Boogie Nights Costume: Dirty Time | Clothes on Film

Boogie Nights (1997, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson) is packed with vintage clothing delights. Even though costume designer Mark Bridges generally eschewed more obvious 1970s/early 80s trends due to a recent retro fashion revival, the movie is still completely identifiable with both of these periods. Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) and Amber Waves (Julianne Moore) are two of the film’s most interesting characters in terms of costume, especially how their outfits seem at times to be simpatico, although, as we discover with exclusive insight from Mark Bridges himself, this was not intentional: “Fifteen years after designing the film you mention something to me I never noticed!

Of course there are other notable players, such as established porn star Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly) in a tight dirt bike print t-shirt, his and Dirk’s image papped by Rollergirl (Heather Graham) at the inaugural pool party (in a particularly Meta note this same photo is used for the film’s publicity material). “Reed’s motorcycle shirt was a find, I think in St Louis” considers Bridges. “To me it spoke volumes about the man who would wear that, someone who compares bench pressing stats”.

Energetic Rollergirl wears her signature roller skates, which feature genuine Lucite wheels, in practically every scene, along with satin shorts, tight pants, playsuit or off-the-shoulder bikini print tee – depending on the era. “Rollergirl’s shorts were chosen for freedom of movement to roller skate and…” admits Bridges, “to display her assets”.

‘Porn father’ Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) is nearly always in plain or embroidered safari shirts and matching trousers, often with neckerchief and then later ‘Gabicci’ esque sweaters and no under-shirt. Bridges intended this consistent style, “Paul (Thomas Anderson) had asked me to figure out some look for Jack that would work for him day to night; that could be worn writing and hanging in the San Fernando Valley during the day and then could be worn to the disco at night”.

Buck (Don Cheadle), the story’s central black character, struggles with his identity throughout. ‘Western Buck’ in contrast trim or pattern shirt and flared jeans is most obviously amusing, while ‘Liberace Buck’ in tailor made white jumpsuit and braided wig is certainly most tragic. Shy, overweight Scotty J. (Philip Seymour Hoffman) copies whatever Dirk and Reed wear, even if this means his clothes never fit. He imitates out of infatuation with Dirk, but also because garments as uniform encourage a sense of belonging. “Paul asked to dress Scotty like he was 14 years old, and the result was his unfortunate fit and style choices”.

Virtually all costumes were sourced in Hollywood. Bridges explains, “We have such great collections of clothes all over town and I used them all; Warner Brothers, Universal studios, Palace Costume Company, EC2 (which was Bob Mackie’s costume house), Bill Hargate Costumes and the now defunct Costume Collection. They all had an amazing variety of clothing from the periods just sitting there waiting to be rented. I also made a two day trip to St Louis, Missouri to a business that had ‘deadstock’ items. My assistant designer and I scoured that 35,000 square foot warehouse for two days and spent $12,000.00 getting the most incredible pieces, most of which amazingly enough were used some where on the principal characters”.

Despite Boogie Nights’ retro setting, Thomas Anderson did not want to make a ‘70’s movie’. However he did intend to reflect the era as distinctly as possible, vibrantly during the ‘up’ portions of the film while dragging everything, including Bridges’ costumes, through mud when 80’s videotape and designer drugs arrive. As Jack Horner comments on that decade’s imminence, “If it looks like shit, and it sounds like shit, then it must be shit”. Bridges concurs, “These 1980 druggie scenes take place in ‘sequence D’ of the film, which I always felt meant dirty laundry. You know the dingy long term effect of washing all your colours together. I did most of the dyeing on the show and would just put the desired batch of clothing in a washing machine with a mixture of gray and beige Tintex dye in hottest water available and hope for the worst. No pressing necessary”.

