The first time Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) meets Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet) in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, her hair is a striking shade of “Blue Ruin.” It doesn’t matter that the Montauk beach is empty — it is February, after all — Clementine would be the focus even if she was among a sea of people; her hair and orange hoodie cut through the gray skyline.
Joel is shy, but he is taken by Clementine and her bold fashion choices. It's a Valentine’s Day meet-cute, which somehow avoids sappiness and Hallmark card sentiments (in an earlier voiceover Joel throws scorn on this particular holiday). What follows is the kind of introduction that feels like fate — except this isn’t the first time Joel and Clementine have met, nor is it the first time Clementine has told Joel not to make any jokes about her name.
This is before social media became the photo sharing beast it is now, so Joel and Clementine don’t have to worry about erasing the digital version of their ex. It is probably far easier to delete all the photographs and messages of someone online; mute, block or even erasing an account is a far less invasive method than the one Lacuna, Inc. delivers.
Clementine’s bright orange hoodie is significant because it was what she was wearing when they first met — on both occasions. Joel has not been able to banish this item as it wasn’t at his apartment and because we are only experiencing Joel’s erasure procedure, it remains unclear as to why Clementine held onto this garment. Maybe she didn’t feel a significant attachment toward Joel and this sweatshirt? Perhaps it reminds her of something else entirely, or she wanted a keepsake that wasn't obviously about Joel. Nevertheless, it likely holds a deeper meaning as she chose to wear it for a meeting arranged through whispers within his memories.
Color is an important part of Clementine’s overall look; when Joel actually meets her for the first time her hair is green, for the duration of their relationship it is red, then orange, which later fades a to shade nearer to pink in the last days of their time together. A death knell for this relationship is signaled by the weakened vibrancy of her locks.
From a story continuity point-of-view, Clementine’s hair clearly delineates which timeline we are watching; the past is red and orange, the present is blue. A haircut or a dye job to mark a new period of your life is pretty standard; Joel is her passion color period, post-Joel is blue to match her mood. It's a way of washing that man out of her hair, but with literal color instead of figurative shampoo. Her current hair is a little slapdash. Not much attention has been paid to quality or coverage, it has simply been done to cover up what was once there.
“I mean, the whole thing with her hair? It’s all bullshit. And it’s sort of pathetic when you’re 30 and you’re still doing that shit,” Joel’s voice echoes through his apartment as Clementine walks in, hearing what her ex had to say about the style that defines her. Present-day Joel repeats how much he likes her hair rebuking the words he knows are his. Watching this movie 15 years after I first saw it at the theater, I was particularly struck by how it holds up as a searing portrayal of relationship highs and lows. Those aspects you once found endearing have evolved, underscoring bitterness and resentment. His criticisms aren't really about her hair; at this moment, it is simply a target for his anger after she erased him.
Joel can't think of anything he doesn't like about Clementine at this moment, the here and now is all that matters. At the end of it all, when they are no longer in possession of those memories but are presented with the facts of their doomed love via cassette tape, hope and love still win out. He might grow to hate the orange hoodie again, but it is a fashion risk he is willing to take.