Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! (2001) is a film that plays ambiguously with stereotypes and parody. One of the major tools it deploys in this is the excessive costuming practices. This article will attempt to understand the workings and appeal of sartorial excess in a film so clearly circumscribed by cultural, especially gender, stereotypes. It will argue that the costumes in this film stage a number of paradoxes: They are often highly constrictive fetishized garments, but also function as liberating screens behind which to perform; they contribute to the considerable specularization of the female body, yet are also used to manipulate as much as construct the gaze. By negotiating a tension between masquerade and fetish, the costumes reflect a deeper ambivalence about gender relations at the end of two different centuries. Yet, in their textural saturation, they also provide a form of affective resistance to the more conservative impulses of the narrative.


Baz Luhrmann’s films are all defined by their playful satirical and self-reflexive impulses and by their visual excess, and none better exemplifies this than the final in his so called ‘red curtain trilogy’, Moulin Rouge! (2001). The Film borrows heavily from the myth of Orpheus, Puccini’sLa Bohème and Verdi’s La Traviata, and pays homage to the Busby Berkeley/Warner Brothers collaborations of the 1930s and to the Bollywood musical, the film references comedy, tragedy, French farce, MTV and a myriad of popular cultural forms. The film’s narrative itself holds few surprises, being little more than a re-hashed take on familiar themes—theatrical ambition, tragic romance and music. However, the conservatism of the narrative belies the complexity and sheer audacity of the project. As Feuer (2002) has argued, the musical is an inherently reflexive form, focusing as it does on the whimsicality of its own constructions. Luhrmann re-appropriates the genre with a post-modern flair for reinvention, pastiche and parody.

The film makes full use of its highly theatrical setting to evoke and celebrate a world of richly and elaborately dressed caricatures. When the eponymous red curtain opens, it reveals a world that is in equal parts circus, pantomime, drag show, carnival, theatrical chaos and bordello. The excesses are underwritten by a good deal of parody, which produces a reflexive world of meta-performances, of plays within plays, peopled by a vast array of characters and multiple diegetic audiences. Dress contributes significantly to the evocation of this world, and in many ways it is the costumes, as much as the actors and songs, that are the stars of the show. The film riotously celebrates the fabrics, textures, drapery, luxury and sheer pleasures of an exotic and richly drawn sartorial world. Skirts swish and swirl, sequins sparkle, suspenders snap, colours dazzle, textures compete and elegance abounds. Kitsch excess is the order of the day, with every costume elaborately and minutely detailed. This is a dress-up world, a debauched theatrical masquerade party heightened by the fantasy of the past; it positively revels in the burlesque carnival of its own fancy. The excesses exist in the sheer numbers of different costumes on show, all clashing and competing with each other and producing a form of textural saturation that is quite overwhelming from a spectatorial position. Therefore, while it is both possible and desirable to consider some of the costumes individually, one is left with the overwhelming impression of costume as a kind of totality, a mass of richness that far exceeds narrative needs.

However, the costumes also contribute significantly to the exoticization and stereotyping of many of the characters—the Petite Princess (Kiruna Stamell), the dwarf-cancan dancer, and Chocolat, (Deobie Oparei), the black male dancer—which is disturbingly ambiguous: it might be subversive, but equally might be reinforcing long traditions of the stereotypes it invokes. This is particularly the case with Satine (Nicole Kidman), the beautiful, but tragically fated, courtesan whose wardrobe is nothing short of spectacular. In its over-enunciated visual and sartorial economies, the film therefore embraces much that it also satirises. In this and many other ways, the film appears to try to have it both ways: evoking and employing the stereotypes, yet trying to shield behind the attendant parody, and this ambiguity is clearly inscribed through the costumes. This results in considerable ambivalence in the film’s representations and negotiations of the practices of gender.