Pity First AD, Little Bill (William H. Macy), all seventies school teacher cool in open collar check shirts and polyester pants; he does not even make it to 1980. “I found Bill’s three piece New Year’s suit and a great leather jacket for Burt Reynolds, never been worn, at the now closed Academy Award clothing on Los Angeles Street”. Bridges refused to hide from even the most shocking bad taste fashion, “I tried to vividly depict the changes in styles each year between 1977 and 1984, to emphasize the passage of time in the story. It is always fun for me to try to figure out what was a style moment of a particular year”.

Amber Waves is something an anomaly: a classy porn actress. That is to say she wears halterneck trouser suits in gentle shades of pink and green, a red and blue slash sarong, some relatively covered up dresses; one a stunning maxi example in vivid purple covered in sequins with trumpet style chiffon sleeves (“I think a find at Bob Mackie’s rental house”) and dainty flowers in her hair.

Moreover Amber is the oldest member of Jack’s cast, imbuing certain respectability within her profession. Even her New Year’s costume is chic, although not prudish, “Amber’s two piece lurex outfit was another St Louis find, but I wanted that New Year to feel sparkly, shiny and festive and that fit perfectly into that scheme. The colour was great for Julianne and was bare shouldered sexy”.

Flowers are often found on Amber’s garments as accessories or prints. They soften her as an ‘mother’ figure, first witnessed with Dirk and then later with Rollergirl, Amber dressed delicate as ever in floaty lace maxi. Yet inferring Amber to be a decent mother is erroneous (“a mother to all her children” believes Jack); she actually hooks Dirk and Rollergirl on cocaine just to be close to them. Amber wants to change but is trapped in a destructive cycle; the real danger is when she drags others in with her.

To Bridges, however, flowers were used merely to create a sense of period, “Amber’s flowers were more a 1970s punctuation than anything conscious about softening the character. As to the flowers on the clothing, when I find things for a character I work on a gut level and things just feel right to me. At the time they just seemed right at the beats where they appear”.

The moment Dirk begins to experience fame and fortune as a porn star he spends his money on a new wardrobe. This is before the days of ‘bling’ (Coco Chanel was a fan, but the 1980s is its contemporary birth date) so if someone wanted to express wealth, clothes were still the most culturally accepted approach. From rainbow ringer tees and lightweight denim jackets with matching flared pants, Dirk Diggler, or Eddie Adams before his identity is fractured, invests in three piece poly-mix lounge suits, leather platform shoes and shirts made from “imported Italian nylon”.

In a moment of copycat comrade, Dirk, Reed and Scotty purchase matching outfits together on a shopping spree. Bridges explains, “The three identical shirts were found at Universal studios costume department, having been manufactured in triplicate for some 1970s film or TV show. I rented them for stock because you never know when you’ll need multiples. We were shooting that scene with the boys on a shopping spree and I suggested to Paul we dress them alike. Preparation meets opportunity”.

Dirk’s grandest ensemble is a powder blue tuxedo with satin faced peaked lapels and inverted rear pleat worn for his first ‘Annual Adult Film Awards’ ceremony. “Dirk’s brushed denim tuxedo was something I just had to have for that scene and I had it made for Dirk at Dominic’s, a famous Hollywood tailor. It was inspired by a 1976 GQ magazine research photo of a denim double breasted business suit. Had to have it! Such a moment in fashion!

When Dirk becomes Brock in a hilarious trailer for ‘Angels Live in Our Town’ his overall style blends into the eighties. It is 1978 yet the warning signs are there, e.g. grey patchwork denim suit and mullet. Then Dirk’s clothes fragment alongside his life. “I tried to mirror Dirk’s personal disintegration in the state of his clothes since they had been so connected to who he was earlier in the story”. Grey and red ‘action back’ jackets, jade green narrow leg trousers and headbands were the unfortunate start.

Earlier in the movie there is a subtle costume connection between Amber and Dirk, rather than Dirk and Reed as emphasised later. When Dirk tours Amber around his new abode, gleefully showing off a stuffed, colour coded closet, monogrammed curtains and shiny new sports car, he is wearing a slightly too short, long sleeve tee with totem print. Bridges confirms this garment was vintage, “It was Nik-Nik brand, one of my favourite brands from the period and I just thought it was cool for Dirk ‘flying high,’ showing the gang his new digs”.

