Fashion & Italian Horror: Tenebrae (1982)

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

The films of Dario Argento are renowned for their distinctive use of colour and their lavish, excessive style. This visual style is perfectly captured in Argento's seminal work, Suspiria (1977) which is characterised by its kaleidoscopic visuals and use of colour. I discussed the fashion of Suspiria in my first fashion & Italian horror post and have decided for my follow up post to discuss Argento's 1982 film, Tenebrae, a film which is stylistically opposite to Suspiria. Whereas Suspiria featured loud primary colours, baroque buildings and interiors alongside dreamy fairy tale fashion, Tenebrae dismisses all of these elements. Tenebrae is lit in harsh white light, its version of Rome is filled with Brutalist style concrete structures and features simple fashions in a palette of bright whites and pale colours. Despite Argento's reputation as a lover of elaborate and colourful visual styles, Tenebrae shows that Argento could successfully take on a very different aesthetic proving that he could develop other styles while retaining his core ideas and visual flourishes. Throughout this post I aim to examine how fashion, as well as setting, is used throughout the film in order to highlight the film's over arching aesthetic and ideas.

When considering the overall aesthetic of Tenebrae it is of vital importance to understand Argento's vision for the film. In subsequent interviews since its release, Argento has described Tenebrae as a film that takes place fifteen years in the future (1997) some time after the detonation of an atomic bomb in the vicinity of Rome that significantly reduced the population of the city.Whereas the majority of Argento's films take place in cities filled with ancient, classically Roman/Italian architecture, in the Rome of Tenebrae all of the buildings featured are modern constructions often in the Brutalist style. By featuring modern looking buildings, Argento creates a version of Rome that seems alien to what we as the viewer are used to thus creating an almost disorientating effect where we feel distanced from something that's supposedly familiar. The use of modern architecture reflects this idea of an atomic bomb decimating part of Italy - all of Italy's history has been destroyed and in its place is a new world filled purely with contemporary structures. The overwhelming use of concrete buildings creates a hardened, stark city that seems to have been designed to be resilient to future threats. The Rome of Tenebrae has little character and seems to be carefully designed and planned which is particularly evident in the plaza where Bullmer is fatally stabbed The colour, style and distinctiveness of Rome has disappeared, the essence of the city is gone. This idea is particularly relevant when we discuss the fashions within the film and how they compliment the bleak, stark futuristic setting of Tenebrae.

Brutalist style, concrete structures in Rome

When we think of seventies fashion and 1970s gialli costuming, we think of the absurd fashions that characterised the films of Sergio Martino and Luciano Ercoli. Lavish and wild fashions were abundant in the spaghetti thrillers of the 1970s and our heroes and heroines were often adorned in ridiculous fashions that were completely at odds with the real world of the time. Characters in these films were often women of leisure like Minou in Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion, fashion models such as Valentina in Death Walks at Midnight or creative types like photographer, Kitty Wildenbruck in The Red Queen Kills 7 Times. In the world of gialli, life was one big frivolous fantasy world full of excess and glamour. In the world of Tenebrae, we're very much grounded in reality where even the glamorous world of writers and talk show hosts is plagued by formality and business. This concept is reflected in the costuming of Tenebrae where our female characters are dressed demurely in feminine, pastel colours and simple yet elegant tailoring. There's a professional look to all of the female characters in Tenebrae with the small exceptions of teenager, Maria and Marion. Even shoplifter, Elsa Manni, is presented to us in a chic yet polished tailored blouse and flared hem pencil skirt and patent heels.

