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Credit: Lionsgate

Look of the Week: the dressed-to-kill ladies of Knives Out

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Nov 29, 2019

Welcome back to Look of the Week, celebrating the best in TV and film sartorial excellence, past and present across sci-fi, horror, fantasy, and other genre classics!

When the first trailer for Rian Johnson's Knives Out was released, the star-studded cast, director, and murder mystery element were not the only big selling point. The luxurious knitwear worn by Chris Evans, spouting language Captain America would definitely not approve of, set off a social media frenzy. But it isn't just Evans as Ransom Drysdale who deserves the sartorial focus. The entire cast is dressed to kill, and while we are not going to spoil the mystery, there are plenty of details in Jenny Eagan's costume design that play an important role in telling the audience just who these characters are. The ensemble boasts a plethora of great looks, so to narrow it down we are going to focus on the power dressing and knitwear of the women in this movie.

Credit: Lionsgate

An opulent home in the New England countryside is the scene of the crime, in which murder mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead of an apparent suicide, but there is much to suggest foul play is at hand. It is the morning after Harlan's drama-filled 85th birthday party when his body is discovered, and everyone has a motive for killing the wealthy patriarch.

For fans of genre, this portrayal is part Agatha Christie, part Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, with a big dollop of contemporary self-awareness. Each scene is filled with clues and characters that have stepped out of movies like Murder by Death, which includes the way clothing is used to emphasize wealth and privilege. For the full country manor experience, the delightful Great Nana (K Callan) is layered in tweed and fur looking like she came straight from Grey Gardens. As Eagan demonstrated with Maniac, she is able to deliver heightened and stylized garments that are still grounded in some semblance of reality.

The murder mystery genre has a long storied style history, whether it is Anthony Powell's Oscar-winning Death on the Nile costumes from the 1978 adaptation starring Bette Davis, Maggie Smith, and Mia Farrow or even Edith Head's iconic Alfred Hitchcock thriller collaborations. As someone who watches a lot of murder mystery reruns, it is hard to find an example that isn't dripping in fashion inspiration. And while there are plenty of fashion-forward investigators, it is the suspects who audiences should pay attention to (and not just so you can guess who the killer is). The rich and spoiled members of the Thrombey clan lean into this particular aspect with aplomb.

Credit: Lionsgate 

Jamie Lee Curtis plays Linda, a real-estate mogul and Harlan's eldest daughter (she refers to herself as "self-made," even though her father provided her with the start-up funds). Her dark-rimmed specs and monochromatic suits signify both her wealth and her business prowess. She is not one to fade into the background, wearing sumptuous teals and magentas. Whether it is a velvet suit — she would go well with Mrs. Coulter from His Dark Materials — or decadent satin for the party, there is no doubt who has the power in the Thrombey siblings. She is dripping with disdain toward her brother Walt (Michael Shannon), and she clearly believes she is her father's favorite. While Linda doesn't draw any immediate similarities with Laurie Strode, there is a throughline between these two hardened personas. One wields words like weapons, the other is prepared for the monster who tormented her — and I wouldn't want to mess with either.

In Hereditary, Toni Collette wore an array of artistic minimalist linens to emphasize her creative talent; in Knives Out, her costume is also an extension of her brand. As Joni, Collette is playing an Instagram influencer with a lifestyle company, which is a play on the Gwyneth Paltrow and Goop of it all. "Fountain of Youth" is the Flam message, and Joni is draped in the finest florals throughout the film.

Her Cali-styling is at odds with the dark wood paneling of Harlan's home, which is full of ghoulish props relating to his best-selling novels. As a daughter-in-law, she is an immediate outsider, and her pretty pastel garments reinforce this status. High-necked Victorian-style blouses are at odds with Linda's no-fuss business attire. Colette gets a lot of the very funny lines and observations — "I read a tweet about a New Yorker article about you," she tells private investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig). Johnson's script is full of witty takedowns of each family member, but the ones about and from Joni are particularly hilarious.

Joni's daughter Meg (Katherine Langford) is your typical liberal college student in her '70s-adjacent Patty Hearst look, complete with oversized glasses (that she may or may not even need), big earrings, a red beret, and oversized knits. Meg is meant to be the Thrombey family member who we can most identify with, which is why her costuming is so down to earth, but how much can she be trusted when money is a deciding factor?

Credit: Lionsgate

And then there is Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas), Harlan's devoted nurse and the one character without a trust fund. There's a simplicity to Marta's closet that contains textured knits (of course), cropped pants, and plain white tennis shoes. Her long colorful scarf looks straight out of Paddington, a touch of whimsy in this cutthroat world. The floral collars beneath her sweaters are fit for Eleanor Shellstrop on the final season of The Good Place. Her party outfit is her everyday attire because she is technically on the clock.

There are attempts at mirroring of costumes between Meg and Marta, followed by Ransom and Marta in the choice of sweaters, but there is a clear line dividing the privileged and the employee. Everything can be read as a clue in Knives Out, right down to Jenny Eagan's costume design. Next year, de Armas will be reteaming with Daniel Craig in the next James Bond installment, No Time to Die, although it is likely that she won't be clad in sweaters and heavy outerwear.

When SYFY WIRE spoke to director Rian Johnson, he explained that this wasn't a case of subverting this particular genre: "To me, my goal is always to get at the heart of the genre. My goal is always to really dig in deep and figure out what is the thing about something that I love, and then to give the audience the purest expression of that possible." The looks of Knives Out also fulfill this exploration, which is dripping in throwback styles, knits to keep you cozy, and threads as sharp as the dialogue.

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