This article will attempt to understand the workings and appeal of excess in a film so clearly circumscribed by cultural, especially gender, stereotypes. Why is a film that so obviously flirts with misogyny and violence in its structuring of gender relationships so engaging at a textural level? How can one account for the disparity that appears to exist between the utterly conventional, even banal, effect of the narrative and the frenetic visual display associated with the apparel? In response, I will argue that the costumes in this film stage a number of paradoxes: they are often highly constrictive fetishized garments, but also function as liberating screens behind which to perform; they contribute to the considerable commodification and specularization of the female body, yet are also used to manipulate as much as construct the gaze. The excess of the costumes, it will be argued, negotiates an uneasy tension between masquerade and fetish, reflecting a deeper ambivalence in the film about the teetering balance of gender relations at the end of two different centuries; this reflects a broader crisis in the representation of the female subject. I will conclude the discussion with a consideration of texture and its relationship to the visual objectification of the feminine. The textural saturation of this film produces an affective response that works within and around the discourses based in visual paradigms, ultimately undermining the visual by overwhelming it. In this, it provides a form of affective resistance to the containing strategies of the narrative.

Costume, Theatricality and Masquerade

Historically, sartorial excess has often been associated with fetishism and the controlling inscription of the feminine onto the passive female body, particularly, but certainly not exclusively, in the musical genre (see Gledhill, 1987). In his short essay ‘Fetishism’ (1977), Freud explains the fetish as a phallic substitute, a disavowal in the face of castration anxiety. In order to cope with the shocking discovery of his mother’s lack of a penis, a fact which reveals to him the vulnerability of his own organ, the boy undergoes a process of disavowal of this knowledge by substituting another object for the missing penis, and hence allaying his fear of castration. Fetishism is, by this account, a strategy used by the little boy to deny and counter the threat contained in sexual difference. According to Freud, the fetish therefore provides compensation and solace for the inescapable, but now disavowed, fact of feminine castration. The nature of the fetish object is frequently associated with the sight and textures of the mother’s body, so it often takes the form of female body parts—legs, feet—or items of clothing metonymically related to the female body—shoes, fur, underclothing—things which he may have witnessed just prior to the discovery of her ‘castration’. In his later life these objects become erotic substitutes for the female genitals, the sight of which causes him extreme anxiety. Inevitably the fetish comes to replace the female body as a sexual object: the fetish is present, the body itself absent.

Without doubt, a good deal of fetishism resides in the costumes in Moulin Rouge!, especially those associated with Satine. Yet the sheer excess of the costumes and performances also suggests the notion of the masquerade, as it has come to be identified with the appropriation and subversion of gender, especially representations of the feminine. Working from Joan Riviere’s analysis of the ways in which she observed professional women disguising their intellect and power with a heightened performance of femininity in order to allay the fears of threatened men (see Riviere & Hughes, 1991), and with Lacan’s appropriation of this (see Lacan, 2002), many theorists, such as Doane (1991a) and Studlar (1990), have shown that there is a strong tradition of female masquerade within cinematic history. Within the context of psychoanalytic theories of spectatorship that see any pleasure in the image of the woman in terms of either voyeuristic or fetishistic (or both) impulses (see Mulvey, 1989a; Mulvey, 1989b), Doane argues that masquerade provides an alternative strategy for representation of and identification with the feminine (1991b). In its overt excesses, the masquerade creates a distance between the performance and the idea of femininity.

To claim femininity is a function of the mask is to dismantle the question of essentialism before it can even be posed … the mask conceals only the absence of ‘pure’ or ‘real’ femininity (Doane, 1991c, 37)

The masquerade doubles the representation of woman, presenting her as in excess of herself. By foregrounding femininity as a mask or a performance, a social construction that is assumed by women with no substantial essence itself, the masquerade also opens up a gap between the spectator and the image: ‘in flaunting femininity [masquerade] holds it at a distance’ (Doane, 1991b, 25). Apart from exposing the socially constructed nature of gender, this also has subversive potential because it allows an alternative position for the female spectator to that of narcissism or masochism. She can identify pleasurably with the image without necessarily subscribing to it, and enjoy the fun of the irony. The masquerade also opens up the potential for an appropriation of the fetish; by excessively repeating the fetishistic terms in which she has been inscribed, a woman can potentially undermine those very terms. However, there is a danger in this too, one that can be seen in the representation of the figure of Satine.

