Technicolor Fashion: The Royal Tenenbaums

Once a month, we’ll be taking a look at fashion in film–characters, colors and costume design. Working together to create a believable persona, in the movies, the clothes often quite literally make the man–or, in the case of today’s film, they make the boy (or girl) the man (or woman) used to be.

Director Wes Anderson’s 2001 The Royal Tenenbaums centers on the dysfunctional Tenenbaum family (loosely based, Anderson has said, on the Glass family of most of J.D. Salinger’s novels). Each of the once-great family members has, as the movie starts, fallen from great potential at an earlier point in life, and the film follows the family as it tries to rise–or at least reshape–again.

Part of the characters’ intense internal struggles is externalized in Anderson’s typically stylized world by the iconic looks put together by costume designer Karen Patch, who worked with Anderson on films prior to The Royal TenenbaumsBottle Rocket and Rushmore.

“In every film there’s a place to make a character stand out in an iconic way, but you have to find the right place,” Patch said in a 2008 article in W magazine. “You have to be careful because a year after you design something, when the film comes out, a look could be over. So you want to do something quite classic.”

For the Tenenbaum children, Patch selected looks both classic in terms of real time–1970’s-inspired pieces still relevant for the 2000s–and classic in terms of the characters’ pasts.


Margot (the adopted daughter), Chas and Richie–grown when the film starts–were, viewers find out, a group of talented kids. Margot wrote and staged plays, Chas was a financal genius, and Richie was a tennis prodigy. But as they grew, their early success stalled out, and, like their parents, they’re each in a rut. Their situations are easily spotted with a quick glance at the adult wardrobes, which really aren’t all that different from the childhood wardrobes.


Margot’s wardrobe throughout the film consists of Lacoste tennis dresses–a variation on the preppy tennis shirt Rene Lacoste first designed in 1933–a vintage-look fur coat specially designed by Prada, a red plastic hair barrette, 1960s-style loafers and an Hermes Birkin bag. She’s stuck between the trappings of womanhood, the innocence of a little girl, the scruffily glamorous style of a bohemian artist and her love for her tennis-playing brother. Said Clothes on Film’s Chris Laverty, Patch understood Anderson’s brand of irony, and so understood “the aesthetic joke of placing a genius in an outfit deliberately set to undermine her intelligence” as well.



Like Margot, Richie Tenenbaum is also trapped in the ensemble of his talent’s peak: the uniform of a serious professional tennis player. His ever-present head and arm bands immediately place him on the court, where he seemed to please his father, Royal Tenenbaum, most, even though the viewer sees a meltdown Richie had in his youth that kept him from ultimately succeeding further. But he can’t hide behind it forever; at a point in the movie, Richie shaves off his beard and removes his sunglasses, effectively emerging to face his current place in life.


Chas Tenenbaum is, interestingly, stuck in a post-childhood wardrobe phase. He shed his business suits for track suits in the wake of his wife’s death, perfectly matched to the Adidas track suits his children wear. We see Chas staging emergency drills at his home, pressing his sons to run out of the house in time to be saved from tragedy. Chas is all about running from sadness and disappointment–though, by the end of the film, Chas is arguably running toward something instead.


The Royal Tenenbaums is ultimately about a family coming back together, finding a new way to be a family as the members find new ways to be themselves. One has every hope, by the film’s close, the Tenebaums will be able to finally change their clothes because they’ve finally figured out how to change, too. From a wardrobe standpoint, it’s a powerful statement on clothing’s ability to truly reflect who we are at any given moment, and who we can be in the moment that follows.

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Lindsey Baker is a style columnist based in Omaha, Neb. Check out her personal style blog, only style remains the same, at, or follow her on Twitter at