymore. In this scene, she’s sporting another awesome 1970s outfit – a chevron mink belted coat with white fur collar, leather boots and gloves and printed silk scarf around her neck. The half updo enhances the 1970s vibe.
It’s not a coincidence that this is her last memory: soon after finishing the interview and greeting the journalist and the crew, she meets her son (the ever-hot Dylan McDermott), who has entered her house by pretending he was part of the crew. The final scene, where a rare spark of maternal love mixes with the ever-present plan of revenge, puts the final seal on the episode and on the season.
Though not as exciting as Murder House, I really enjoyed Asylum. Jessica Lange was once again amazing in a very complex character and I was nicely surprised by Sarah Paulson, too. I had seen her in a movie where she made a short appearance, so I had no idea she is such a passionate actress. I hope she returns in the cast of the third season, hopefully in a completely different role but with an equally interesting style.
 The truth is that there are some recurring themes, like birth, maternity, the triptych crime/guilt/punishment; moreover, some of the actors who had appeared in Murder House starred in Asylum (this is probably one of the most brilliant and interesting aspects of the series).