How Isabella Rossellini Ruled 1991 Thriller, Lies of the Twins

From a young Iman’s statement earrings to boxy blazers which double up as emotional armour, the film provides a lesson in early 90s style

Tim Hunt’s brooding 1991 melodrama Lies of the Twins is set at the chaotic collision of high fashion and psychology. Unremarkable though the film may be in plot, it provides a deeply satisfying synthesis of late 1980s and early 90s style.

And how could it not? There is the alabaster-skinned Isabella Rossellini in the role of its protagonist, model Rachel Marks; the iconic Iman playing her friend Cat (and stealing every scene that features her); and a series of exuberant costume department choices that see the pair in the best of pre-21st-century co-ords. Not to mention a pleasing parody of the “glamorous” world of modelling, complete with an opening shot that pans over a series of magazine spreads, all high cheekbones, red lips, and kohl-rimmed eyes. It’s a perfect premonition for the nostalgia for early 90s minimalism which would follow almost 30 years later.

The film was loosely based on a book named Lives of the Twins, written by Joyce Carol Oates under her pen name Rosamond Smith (“loosely” being the operative word: the filmmakers “changed the plot quite a bit,” Oates told an interviewer not long after it came out. “I didn’t watch it.”) and shot in Richard Harrison’s beachfront Malibu home. And though the storyline is built on glamour and excess – Hockney-blue pools, fabulous parties, chic ensembles – the façade of perfection quickly crumbles when Rachel, after falling in love with her therapist, Jonathan, discovers he has a secret, estranged, and decidedly more controlling identical brother, James.

The pair’s charged sibling rivalry soon comes to a head, with Rachel embroiled at the heart of it – all of which serves to underscore the assertion that looks can be, and usually are, deceiving. “You can look at a surface and tell a great deal,” notes Rachel’s agent – who, one imagines, would know a fair amount about it. “After all, that’s all we have to look at isn’t it?” It remains a modern message. Here, we unpick the motifs at hand to see what sartorial (and emotional) insights might be gleaned.

1. Acceptance isn’t everything

“I don’t belong here,” Rachel bemoans, attending a party for Jonathan’s psychiatrist colleagues. “They talk to me like I’m a pet.” And while her frustration with finding herself outside of her comfort zone is not unfamiliar, Jonathan’s consolation seems to add insult to injury. “That’s one of the reasons I love you,” he says. “You’re different.” Far from rendering her inferior to his academic peers, Rachel’s occupation in the fashion industry marks her out as interesting to her lover, and reminds onlookers that fitting in is not everything. Much better to be the odd one out than constantly seeking acceptance in a society which rewards those who blend in.

2. Statement earrings are here to stay

Statement earrings have seen an impassioned revival over recent seasons and Rachel makes a solid case that it continue, serving layered drops that brush, glittering, over her clavicles, their glitz juxtaposed with her angular dark bob. Her jewellery seems to underscore her emotional state, and she’s in good company: when she storms onto the balcony, she’s met by a similarly well-decorated woman, herself wearing a pair of impressive gold discs, who provides the first real clue as to why the twins’ relationship is so fraught. Meanwhile Iman’s character Cat is naturally never seen without her ornate earrings. With jewellery this good, who needs emotional literacy?

3. Big up your blazer

The 90s gave us plenty in the way of sartorial teachings, but the potent power of a boxy blazer might top that list. When in need of emotional armour, Rossellini’s Rachel teams a bold white number with a little black dress for a feminine take on the power suit. Here it serves to build her defences against the men who have come to rule her romantic life, but such a pairing is just as well-suited to a bar or a boardroom. 

4. ...Or even better, find yourself a two-piece suit 

Alicia Silverstone’s Cher in 1995 film classic Clueless is all too often hailed for marking the checked two-piece’s arrival onto the big screen, but that film would do well to pay tribute to its predecessor, in Cat’s red dogtooth co-ord. Rachel quickly learns that matching outfits nod to a similarly put-together personal life: as she attempts to untangle herself from the lives of both brothers, she switches from floral ensembles and bodycon dresses to masculine tailoring, with a wide-legged two-piece. They might prove tricky for Rachel in her love life, but in her wardrobe, her twinned two-pieces suit her perfectly.

5. Get your beauty sleep

“For God’s sake get some sleep!” Rachel’s agent bemoans, on seeing her exhausted face. “If you were a squirrel I would suggest that you hibernate for the winter.” Sleep has long been considered one of nature’s most powerful beautifying forces, and as Rossellini’s protagonist deftly demonstrates, if you’re not getting your eight hours, it shows. “Enough of this, Anna Karenina,” her agent continues. “I mean take a pill if you have to, but sleep!” Don’t let any lover come between you and your beauty sleep.