Elsa Manni

The costuming in Tenebrae perfectly matches Luciano Tovoli's cinamatography reflecting the bright whites and stark lighting used throughout the film. The costume design of the film was created by Pierangelo Cicoletti who previously worked as costume designer for Suspiria. In Tenebrae he goes for a style that is a complete contrast to his work on Argento's 1977 supernatural horror. Tovoli's cinematography is reflected in the costuming which matches the bright white aesthetic of the film. A palette of pastel colours is used to compliment the white interiors, exteriors and lighting used in the film whereas red is used as an important key colour used in the violent set pieces as well as in more subtle objects as well as the infamous pair of red high heels which are a significant image in the film. I have made a colour palette to highlight the key colours used throughout the film in relation to the female characters and their outfits. Looking at the colour palette you can easily see which colours represent which characters and the outfits that they wear. With the exception of the red and goldy brown, it is evident that the film uses a muted colour palette in its costuming.

Colour Palette for Tenebrae (1982)

The underlying theme of Tenebrae is sexual deviancy and perversion. Both killers in Tenebrae have sexual motives for their crimes - our first killer murders to rid the world of sexual deviancy and our second killer murders because of a past trauma where he was sexually humiliated as a teenager. Sex is the motive that drives both killers to their murderous deeds and motivates them to continue killing. In the world of Tenebrae sex is everything and sex is something shameful, hurtful and destructive - sex isn't carefree and fun like in the gialli of the seventies instead it represents humiliation - "every humiliation which stood in his way could be swept aside through this simple act of annihilation:murder" as stated in Tenebrae the novel. With Tenebrae being Argento's most sexual film, Cicoletti's styling of the female characters helps to highlight the importance of sex in a subtle yet relevant context without resorting to tropes associated with sexual deviancy and perversion. Tenebrae explores the concept of sexual deviancy and perversion though its characters - Elsa Manni uses sex to get off shoplifting charges, Marion has multiple sexual partners, Tilde and Marion are lesbians, the woman the killer targets before his demise is a prostitute and the unnamed girl from Rhode Island uses her sexuality to engage in group sex and sexually humiliate another man. Despite the sexual "perversities" and actions of these women, they are all presented as respectable and polished members of society (bar Marion). Cicoletti avoids the stereotypical tropes associated with sexual deviancy - leather, fishnets, short skirts, revealing necklines and instead dresses the women of Tenebrae in respectable looking outfits despite their sexual "kinks", interests and persuasions. This reflects the sexual perversity in us all and what lurks beneath the respectable surface. Despite the killer's archaic views on female sexuality, the women who engage in such behaviour are perfectly normal women who are successful, functioning members of society. Even the prostitute featured in the film appears to be a respectable pretty young woman, dressing in a modest long sleeved lemon top accessorised with delicate jewellery. The killers see these women as deviants yet to us the viewer they look like any woman you would walk past on the street. The contrast between these women's sexual behaviour in comparison to the way they present themselves to the outer world helps achieve this idea of what's on the surface versus what lies underneath.


I will now examine some of the various styles of fashion used in the film as well as hair, make up and accessories all listed under some handy sub headings.

Tea dresses 

Anne and Jane both wear cream midi length tea dresses at different points in the film. Both dresses are belted at the waist with cream belts and have small floral patterns across the fabric. The dresses have a beautiful throw back feel to them and are very demure and feminine almost looking like something a stereotypical "wife" would wear. I find this of particular interest considering the similarities between the two characters and the romantic connotations of them both in relation to Peter - Jane is Peter's ex wife and Anne is Peter's assistant/new lover. It's interesting that Peter's old love interest and new love interest are styled in a strikingly similar way perhaps suggesting that Jane and Anne aren't as different as their behaviour leads you to believe. Perhaps this even works as a signifier to the control that Peter has over the two women? This is particularly true of Anne's scene in the dress where she mocks Peter's fussy requirements for pillows and then shouts out to him that she'll get him a new one.