Many of the prototypes for the character of Satine, such as Marlene Dietrich and Marilyn Monroe, are known for the skill with which they parodically performed versions of the feminine, and as a character herself Satine often takes full advantage of her ability to act the part of the hyper-feminine, fetishised woman; she knows the roles expected of her—‘What’s his type: wilting flower, bright and bubbly, or smouldering temptress?’—and can play them. She draws upon a full range of sexual stereotypes and plays these roles, freely employing a knowing and wry form of masquerade, when and how it suits her purposes: as she says to Zidler of her own appearance in the red dress, ‘How do I look—smouldering seductress?’ The costumes she wears represent types, roles knowingly played as she assumes each item of clothing, 1 and given the sheer number of garments she wears it is easy to see her more as a coat hanger than a character, a composite of costumes and their attendant roles with little substantial identity besides. As the pastiche implicit in her name suggests (more on this below), Satine does not really exist: she is a copy of a copy.

She uses masquerade most powerfully as a strategy when she performs on stage in the Moulin Rouge. Satine’s ‘black diamonds’ outfit, which consists of a bejewelled and sparking corset and a citation of the men’s top hat and tails, is a good example here. It has more subversive potential than most of her other outfits as it combines and confuses masculine and feminine clothing and in doing so de-stabilises the image. The outfit cites and re-circulates female performances from the past—Marlene Dietrich in Morocco (Joseph von Sternberg, 1930), Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Howard Hawks, 1953), Madonna’s Material Girl video (1985), itself quoting Monroe. While not exactly androgynous, and still very glamorous, the image she produces is certainly reflexive, and it is one of her most powerful scenes in the film: she is in control here and manipulates the male audience and their salacious desires. Yet, moments such as these stand out in a narrative in which she is otherwise contained. In a sense these are autonomous moments within the larger context of the film; they are theatrical certainly, yet this is part of the problem. Her pretence at challenging the more insidious elements that contain her can only really be effected on stage; it is a performance which ultimately does not liberate her in the off-stage world of the narrative.

Parody is not always a subversive force—it can be simply cynical—and it can be appropriated as a counter-foil to reinforce dominant values. This is the case when masquerade and parody become part of the masculine performances in the film. Makeshift, improvised garb is often used to satirise female figures: for example, Toulouse’s use of his shirt as a nun’s habit in the ‘Sound of Music’ sequence and Zidler’s use of a tablecloth for a wedding veil in the ‘Like a Virgin’ sequence. That they are men performing female roles deploys drag and its attendant misogyny, and it is significant that the figures of female sexual innocence evoked in each case—the nun, the virgin—clearly have no place within the context of the film’s narrative; it is asexual women who are marked out here as figures of ridicule. While this works to stress the social construction of such tropes through a process of dislocation and alienation, and also satirises their reification and maintenance by patriarchy, it also suggests an attempt at masculine recuperation of a feminine strategy, a double-negative form masquerade, which undoes the subversive potential for women. The strategies of masquerade can become hackneyed in their excess and this is the effect created by their over deployment in the film, and in their recuperation by the male characters. Satine’s use of masquerade should be read against this, and as a strategy in her sexual and economic negotiations, it becomes a somewhat blunted tool. The ambiguity here—masquerade can be liberating and pleasurable, but also can be derisively used against women—reflects a broader problematic in representation for the female subject and spectator.

Courtesans, Corsets and Costume Jewellery

The narrative is structured around the patriarchal definition, exploitation, enjoyment, disapproval, containment and recuperation of female sexuality, embodied powerfully in the stereotyped figure of the beautiful but ill-fated courtesan. The figure of the prostitute, of course, embodies the contradictions and hypocrisies of capitalist patriarchy; she is a commodity, an item for sale, deemed to offer a necessary service in providing nourishment for the ostensibly insatiable sexual appetites of men, yet by doing so, she is simultaneously vilified for her sexual promiscuity, and for selling that sexuality in the open market, outside the ‘sanctity’ of heterosexual marriage. As a commodity she is both an object and subject in that she sells herself, and in being both she represents a considerable challenge to patriarchal and capitalist hegemonies. What she exposes is men’s enslavement to the commodity and the reduction of the personal to the economic. Yet, even in an economy where everything is for sale, it is only men who are allowed to exploit female sexuality; if she markets herself in the terms in which she is constructed, she is morally condemned, a thinly disguised pretext for the outrage caused by her audacity in attempting to control her own sexuality. She simply cannot win. Satine is caught in such a dilemma; her relationship to the male characters is defined in terms of their claims on her sexuality: Zidler as beneficent pimp, the Duke as evil consumer and potential owner of the rights to her body, Christian as the good and therefore rightful possessor.

