Thelma, Louise, and the clothing that set them free

Thelma, Louise, and the clothing that set them free

This year marked a glorious re-release of Thelma & Louise in cinemas. Seeing the film on the big screen gave Hannah Gibson food for thought – and with a changing season, the chance to realise just how much a new look can change your life. 

Thirty-two years after release, Thelma & Louise is primarily ingrained in the cultural consciousness for the numerous parodies and homages that have been paid since. This is partially because of its original advertising, which positioned the film as a light-hearted buddy road-trip movie, and because Callie Khouri’s writing manages to conceal any criticism of state institutions in subtext.

But the subtext is there. Raina Lipsitz recognised it in her 2011 article in The Atlantic reflecting on the film’s 20th anniversary when she called Thelma & Louise the “last great film about women”, pointing out how it transcends the trope of female friendship. Instead, she wrote, the film is about “transformation and liberation [through] escaping, the agonising constraints of gender, class, time, and place.”

To mark the 4k re-release of Thelma and Louise this summer, the film was shown in selected independent cinemas. Just like Lipsitz, I am 25 when I watch it on the big screen for the first time. The film is punchy and sobering and I leave the cinema emotionally drained. I also find the larger screen allows me to notice smaller details in the film, including how costume design reveals intimacy and contrast between the two eponymous characters.

The same clothes being worn by multiple characters in films communicates some similarity or intimacy across decades, mediums, and genres; in Little Women (2019) with Jo and Laurie, with Fleabag and Claire in Fleabag (2018), and between all four main characters in Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants (2005). 

Clothing and accessories are used in Thelma & Louise to track how the character’s identities shift in response to each other and what is happening to them. In the final act of the film, Thelma (Geena Davis) tells Louise (Susan Sarandon) that she can’t go back home after everything they have been through. “Something has crossed over in me. I can’t go back. I just couldn’t live,” she says. Geena Davis delivers these lines like she is realising them for the first time. Her face is visibly dirty, her auburn hair lightened by the Arizona sun. She is a far cry from the klutzy housewife introduced 90 minutes prior.

When we meet them, Thelma is a naive housewife whilst Louise is a cynical waitress. The women are presented to the audience as opposites as the camera switches between them planning their upcoming trip over the phone. Thelma is in a floral dressing gown at home. She is chaotic, disorganised and in constant need of guidance. Louise is at work in her waitressing uniform. She is neat and ordered as she clocks off and goes home to pack. 

As they set off on their road trip, we see the first of the recurring colours in both characters’ outfits. Thelma wears an off-shoulder white dress which looks, not unintentionally, like a wedding dress. She is practically virginal in her experiences; she has never been to the mountains, she has never even been out of town without her husband. Louise wears a white shirt and denim jeans, a smarter iteration of the outfit (and colours) she wears for the rest of the film. She is steady and practical; her hair is neatly pinned back, and she wears a headscarf to drive her 1966 Ford Thunderbird with the top down. 

Thelma packs three suitcases of clothes for the two-day trip, most of which we do not see her wear. In fact, as the film progresses, we see her start to borrow clothing from the characters around her. The first time she wears another character’s clothing is when she wears Louise’s jacket immediately after Louise kills the man who attempts to rape her. It makes sense that Thelma, who packs a lantern and a gun as part of her weekend essentials, would forget to pack something she actually needs. 

But something else is happening here. Before Thelma dons the jacket, Louise wears it in the bar. Louise wears this jacket, and other layers of clothing, as armour. Like Thelma she is wearing white, but, unlike Thelma, Louise hides this from view, protecting her body and vulnerability from anyone who could be watching. In reaching for Louise’s jacket, Thelma is seeking Louise’s protection. 

This is just one example of the compassion and tenderness between Thelma and Louise throughout the film. Louise is ten years Thelma’s senior and we can see that Thelma looks up to her. When Thelma first stands up to her brutish husband Darryl, he attributes this newfound sentiment to Louise’s “bad” influence. In the hours after the shooting, Thelma relies on Louise to remain level-headed and to come up with an escape plan. When Thelma’s carelessness causes Louise’s life savings to be stolen, she robs a liquor store to make up the lost money. 

Thelma slips easily away from her housewife archetype as she learns to exist outside of the law. Initially, she swaps her traditionally feminine clothing for practical, androgynous pieces. Gradually, even these pieces transform: she tears off her shirt sleeves and accepts that she is past the point of no return. 

After Thelma sleeps with JD (Brad Pitt), she wears his denim shirt as a kind of trophy. This is a powerful symbol of reclamation – especially in a film centred around an attempted rape – and an indicator of Thelma’s growing confidence. She continues to collect trophies from her casualties. Thelma steals sunglasses from a cop after she forces him into locking himself in his own car boot and she swipes a Beechfield army cap from a lewd trucker, subverting what these accessories – both from state institutions – represent. 

Louise is more guarded than Thelma. As her character develops, she literally takes off layers, baring her arms and pawning her jewellery in favour of ripped denim neckerchiefs tied at the throat as a new form of protection. As Thelma claims and dons new garments, Louise removes the excess until she is only wearing a white tank top – her vulnerability visible for the first time. 

Louise’s shifts are mostly internal. In a rare solitary moment, she sits in the car in silence. Her face is sunburnt, her hair loose around her shoulders. Louise makes eye contact with an older woman who is watching her through a window. The woman smiles at Louise who, suddenly self-conscious, reaches for her signature lipstick and examines her face in the rearview mirror. In seeing herself, Louise is forced to face reality. She doesn’t apply the lipstick, knowing it has no real purpose anymore. This is when Louise slips out of reach from the civilised/lawful world. 

Thelma’s increased confidence is more obvious when compared to Louise’s introspection, the women both grow to assume the roles of the other’s true equal. In this, there is a queer reading of the women’s relationship.

At the beginning of the road trip, Thelma holds an unlit cigarette in her mouth, poses, and in a teasing drawl says, “I’m Louise.” Later, she starts to light cigarettes and, at first glance, the audience assumes Thelma has merely taken up smoking in the stress of her circumstances. However, Thelma never takes more than a drag or two from the cigarettes she is routinely lighting as she hands them to Louise for her to smoke. 

There is something intimate in this choice. Louise is capable of lighting up whilst driving, so there is a delicate consideration in the act which speaks to a newfound closeness between the two women. It’s because of this that their final kiss does not feel contrived. 

In the final moments of the film, as the Ford Thunderbird soars through the air above the Grand Canyon, the camera pans to a photograph in the backseat. It is the polaroid selfie Thelma and Louise take at the beginning of their trip. In the photograph, they are smiling and beautiful and, in some ways, completely unrecognisable from the women in the front seat. 

Throughout the film, as Thelma and Louise step further outside the law, the inevitable cliff edge approaches. Embracing their liberation means their days are numbered, but it has also allowed them to live more boldly than before. As Thelma says, “I’m wide awake. I don’t remember ever feeling this awake. Everything looks different.”

The transformative power of clothing marks this internal shift externally. The women in the photograph are neat and glamorous, but despite appearances, they are the same as the weathered women we see at the end of the film. The cost of this transformation is a death sentence (although we do not see the car land), but in many ways, the cost of remaining unchanged was the same. In Thelma & Louise, liberation is not just a story of choice, rather, the story where choice is revealed to be an illusion. As the Ford Thunderbird soars and the photograph floats upwards into the sky, it is the only way both sets of women can finally be free.
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