the mad max costumes are ferociously feminist

Why Charlize Theron’s buzz cut and asymmetric shoulder pads matter.

by Jeremy Lewis
04 June 2015, 7:00pm

It's been 30 years since Beyond Thunderdome, the last installment of the landmark Mad Max film franchise, starring Mel Gibson as a noble vigilante in the barren and surreal outback. The first three Mad Max films were not only a pop cultural phenomenon but also a fashion force. In the throes of the 80s the costumes defined the look of future peril. They would become the essential reference for nearly every other post-apocalyptic film that came after, from Waterworld to The Matrix. The "scavenged and wanderlust" aesthetic presaged the grunge movement of the 90s and the seminal anti-fashion aesthetic of Martin Margiela. The clothes were not totally unlike what you might find in collections by Marques'Almeida, Vetements or Hood by Air today. In short, the films birthed a fashion genre of their own ("dystopian chic" has a nice ring to it). And now, after 30 years, the franchise returns with another chapter, Fury Road.

The new film, by original Mad Max director George Miller, comes at a time when the desperation of a ruined world is far more relatable. Humanity's environmental devastation of the planet has been confirmed and, despite the end of the Cold War, the threat of nuclear destruction is still believable. The world of Mad Max, revisited in 2015, is significantly more real and as a result the costumes are that much more potent.

Highly regarded designer Jenny Beavan costumed the film. Known for her work on the Merchant Ivory films of the 80s (Maurice, A Room With A View, The Bostonians), she is the queen supreme of period costume. Beavan's expertise in antiquated dress makes Mad Max an interesting exercise. While for previous projects she was charged with recreating the past, here she breaks the niceties of civilization down and rebuilds — just as the future societies of the outback have been decimated and regrouped. It's a whole new world.

Still, Beavan's apocalyptic future takes its cues from the original Mad Max films: tattered rags, harnesses, chest pieces, cargo pockets galore, and for Max, now played by Tom Hardy, a lot of leather. But missing from the new film are the gargantuan 80s shapes and decorative hyperbole. The richness and power of the clothes come instead from a careful manipulation of the fabrics to mimic real wear and tear. It is very much Mad Max for 2015. And while the first three films, in hindsight, read a bit camp, the new addition feels particularly real.

In the original trilogy, Mel Gibson, dressed in all black leather, was the fashion posterboy. But in Fury Road it is Charlize Theron's character, Furiosa, who is the star. Furiosa is the lone female warrior within a tribe of bloodlusting derelicts. Dressed in makeshift tactical attire and an asymmetrical shoulder pad (a signature look of the Mad Max films originally taken from American football uniforms), she is every bit as fierce as her name suggests. Yet her most compelling style statement is buzzed hair and a war-painted face, from which her jeweled eyes glow, bouncing back the light of the setting desert sun. Her unassuming, almost hidden beauty is alluring. Should you be so lucky to have eyes like Theron's, a buzzed scalp might be a style worth considering.

In contrast to Furiosa are the maidens she is trying to shuttle to safety, away from the film's antagonist, Immortan Joe (played by Hugh Keays-Byrne). Used for a selective breeding program, they are valued for their genetic purity and are dressed like nymphs wrapped in pure white fabric. Vaguely Grecian, they call to mind John Galliano's 1985 "Ludic Games" collection. The fashionable look of the maidens is amplified by their casting: they include model Abbey Lee and Victoria's Secret bombshell Rosie Huntington-Whiteley. It's a peculiar decision, given that none of the actresses have the robust physical forms normally associated with fertility cults (i.e. Venus of Willendorf). But perhaps in a desert apocalypse a svelte calorie-shedding physique is the ideal.

The film's best fashion moment, however, doesn't happen until towards the end (SPOILER ALERT) when Furiosa finally reaches the "promise land" with the maidens and encounters the elder women of her former tribe. The trinity of the female life cycle: maiden, mother and crone, one of the many pagan subtexts of the film, is complete. Of the three, the "crones" are the not only the wisest but also the strongest. They are empowered and inspiring, and dressed in slim moto gear. In fact, there is something familiar about them, something very close to fashion. They look not all that different from Rick Owens' wife Michele Lamy, whose look is one-part space nun and one-part primordial witch. And perhaps for the first time in movie history her aesthetic and whole being is given a totally believable context. You could easily imagine her in the film riding a dirt bike and slaying with the best of them.

Fury Road is being heralded as one of the best sci-fi films ever made and it may very well be. Though the costumes are not as stylized as its predecessors' they are much more real and therefore powerful. The overall message of female empowerment supersedes any stylistic interest. The new look for the post-apocalyptic future is a strong woman, and that's perhaps as chic it gets.


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Text Jeremy Lewis
Still from Mad Max: Fury Road

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Charlize Theron
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