john waters’ 10 most stylish female characters

As his 1974 crime spree dark comedy ‘Female Trouble’ celebrates its birthday, we take a look at the Pope of Trash’s best dressed leading ladies, from Dawn Davenport to Wanda Woodward and all the cha-cha heel-wearing hell-raisers in between.

by Emily Manning
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Oct 4 2016, 9:25pm

Dawn Davenport, Female Trouble: Re-watching the final film in Waters' early 70s "Trash Trilogy" last night reminded me just how stylish its beauty-obsessed pack of Baltimore bandits is — perhaps the dastardly director's best dressed ensemble ever. Hedi Slimane likely looks to Gator's suits (especially his tiger-print wedding look) for inspiration; Taffy could open a Molly Goddard show if she packed a few more layers of cotton candy tulle on those sweet mini-dresses. Adam Selman even name dropped Cookie Mueller's chain-smoking class cutter Concetta as an inspiration for one show (but more on her and co-conspirator Chicklette later). It all makes sense: the film's leading lady, Dawn Davenport, begins her life of crime and glamor as a snarky schoolgirl who warns her parents of the hell she'll raise if she doesn't get black cha-cha heels for Christmas. Waters apparently based Dawn's look on a 1966 Diane Arbus photo of a young family on a Sunday outing in Brooklyn, and throughout the course of the film, transforms her jet black bouffant into a manic mohawk. Divine's Dawn rocks far too many winning outfits to count, but highlights include her lurex off-the-shoulder leopard print dress, striped pregnancy smock, and totally transparent wedding dress — Simone Rocha flocked dots beamed in from an alternate universe.

Chicklette and Concetta, Female Trouble: Alongside every Beyoncé is a Kelly and Michelle, and in the case of Female Trouble's murderous psychopath, Dawn Davenport, those trusted, vaguely matching confidants are Concetta and Chicklette. Played by Cookie Mueller and Susan Walsh, these two are by Dawn's side through thick and thin: sneaking cigs in the high school bathroom and threatening lame girls with pocket knives, turning tricks on the street as prostitutes, and violently mugging people — it's what best friends are for. Through it all, Chicklette and Concetta actually look amazing, and rather refined. In school, Chicklette sports a blush sweater set, Concetta a J.W. Anderson-esque ruffled top. While cheering on Dawn before she flips on a trampoline and shoots a bunch of hippies, Concetta sports a glam feather slip dress, Chicklette a transparent polka one. And as petty thugs, they rock tight leather bustiers and mesh masks. The whole film's winning approach to style can be summed up by quoting its opulent antagonist Donna Dasher: "I really should be changing my outfit anyway, I've had it on for nearly five hours."

Connie Marble, Pink Flamingos: The wildly controversial 1972 film was billed an "exercise in poor taste," but actually represented a serious step up in Waters' punk filmmaking. For one: its budget was twice that of Multiple Maniacs, Waters' previous film — from $5,000 to $10,000. It was the first feature he shot in color, and the first to include costumes and makeup by Van Smith, the man credited for designing Divine's iconic arched brows and shaved-back hairline. Both are boldly on display in the film's most iconic image: a glock-slinging Divine aiming her piece in a tight red dress, blue lids, and a highlighter yellow bouffant. Yet Pink Flamingos' most stylish character is actually Divine's rival, Connie Marble. Like a Manic Panic Bonnie and Clyde, cherry-red haired Connie and her aqua-coiffed beaux Raymond learn of Divine's title as the Filthiest Person Alive, and set out to burn her beloved trailer to the ground. Connie desperately wants to be dirty, but her super-chic cat eye glasses, crystal flower jewelry, and blue silk separates make it impossible.

Bonnie, Multiple Maniacs: Mary Vivian Pearce and David Lochary play Female Trouble's best dressed characters — the rich, glamorous, and deceptive Donald and Donna Dasher. Donald's brightly colored blouses and layers of talismanic jewels recall Alessandro Michele's maximalist Gucci; Donna's optic white sculptural gowns conjure collections by Waters' favorite designer, Rei Kawakubo. But it was Multiple Maniacs, a black-and-white film Waters made five years prior to Female Trouble's release, that set the stage for such an evil and opulent pairing. In it, Vivian Pearce plays Bonnie, a peroxide-mopped ingenue who sets out to make a new life with Lochary's Mr. David (who still looks like he's wearing Gucci, tbh). Bonnie battles Lady Divine (who Waters styled after Elizabeth Taylor) in rich velvets and demure brocades before succumbing to the orgy of destruction.

Tracy Turnblad, Hairspray: It was almost impossible to pick between Ricki Lake's breakout role as the original Hairspray's leading lady and Debbie Harry's evil Velma Von Tussle, but Tracy's cockroach-covered pale pink gown notched her above even Von Tussle's tallest Marie Antoinette wig. Tracy might have been all ratted up like a teenage Jezebel, but after landing a modeling gig for the Hefty Hideaway, her wardrobe perked up nearly as high as her hair. Tracy's flower applique bodices, lemon yellow sleeveless silhouettes, and feathery shift dresses are straight out of a fever dream Jeremy Scott had about Edward Scissorhands' neighborhood. (But make no mistake: it was Tracy's slick dance moves, body positivity, and progressive racial politics that attracted the best looking boy in school — not her clothes).

Queen Carlotta, Desperate Living: For her memorable roles in Waters' films, Dreamlander Edith Massey has rocked a lace-up catsuit (Female Trouble), preppy tennis whites (Polyester), and adult-egg-obsessed-baby lingerie (Pink Flamingos). Yet 1977's Desperate Living saw Edith in her most regal role, the evil Queen Carlotta. Though she rules over a shanty town, Carlotta kills it in hot pink brocades (take notes, Marques'Almeida), sky-high white collars, purple sashes dotted in jewels, and crowns that make those Saint Laurent tiaras look wimpy. Honorable mentions go to Mink Stole's Margiela-ish cream turtleneck, and Grizelda Brown'scommitment to sequins.

Cherish and Raven, Cecil B. Demented: My memory of Waters' 2000 kidnapping film is a little fuzzy, but it's hard to forget Maggie Gyllenhaal playing a Satanic makeup artist with a Kenneth Anger tattoo. Her glitter-covered skeleton jacket (which I'm convinced her brother Jake stole, removed all the crystals, and wore two years later in Donnie Darko) is topped only by a coat belonging to her co-star, Cherish. Alicia Witt's ex-porn star is the owner of a incredible cow-print jacket with an enormous Misfits patch on the back. Writing this story has renewed my own resolve to bring back cow print in a big way, and I invite you all to join me.

Wanda Woodward, Cry-Baby: Speaking of slammin' ex-porn stars, there's no mention to John Waters style mavens without a nod to Traci Lords' bad gal Wanda Woodward. Boxy leather biker jackets, thick cotton socks, slender button-backed skirts, pin-up dresses, and fiery red choker make Wanda and her fellow Drapes among Waters' most pared down dressers. But their slick 50s style stands the test of time as one of the director's most sartorially-referenced films. Now beat it, creeps. 

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Text Emily Manning

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