Anne and Jane

Pastel colours 

Whites and creams are the predominant colours used throughout the fashions of Tenebrae and are typically complimented with pastel shades. This creates a soft colour palette throughout the film and makes the use of red in later scenes really pop. Pastel colours accentuate the bleached out, brightly lit style of cinematography used by Tovoli throughout Tenebrae. Washed out cyan blue, candyfloss pink, lemon and pale sea green are all used to effectively create this pastel colour scheme. Pastels not only work aesthetically at heightening the stark white look of Tenebrae but they all accentuate the femininity of the female characters. Pastel colours in the 1980s were associated with preppy, monied types so perhaps the extensive use of pastel coloured fashion suggests that the world Tenebrae takes place in is one of money - after all, the women featured all seem to be career woman/well educated or aspirational. Does this suggest that the lesser off, working class types disappeared after the atomic disaster that created this version of Rome?

From Clockwise: Elsa, Tilde, Anne and unnamed prostitute in a variety of pastel colours

Female Tailoring

The men in Tenebrae all wear suits and tailored clothing but unusually for a giallo film, the female characters also wear suits and formal tailored outfits. As previously mentioned, Tenebrae rejects the garish fashions of 1970s Italian cinema and instead opts for a more muted palette, suiting the tailored style used throughout the film perfectly. The blouse is a key wardrobe item throughout Tenebrae and we see light coloured blouses worn by Elsa, Anne and Detective Altieri. The typically early 80s pussy bow collar is used multiple times in the film and is worn by Detective Altieri as well as Tilde as part of her pleated cream dress. The styling of the men and women in similar attire suggests to me that in Argento's vision of 1997, men and women adopt closer dress styles and that the division of men and women is perhaps less apparent in this time. Of course, the sexist comments of detective Germani may undermine this argument although his female colleague doesn't dress in a too dissimilar fashion. As mentioned above, the career women and their professional looks are achieved through the use of tailored outfits and suits suggests that in Argento's Rome of 1997, the wealthy are the seen members of society.

All White 

As already discussed, white and red are the main colours in Tenebrae. In terms of the individual style of characters, red is used as a highlighting colour typically through make up but also in the case of Jane and the unnamed girl in Rhode Island, in footwear. In order to highlight Tovoli's bright white cinematography, Cicoletti dresses the female characters predominantly in white to accentuate the starkness of the interiors, exteriors and lighting used. The victims in murder scenes are dressed in white to create a more dramatic look in the violent, blood drenched death scenes.

White tailored outfits as worn by Tilde, unnamed woman from Rhode Island, Anne and Tilde


Although I'm mainly focusing on the fashions worn by the women of Tenebrae, I thought it was only fair to mention the men's costuming albeit briefly. With the exception of young Gianni, the men of Tenebrae are seen wearing suits and formal wear throughout the film. Americans Bullmer and Neal are often seen wearing sports jackets, slacks and loafers whereas the Italian Detective Germani is seen wearing various suits that feel surprisingly contemporary for a film made in 1982. My favourite suit worn by Germani is a deep powder blue/grey with a light blue shirt and brown leather belt which doesn't feel dissimilar to suits worn by men nowadays - personally reminding me of the suit jackets worn by Bradley Cooper and Gerard Butler at Wimbledon. The wardrobe of the various male characters compliments the previously mentioned idea that the world of Tenebrae is a serious one where personal style reflects professional aspirations.

When discussing the fashion of the male characters of Tenebrae, I thought the character of Christiano Berti was of particular interest. When we are properly introduced to Berti at the TV studio he wears a brown flared suit that looks very much in the typical seventies style. Considering Tenebrae is supposedly set in 1997 it appears that Berti's costuming is deliberately old fashioned and perhaps represents his character's archaic views on sexuality and religion. Whereas Neal and Bullmer look particularly American in their costuming (sports jacket, creased slacks, a generally preppy east coast aesthetic) and Germani is presented to us as a stylish Italian, Berti comes across as an out of date eccentric who can't let go of the past and can't accept the ever changing modern world. In my view, the costume design of the male characters in Tenebrae highlights different facets of each character and their approach to life.

