Notes on fashion, style and culture

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Breaking Bad – the baddest wardrobe in television

My favourite show of the moment is AMC’s Breaking Bad, currently filming its fifth and (sadly) final season. The premise of the show is intriguing – a high-school chemistry teacher discovers he has terminal cancer and embarks on a mission, with the help of one of his drug-addicted ex-students, to ensure his family are provided for by becoming a meth ‘cook’. Despite the outlandish and potentially depressing subject matter, the show manages to be both believable and incredibly funny.

The show’s success is down not just to the fine writing and acting, but to the remarkable attention to detail. The series creator, Vince Gilligan, is by all accounts an extreme perfectionist – evident not just in the writing but in every aspect of the show – in particular the thought that goes into each character’s clothing. This goes for not just the main characters but the wordless walk-on actors.

Arguably, the character with the most memorable wardrobe is that of cheesy bent lawyer, Saul Goodman (S’all Good man!) Saul’s dress sense is similar to that of Robert De Niro’s character, Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein, in Casino – an outdated, loud bad taste. But expensive and somehow co-ordinated and clashing at the same time. The character’s socks, handkerchief and tie are all in garish tones – salmon pinks, turquoises and yellow golds (worn at the same time).

Kathleen Detoro, the award-nominated costume designer on the show, describes Saul’s style thus: ‘[Vince and I] talked about a guy that has all this money, but doesn’t know how to dress. Whatever color I was using, I would also use the opposite on the color wheel, which you would not normally ever do. And Vince would make me make something be off on him, like his pocket squares not match, which really goes against my nature. I would dye socks all the time, just really odd colors. Who would have those socks? Does he have them made? We do an extended French cuff on his sleeve and his cuff links are the scales of justice. I mean, who wears the scales of justice on their cuff links.’

In discussing the outfits of hit-men Marco and Leonel (The Cousins) Detoro states that from their skull-tipped boots to their shiny suits, their clothes ‘became a character’ in themselves. The Cousins are recognized by their boots before we even see them in shot. While the idea behind the blood red skull-tipped boot is that where they tread, death follows in their wake.

The care and attention placed on what the characters wear and what this means is also noted by journalist David Segal, in his article ‘The Dark Art of Breaking Bad’ for The New York Times, when he was invited down to the set for filming. He describes a scene where Vince Gilligan was watching intently as a crew member tried out a variety of sunglasses on a young Latino extra with a non-speaking role:

‘I like that one’ he said when the first pair of dark wraparounds were put on the actor’s face.
On went the second. ‘Not as good as the first,’ Gilligan said.
Then the third. ‘Not as good as the first,’ Gilligan repeated.
A fourth. ‘Let’s go with the first.’

According to Segal this ‘is an abbreviated version of a process that Gilligan goes through with virtually every article of clothing, every choice of color, every prop and every extra who appears in Breaking Bad. “You see this shirt” said Dean Norris, who plays Hank Schrader...Vince had to see five versions of it before he chose it. Five different shades of a gray T-shirt. That’s unique,” he said, heading into the house. “That’s beyond.”’

In an interview alongside Bryan Cranston who plays Walter White, his leading character, Vince Gilligan discusses the use of colour in the show in more detail: ‘There is definitely thought behind it. I love that question. Ever since our pilot, we’ve done this. I don’t know entirely what it means. But I do like all of our characters having a somewhat different color palate. Going back to the pilot, I have had wonderful help from our production designers. They have a lot to say about the colors of our show. And our wonderful costume designer. She also has quite a bit of input into these various color choices.

‘Dating back to the pilot, Walt starts off in monochromatic beiges. And straw colors. He then goes a little green in his color palate towards the end of the pilot. We do that throughout. We have a meeting every season with the costume designer and the production designers. We talk colors. What colors are we going to move the characters into? The colors change and move with the characters and their moods. Except for Marie. She has a fetish for the color purple. That hasn’t changed. She is the most constant character color wise.’

‘Like I said Walt has gone from beige to green, to black tones now. Jesse has gone from yellows and reds into a darker palate. It gets a little complicated. We had Walt go into some blue colors this season. Which was previously Skyler’s color. We have Skyler going from blues into greens. The idea behind it is how they are moving apart. Rather than moving together. He is chasing her, thus he is moving into her blue color palate. She is going into something new. It all sounds like artsy-fartsy talk on my part. Hopefully not. We do put a lot of thought into it. It’s not in your face.

‘As a viewer, hopefully, it’s subtle. It may be something you pick up on or not. Your appreciation of the show doesn’t in any way rely on noticing these things. But they are there to be noticed, nonetheless, which is up to the viewer to pick up on it or not. We do spend time thinking about this stuff. We do spend a lot of time thinking about the color palate of each character and what it means.’

The fact that so much thought goes into something that the viewer might not even pick up on is testimony to the love and care put into the show. One doesn’t come away from Breaking Bad feeling you’ve watched another churned-out TV show – it’s more like watching a film. It’s so densely layered that you can watch it over and over and find new things each time.

Fan forums are awash with debate on the meaning of colour – from what the characters wear to the colour of the walls in Saul’s office. Gilligan has confirmed that each character started out with a signature colour on this series. Skyler starts out dressed in blue, which she wears predominantly for the first series. Walter wears shades of beige in the pilot, but by the end of the episode is wearing green – the colour of money and greed and, in later seasons, black – representing danger and death.

