Tarantino is famous for being a multi-faceted creator; he writes his own movies, he directs them, and more often than not he puts himself in them. His films most known for their dialogue, sharp, cool, and lean, but what happens if we take that away, and look at his choices as a director, specifically focusing on costuming? Let’s take a look at the costumes and characters of Pulp Fiction (1994).
Costuming, for Tarantino, is key to the inner workings of the character, and serves as a sort of armor for them. Throughout the film, save for one character, each person is systematically stripped of their armor, revealing the true persona beneath. Let’s see Vincent (John Travolta) and Jules’ (Samuel L. Jackson) first scene:
They are in plain black suits, no-frills and professional, which is very much how they act later when they carry a hit on Bret; there is no personal vendetta, no anger, but strictly business – as Jules later says, he uses the (fictional) quote from Ezekiel 25:15 because “I just thought it was some cold-blooded shit to say to a motherfucker before I popped a cap in his ass”. Vincent sports a large gold ring in one ear, very similar to the style of Marsellus Wallace, his mentor and boss, and they appear to have a trusting relationship, what with Vincent being asked to take Wallace’s wife Mia (Uma Thurman) out on the town for a night. Vincent is emulating his hero, the cool, collected Wallace, who has everything that he wants in life: a beautiful, worldly wife, a fashionable lifestyle, a good business. Jules, on the other hand, is more self-contained and, being the more philosophic and pragmatic of the two, doesn’t sport many accoutrements other than a pinky ring, a bracelet, and a gold J on a chain. J for Jules, the judge, jury, and executioner.
Butch, styled after Aldo Ray in Nightfall, is a boxer on the wane. He has a military style, close-cropped haircut, easy and simple to take care of, especially without a permanent address. It also harkens back to the influence of his father, a POW who dies in Vietnams; it’s worth adding that his cinematic influence, Aldo Ray, was a frogman in World War II. He dresses in no-nonsense style, with a sensible, durable jacket, jeans, and what appears to be dog tags. He is a combatant, taking Marcellus’ condescending criticism silently, as well as a strategist, implied to have keyed Vincent Vega’s car after being insulted by him and swinging a rigged fight. Before he leaves for the match, we see Butch in a yellow and black robe – specially designed for the film – looking as if he is the proverbial bee about to sting his opponent, in this case both the boxer he accidentally kills and Marsellus himself.
In the scene where Butch realizes his girlfriend has forgotten to take his most prized possession, his father’s pocketwatch, with them on the run, he inexplicably changes out of a button-up shirt into a t-shirt. Why? Because his clothes are his armor. The button-up shirt is a sham; it doesn’t represent him, but rather puts forth an image of him as he’d like to be. The t-shirt and jeans are his defense, easier to take on and off, easier to wear, allowing for more flexibility in case he has to think fast, say use a gun, or a katana. There is a reason soldiers do not wear button-ups on the field.
Mia Wallace is the antithesis of a kingpin’s wife; in her only appearance, she dresses minimally, a white shirt with black coat and black pants. Her style is simple, but classic, the epitome of the saying that “true wealth whispers”; she even takes off her golden flats to dance. She pairs well with Vincent, who is in a stylized suit, complete with bolo tie, and in the dancing scene at Jack Rabbit Slims, you can even see that she is wearing matching hoop earrings.
After her overdose, she is stripped from her chic clothes and put into a drab, olive colored t-shirt, but her retro bob salvages the reminder of her fashionable life; her golden shoes are gone, her shirt is ruined with her own blood, and she may be barefoot and humbled, yet she still retains an element of casual refinement. Her character, outside of its costume and armor, remains the same.
When he see her husband, his style, too, is simplistic. He wears the same suit, or the same color suit, in the first two of his three appearances, dark grey, with a coral shirt. He means business. When we see him at leisure, in a villa with Mia walking up behind him, dressed in large sunglasses and a long robe as if she were Faye Dunaway lounging poolside, Marsellus is in a mustard-yellow turtleneck, demonstrating the character’s penchant for jewel tones, the color of simple luxury, as well as coincidentally (or not) matching Butch’s boxing robe. He, like his wife, does not demonstrate their wealth ostentatiously, but when they are stripped of its vestiges, they are unaffected by its loss and retain the most basic elements of their character. Even after her overdose, Mia is a classy woman; even after he has been sodomized by Zed, Marsellus is righteous, giving Butch one free pass to leave and never come back.
This carries over to Jules and Vincent as well. Despite ruining their suits due to Vincent accidentally “shooting Marvin in the head,” and being hosed off in a yard and put in the most unprofessional casualwear possible – a UC Santa Cruz Banana Slugs shirt and another featuring a cartoon comic – the two are contrite, humiliated by their attire and their predicament, and thus deferential to Wolfe (Harvey Keitel), situational fixer to the kingpins. They have come a long way from the cool, collected portraits they began as.
Tarantino pays special attention to Wolfe, adding meticulous shots of his costuming: a Gucci watch, a gold pen, the Acura NSX, and the man himself, dressed in a fine suit with flared lapels and a bowtie. He is not dressed for business, but presented with the spoils, all signs of success in his field. He is dressed with the reassurances of wealth, things that show he knows what he’s doing and how to do it well. He is more open about his personal wealth because he has earned it by being good at what he does, unlike Mia, who presumably married into it, and Wallace, who strong-armed his way into his fortune. Wolfe is the only one who arrives in his suit and leaves in the same suit, impeccably untouchable.
Tarantino is a director who fully encompasses that role; his films are very much a product of his attention to characterization. While his strength is not specifically in the composition of the shot, he is more of a jack-of-all-trades, instead focusing on the details that tell us more than we think. His characters come alive not only because of their dialogue but because he adds different facets that we don’t often think of, mixing and matching costuming choices from movies he’s seen before and making it come together in a cohesive collision. Their costuming, as stated before, is their armor, and speaks volumes to their personal preferences as fictional characters, almost as loudly as their actual words.