Berti, Peter Neal, Detective Germani and Bullmer in various formal menswear styles


A few of the main players in Tenebrae have a signature accessory. The paranoid and nervous Jane McKerrow wears rounded cat eye sunglasses throughout the film, nervously navigating her way around Rome and JFK trying to evade watchful eyes. Jane's sunglasses are the perfect accessory for her character as they emphasise her deceptive nature and desire to remain hidden. Jane's glasses not only shroud her in mystery to us the viewer, but they reflect her paranoid nature and how frightened she is by the events transpiring in Rome. The sunglasses act as protection and a barrier to the surrounding carnage and we only see her without them when she feels she has to directly confront what is going on around her.

A source of comedy throughout the film is Bullmer and his rather fetching trilby hat. The trilby hat manages to bring a real sense of comedy to the film and helps break up the violent sexual tone with a bit of light relief. The trilby conveys Bullmer's playfulness and sense of humour and is an effective prop in the TV studio scene. When we see Bullmer for the last time in the plaza, the removal of the hat provides a poignant moment in the film.

A fringed shawl, a pair of cat eye sunglasses and a trilby are signature accessories

Belts are another key accessory in the film worn by Maria, Jane and Anne. Maria wears a fitted mauve pencil skirt with a neon skinny belt which feels eighties in a gloriously modern way. Jane and Anne both wear cream belts as previously mentioned which gives their dresses a wonderful throw back 1940s feel. Finally Anne wears the most incredible red obi belt with a gold trousersuit that seems suspiciously like a 1980s approach to cutting edge fashion but works wonderfully well when we consider the most cosmopolitan fashion of the present day. Belts really help to finish off some of the looks in the film and emphasise the waist accentuating the femininity of the characters.

Anne's red obi belt and gold trouser suit

Another accessory that I thought was worth mentioning is the powder blue shawl worn by Marion in the nightclub/video arcade/bar. Typically associated with your granny, a fortune teller or a flamenco dancer; Marion wears a fringed shawl as an accessory to her outfit of a denim mini skirt, metallic blue heels and an almost transparent top that keeps exposing her nipples. I guess some people have the gift of making anything look trampy... Marion uses her shawl to seductively move around the bar teasing her lesbian lover as she reveals parts of her body to the burly men at the arcade machines. Quite a performance that clearly enraged our moralistic, Catholic killer.

Marion - the only provocative dresser in the film

The bags featured in the film are mostly small white clutch bags occasionally with straps for functionality. Elsa Manni carries a large hobo style bucket bag in tan which she uses to shoplift her wares at the start of the film. The tan bag is reminiscent of the one used by Peter as he travels to Rome from New York. 

Italian cinema and Italian women in general are never without their impeccable taste in jewellery and Tenebrae is no exception. There's some beautiful jewellery on display from Elsa's beautiful gold necklace to Tilde's pearl stud earrings. With few exceptions, the jewellery used in Tenebrae is understated and complimentary to the fashions featured. The jewellery helps to elevate the classic, sophisticated looks on display perhaps with the exception of Marion's rather risque blue asymmetric top. 

Two pendant necklaces as worn by Marion & Elsa, Pearl studs and gold hoops and delicate matching jewellery sets


One of Tenebrae's key images is of a pair of patent red heels worn by the unnamed woman in Rhode Island as well as Jane McKerrow later on in the film. The heels have great significance throughout the film and are clearly an item of great importance to our killer. I would argue that the red heels are the most important object and visual signifier in the film and their significance bleeds into other parts of Tenebrae. I've previously mentioned the contrast between red and white in the film - in particular the use of bright red blood against white costumes and interiors. However, the importance of the colour red is reflected in other objects throughout the film. For example, the bright red phone that Peter uses at the airport, the red car that Anne drives, the red plastic plant in Jane's apartment and the text on the copy of Tenebrae the novel. In my opinion, the use of bright reds with a similar glossy texture are nods towards the importance of the heels in the plot.

