dressing the part | desperately seeking susan

January 29, 2017 in stop look & listen by editor


Madonna didn’t like the costumes, so she wore her own clothes and the world got into her groove.

When director Susan Seidelman first read the script for Desperately Seeking Susan, she thought that it was the perfect follow-up project to her 1982 cult classic, Smithereens. Both films tell the story of a young woman from New Jersey who wants to reinvent herself in NYC. But while Wren, the protagonist in Smithereens, is a self-centered grifter, Susan‘s Roberta is a bored housewife stuck in suburbia. ‘Desperately Seeking Susan is the more fairy-tale version of the story,’ says Seidelman.

But unlike the dark Smithereens, Susan was written as a screwball comedy. Roberta, unsatisfied with her own life, becomes transfixed on a series of personal ads sent between people named ‘Jim’ and ‘Susan’. One day, she decides to show up to one of the couple’s clandestine meetings and becomes obsessed with Susan, who appears so cool and carefree. After the meeting, Roberta follows her around the East Village, and into a second-hand clothing store where Susan swaps her jacket for a new pair of boots. Hoping a little of that Susan magic rubs off onto her, Roberta buys the jacket and immediately begins wearing it. After a knock on the head, Roberta loses her memory and starts believing she IS Susan and goes on living her life and wearing her clothes.

Rosanna Arquette, who had a couple of films already on her resume, was a no-brainer for the role of Roberta. The Susan character took a little more time to nail. She was originally drawn as a slightly older manic pixie dream hippie played by Diane Keaton or Goldie Hawn. But when Susan evolved from new age bohemian to new wave hustler, Keaton and Hawn not longer seemed right. Young starlets like Melanie Griffith, Ellen Barkin, and Jennifer Jason Leigh were then considered. However, Seidelman had someone else in mind, someone she knew from the downtown club scene in NYC.

At the time, Madonna had scored an impressive collection of radio hits (‘Borderline’, ‘Holiday’, ‘Lucky Star’) and had made a splash on MTV. But she still wasn’t yet an icon, regularly being mistaken for Cyndi Lauper. Executives at Orion (the studio producing the flick) either didn’t know who Madonna was or thought she was wrong for the part. But Seidelman pushed for her and ultimately won. Production began quietly enough in the fall of ’84 but mid-way through the 8-week shoot, ‘Like a Virgin’ dropped, turning Madonna into a superstar almost overnight. Crowds began swarming the set and Orion had to hire a security crew to keep the peace during filming.

To promote the movie, Orion’s marketing manager Blaise Noto saw how Madonna’s fans emulated her look, so they made lace gloves and rubber bracelets for movie swag. The photo chosen for the poster (shot by Herb Ritts) featured Madonna and Arquette hanging together in matching pyramid jackets, created by the film’s costume and production designer, Santo Loquasto. But for the most part, Madonna wore her own clothes. According to her friend and stylist Maripol, ‘She would come over when she was doing Desperately Seeking Susan and say she didn’t like the costumes. I would say: “You’re a singer! You have to look like you.” I insisted she keep her jewelry, the crosses and stuff.’

Susan was released in March 1985 and caused a commotion, grossing over $27,000,000 (with only a $5 million budget). Trying to capitalize further on Madonna’s influence as a fashion idol, Orion sold a mass-market version of Loquasto’s pyramid jacket. They also struck a licensing deal with Bakers & Leeds, who produced copies of Susan’s sequin and mesh fold-over boots. There was even a set of Susan action figures, one of which had a arm raised, immortalizing the scene where Susan dries her armpits under the hand dryer at the Port Authority.



Susan and Jimmy (Robert Joy) taking in the personal ads.


Desperate housewives: Roberta and sister-in-law Leslie (Laurie Metcaff) wearing typical Jersey dinner-party wear.


Susan lusts over a pair of sequin-covered boots at East Village vintage shop, Love Saves the Day.


Roberta, now in possession of the gold jacket, does her best to copy Susan’s look.


The head scarf is ridiculous, but Leslie’s jumpsuit and bag are a YES PLEASE.


That jacket. Probably not worn by Jimi Hendrix, but still iconic.


Susan and Roberta’s husband Gary (Gary Glass) try to figure out why Roberta has gone missing.


The stolen Nefertiti earrings that set off a wild goose chase.


Feasting on vodka and Chinese take-out with the foxy Dez (Aiden Quinn), Roberta tries to regain her memory.


‘Some witch steals my clothes, Viggo gets pushed out a hotel window, and now you get fired.’ (with Crystal, played by Anna Levine)


Roberta, assuming Crystal’s roll as a magician’s assistant, fluffy dress and all.


Witch stole her clothes!