Revolutionary Road: The Style and Instability of the American Dream

Sam Mendes’ 2008 drama ‘Revolutionary Road’, based on Richard Yates’ novel of the same name, offers a suffocating portrayal of 1950s suburbia.

This article contains spoilers

The relationship between Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) and April (Kate Winslet) Wheeler is intimately scrutinised. Their marital discord is a symptom of their decision to “play house” in provincial Connecticut. The couple resigns to the quintessential American dream: a perfect white house accompanied by two perfect children. Frank and April, believing they are “superior to the whole thing”; retaliate against this ‘dream’ by deciding to move to Paris. An unplanned promotion for him and an unplanned pregnancy for her foil their decision.

April’s clothing mirrors her fluctuating hope, from simplistic white blouses to Dior-esque tea dresses and finally reverting back to shapelessness and beige. The shifting wardrobe reflects her desire to escape her stagnant life. This is contrasted against the consistency of Frank’s outfits: a reel of grey/brown suits and muted shirts. Albert Wolsky, the costume designer for the film, explains, “It created an atmosphere for [Frank’s] character to disappear”, drawing attention to April’s exteriority instead. For 1950s housewives, fashion was a tool to announce their socioeconomic status: the higher the husband’s salary, the higher the quality of the wife’s dress. Style was not merely an expression of individualism, but as another measure of wealth and supposed happiness. April’s Oscar-nominated costumes encapsulate the tension between maintaining the image of the exemplary wife and the internal conflict that underpins this ideal.

The idea of moving to Paris injects life into April, emphasised by her clothes. She no longer wears her outfits; she exhibits them, like pieces of artwork, in preparation for a more intellectual and lavish future. As she collects her travel documents, she displays a pristine white pencil dress, matching gloves and pearl earrings. Her look is synonymous with her mood: elegant and enthusiastic. With a singed waist and narrowly scooped neckline, the dress is reminiscent of 1950s haute couture. The addition of the gloves reveals her concern with stylistic etiquette. However, this 'making up' is not shown on screen. For April, Paris involves financially supporting Frank and becoming the sole breadwinner. Her bold and unapologetic clothing echoes this subversion of gender stereotypes.

“April’s Oscar-nominated costumes encapsulate the tension between maintaining the image of the exemplary wife and the internal conflict that underpins this ideal.”

Unlike April, the ‘making-up’ of her neighbour Milly is shown. Milly is conventional and mundane; her off-brown dress, patterned sporadically with roses echoes these traits. Milly’s routine is interrupted by her husband, Shep, remarking “Is that what you’re wearing?”. Despite her lack of style, this comment cuts her. The principal role of the contemporary wife was to appear beautiful; she fails. An equally tasteless brown dress replaces the first. This subtle exchange goes unnoticed, to both the viewer and her husband. Milly’s dowdiness is constant. Yet, the compulsion to alter herself into different versions of the same form demonstrates the anxiety over a husband’s displeasure. On the other side of the picket fence, April’s appearance is revived by her desire to emigrate. She dons a vibrant powder blue dress. The women’s respective aesthetics are compared directly when they are placed in the same scene: April in blue, Milly in brown. Without any dialogue, we know who is ambitious and who is not.

Unfortunately, April’s new style is shattered alongside her hopes of escaping America. Financial demands see Frank and April abandon their dreams of cosmopolitanism and class. She regresses back to her original style, this time with more vulgar patterns and flat colours. Now, when Milly and April are together, there is stylistic conformity- their dresses conform to mundanity. Shep crumples and mangles April’s dowdy halter neck dress as the pair commit infidelity. Her moral downfall and declining style coincide. For the final forty minutes of the film, April only wears two dresses. Since the costumes are on-screen for so long, they become stitched into the character. Her psychological trauma corresponds with her outfits. The penultimate dress is shown above. It is an uncomfortable synthesis of her two styles throughout the film, the bulbous patterning muddies the vibrancy of the powder blue.

As April screams and runs from Revolutionary Road, her dress, symbolising both the Parisian and the housewife, follows her. This small semblance of hope is obliterated with the final dress. It is a piece that perfectly encompasses her emotional trauma. An off-green shirt hangs over a long beige skirt. It is ill-fitted and miserable. Her decision to self-induce an abortion generates a tableau of the despairing housewife. She is the central figure in a spotless living room, her back faces the camera; blood stains the beige.

Revolutionary Road is highly domestic in its setting, but the most intense moments rupture the calm of the beautiful American home. By the end of the film, it feels as though every corner of Frank and April’s house has been exposed, along with the intricacies of their marriage. The expressionless clothes April retires into mirrors this suffocating domesticity. We can only remember the earlier moments when they were set to replace Connecticut with Paris. Frank returns home from work, April, donned in pink and white, embraces him, their children play, the song Count Every Star hums in the background. They are emblems of the American Dream, but the decision to resist and then adhere to this dream corrupts the couple. April’s coinciding stylistic transformations remind us that inner feeling is intrinsic to external presentation. Via costume, we immediately understand her “hopeless emptiness”.

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