Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Clothing and Class War in HBO's True Blood

Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer) after his graduation
to tailored suits and nigh-unchecked power
Our introduction to Russell Edgington, the principal antagonist in season three of HBO’s genre-busting vampire procedural True Blood, emphasizes two traits. First, his house, gilded and soaring and full of antiques. It establishes him as old money, versus Bill Compton’s decaying antebellum plantation, or Eric Northman’s throbbing goth dance club. Indeed, with his uncounted millennia-old artifacts, Edgington’s house calls him beyond old money: it calls him old.

But as Edgington moves through his spandrel-filled mausoleum, we can’t miss his mode of dress. His elegant silks and fitted trousers broadcast that this man would not deign to bend over to pick up a dollar. He practically shoots his cuffs in the face of anyone who would question his judgment: “How dare you impugn my wisdom,” his clothes ask. “Me, whose shirt cost more than the car you drive. My ostentation proves my worth.”

Throughout the series, clothing repeatedly serves as a shorthand for social standing. Take note of any crowd scene in Bon Temps, the fictional Louisiana town at the heart of the series. This it a town of ripped t-shirts, loose jeans, and patched denim jackets (which actually make little sense in the climate). Citizens have an apparent aversion to tucking in their shirt tails. The clothing announces that ours is a town proud of its working class roots and dirt farmer heritage.

Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) doesn't
require Dr. Freud to decipher her costume choices
The muted earth tones, often laced with moth damage, which Bill Compton favors through the first three seasons, emphasize his connection to the South, with its long memory. Southerners know history better than just about any other Americans, and feel at one with long-dead heroes. Southerners practically invented the science of genealogy. The past, in the American South, is never really gone. Bill is an undead embodiment of this fixation.

So we cannot miss the significance, in season four, when Bill transitions from his battered vintage wardrobe to Armani suits and hair pomade. Though he wears dark wool-blend coats, his shirts and ties shimmer in bright primary colors, announcing his ascension to power, and daring anyone to look away from him. The slim cut even makes him look taller. People entering his executive suite appear almost poised to kiss his ring—in part because he now has one.

The change in Bill’s wardrobe is mirrored in the change of his house. In the first three seasons, his house always resembles a work in progress, like someone trying aiming for shabby chic yet only hitting the first half. Now, as vampire King of Louisiana, he lives amid stainless steel, dark woods, and glimmering crystal. Compared to his former conditions, or his predecessor’s Vegas-style faux Mediterranean grotesque, Bill’s refurbished home exudes power.

Eric, by contrast, reeks of hedonism. Despite declarations of filial loyalty in the second and third seasons, Eric doesn’t blush to live in sensual indulgence, feeding on buxom maidens and dancing the night away in his rave club. Though he wears sport coats over t-shirts in an effort to seem hip, look closely. The drape announces tailoring, and his creases are so sharp he could shave with his cuffs. His clothes bespeak immense wealth—which he may not actually have.

Eric Northman (Alexander Skarsgard) can only
look about so bad-ass in a jacket that cost more
than my combined student debt
When Eric drinks the blood of strangers, he works to keep a drop from spilling on his clothes. Perhaps he’s remarkably fastidious. Or perhaps he can’t afford to take his blazers to the dry cleaner. Despite prestige and authority, Eric remains unsatisfied, trying to look richer than he is. What wealth he might lack, however, doesn’t impede his lifestyle. We’ve seen him exsanguinate, mangle, strangle, and otherwise massacre countless humans without consequence.

The rich really can get away with murder. At least on pay cable.

Bill, Eric, Edgington, and other vampires embody Thorstien Veblen’s principle of conspicuous consumption. This contrasts with Sookie, the central human and serial love interest. Her blonde hair and fair skin, always displayed for maximum advantage, bespeak the sun she can view, which her paramours cannot. But her clothing, favoring simple cuts and natural fibers, reflects the relative poverty of her circumstances. If Bill is the undead South, Sookie is his living alternative.

With vampires clad in climate-inappropriate designer labels, we cannot miss the symbolism when they walk amid humans wearing patched off-the-rack cotton. The implicit criticism of wealth and power, which sucks the blood of the working class (literally, in this case) reflects deeply held attitudes among the American working class. The wardrobe design on True Blood practically serves as a manifesto of economic reality in today’s South, and America in general.

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