All The Ways Mascara Runs

What Erotic Thrillers Have to Tell Us About the Parallels Between Hedonism and Fear

Kim Basinger in 9 1/2 Weeks, directed by Adrian Lyne, 1986.

Think of all the ways mascara runs: with tears, humidity, and neglect—it shifts in sleep, smearing a pillowcase, or depositing residue on overly white clothing. A made-up eye leaves traces. Lipstick too leaves a mark, on skin and sheets and sometimes on purpose. In this regard, a high-glam face is also high-risk.

The late Eighties, an era of more-is-more in terms of make-up and capitalist thought, gave us the first Erotic Thrillers; films as blurry as mascara tears. In 1987, Glen Close starred in Fatal Attraction, where she kept her hair teased and her murderous impulses unchecked. Close, who preserves all her costumes in a personal archive, had this to say: ‘I have the leather jacket. It’s just unbelievable how big the shoulders are.’1 Unbelievable, too, how big an impact Fatal Attraction had on popular consciousness; there had been precursors to erotic thrillers, the origins of the genre can be traced back to 1940s Film Noir, but Fatal Attraction was a phenomenon and, in Hollywood, phenomena proliferate. The Eighties produced a slew of erotic thrillers that continued into the next decade. In 1992, Sharon Stone starred in Basic Instinct and accessorised her ice queen vibe with a matching ice pick; Basic Instinct, according to Vanity Fair, spawned a ‘cottage industry’ of direct to video knockoffs. Through the Nineties, erotic thrillers got better and also fewer – Crash and Eyes Wide Shut effectively ended the heyday on a note of unexpected prestige.

The hallmarks of the genre are lust and unease, paired with a certain soapiness in either dialogue or narrative believability or both. Simply put, these are run of the mill thrillers that emphasise romance — and romance is very loosely defined. Rarely are erotic thrillers as sophisticated as their protagonists, who often have implausible careers like ‘novelist’ or ‘heiress,’ but, perhaps unthinkingly, the genre hits on something genuinely thrilling: the fact that lust and fear can exist not in opposition but on a continuum. In terms of costume, disheveled dress becomes an emblem of both ecstasy and hasty retreat; falling into a bed or running for your life, the strap of your dress slips down either way.

The key to the Erotic Thriller is that everything is barely hidden, this applies to danger and especially to the body. Murder weapons lay under tousled bedsheets and nipples are covered but conspicuous. Clothing, here, suggests nakedness: a thick sweater pulled across the shoulders like a blanket, a loosened tie, a transparent blouse. In films that hinge on the idea that pleasure and terror are interrelated, clothing has to strike a balance between sexy and bedraggled.

On screen, this typically translates to minimalism. As if to counterpoint the insane plotlines of most erotic thrillers, there is a sense of restraint in the wardrobe department. Men wear suits, almost without variation, and women wear smart, semi-professional getups or knitwear in muted, Montauk tones. When they sleep, it is in silk slips. At any given moment of an erotic thriller, clothes could come off — making sure actors’ bodies are always visible beneath their clothes does a great deal to perpetuate the vibe. Clothing, in these films, foregrounds the body instead of concealing it. Ellen Mirojnick, the costume designer on Basic Instinct and Fatal Attraction, wanted her work to look ageless, and in this, she succeeds.2 Nineties revival aside, anything Sharon Stone or Michael Douglas wear in Basic Instinct is as aspirational and believable today as it was twenty-six years ago. Trends are, on a whole, not sexy, and in erotic thrillers they are avoided. Minimalism works to keep psychosexual drama front and centre; nothing distracts you from the matter at hand.

In 9 ½ weeks, a 1986 gem starring Kim Basinger and Mickey Rourke, Basinger plays Elizabeth, an implausibly timid woman, considering she looks more or less like an art world Barbie. Early on, in full gamine mode, Elizabeth wears batwing cardigans, sneakers, and blouson sleepwear. As her affair with low-key sadist John picks up momentum (the two go shopping for riding crops, sturdy headboards, and the like), Elizabeth’s wardrobe becomes not exactly sexier, but more geared towards sex. Her lover’s apartment is stylish and sterile, the way an adult film set with high-brow aspirations might be decorated, and Elizabeth suits the scene better and better as the film goes on. Accessories are minimised (in one early montage, she wears an annoying hat that I like to imagine got thrown in the river) and fabrics get slinkier. Her look goes from girl next door to Helmut Lang in no time. Both Basinger and Rourke play characters who are abandoning emotional restraint, and in Basinger’s wardrobe, this process of willful vulnerability is reflected in clothing that protects her less and less.

