Photo: ©Sony Pictures Classics / Courtesy Everett Collection
When COVID-19 became a national crisis and people across the country were first forced to begin social distancing in their homes, I found myself picturing the final scene of Todd Haynes’s seminal 1995 film Safe. The main character, Carol White (played by Julianne Moore), is alone, dressed in unbleached cotton, looking at her reflection in the mirror of her small, domelike safe house as she tries to muster up positivity in the face of her spiraling health. Carol was one of the few examples I could think of who could provide a framework for dressing for solitude, as suddenly all of the blazers and slacks hanging up in my closet no longer made much sense to just wear around my apartment.
Haynes set his film in 1987, and it follows White, a San Fernando Valley housewife who finds herself struggling to breathe as her doctors insist that nothing is wrong with her. She self-diagnoses her illness to be a reaction to chemicals surrounding her, or as being “allergic to the 20th century,” as a flyer that she finds at her gym promoting a New Age desert retreat for chemically sensitive individuals explains it. Carol determines that almost everything in her life, from her new sea-foam-green couch to her baby-pink, broad-shouldered polyester wardrobe, is to blame for her deteriorating health. Her whole life shifts as a result, but so do her clothes, in a way that’s eerily familiar to me. Though Carol isn’t fighting a contagious disease, there’s the same all-pervasive fear of a silent, unknowable enemy. In the face of this, Carol, like many of us right now, turns to comfortable clothing for relief.
©Sony Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection
Carol’s breathy, eerily vacuous voice barely registers above a whisper throughout the film, and her outfits are just as subdued as her overall presence. The film’s costume designer, Nancy Steiner, says that early on in the process, she and Haynes settled on a pastel color palette. Steiner is responsible for some indelible alternative fashion moments—she put Kurt Cobain in that iconic green cardigan; styled music videos for Björk, No Doubt, and Nirvana; and did the costumes for The Virgin Suicides and Lost In Translation—but Safe was her first feature film. She had a shoestring budget and got most of the clothes from thrift stores.
“We started making the movie in 1993 or 1994, and I was quite lucky because it was set just five years prior, and all the 1980s clothes were already in the thrift stores,” Steiner says of the floral-patterned blouses and shoulder-pad-accented sweaters and dresses that Carol wears early in the film. “She was definitely a pastel girl,” Steiner says of Carol from her home in Los Angeles, where just a few days before, she rewatched Safe for the first time in almost a decade. “She was just kind of that perfect Valley mom. No matter what was going on, she was put together.”
SAFE, Julianne Moore, 1995Photo: ©Sony Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection
As she gets sicker, though, Carol’s style subtly shifts. Over time, and certainly once she starts to live at the desert retreat full-time, her look becomes much more clinical. By the end of the film, her wardrobe is exclusively made up of unbleached cotton loungewear in soothing whites and baby pinks. It’s not made explicit in the film, but Steiner says that Carol starts to wear all unbleached cotton, linen, and other natural fibers so that she can avoid any potential allergic reactions.
When Haynes’s film came out in the mid-90s, most viewers cast the story of Carol’s mysterious illness in the context of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. In an interview with The Dissolve from 2014, Haynes acknowledged the HIV/AIDS subtext that would have been immediately apparent to viewers in 1995 doesn’t come across as strongly as it did almost two decades later, but the all-encompassing fear that Carol fears is still relatable. “I wanted to bring up the behavior that we all exhibit around illness, particularly in the way we try to attach meaning and personal responsibility to illness and how much illness and identity are mixed up with each other,” he said. “Safe feels like this allegory about all kinds of indeterminate and imprecise notions of health, well-being, and immunity in peril.”
Photo: ©Sony Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection
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