Lurhmann’s film sidesteps almost all of the more unsavoury issues—sexually transmitted disease, violence, poverty—that were a part of the social reality of a nineteenth century French courtesan, and instead chooses to present a more sanitised and glamorised fantasy of her life. While Satine is undeniably the most visible character in the film, this does not result in a challenge to the systems within which she is trapped; her costumes create her as spectacle, but this does not threaten to de-stabilise the structures within which she lives. As Campbell notes, the threat represented in the figure of the prostitute often results in a need to modify the ways in which she is represented in order ‘to minimise any damage [she] might cause to the prestige of existing social structures’ (2006, 6), and such is clearly the case in the figure of Satine; any threat she may have signified is recuperated through the conservative strategies of the love story narrative and in her objectification as a sexual commodity. As a woman she represents exchange value.

As a commodity, therefore, Satine herself is a fetish, and her status as such, and the ways in which she must market to sell herself, are clearly glossed in the costumes she wears. Highly glamorised and sexually suggestive apparel is one of the key tools of the trade for the prostitute, and Satine is the most glamorous of courtesans. From her first appearance as the “sparkling diamond” to her final dying scene as the Hindu bride, she is drawn as a fully materialised star icon. As Kehler (2005) points out, as a cultural representation as well as a commodity, the prostitute is an over-circulated image, and here the excess of the representation is most striking in the dresses Satine is given to wear. To some extent, Lurhmann’s film exploits this link between excessive, glamorous clothing and the feminine as a way of erasing the more unsavoury aspects of his protagonist’s profession. In this sense the excess reflects a kind of desperation about the representation of Satine. In its more fetishised moments, it also displaces any agency Satine may otherwise have gained through her performance of masquerade. This can be seen in the two most fetishised accoutrements in the film: the corset and the diamond necklace.

If clothing is a tool of the trade for the prostitute, the corset is one of the most fetishised of these tools; it is a device of sado-masochism and seduction. Benjamin sees “the corset as the torso’s arcade” (1999, 492); in its sculptured rigidity, it represents a stylised female shape with a hole up the middle. Underwear has long been a sexual fetish, and in the film the focus on female underwear is almost obsessive. While the film’s designers have stressed the necessity for the actors to wear the specially designed replicas of the nineteenth century corsets in order to provide the appropriate underlying structure for the outer dresses, they nonetheless seemed to have revelled in the opportunity to create copious numbers of corsets, vests, knickers and suspenders, designing many that were never seen and some, such as the tango underwear, that is worn for no apparent narrative reasons. Apart from the cancan dancers, who all wear corsets which sculpt their bodies erotically, Satine’s ‘Penoir’ (the corset and negligee she puts on when she first attempts to seduce the Duke) is straight out of sexual fetish literature. Consisting of a black corset with suspenders and black stockings, covered by a wide-sleeved, transparent lace negligee which is split down each side, it is completely impractical for anything but seduction. Certainly she performs it (the Penoir) as a role inflected with a good deal of masquerade, and its vertical lines do lend her a kind of phallic strength; in this sense it is empowering. However, the Penoir ultimately registers as an over-determined image, which has been fetishised in the extreme, not only visually, but in its production within the film (the garter clips on the corset, for example, were individually cast in sterling silver). So while Satine certainly appears to be in control of the images produced by and associated with the corset, she is also in danger of being upstaged by it. Here, there is a fine tension between deployment of and capitulation to the image, and Satine is in danger of being defined solely in its terms. When the Duke attempts to rape Satine in the Tower sequence, he strips off her dress to reveal the underwear beneath. In his mind the corset is who she is: a fetish, an over-circulated commodity item. In this and other ways, costume comes very close to displacing character.

