Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet opens with a prophetic message from its chorus. “From forth the fatal loins of these two foes / A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life,” they warn, and thereby bind the play’s protagonists, Romeo and Juliet, to a tragic fate before their story has even begun. Director Baz Luhrmann engages the concept of fate in a number of his films, not least of which is his own rendition of the play: Romeo + Juliet. Set on a Florida boardwalk whipped right out of an early MTV reality show, it starts with a newscast that, in the same words of the play’s chorus, announces the suicides of the star-crossed lovers. Luhrmann employs a similar method in Moulin Rouge!, where he compels Christian (Ewan McGregor) to inform the audience of the death of his beloved in the opening scene, before we even meet her.
Despite their doomed prologues, though, it’s hard not to hope—and even believe—that our characters’ fates might just change as the narratives unfurl. And while a lot of this is likely due to the pathos with which they are portrayed, Luhrmann also affords them an air of rebellion that is both impossible to ignore and totally unique to his renditions of the stories. Where does this rebellion come from? Costume design.
Ever since his 1992 feature debut, Strictly Ballroom, Luhrmann has been known for his flashy, colorful directorial style, not least of which includes his penchant for ostentatious, elaborate costumes. In Romeo + Juliet, he uses his affinity for showy fashion not only to modernize the story, but also to visually present his interpretation of a fate-bound narrative.
The rival gangs of Romeo + Juliet are the Montagues and the Capulets. The Montagues don laid-back, cheerful garb that comprises combat boots, unbuttoned Hawaiian shirts, loose cargo pants and flamingo-pink frosted hair. The Capulets, on the other hand, have a more serious look about them: They are wrapped in primarily black apparel courtesy of Dolce & Gabbana, and sparkle with glittering jewelry and bulky gun-holsters.
The costumes in Romeo + Juliet are so well-defined and essential to its cliques that, when a character departs from his or her pre-established “look,” it is immediately noticeable as an act of rebellion. Fittingly, when we first meet sweet Romeo (Leonardo DiCaprio), he is not adorned in the typical Montague-wear. Instead, he wears a collared shirt and blazer, which no member of either gang would be caught wearing. This implies, before he even sets his eyes on the Capulets’ Juliet (Claire Danes), that he is primed to stray from the beaten path.
Satine (Nicole Kidman) of Moulin Rouge! undergoes a similar kind of fashion-based dissent. Satine works at a nightclub in late 19th century Paris, where dancers wear silk bodices, outrageous, fluttering petticoats and high heels. But, when we first catch a glimpse of Satine, she is dressed notably differently. For her “Sparkling Diamonds” act, she descends from the ceiling for a musical number wearing a corset embellished with scintillating jewels. She radiates and glimmers. She undeniably stands out from the rest.
But what is so radical about Satine’s guise? With his blazer, Romeo quietly rejects the social implications of his status as a Montague, and, more broadly, the fact that he has a predetermined future. But in her shimmering descent, is Satine not merely leaning into her role as a courtesan? Indeed, this might be the case, but where Satine departs from expectations is the revelation that she is, in fact, using her position for her own benefit. She expresses early on that she wants to retire from the Moulin Rouge and establish herself as an actress. And so when the slimy Duke (Richard Roxburgh) promises to fund a production in which Satine would star in exchange for her hand in marriage, she decides to embrace the role—and part of that includes bedazzling herself and upping her appeal. Satine stands out from her peers not only because of her ambition, but also because of her willingness to self-leverage. With these traits, she defies her times’ expectations of womanhood, and uses clothing and accessories to do it.
But Romeo, Juliet, and Satine aren’t merely rebelling against what’s expected of them—they are also attempting to rebel against their very fate. In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the world is dominated by religion and thereby subscribes to a notion that there is not much you can do to intervene with your fate—especially when it comes to sin and retribution, which, on a societal level, Romeo and Juliet engage in. Similarly, in Moulin Rouge!’s late-1800s France, the country is in the midst of the Belle Époque, a period characterized by a thriving arts scene that blossomed after the Napoleonic Wars. Satine embodies that time period in her defiance of pre-established 19th century gender roles.
In Romeo + Juliet, Romeo acknowledges his fatalistic existence when he learns of Juliet’s apparent death and exclaims: “I defy you, stars!” thereby admitting that he subscribes to the idea that there is a pre-established destiny laid out before him by some kind of higher power. This acceptance of inevitability infers that Romeo understands that his courting of Juliet, in defiance of the regimented order of the Montagues and the Capulets, will result in tragedy. Similarly, Satine knows that to pursue love with Christian instead of the Duke will leave her “penniless.” And yet both characters stray from their delineated paths, anyway.
The ability for these characters to even rebel in the first place is due to the possibility of self-expression, afforded, largely, by their freedom to define their own image. In Romeo + Juliet, the Montagues and the Capulets, two rival families caught in a decades-old blood feud, are identifiable primarily by the way they look, which is not the case in its source material. In addition, Luhrmann turns the famous love-at-first-sight scene between the titular characters into a Halloween party. There, the characters express themselves via their costumes in ways they aren’t able to in their daily garb. Romeo dresses as a knight, signifying his ardent quest for love, and the importance of this pursuit—even if it means poisoning his bloodline against him. When Romeo first spots his doomed love Juliet, she is dressed as an angel, a biting allusion as her innocence and naïveté is what ultimately brings her to her bitter end. Mercutio (Harold Perrineau) dresses in drag. The wicked Tybalt (John Leguizamo) fittingly dresses as a devil. Juliet’s sweet but ill-advised suitor, Paris (Paul Rudd) dresses as an astronaut, which, unbeknownst to him, makes him the laughingstock of the party. Juliet’s mother even dresses like Cleopatra, which serves as a symbol of the power she wields over her daughter—and also a potential suggestion of infidelity—a notion she would never utter through words. The costumes ultimately allow the characters to express their true intentions—while also unknowingly foreshadowing their fates.
Moulin Rouge! also fuses the ideas of physical disguise and self-expression when, in an attempt to sway fate after being rejected by Satine, Christian re-enters the cabaret dressed as someone else. But characters in the film utilize disguise much more than just in Christian’s cunning plan. The whole film is predicated on the fact that, at the beginning, Satine thinks Christian is the Duke. Therefore, in a sense, the entirety of the film falls under the net of disguise. And so even when Toulouse-Lautrec (Leguizamo again) dresses as a clown in the play, we can only assume that he is doing so not only as a role, but also as a sly remark on the fact that no one takes him seriously.
While Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet is undeniably time-specific, (there’s only one era where those frosted tips would fly!), its message on fate is pervasive. But it is particularly its ‘90s time period that makes its perspective on fate so impactful: Its unique costume design allows its language of rebellion to be principally sartorial. The same is true for Moulin Rouge!—Luhrmann has a unique understanding of the power clothing wields when it comes to self-expression. It’s no wonder, then, that he is able to afford his characters such a singular sense of autonomy.
Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.