“Ray Won’t Let Me Wear My Glasses!”: Crystal’s Style in Susan Seidelman’sDesperately Seeking Susan

Everyone has got at least one or a couple of films which have changed his/her life. You know, one of those films which leave a permanent mark on your memory and almost contribute in making the person you are today. In my case, the list is pretty endless, but Susan Seidelman’s Desperately Seeking Susan (1985) is firmly sitting in the top 10 since the first time I saw it (around 1988, I think). All the elements of this romantic comedy have been carefully dissected by bloggers and film critics, especially the locations (symbols of an alternative/punk-y New York) and the style of the two protagonists, Rosanna Arquette as Roberta and Madonna as Susan. The Madonna-mania was about to reach its peak and the film incredibly boosted the singer’s popularity: if you tell me you’ve never dreamt of being Susan [1], I won’t believe you. Her short jacket with the golden pyramid embroidery on the back, her studded booties and stolen Egyptian earrings are still in my wish-list, along with all the garments worn by my favourite character, Crystal (Anna Levine Thomson). She’s Susan’s friend, a good-hearted girl who works at the Magic Club as the assistant of an illusionist.vlcsnap-2014-07-09-01h05m00s19

vlcsnap-2014-07-08-23h59m08s171She makes her first appearance during a show. She’s clumsy and receives disappointed looks by the illusionist she works with. The cause of her clumsiness is her short-sightedness: Crystal can’t see a thing without her glasses, but the club boss, Ray (John Turturro), doesn’t want her to wear glasses on stage. In this scene, she’s wearing a dusty mauve tulle and lace costume – strapless, tiered skirt, the waist chinched by a matching belt. She’s also wearing a platinum blonde wig, a satin ribbon as choker, pink stockings and mary-janes.

vlcsnap-2014-07-09-00h00m09s28We get a better look on this outfit after the performance, when she is in her dressing room. Susan is waiting for her there, because she wants to ask her if she can stay at her place. The first thing that Crystal does is looking for her glasses, whose style is totally in tune with the character. There’s a strong vintage vibe in Crystal’s style personality, so her frames have a cat’s eye shape. When she wears them, she looks more a librarian or a teacher than an illusionist’s assistant, and in this contrast lies her charm.

desperatelyseekingsusan_crystal_dressingroomThe dressing room is packed with scene costumes in bright colours and shiny fabrics, but the shade of her dress speaks of romanticism and tells us a lot about her character. Moreover, it compliments her unique haircolour, but more about that later.

vlcsnap-2014-07-09-00h01m05s62While Crystal is talking to Susan, she changes costume. Her underwear includes a nude strapless bra and high-waist knickers, plus the raspberry tights she wore with the mauve strapless dress. Nothing sexy nor flashy, in tune with her shy attitude.

vlcsnap-2014-07-09-00h02m10s202Susan helps her putting on a new costume. This time she wears a ballerina-like number in a dusty shade of blue which – again – compliments her hair and creates a nice contrast with the raspberry tights. The bodice is embellished with iridescent inserts and crystals, while the skirt is a proper tutu. I love this costume, but sadly it isn’t shown on stage, because this is the first and last scene featuring Crystal at the Magic Club. A curiosity: I’m sure you’ve noticed the gold/orange cape in the background, draped around the shoulders of a cardboard cutout; the actress is Claudette Colbert, wearing the satin bias-cut dress she sported in Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934).

vlcsnap-2014-07-09-00h01m24s4Now it’s time to focus on her hair. It’s the first thing you notice of her and you wonder what is its exact shade. It looks like grey with a lavender tone, a shade you’d expect seeing on an elderly lady, not on a downtown New York girl. If the movie were released today, you would fall in love with this colour (seen on Kelly Osbourne), but at the time it was just another bizarre detail. The lavender grey was probably the result of at-home hair dye, which puts Crystal in opposition to the “respectable” ladies (among them, Roberta and her sister-in-law Leslie) who have their hair done at a salon. Remember the opening credits, set at the Nubest Salon in Manhasset?

vlcsnap-2014-07-09-01h10m13s81vlcsnap-2014-07-09-01h09m10s217The third outfit she wears is a minimal black dress. The scene is set in her apartment, where Susan receives a phone call from Gary, Roberta’s husband. Little is shown of this room, but some details (the pale yellow windows, the pale green walls, the curtains and cushion on the sofa in 1970s abstract prints) speak a lot about her. At the beginning of the scene, Crystal is sitting on a marbled stool and painting her nails; there’s an ironing board next to her, pizza boxes on the floor, a shell-encrusted pink telephone on a coffee table. The carefree and playful attitude reflected in the room is probably one of the reasons why she’s Susan’s friend. Their lives are uncertain (from a middle-class point of view): they have no fixed job, live on a budget, wear old clothes, but this is portrayed as appealing because it’s a synonym of freedom. Roberta, who lives a completely different life but pines over personal messages published on the newspaper, takes advantage of her temporary memory loss to be part of the same world [2].

vlcsnap-2014-07-09-01h03m21s55Unfortunately, Crystal is a secondary character, so this is the last scene in which she appears. It is set outside the Magic Club; poor Crystal is fired (she tells Susan that she quit), but Susan is waiting for her, ready to cheer her up. “Maybe I should’ve slept with him,” she muses. Susan offers no practical solution (she’s jobless, too), but invites her to the cinema for a double feature. Crystal is Susan’s only friend we get to know: even if we don’t know much about their past, it’s nice to notice that Susan cares for Crystal and tries to do what she can to help her.

vlcsnap-2014-07-09-01h04m28s202Crystal’s outfit is a triumph of acid and pale colours. Her neon yellow tights and plaid socks echo the hot orange short sweater and headband seen on Susan, while her satin striped dress with front bow and short-sleeved jacket have a different colour palette.

desperatelyseekingsusan_crystal_magiccluboutsideThe striped sack dress is unflattering on Crystal, but she spices it up with a short jacket decorated with an exotic landscape (palms on the beach at sunset), a white shoulder bag and black mary-janes. The naive decoration on the jacket probably expresses Crystal’s own daydream and a romantic vision of life; this jacket is what the pyramid blazer is for Susan, a garment which speaks of its wearer’s personality. I don’t think anyone else in the story would be eager to buy and wear the palm jacket, but who knows? In a parallel world, Crystal could be the protagonist of the movie and not just a quirky character.

[1] The whole idea of being someone else, someone hotter than you, someone who leads a life way more exciting than yours, is the origin of the plot, whose meaning gets more complex if you think that Susan is a fictitious Madonna. Roberta wants to be her and in this she symbolizes the singer’s fans.

[2] At first, Roberta is intrigued by Susan’s adventurous life. When she buys her jacket, it is as if she started taking advantage of Susan’s magic. She copies Susan’s look and starts a process of liberation. She literally gets rid of her “desperate housewife” look and attitude and finally deals with her own desires.

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