The danger of the fetish for Satine resides particularly in its power over her as a commodity. If she is able to manipulate her own constructed positioning as an object for sale, it is also the case that she is in danger of being re-contained in her relationship to economic hegemonies. The costumes are linked to consumption in both narrative and extra-diegetic terms; however, it is the diamonds of Satine’s opening song that symbolically provide the biggest threat because they articulate clearly woman’s relationship to economic production. As Kehler (2005) notes of Satine, the consumption of which she is dying relates both to the disease, tuberculosis, and her profession as one who is bought and sold in the marketplace. This conflation of inner and outer corruption coalesces in the diamonds for which she longs. Despite the irony with which she pretends to covet them in her opening number, it is the lure of the commodity and its promise of material security that is the biggest danger to her. However, when the Duke offers her the real thing in the Tower sequence, fastening a highly bejewelled, elaborately designed necklace around her neck, the diamonds choke her even as they promise economic liberation; they violently encircle and imprison her neck, seeming to bleed down her cleavage, like a sparkling tattoo, a diamantine manifestation of the hidden consumption that is eating away at her lungs just below the surface. Here the jewellery links the commodity with illness and death. If her skill in manipulating the masquerade at times liberates her from the constraints of gender, the fetish, especially as commodity, functions as a reminder of the social, cultural and economic forces which position her as object for consumption, and which ultimately kill her.

Just how far the film re-inscribes the stereotypes it invokes and how far it subverts them through the strategies of excess is, therefore, questionable. The film seems to want to have it both ways, deploying spectacular and highly sexualised images of women, while attempting to mock them at the same time. There is an uneasy tension in the excesses associated with both masquerade and fetish. In Satine’s case, she is able to appropriate the fetish as masquerade only within the context of theatrical performance; when she is re-absorbed into the narrative space she has much less control over the image. At one level then, there is a certain power implicit in clothing which appropriates the masquerade and articulates the fetish, its very objectification suggesting both seductive fascination and danger; at another level, however, the lurking threat of objectification remains.

Yet there are other ways in which the excesses of costume work against this narrative recuperation, and this can be found in the dance scenes involving the chorus. The underwear worn by the chorus girls during the Roxanne/tango sequence, for example, cites the fetish by offering yet more illustrations of women in corsets and underwear. For no apparent narrative reason, the women are all dressed in variations of cream lace corsets and knickers, with suspenders, stockings and high heels—a sexual fetish cliché if ever there was one. However, in multiplying the image—there are at least twenty of them— this also suggests a plenitude of variations on the theme, in a sense undermining its ability to fix the wearer as object: we do not really see the individual women, just a mass of textured lace. There is a manipulation of the gaze in its very satiation: too much is happening visually to maintain a complacent or controlling gaze over the action or characters. Unlike the musical from the 1930s, however, it is not conformity that is stressed, but a more powerful collectivity. To explore this strategy further we need to look at the function and effect of the cancan dresses.

The Cancan: Performance and Texture

The cancan dresses designed for the Diamond Dogs (the Moulin Rouge dancers) are among the biggest sartorial stars in the film. Structured around the omnipresent corset, the top parts of the dresses tend to be close fitting, outlining the shoulders and breasts of the dancers, with the skirts constructed as a voluminous circularity, under-layered with multitudes of ruffled petticoats. The top outer shells of the dresses are mostly dark, although often also elaborately detailed, which gives considerable emphasis to the brightly coloured layers of petticoats underneath, so that when the dancers lift the skirts what is revealed shocks in its brightness and the intensity of the colour. There is a bold form of kinaesthetic energy that exudes from under the skirts, which when juxtaposed to the contrasting lines and patterns of the striped, seamed and fishnet stockings produces a kind of textural saturation which is visually overwhelming. As the dancers romp and frolic around the dance floor, the movement of the skirts, enhanced by the camera speed and rapid editing, produces a blur of colour which mimics the pace and excitement of the dance and appears somewhat like an impressionist painting, as much Renoir as Toulouse-Lautrec. The dresses brazenly fetishise the female bodies that inhabit them, but also seem to function as a screen behind which a different kind of action occurs. The skirts also embody a tension between constraint and freedom of movement. Like the brightly coloured parrot in the cage backstage, the dresses provide an image of a world that is gorgeously painted and draped, yet which can be seriously constrained by the apparatus that decorates; as Satine says after she falls from the trapeze in her opening number, ‘these silly costumes’. However, the juxtaposition of the close fitting tops and voluminous skirts, the corporeal constraint and kinetic energy, and the contrasting fabrics and patterns of the garments, while apparently articulating paradoxes, also provides a powerful mechanism of resistance.

