Laura Palmer

Look of the Week: The two sides of Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks

Contributed by
Sep 2, 2018

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!

It has been a year since Twin Peaks: The Return aired on Showtime, but this week we are traveling back 26 years to the release of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. The trend for dead girls in drama — both prestige and procedural — is a common one. Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) is the quintessential Dead Girl. The discovery of her body in the pilot, followed by flashbacks to this character before she was killed, is a model that numerous television shows, from Veronica Mars to How to Get Away With Murder, have followed. Riverdale put a twist on this in its first season with a Dead Boy; in the past, it probably would have been Cheryl (Madelaine Petsch) and not Jason (Trevor Stines) at the heart of the murder mystery, but I am thankful this was not the case.

Sheryl Lee
In Twin Peaks, Laura is a memory, but in the Twin Peaks prequel Fire Walk With Me she is still very much alive. The audience is aware of her fate, but over the course of those two-plus hours, Laura Palmer is yet to become a murder victim.

In the first essay in Alice Bolin’s excellent Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession, Bolin talks about Laura Palmer’s body as “a neutral arena on which to work out male problems.” In Fire Walk With Me, there is a shift from Laura seen through the eyes of FBI Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) to a Laura who is alive beyond the picnic videotape that captures her smile as she dances with best friend Donna (Lara Flynn Boyle). Laura is wearing a sweater, a cardigan, and a knee-length pleated plaid skirt. Twin Peaks High School doesn’t have a regulation uniform, but this ensemble is a crest-emblazoned blazer away from being just that. Halloween H20: 20 Years Later already demonstrated how loose these uniform rules can be.     

Twin Peaks
Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn) in a pleated skirt, tight sweater, and iconic saddle shoes is the go-to style queen in Twin Peaks discourse. Audrey isn’t in Fire Walk With Me; instead, Laura gets to take up the pleated plaid skirt mantle. At the moment it would appear that pretty much every fast-fashion brand is embracing the Cher-from-Clueless yellow plaid, but this fall, turn to Audrey and Laura Palmer for your plaid inspiration if you want your ‘90s with a dash of ‘50s aesthetic. Audrey’s look skews toward the latter, but there is something a little more grunge about Laura’s oversized knitwear, even if she also has a penchant for twinsets and pearl earrings.

Before Twin Peaks: The Return debuted, I decided to finally watch the David Lynch classic TV series for the first time, as I was a little too young to watch when it originally aired. There are two images of Laura Palmer I was familiar with before starting: the one of her with icy blue skin wrapped in plastic, the other in a photo frame wearing a smile and a strapless prom dress. These two images form one on the artwork of a later edition of the DVD and Blu-ray; at this moment, Laura is both dead and alive. It's something she echoes in the first episode of Twin Peaks: The Return when in backward-speak she says, “I… am… dead… and yet I live.” She is perpetually caught between these two worlds, forever falling.

Sheryl Lee
Diving into the Getty archives often results in some delightful and often bizarre promo photograph setups, including a series of Sheryl Lee posing with plastic wrap from 1990.

The duality of Laura Palmer extends beyond these two images, as well as her alive-and-dead status. Costume designer Patricia Norris delivers a day look and an evening one for Laura that are in conflict with each other; these styles are also a visual representation of the Madonna/Whore dichotomy that suggests women can only be chaste or seductresses. Laura’s outward image is the wholesome homecoming queen. She volunteers as part of the Meals on Wheels program, she has a seemingly steady boyfriend and a best friend who likes sweaters as much as she does. But there is a much darker side, as documented in the original series.

Audrey Horne smokes cigarettes in the best-decorated bathroom on TV in the original series, but Laura’s choice of bathroom fix is snorting cocaine in the stall between classes. At home, Laura smokes cigarettes while dancing in her bedroom and flicking through her journal, but she does have a more provocative style of clothes for when the darkness envelops her later in the evening.

Twin Peaks
The prom photo is a constant reminder of the person everyone thinks Laura is, or at least wants her to be. Fire Walk With Me takes place long before social media existed, but this image acts as the kind of photo that would be on Laura’s perfectly manicured public profile, while the other version of her life would be on a private alt-account.

Twin Peaks
It sits in the high school trophy cabinet for all to see, suggesting that Laura is herself the prize. As she prepares a drink at home before a night out to the Pink Room, this photo is in every frame, even when Donna (played by Moira Kelly in Fire Walk With Me) swings by to see her.

Again, this is a reminder that Laura is caught up in something dark that she can’t escape. This scene shows the stark contrast between Laura’s daytime style and her evening attire. Here she wears a short, tight all-black ensemble with heels; there is not a twinset in sight. Donna’s frilly white socks also emphasize her innocence and naivete about her best friend's situation.

Laura Palmer
Laura has been in the Black Lodge for 20-plus years without a change of clothes, but at least the black frock she wears is timeless with an Old Hollywood aesthetic. She no longer wears the broken heart necklace that James (James Marshall) gifted her, trading up with a statement brooch.

Her outfit doesn’t change, but Laura’s hair goes through several different styles while residing in the Black Lodge. Straight with bangs in the original series, a wavy bob in The Return and curls in Fire Walk With Me. The latter is a softer look for Laura when she first arrives, tearily reacting to the angel that disappeared from her painting has returned in a moment that is beautifully devastating.

Sheryl Lee
 Actress Sheryl Lee’s style skews more toward the Black Lodge version of Laura, including a 2010 appearance at a Twin Peaks reunion Paley Center event and last year’s Return premiere.

Sheryl Lee and Dana Ashbrook
At the Fire Walk With Me premiere, there is a whole lot of velvet going on because it is 1992. We'd be remiss in not throwing in bonus Bobby (Dana Ashbrook) wearing contrasting double denim.

The clothes we wear help craft an image. In the case of Laura Palmer, she is caught between two worlds: one that presents a wholesome teenager, the other underscoring the dark enterprise she has been caught up in. In Fire Walk With Me, Laura becomes more than just another Dead Girl, more than the smiling prom photo. We all contain multitudes, and Laura Palmer is no different.

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