Growing up in a dull suburb, I primarily occupied myself by fantasizing about every bored teenager’s favourite subject: becoming an adult and moving to the city.
This was pre-streaming and pre-social media, so my ideal form of escapism involved going to the public library every week and renting movies. (I never said I was a cool teen.) I loved the ritual of spinning the wire racks and combing through each alphabetized section, first making intuitive decisions based on covers that appealed to me, then learning to build my tastes more deliberately. If movies were the most reliable way to temporarily transport myself, then Pedro Almodóvar’s were the most reliable of all.
Often set in Madrid, where the director flourished during the electrifying years following the downfall of Spanish fascism, Almodóvar’s movies captured a world unlike any I had ever seen before. Men were women, women were dramatic, nuns got pregnant, beautiful matadors suddenly fell into comas, and everyone was obsessed with their mothers. A world so vivid needs clothes to match: preposterously bright colors and maximalism to the nth degree. In Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, this meant a tomato-red dress and kitschy miniature Moka pot earrings; in Law of Desire, a flamingo-pink shirt paired with the most perfect bolo tie known to man; and in Bad Education, Gael García Bernal swanning around in a form-fitting sequin gown. The clothes bolstered the narrative, but were also strong enough to hold their own within it. Above all, the costumes—miles away from the Ugg boots and North Face jackets that surrounded me—represented unfettered adulthood.
Eventually I did become an adult and moved to the city, but I kept watching Almodóvar. His movies remained lush but grew more restrained; the storylines were less playful and zany and more preoccupied with estrangement and aging and death. The looks weren’t as outrageous either, but he retained a high fashion pedigree, enlisting Gaultier to create nude body stockings for The Skin I Live In and dressing Penélope Cruz exclusively in Chanel in Broken Embraces. One memorable one to come to mind is the burgundy suit and printed silk top on Antonio Banderas-as-Almodóvar-proxy in 2019’s Pain and Glory.
Then I watched Almodóvar’s latest (and his first English-language) undertaking, The Human Voice, which debuts in the States on March 12th and stars Tilda Swinton as a woman … on the verge of a nervous breakdown. (Old habits die hard.) Her partner has suddenly left her and their dog, and she’s adrift and in shock. But the clothes! The film is barely thirty minutes long, but features no fewer than six outfit changes. They includes Almodóvar’s favored tomato-red shade, in the form of a Balenciaga dome dress; a masculine, monochromatic cobalt Balenciaga suit worn to the hardware store; and a Dries Van Noten ensemble of gold lamé pants and a black leather jacket that Swinton’s character picks out right before the dramatic final scene (no spoilers but, in Almodóvar’s universe, it’s par for the course). It is vintage Almodóvar sensibility, filtered through the present.
Some trademark Almodóvar Red in The Human Voice.
Wanting to know more about the thinking behind the wardrobe, I emailed costume designer Sonia Grande. “Pedro hates boring and conventional clothes,” she told me. “Fashion has to surprise and fall in love and tell things. He is very graphic and has great taste and is extremely particular with prints, even when the character lives a very wrong life with fashion. He is extremely detailed, curious, and very, very picky about every image.”
Grande would know: she’s worked with Almodóvar on several films now, starting with Talk to Her in 2002. I asked for her take on how his onscreen fashion has evolved over time. “I think he has evolved a lot in this regard … I would say that now he is looking for other concepts that are cleaner and much more refined,” she said. “Everything has changed. We are no longer in the ‘80s, we are not the same and staying there would not make sense. Goodbye ‘80s. In any case, his work mirrors beautifully how Spain itself has changed these last forty years.”
I was most curious about the frequency of the outfit changes in The Human Voice. After all, this is a character supposedly so heartbroken and depressed that she can barely stand to do anything else, but who remains impeccably dressed. “The short does not move in a naturalistic register,” Grande explained, “and therefore it is not necessary to reflect the suffering through a careless appearance. Not changing her clothes would be imitating what many people in real life identify with despair. We have not worked on that register.” As for that final Dries look, it was meant to symbolize “a radical change in the way of thinking and behaving of the character, a recovery of self-esteem, a woman much more empowered and much more punk.”
The Dries look in the final scene of The Human Voice.
© Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
It was not lost on me, as I watched The Human Voice in the dead of a pandemic winter, that I found myself in circumstances not dissimilar to those when I first discovered the director: stuck in the house more often than I’d like, my world feeling unbearably drab. The years from then to now accordioned into each other and then out again, and I stared down the gap between the kind of adult I thought I would be and the one that I actually am. I don’t need to tick off a laundry list of blessings and disappointments, but I’ll say that I do wear a lot more black than I thought I would.
But The Human Voice also reminded me of something else that fashion represents in Almodóvar’s films: optimism. In a 1994 New York Times article on the subject, the director talks about dressing the main character in 1993’s Kika like so: “Kika tries to find the best in life and sometimes life is presented to her in an ugly way, which she needs to make up.” (He added, “For me a way of expressing optimism on the outside is large cleavages.”) Perhaps the most grounded part of Almodóvar’s fantastical work is the way that, while terrible things keep happening to his characters, their clothes reliably provide a sort of armor and escape. They’re there even if your partner has left you, or you’ve been kidnapped by a madman, or you’re hiding your husband’s body in a deep freezer. Or if you’re just getting older.
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