Despite its form, the performance of the cancan is only very superficially about the dance; it is more an enactment of the socio-economic relationships between genders and classes. The dance began in the dancehalls of Paris where it was generally performed by prostitutes for the titillation of male audiences. The main interest of the dance resided in the high kick, which would reveal layers of petticoats and underwear, if indeed it was worn at all. When the dancers did wear knickers, they were often a frilled split-type, which evocatively framed and mimicked the entrance to the female genitals. The chances, therefore, of the audience getting a glimpse of the dancers’ forbidden sexual territory was the central provocation associated with the form. As Martin puts it, the cancan is a dance that presents ‘a world of entertainment under women’s dresses [the centre of which is] the revelation of petticoats and panties’ (Luhrmann, 2001, 86). 2 In costuming the dance for the film, she says that they imagined the dancers’ panties to be like the centre of a flower when revealed beneath the lifted skirts (Bazmark, 2002), and indeed, many do look something like a large hibiscus, the dancer’s brightly stockinged legs forming a kind of suggestive stamen. The unspoken subtext here is that the skirts and the knickers that lie hidden beneath them are metonymous for the female sexual organs. Skirts are particularly appropriate fetishes, at least in Freud’s terms, because they may be the last barrier to a child’s knowledge of his mother’s castration; they represent, therefore, the approach to the unrepresentable: the vagina. In this sense, the ruffles, pleats and folds of the skirt form an invaginated mimicry of what lies beyond. Paradoxically they also deny access to that which is both desired and feared. In the film, the layers of skirts, frilled and edged, provide a curtain through which one must pass in order to gain access to the split knickers, themselves an opening to another opening, a slit that repeats and defers another. The suggestion is one of endless, cavernous recession into unknown depths.

In the lavishly designed companion book to the film, there is a double-page fold out image of the blur of cancan skirts (Luhrmann, 2001, 66-71). The image is revealed by opening both sides of a double-page spread, onto which an image of a cancan dancer on her back, legs in the air, facing away from the camera so that her panties, suspenders and derriere, complete with lace-topped, seamed, black fishnet stockings face the spectator, has been rendered. The parting for the page runs between her legs, so to open the double-folded leaf to see the image of the skirts which lies beneath, one must literally part the legs of the dancer, splitting her down the middle to reveal the lushness inside. When one opens the folded page, immediately underneath (between the dancer’s legs) is a slightly blurred, golden honeycomb image, recognisable as the underskirt or petticoats of a cancan dancer’s dress only by the context provided by the book itself and the proximity of what appears to be part of a vaguely defined thigh. As one continues to unfold the leaves of the pages, this golden image is framed on both sides by similarly blurred layers of ruffles running in concentric patterns around two other thighs. The three thighs that are visible are shown as fragmented parts only; one has to look hard to work out what the image is and indeed where the viewpoint (that is, the camera, the agent of the gaze) is positioned. What results is considerable spectatorial dislocation, so the visual experience is one of abstracted texture and colour: it is more visceral than analytical, more affective than cognitive. The double-play of images here—the dancers’ legs parting to reveal the swirl of skirts—is incredibly suggestive and evocative, implicating the reader in that about which the film does not, cannot, speak. However, it also represents a double displacement, an endless deferral of the sex which should reside between the dancers’ legs: the skirts are raised in frantic swirls to reveal the legs and panties, which when opened reveal only more highly textured skirts. This reflects much, I would argue, of what is really going on under the cinematic cancan skirts. They are over-determined fetishes, which enunciate desire and fear, and endlessly displace the object for which they substitute. Yet, in their visual, textural and kinetic saturation the skirts exceed the containing limits of the forces that inscribe them.