The red shoes

Pointed glossy high heels make an appearance in other scenes throughout the film. Marion wears a pair of metallic petrol blue pointy courts in the bar and Elsa wears a pair of glossy black heels in the department store. Jane's accomplice wears nude patent heels in the airport whereas Anne dons a pair of bright white patent cut out heels on her arrival in Peter's hotel room. The simplicity of the shoe styles once again reflects the elegant professionalism of the female characters.

The Ugly

Despite the wearable nature of the majority of the ladies respective wardrobes in Tenebrae there are some howlers courtesy of the male characters. Young Maria looks very contemporary in her short pencil skirt, skinny belt and tucked in tee however, her male counterpart Gianni looks pretty ghastly in his male teenage fashions. Gianni embodies a young, preppy aesthetic which involves pale ball cutting jeans and oversized golfing jumpers. However, it's not just the young that get their looks wrong - Peter wears the most horrendous house coat known to man with a pair of oversized brown specs with an ever so dated double bridge. Peter also wears a bright blue velour tacksuit that's only saving grace is that it demonstrates how bang on the colours are in Arrow's Blu Ray release of the film.

Gianni is also on board with the pastel trend as well as the ball cutting jeans trend

Make up 

Despite the film allegedly taking place in 1997, Tenebrae looks suitably early eighties in terms of the make up choices used. Heavy pale foundation set with powder is used on the majority of the actresses and this reflects the trend of the time to use foundation a few shades paler than the natural complexion of the wearer. Heavily pigmented blushers in rose and coral are used and applied on the temples and the cheekbones to contour the face. Blusher is not blended to create a starker contrast between the highlighted areas of the face and the base. By applying make up in this manner make up artists, Pierantonio and Pierino Mecacci, echo the visual aesthetic of Tenebrae - the use of bright reds against white, stark backgrounds. Lipsticks and lipglosses are worn in classic reds and orangey reds placing emphasis on the wearer's lips and once again, echoing the significance of the colour red against whites and pale colours. The eye make up in Tenebrae tends to be fairly simple with classic kohl eyeliner and light brown eyeshadow being the make up looks used on the majority of characters, this helps ground the more lavish make up of red blushes and lipsticks. Pillar box red nail varnish is worn by Elsa Manni at the start of the film once again placing significance on the colour red but natural and nude nail polish is worn by the rest of the cast in keeping with the more professional, polished look of the women in the film. Eyebrows are in keeping with the eighties trend of natural looking slightly unkempt brows.

Despite the rather dated make up looks used throughout the film - the make up, like the fashion, perfectly matches the film's overall aesthetic and gives it that distinct, stylised look complimenting the predominant white and red colour palette.

Veronica Lario as Jane McKerrow


In my discussion of the make up looks used throughout Tenebrae I noted that they were fairly outdated and looked distinctively early 1980s. However, in terms of the hair styling in the film, Tenebrae looks rather contemporary with many of the styles translating well in terms of modern day hair fashions. Long hairstyles with soft curls and fringes with a little bit of volume are the main look in the film. Admittedly, Anne's hairstyle is the most dated of all with its feathered flicked out curls and Marion's hair looks like the beginnings of a perm but Tilde's fabulous thick long style with blunt fringe and Elsa's voluminous big curls more than make up for it. As a film set in the not so distant future, Tenebrae's hair stylist Patrizia Corridoni manages to create styles that look refreshingly contemporary reflecting the futuristic nature of the film.

All the female hairstyles featured throughout Tenebrae

That concludes my very lengthy (and questionable) post on the fashions of Tenebrae. I promise that future posts won't be this detailed I just found Tenebrae to have a very deliberate style and aesthetic that perhaps represented more than the typical giallo wardrobe. Look out for my next fashion and Italian horror post that will be focusing on The Case of the Bloody Iris - I promise it will be a bit more fun and a hell of a lot shorter than this one!

1 comment:

  1. Fantastic article! I always thought there was something undeniably chic about Tenebrae.


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