In later seasons, Skyler moves to wearing green and Walt incorporates some blue into his wardrobe  – essentially trading colours. This, according to Gilligan, conveys the separate directions they are going in their marriage, as well as portraying Skyler’s acceptance of the illegally gained money.

Walter’s forays into the blue palate show him desperately trying to cling on to Skyler – it is also the colour of his top-notch personal brand of meth. Blue is also the opposite colour in the colour spectrum to yellow, which is the colour of the Los Pollos uniform we see Gus in. When Gus and Walt become enemies in later seasons, Walt is in blue highlighting their fractious relationship. Gus, the criminal mastermind drugs baron with the veneer of a respectable businessman, is also morally on the opposite side of the spectrum to the blue-clad Skyler of Season One. On Gus, yellow takes on a sinister edge, its sunny exterior contrasting with the dark and menacing true nature of the man beneath.

Walt Junior is almost always in stripes, possibly suggesting his conflicted nature – he is torn between his love for his mother and his loyalty to his now-criminal father. When the White’s daughter is born, pink is introduced to the spectrum. Jessie starts off wearing yellows and reds. The color red flashes throughout the show as a bold warning sign of associated criminality. In the beginning, Jesse (who was nothing more than a junkie drug-dealer in his early days), wore a lot of red and drove a red car with big furry red dice hanging from his rear-view mirror. In the fourth season, everything is red in the superlab Walt and Jessie work in (most noticeably the glaring red lights at the door). The furniture in Walt's new apartment is red, as is the giant ‘BETTER CALL SAUL!’ sign on the roof of Saul’s building.

When he is in recovery, Jesse wears grey, later moving on to similar muted colours. Grey is also the colour of Walt’s Aztek car in Season Three which was specially painted by Gilligan’s teams to make it not just noticeably drab, but to make it blend into the background, delineating Walt’s desire to hide and attempt to fit into the mainstream. Grey, the result of mixing black and white – danger and purity – can be seen to represent the halfway shade of the everyman. The average Joe is made of measures of good and bad – shades of grey. We also note that Walt’s Aztek seems to suffer damage to its bodywork (especially the windshield) when he himself is experiencing emotional trauma, conflict or stress.

Walter’s former partners are Gretchen & Elliot Schwartz (a play on schwarz being German for black) and their business is called Gray Matter. This is a play on the last names ‘White’ and ‘Schwartz’. Gray Matter, is a successful pharmaceutical company co-founded by Walter. Walter blames Elliott and Gretchen for stealing his research and becoming millionaires in the process. Elliott offers to pay for Walter's treatment – possibly out of guilt – which Walter declines, however, he tells Skyler he has accepted. Gray Matter is initially used to conceal from Skyler the fact that he is paying for his treatment himself through his illegally gotten gains. Grey again, is the colour of concealment and lies, and Elliot is the dubious grey everyman who according to Walter’s version of events, ripped off his friend to set up his legitimate business – delineating the shades of grey in every legitimate business, and in every man. As his dangerous alter-ego, Heisenberg, Walt dresses in death-dealing black, with a black hat and shades, or in shades of grey, highlighting his moral ambiguity when in character. This clearly differentiates between not only how we see Walt and his evil creation, but allows him to morally distance himself from the actions he carries out as Heisenberg.

Other colour patterns show up during the series. The DEA agents, Hank and Gomez, wear orange, the colour representing the police. After his accident when he is no longer able to work, Hank is put in more muted shades of brown, as if to reflect his bitterness at no longer being a fully-fledged member of the force. Marie is always in purple and many of the other doctors on the show are seen in it as well. Jane, the recovering heroin addict, wears black, the representation of danger and death.

Saul’s color is gold. He is rarely without his gold pocket-handkerchief. If he is, he has on a mustard gold-coloured shirt under his suit. The Constitution in his office is illuminated with golden lights. And if that is too subtle, there is a banker’s lamp on Saul’s desk where the traditional green shade has been replaced with a golden shade. He wears gold jewellery – most notably the gold cufflinks of the scales of justice. For Saul, justice is a means to money and money equals power and bad clothes.

Although gold is his mainstay, he often wears clashing colours. Kathleen Detoro confirms this is definitely part of his get-up. Something is always ‘off’ whether it be handkerchief and tie from opposite ends of the colour spectrum, or a particularly bolshie pair of socks. Saul’s slippery nature in the pursuit of wealth sees him backing all the players in the game until he can side with the winner at the end. His duality in working for (and taking money from) opposing teams is represented in his clashing clothes.

The striking use of clothes and colour in Breaking Bad to identify character and reflect the narrative is one of the most interesting and appealing aspects of the show. It has echoes in the era of silent films, when clothes had to do the speaking that the actors could not. Charlie Chaplin once stated of his famous ‘tramp’ costume: ‘I had no idea of the character. But the moment I was dressed, the clothes and the make-up made me feel the person he was. I began to know him, and by the time I walked onto the stage he was fully born.’

Similarly, in Breaking Bad clothes and colour don’t just make the man. They are the man.

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