Despite the fetishised and fearsome nature of the cancan outfits, and despite the way the corsets and dresses potentially constrain the movement of the dancers, they do not function to re-contain the women. Musicals, especially of the Busby Berkeley type, are not known for their progressive representations of gender. The costumes worn by the female characters in these earlier productions have a major function in helping to produce such effects. Moulin Rouge! works within and around this discourse; however, the female clothing of the chorus has a much more ambiguous status. For a start, although the characters of the Diamond Dogs are all based on sexual fetish and stereotype, they do all have individual sartorial identities. 3 Compared to their male audience in the nightclub, the ‘rakes’, who are all dressed alike in black top hat and tails, white shirts, waistcoats and cravats, the girls exude individuality. Here it is the male spectator, not the female spectacle, who is rendered with chorus-like conformity. This is echoed in the ‘Like a Virgin’ sequence, where the male waiters, dressed uniformly, transform into a carbon-copy, male choral spectacle, which only serves to parodically undermine the Duke’s salacious, yet ineffective, attempt to position himself as the privileged consumer of the ‘virgin’. Paradoxically, however, there is also a sense in which the visual overload, the very mass of individual female types deployed in the figures of the Diamond Dogs also erases the individuality that is otherwise invested in the differentiation provided by the costumes—the crowd of fabrics and textures in a sense swallows the individual dress and identity of each dancer. This serves to give a kind of communal strength to the girls. When the cancan commences, the dancers and rakes face off against each other, and it is the cancan dresses, especially in their massed confusion, that, drawn up like frill-necked lizards, are powerful weapons in the encounter. The dance becomes a fitting, if somewhat disturbing, symbol of the latent violence that exists within the gender (and class) matrix. As the dancers run, sneering at the bourgeois men, who are demanding to be entertained, they overwhelm them with their skirts and the promise (and fear) of what lies beneath. In the clash of textures, the complacent smoothness, order and stability of the middle class evening suits are annihilated by the riotous chaos of petticoats, panties and corsets, as the men are visually and literally absorbed into the maelstrom of disorienting, carnivalesque hedonism that is the dance; it is they (the men) who are contained by the skirts, not the dancers. The skirts here function metonymically not simply as an object of disavowal, but more powerfully as a feminine appropriation of the vagina dentata; intriguing and desired, they are ultimately not symbols, butinstruments of symbolic castration.

At an affective level as well, there is a satiation of the gaze enacted through the textural excess (and the editing and camera work), which erases the unified spectatorial position usually sutured into film. Although the narrative and costuming tropes employed—corsets, dancers, prostitutes, underwear, glamour—might normally encourage a voyeuristic positioning of the female characters as sexual objects, it is difficult to adopt this position because there is simply too much happening at the level of visual texture. The female bodies are not objectified, even though they are fragmented, because they are not really identifiable as bodies most of the time, just skirts. The costumes protect the women by displacing their bodies as objects of the spectacle. Far from de-humanising the dancers, their costumes empower them; the skirts become a kind of totalised shield against the men and provide an impenetrable canopy of protection. Inasmuch as the women can be deemed spectacle here, they overwhelm and disempower in the excess of their clothing, and it is ultimately the men who are stripped of their (phallic) hats at the end of Satine’s number. Patriarchy comes undone in its contest with the cancan skirts. Eventually, along with the other male performers, even Zidler himself, that masterful and parasitic exploiter of women, is redefined as an object of spectacle in the final show, and the be-suited Duke loses his gun in the end.