Forever, love has been synonymous with pursuit. In Thelma and Louise, a love story if there ever was one, the title characters rip the sleeves off their T-shirts and crop their blouses when they go on the run; they are running out of time and resources — confronting a personal apocalypse — and their unravelling wardrobes reflect their unravelling world. I bring this very un-erotic, non-thriller up because hedonism, pursuit, and the end of the world are all at play in the average erotic thriller, too. Apocalypse, in love, is personal — lust can scorch the earth and it makes perfect sense that, as characters emotional landscapes are ravaged, they start to dress more and more like people running for their lives. Hedonism can be understood as a kind of running away, from responsibility and the prospect of time; erotic thrillers also situate love as a type of flight, and a manic one at that. It’s not surprising that the names of many erotic thrillers include words like ‘instinct,’ ‘attraction,’ and ‘passion;’ these are movies about people who are losing all restraint, and what is more restraining than too many layers or fussy clothes? The feralness that characterises a certain kind of love is best expressed in dress: borrowed T-shirts, underwear as pants, soft fabric, bedhead. Erotic thrillers take the morning after look and translate it to every moment of the day.

It’s been pointed out that the Eighties are an age in particularly close dialogue with our own. Hanya Yanagihara wrote of New York City from 1981-1983, ‘the echo of those years has never felt louder than it does today.’3 It’s possible to tease out an apocalyptic tinge to erotic thrillers, and one of the best things about film is the way it reflects social reality. I wasn’t alive to know, but the Eighties produced enough movies about people whose worlds are ending, emotionally and otherwise, characters under surveillance or evading persecution, that it’s impossible not to imagine a certain climate was at work. I see this same climate everywhere today – in jet black comedy, social inequality, protests, newsletters, and artists making work from sheer anger. I see it in a certain type of dress, streetwise and unadorned. Erotic thrillers take this look and all it represents as the starting point for an entire genre.

Movies about sex are also movies about power; the way women in these films are dressed says something about the power that comes with womanhood, and the fear this power stirs. In simple, stripped-back outfits, innate sexuality (read power) shines through. Often, clothing is referred to as a woman’s ‘armour,’ but the women of erotic thrillers can be so steely they don’t need armour. They look less dressed and more powerful, wearing the bare minimum.

Femme Fatales, like brides, wear white. The most famous dress in the game, Sharon Stone’s turtleneck mini in Basic Instinct, is paradoxically pure white. We all know what she isn’t wearing, but the outfit is notable in and of itself. The film’s director, Paul Verhoeven, claimed he only found the script believable if he thought of Stone’s character as the devil.4 In white, she looks like a hot Mephistopheles, cloaked in a puff of smoke. ‘I don’t think I had any idea, really, that I could look so great,’ Stone has said of her wardrobe in the film.5 She does look great, approximately great enough to get away with murder. White, when worn by a challenging, cruel character, is more blinding than blank-slate; she is a wolf in clothing the colour of sheep, a getup the dopes around her can’t quite reconcile with a bad girl persona. Glenn Close also wears white, a lot of it. In Fatal Attraction, her character is dressed like a jilted bride at the moment she dies, a white, off-the-shoulder dress making her delusions very clear. The poster for 9 ½ weeks features white in the form of a slipping off slip dress – in this case the colour white telegraphs a level of sophistication that plays nicely with the sleazier reality of the film. White, the signature colour of erotic thrillers, is symbolically disjointed; white for purity and poise, everything erotic thrillers do not have and definitely don’t aspire to.

In the face of death, chaos, and love, the heart responds the same way — by racing. Often, the eyes respond the same in all three cases too – with tears. Erotic thrillers show us characters who are pinging back and forth between extremes, and their wardrobes are perfectly suited to either end of the spectrum. In love or out of fear, mascara is bound to run — people too.


Meredyth Cole is the editor-in-chief of SAD, and her writing has also appeared in Elle Canada, Hazlitt, Border Crossings and Canadian Art.


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