In 1984, reeling from the critical and commercial flop of his most recent film, an adaptation of the Frank Herbert novel Dune, David Lynch vowed that his next project would be a strictly “personal” endeavour that would in no way compromise his artistic vision. The result was his 1986 masterpiece Blue Velvet (for which he accepted a lower salary on the condition that he had final cut), a film widely considered one of the American auteur’s best. It was inspired by Bobby Vinton’s 1963 cover of Tony Bennett’s hit Blue Velvet. “It wasn’t the kind of music that I really liked,” the director once explained, “but there was something mysterious about it. It made me think about things. And the first things I thought about were lawns – lawns and the neighbourhood.” And of course, it is from such visions of suburbia, complete with picket fences and cheery local radio broadcasters, that his surreal neo-noir mystery springs.
The film centres on Jeffrey Beaumont (played to perfection by Kyle MacLachlan), a college freshman, with a distinctive mop of dark brown hair and a penchant for mysteries, whose character is loosely based on Lynch himself as a young man. When Jeffrey returns home to attend to his hospitalised father, he stumbles across a severed ear lying in a field and sets out to solve the crime, assisted by the local police inspector’s daughter Sandy (a sweet and wide-eyed Laura Dern). Before long he finds himself embroiled in a sordid underworld, spearheaded by Dennis Hopper’s terrifying, gas-guzzling villain Frank Booth, who has kidnapped the husband and son of a beguiling nightclub singer called Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) and is using this as leverage for his perverse sexual desires. Vallens is one of Lynch’s most complex and unforgettable characters: a devastatingly self-destructive femme fatale, whose beauty is both her singular means of empowerment and her downfall. Here, as Blue Velvet is re-released in celebration of its 30th anniversary, we consider the legacy of Vallens and her distinct, heavily symbolic style.
The Signature Style
For Blue Velvet’s costumes, Lynch paired up with the late, great Patricia Norris, his costume designer for The Elephant Man (1980) and, as it would turn out, the majority of his future features. “Patty reads the scripts and dials into the character and dresses them, she has great taste,” he once noted. “When someone comes out of the dressing room, they are the character, the clothes are perfect.” Her sartorial choices for Vallens are a clear example of this; the chanteuse appears in four looks throughout the film, as well as one, very different outfit for her final scene, and all of these bear significant meaning.
When we first encounter Vallens – in her deep-pink-hued apartment as Jeffrey enters in the guise of a pest control man – she is wearing a red silk wraparound dress, which while sensual in tone and texture is deliberately unseductive and informal in cut (she is awaiting a visit from the enigmatic ‘yellow man’). Her hair and make-up, however, are dramatic – a voluminous curly brown wig, bright red lipstick and bold blue eyeshadow – and this will remain her signature look throughout the film. “Lynch covers the extremely beautiful Rossellini with absurdly exaggerated ‘glamour,’” Lynch scholar Martha P. Nochimson wrote on the subject, a fact that renders Vallens’ character all the more mysterious and otherworldly.
When we next see Vallens, she is at work – singing a husky, Nico-esque rendition of Blue Velvet no less. But instead of blue velvet, here she wears a revealing black lace dress that accentuates her curves, before changing into a black halterneck evening gown covered in sequins for the final act. Her ears are adorned with pearl pendants, which sparkle under the spotlight. This is Vallens in performance mode, at her most deliberately, and safely, alluring from her untouchable position on stage. In the audience, however, sits Frank clutching a square of blue velvet as an ominous hint at what is to come. Sure enough, when we return to Vallens’ apartment, where we watch the songstress undress from the vantage point of Jeffrey who has hidden in her closet, she strips down to a simple black bra and knickers, topped eventually by a blue velvet robe of the same material. As a victim of abuse, Norris, Lynch and Rossellini did not want Vallens to appear sexy in her lingerie, and indeed, the scene makes for uncomfortable viewing, revealing the character at her most vulnerable. “What I had in mind [was] the butcher shop where you see these carcasses of cows cut in the middle and open,” the actress once said, “[like] you have in Francis Bacon, these images of cows and flesh, that’s what I wanted to portray.” In the blue robe so fetishised by Frank, however, she looks extremely arresting. “Blue is my favourite colour,” Lynch noted, “and I wanted it to be in contrast with the red lipstick worn by Dorothy.”
Vallens flits between these outfits over the course of the film, according to her location and emotional state – when she arrives outside Jeffrey’s house in her underwear and in a state of extreme distress, for example it is one of the film’s most devastating scenes – and it is only at the end of the film, when she has finally found happiness, that we witness her in a totally different guise. “I see Dorothy very much as a victim and as someone who is suffering. Yes, she does get herself into this situation, and yes, she does enjoy being beaten, but she was probably totally twisted and totally crazy and sad. And she does begin to come out of it as the film ends,” Rossellini observed. In this final phase, Vallens wears a plain brown blouse, looking far less remarkable and uncanny, and more like the contented mother she can now, at last, become.
The Modern Manifestation
David Lynch’s idiosyncratic aesthetic has been widely assimilated into all strands of popular culture and the striking character of Dorothy Vallens is no exception – her strange mixture of vulnerability and sensuality, of beauty and over-the-top glamour rendering her one of cinema’s most iconic (albeit heartbreaking) heroines. Some of the most notable references to Vallens in contemporary fashion include the bold beauty looks for Kenzo’s A/W14 show (the set and soundtrack of which were conceived by Lynch himself, incidentally), where makeup artist Aaron de Mey decorated models’ lids with a bright, penetrating blue. Then there was Rei Kawakubo’s extensive use of the rich hue in billowing swathes of fabric that recall the film’s opening and closing credits for Comme des Garçons S/S16, a reference confirmed by the inclusion of Blue Velvet in the show’s soundtrack. As Tom Rasmussen pointed out in an article for Dazed, Kawakubo’s collection was inspired by witches; in other words the “misunderstood women shunned by society” that Vallens so memorably embodies.
Blue Velvet is in cinemas from December 2, 2016.