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Us Movie: Unpacking the Symbolism in the Costumes

I, like millions of other people this weekend, went to see Jordan Peele’s new film Us.

A psychological horror, Us tells the story of a family terrorized by their own doppelgängers. It goes deep into the mind-boggling world of personal trauma and dual existence. After watching the trailer, I thought I would leave the theater feeling scared, instead I was confused and eager to unpack all of the details to understand the deeper meaning.

Writer, Director and Producer Jordan Peele recently told media outlets that “Everything in the movie was deliberate.” Of course that includes the costumes.

When crafting looks for any script, the goal is to elevate each character with a visual image that makes their existence believable, and to make the clothing a part of a character’s persona. Without spoiling to movie for those who haven’t seen it yet, I’m going to share what I’ve rounded up from Us Costume Designer Kym Barrett (The Matrix franchise) about some of the key clothing pieces and their broader meaning.

img_9525To start, the tethered doppelgängers wore utilitarian red jumpsuits with a fit-all silhouette and one leather glove. Both are references to Michael Jackson – his red leather jacket and pants in Thriller and his infamous single glove. Barrett recently told media, “The jumpsuits are a visual embodiment of something that is prevalent in everyone, in everything. The world needs us to stop segmenting people into ‘us’ and ‘the other.'”

Each jumpsuit was intentionally cropped to show ankles so the audience can see flesh and bone of the doppelgängers. The sleeves were shortened to show blood on their hands. Barrett also over-dyed and ombré shaded the fabric to create a “watercolor painting or a Rorschach inkblot.”

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Common on all sets, Costume Designers pay attention to the backdrop, set and lighting. Barrett worked with Production Designer Ruth De Jong and lighting to find the right balance on a very dark set. With input from both departments, Kym Barrett wanted a complete matte palette that absorbed the light, not reflect it.

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As for the Wilson family, Barrett wanted them to shine like a glow worms in the darkness. Adelaide is purposely dressed in a white v-neck shirt for most of the film to allow light to naturally reflect off her chest enhancing the suspenseful moments. The blood splatter continuity on her is perfection. Barrett shared that the “Blood stain angles are intentional, but practical.”

Young Adelaide’s Michael Jackson Thriller graphic t-shirt that her father won for her at the carnival is a major nod to duality and foreshadows one angle of the thrill or suspense of the film. She puts the t-shirt over a yellow Hands Across America t-shirt just before going into house of mirrors where first encounters her doppelgänger.

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When we meet daughter Zora, she’s in a blue t-shirt with with a white bunny on the front of it. Once again great foreshadowing through costumes. And later, we see her in a light green muscle sleeve hoodie with the word “Tho” across the chest in pink font. “Tho” is the Vietnamese word for bunnies. Wow!

 

On the car trip to the beach, the youngest of the family, Jason is wearing a Jaws t-shirt. This pays homage to the 80s cult classic, which is one of Jordan Peele’s favorite movies. It also plays into an over-arching tone that builds and cements the beach setting in Hollywood horror films.

We later see Jason in tuxedo-print pajamas. Magicians use mirrors and reflections in their shows. And illusionists, who are often dressed like magicians, use rabbits in their acts.

Even in a world full of duality, footwear unites us. (I promise if I ever run for office, I will make the previous sentence a soundbite or campaign slogan.) Every cast member in the film wore Jesus meets Tevas-type sandals to complete the ominous, unified effect.

Costume Design is truly an art. It’s so much more than styling people to look good on camera. Sure, that’s a goal too. But we also enhance the story by creating believable, spot on visuals.

Have you seen Us? What did you think about the costumes?

Keep up with my latest costume designs and daily inspiration on Instagram – @costumesandcoffee.

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