Conclusion: Excess and Texture

Moulin Rouge! employs excess in the extreme. Highly derivative in terms of plot, stereotyped in its characterisation, the film’s real achievement rests in the ways it positively revels in its own excesses, disregarding all notions of realism and plausibility along the way. It is risky cinema, as is evidenced in the extremes of reaction the film has provoked: most either love it or hate it. Such strong and antithetical responses are indicative of a complexity that resides in the ways in which it seems to yoke oppositions together, deploying stereotypes which it parodies, invoking traditions which it undermines with its eclecticism. The film plays dangerously with ambiguity, hybridity and paradox. Satine’s name represents a conflation of two fabrics: Satin and Sateen. Satin is a silk fabric which has a highly smooth and glossy surface on one side, achieved by the use of a twill weave—one where the weft (textural) threads pass over one warp (structural) thread, then under two—a luxurious and usually expensive material. Sateen is a cotton fabric woven like Satin, with a glossy surface; in other words, it is a cheaper copy of the original. Satine, the character, embodies an incorporation of the original and the copy, a hybridisation, a variation on a theme. Yet, in performing the masquerade, she runs the risk of been overwhelmed by the instruments of it: the fetishised costumes. At a narrative level, Christian is the framing consciousness of the film, he is the one given the voice and power to tell the story, and Satine must die in the end. In her final scene she wears a Hindi wedding gown, virginity and virtue symbolically reclaimed within the patriarchal structures of romantic love: the trajectory of the narrative works against her, recuperating her sexuality. In sartorial terms, she is transformed from a prostitute to a symbolic virgin—and a dead one at that—a reverse trajectory which signals the potential for the re-containment of her sexuality within patriarchal structures. The tension, I would argue, reflects a crisis in the representation of the feminine.

However, the costume also plays ambiguously with the hegemony of the narrative, functioning as weft to its warp, and in its excess providing a counter discourse that troubles the narrative strategies of containment. What the film sets up as cliché, it knocks down at an affective level in its overpowering visuality and kinaesthetic display. The textures in this film, so evocatively displayed in the cancan skirts, suggest an alternative level of cinematic apprehension, one that circumvents the visual strategies of containment and disrupts the gaze by simply overwhelming it. Paradoxically, by erasing individuality, by hiding it within the concealing mass of dangerously feminine skirts and abstracted texture, the film liberates the feminine from the tyranny of the gaze; in giving us too much to look at it ultimately disempowers the visual. In this the costumes form a kind of collective totality that troubles and confuses. At a more affective level, the film also raises questions about the pleasures of sartorial excess, particularly of textural abundance, the sensuous and ultimately tactile pleasures associated with texture. The excesses in this film are formidably textural and this produces the most extraordinary affective impact at a spectatorial level. While texture is visual, it is also haptic, a tactile form of pleasure we are often cut off from in the cinematic experience. The plenitude that is materialised through the costume evokes the memory and possibility of a different form of experience, one that exceeds the boundaries of the visual.


(1.) This is also evident in the working names the designers gave to each of her costumes: Black Diamonds, Pink Diamonds, the Red Dress, the Penoir (the name the designers give to the corset and negligee she wears for the initial seduction of the Duke), the Cream Suit, Spanish, the Oriental Dress, the Gothic Tower Dress and Underwear, the Necklace, the Grey Suit, the Black Hindi Dress and the Hindi Wedding Dress.

(2.) The film was attempting to achieve a PG13 rating, so although split knickers were worn by the dancers in the film, underneath these were flesh coloured close-fitting panties which, according to Martin, gave the dancers a ‘pink, smooth, Barbie-like area” (Litson, 2001, 26), a fascinating annihilation of the female sexuality that is otherwise so fully evident in the film. It is also an interesting example of the ways in which the female body is often culturally constructed as a plastic parody of itself.

(3.) Apart from Nini legs-in-the-air and Mome Fromage, who are both characterised strongly with individual identities, the Diamond Dogs are: China Doll, Arabia, Tartan, Tarot, Pearly Queen, Urchin, Harlequin, Juno, Liberty, Polkadot, Spanish, Travesty (who wears male garb on the top half of her body and the cancan skirts on the lower half), Schoolgirl, Tattoo, Historic, Gypsy, Garden Girl, French Maid, Dominatrix, Baby Doll, Petite Princess and Antoinette. As Martin comments, they wanted the dancers to have clearly delineated (visual) characters, so decided to plunder a range of sexual fetishes and theatrical types in designing the costumes each would wear (Bazmark, 2002).


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The author wishes to thank Monash University for financial assistance during the preparation of this article.


15 Dec 2010