Amber follows this Native American theme in a wrap pant suit with blue and brown eagle feathers design and peach chiffon coat. These two characters are in tune, a perverse extension of one another; mother and son, matriarch and lover. To some extent Bridges intended this concept, “The simple fact is it felt right to make Dirk and Amber similar. Both costumes take place in the segment of the movie I refer to in my grand plan as ‘flying High’ so the feather motif works perfectly in that scene. I think the long feather print chiffon coat also had a matching jumpsuit, but wearing both was too much pattern for Julianne so I copied the jumpsuit in a flattering peach”.

Dirk and Amber’s twisted relationship is further hinted at during Jack’s disastrous 1979 New Year’s Eve Party. Amber becomes so jealous watching Dirk and fellow porn actress Jessie (Melora Walters) chatting that she swoops in and drags him away, much to Jessie’s disappointment – although this does ensure a more solid future with Buck. Wearing a tightly pleated silver (cool) pant suit featuring high neck halter and peplum, sparkly to match Dirk in gold (warmth), Amber knows that despite their connection she is losing him. Amber’s spiteful solution is to make her “baby boy” a drug addict. From this point on Dirk’s life tumbles faster than a narcotic high.

However, the most unforgettable costume image from Boogie Nights does not belong to Dirk or Amber. Alongside perhaps Reed, Buck is the only member of Jack’s family to give any thought to future job prospects. His rodeo flamboyant ensembles are comical, their outlandishness heightened to denote Buck as an outsider. Buck understands his position as a minority, yet Anderson highlights this aspect not because he is black, but because he is a porn star. This is why Buck struggles to gain acceptance in everyday society.

When Buck, an innocent bystander, becomes embroiled in a diner robbery, his clean white suit is covered with blood and skull fragments as the situation erupts in gunfire. “The white suit on Buck was written in the script and was an inspired moment from Paul Thomas Anderson” insists Bridges. “I just tried to get the ensemble as early 80’s as possible, and find it in multiples so we could do a couple of takes”. The contrast of Buck’s angelic silhouette corrupted by the gory consequences of violence implies he can never be rid of his past. So when Buck snatches the stolen money left in a paper bag on the floor he can now start afresh with pregnant Jessie; a case of new clothes, new life.

The same principle can be applied to Dirk and Amber during the story’s final scenes, although their prospects seem far less secure. Amber in particular had vague plans, dreams, yet there she sits wearing a white slip dress with fringed sleeves and poker straight hair, back where she started – ready to fornicate on film. At least Dirk has youth, although the wide shoulder pads of his double breasted suit, sleeves rolled up over a pastel pink t-shirt suggest a man who is a victim of trends. Not just fashion but recreation; first cocaine then plausibly heroin. Unlike Buck, Dirk may have a clean suit, but his life is destined to remain as polluted as his profession.

Mark Bridges’ contribution to Boogie Nights is still one of the most memorable aspects of the movie. Amazing too that hardly anything was made from scratch, with Bridges and his team sourcing nearly every costume from rental houses and deadstock. “The specific items I know we had to make” he recalls, “were Buck’s white jumpsuit at New Year’s Eve and Alfred Molina’s satiny robe. We made multiples of the robes because of the shoot ‘em up aspect and it couldn’t be synthetic or the bullet squibs wouldn’t work. So rayon satin was the solution. Necessity created a spectacular garment for that scene”.

This is fitting monument to a film made on a tight budget ($15 million) and with a novice director (only Anderson’s second feature); Bridges recreated the 70’s and 80’s using the eras themselves and, where necessary, stitched in the gaps. Make do and mend – porno style.

With thanks to Mark Bridges.

You can watch Mark Wahlberg in Boogie Nights at LOVEFiLM.com.

© 2011 – 2014, Lord Christopher Laverty.