What Boogie Nights Taught Me About How (Not) To Dress

Photo: New Line/REX/Shutterstock
A good slogan for a tote bag might be: Carry Yourself With The Confidence Of The Late Philip Seymour Hoffman Appearing In Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights To The Strains Of "You Sexy Thing". It’s a little long, but the sentiment works. Balding, busting over his shorts and wearing glasses that make him resemble a sex offender, Hoffman’s Scotty nonetheless makes an impression. Women rarely allow themselves this kind of barefaced confidence; maybe they should.

“Paul asked me to dress Scotty like he was 14 years old,“ Mark Bridges, the film’s costume designer remembers in Livin' Thing: An Oral History of Boogie Nights. “And the result was his unfortunate fit and style choices.” Seymour Hoffman’s schlub is living proof of the loser's credo that looking memorable is better than simply looking good. I tend to obey this rule whenever I shop for a new pair of shoes. Occasionally – with less success – I’ve employed it when getting a haircut. Boogie Nights, which turns 20 this year, is Anderson’s paean to late '70s/early '80s porn cinema and, yes, is the one where Marky Mark wears the fake penis. It’s a film about men and women who take off their clothes for a living – but it's also a film with great fashion. It’s a dark story with candy-bright cinematography. It is, mostly, a masterclass in the line between sleazy and sexy.

“I felt it should maybe resemble my personal experience of watching a porno film,” Anderson said. “Incredibly funny one second, turns me on the next, then incredibly depressing and so on.” Starting out as a talentless kid called Eddie Adams, Wahlberg’s character spins his one big asset into a superstar career in porno under the name Dirk Diggler."I got a feeling that beneath those jeans there's somethin' wonderful waiting to get out", Burt Reynolds’ smooth producer tells him. As a fan of the costumes, I find myself thinking: What about the actual jeans? What about Rollergirl’s tube socks, and the sundresses Julianne Moore wears in nightclubs? For the most part, the clothing in Boogie Nights is counterintuitive, in that it needs to look good both in low light and dropped to the floor. It shows you how to dress before you undress for a stranger. The look is, in other words, 'Nudity, plus'.
Photo: New Line/REX/Shutterstock
Heather Graham as Rollergirl offers a novel solution to getting naked for a lover – taking everything off but your shoes. “I never,” she solemnly offers mid-make-out, “take off my roller-skates”. Just like Wonder Woman's costume, her outfits are small – the better for doing battle: minute shorts, tight baby-tees, and a shrunken denim jacket. “Rollergirl’s shorts were chosen for freedom of movement to roller skate,” says Bridges. “And to display her assets.” Cutely and dopily, Rollergirl’s skates are a symbol of freedom. They’re the wings on Hermes' feet, as when she uses them to escape from a classroom sleaze.

In a Paul Thomas Anderson film, details matter. A tiny, perky, perfect porn star overdoses on coke, and the blood from her nose is a match for her bikini; Don Cheadle's Buck Swope, in a Western shirt as red as bikini girl's nosebleed, is told that "the cowboy look went out about six years ago". Diggler's dick is the thrust of the narrative, sure, but the men in Boogie Nights are a means to an end as much as to getting your end away. The heart of the film is Julianne Moore, who has never looked more imperfect while playing someone desirable, and so has never looked sexier. Wearing frosted shadow, a cherry-red bandeau top, and hoop earrings the size of a porno performer's fist, her Amber Waves is hot in a triple-X kinda way. It's a cliché that a little sadness around the eyes is sexy; luckily, most of us wear that now anyway. Amber’s stage name would suggest a lack of imagination if only her hair weren’t so definitive; indeed, red is her calling card – a sarong with a thick blue stripe, a halter-neck dress – showing that redheads needn’t fear the clash.
Photo: New Line/REX/Shutterstock
There is so much red in Boogie Nights, perhaps because it’s a sensual colour, or maybe because it feels gynaecological. Maybe red was just the shade of the era. “This is a big nostalgia piece,” says Bridges. “So I went for a slick, sexy look that epitomised the late '70s.” Red is slick like a nosebleed, but it also says “Look at me”, like Scotty. Boogie Nights is all about turning sexual lemons – objectification, loserdom, sex as your only talent – into lemonade. More than just slickness, its style is about selling yourself even when life’s not easy. It’s a fair suggestion. "I got a feeling that beneath those jeans there's somethin' wonderful waiting to get out" – if nothing else, it's a great thing to say to yourself in the mirror on difficult days.