The Cult 1989 Film Providing Lessons in Suburban Style

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The Unbelievable Truth, 1989(Film still)

1989 indie production The Unbelievable Truth presented audiences with that rare combination – a multifaceted female lead who is smart, incisive and super stylish

As indie film history has it, after dropping out of university to pursue acting, Adrienne Shelly sent her headshot to every New York casting agent she could find. Serendipitously, one of them landed on the desk of producer Bruce Weiss, who was then working with Hal Hartley on his feature debut, The Unbelievable Truth. Hartley cast Shelly as the lead and just like that, a cult darling was born.

The Unbelievable Truth is set in suburban Long Island, and follows 18-year-old Audry Hugo, a whip-smart and nihilistic student who defers going to Harvard in order to pursue a modelling career as well as a love affair with handsome ex-con Josh Hutton (Robert John Burke). Hartley intended the film as a sardonic take on the political hyperconsciousness of the 80s, using the kind of disjointed, philosophising dialogue mixed with the banality of suburban life that later became his modus operandi. “What’s she talking about?” asks Audry’s father after she reads out a passage about nuclear apocalypse. “The end of the world,” answers Audry’s mother. “By the way Vic, the washing machine is busted.”

The Unbelievable Truth gave us a multifaceted female lead that 30 years on is still all too rare: a girl who can be a model, an intellectual, a flirt, a friend, and do it all while worrying about impending nuclear doom. Its wardrobe also gave us the best of 80s suburbia: here we take a look at the style lessons in this tale of love, friendship and the apocalypse.

1. Wear your existential dread on your face

Audry’s beauty has the kind of messy, lo-fi quality that many of Hartley’s later heroines (Parker Posey in Faye Grim, Aubrey Plaza in Ned Rifle) are remembered for – see her smudged red lip and sunglasses combo. Her nonchalance speaks to a greater calling – when you have nuclear extinction on your mind, you can’t also worry about your lipstick being perfect.

2. Embrace kitten heels 

Despite their reputation as the dated footwear of politicians and uninspired office dress codes, kitten heels have made a runway comeback thanks to the likes of Dior and Balenciaga. Take a leaf from Audry’s book and wear yours with leggings and a leather mini for the full 80s effect.

3. Match your headband to your outfit

Loved by high school cheerleaders, French ingénues and Hillary Clinton alike, the headband is a functional accessory, worn in The Unbelievable Truth by both Audry and her friend and older sister figure Pearl. Almost anything can be a headband: a silk scarf, a scrap of fabric. Go monochrome and match to your outfit for added suburban chic.

4. Borrow from the boys

If one item could symbolise a decade, the 1980s would be a boxy power suit. Masculine tailoring returned to the catwalk in 2017 in a big way, and shows no sign of leaving. Take inspiration from Josh Hutton, Audry’s ascetic love interest whose uniform is a tailored suit jacket and black trousers, provoking the repeated question “Are you a priest?” and answer “No I’m a mechanic”. Wear with a turtleneck – very Marc Jacobs S/S18.

5. Dress up for your friends

While the movie centres around Audry and Josh’s romance, it’s just as much about Audry’s relationship with Pearl, played by a 27-year-old Julia McNeal who was also an on-set mentor to Shelly. In one of the film’s most tender scenes the two escape Audry’s father’s birthday party, riding a bike across the night streets dressed in a full-skirted chambray dress (Pearl) and a strapless, drop-waist silk-taffeta gown (Audry). They wind up talking in Pearl’s garden, proving that you don’t always need an occasion to wear the dress – or rather, that the occasion can simply be lying on the grass with your friend until the morning.