Villanelle’s outfits express a powerful voice, projecting and fleshing out a narrative all of their own.
Swathed in frothy, saccharine-pink tulle, a fresh-faced, willowy blonde stands resolute in the Place Vendôme in Paris. Her tresses are wound in an elegant chignon and her delicate features appear lit from within; one could easily mistake her for the romantic heroine of a bourgeois costume drama. If, however, you’ve sneaked a glance at a newspaper, momentarily scrolled through Twitter, or even vaguely encountered another human being in 2018, you’ll understand I’m referring to Villanelle, the beguiling anti-heroine of BBC America’s hit drama Killing Eve. With a script by Phoebe Waller-Bridge and performances from Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer, you’d think that attempts to steal the limelight are few and far between. I thought so too, until Comer’s character sauntered across the Place Vendôme-bedecked Molly Goddard couture. Fashion had undeniably, and irrevocably, taken centre stage.
Killing Eve depicts the tale of Villanelle (Comer), a charming yet deeply psychotic female assassin with a predilection for haute couture fashion. Sandra Oh plays opposite her as Eve Polastri, the unlikely MI5 agent tasked with investigating the string of assassinations. Waller-Bridge strikes the perfect balance between violent brutality and sharp wit, as her characterisation of Villanelle manifests a riotous penchant for sadism and sardonicism in equal measure.
Contradiction is perhaps the most striking theme in Killing Eve. Beneath the delicate, gossamer layers of Villanelle’s pink confection stand a rebellious pair of Balenciaga biker boots – a playful yet subversive twist. The look is paramount in conveying her character’s psychotic ambivalence (in this scene, her employer forces her to attend an unwelcome mental examination). It is this attention to sartorial detail that sets Killing Eve apart from traditional television dramas, where costume design typically takes a backseat. Villanelle’s outfits express a powerful voice, projecting and fleshing out a narrative all of their own. In one instance, her girlish pink gown and menacing footwear combine to articulate insolence, tenacity and psychotic incongruity; a sartorial middle finger to Constantin, her corrupt handler.
Of course, that’s not to say that television-drama fashion not been coveted, narrativised, and collectively worshipped. Who could forget Gillian Anderson’s silk blouses and “power” trousers in her role as DSI Stella Gibson in The Fall? Such was the obsession that in 2013, both ASOS and French Connection reported a spike in silk shirt sales following the series’ broadcast. Similarly, reviews of cult scandi-noir The Killing devoted endless inches to Sarah Lund’s knitwear choices, dubbing her proclivity for Faroe Island knitwear “a cultural zeitgeist”. At one end of the spectrum, Stella’s sexy silhouette marked a powerful, professional woman unafraid of her femininity, while Lund’s cable knit repressed her sexuality to make room for bookish intelligence. Each character’s clothing was hailed as a refreshingly feminist approach to workplace dressing.
That said, Villanelle’s sartorial stunts differ significantly from the wardrobes of Gibson and Lund. These supposed “feminist icons” remain impartial to fashion, yet materialise each episode in pressed silk shirts, “power” trousers and designer knitwear; all without any active sartorial intent. Meanwhile, Comer’s Villanelle is a committed fashion fanatic. Her prolific assassinations principally satisfy her appetite for sharp tailoring, brocade gowns and of course, pink tulle. And how exactly does this differ from the knitwear and blouses of previous small-screen heroines? Well, because Villanelle’s sartorial narrative is one of active agency. Like most of us each morning, she makes decisions, communicates, fantasises and evolves all through the language of fashion, and in doing so, she champions clothing as synonymous with self-expression.
For Villanelle, certain looks engender specific feelings, moods and behaviours. For an office shoot-out in Bulgaria, sleek braids are paired with a satin embroidered bomber jacket. She nimbly scales a tuscan roof in tough denim and relaxed Chloé organza. Conducting a garden-party mutilation, she switches into whimsical Burberry lace. Costume designer Phoebe de Gaye nails the ever-evolving fashionista vibe, and it is no surprise that when Constantin deems her psychiatrically unfit to operate, Villanelle’s chief concern is wasting “a good outfit!”. In doing so, Villanelle serves as a (rather extreme) testament to the transformative power of clothes and fashion, if it does lend new meaning to the phrase “to put on a killer dress”.
For Villanelle, personal style exists as a means for unlocking a plethora of disparate identities. In this respect, the psychotically unstable murderess becomes surprisingly relatable. For most of us, the magic of fashion lies in its ability to transform, cultivate and act out a variety of different personalities. Depending on my mood, my style can express my femininity, propel my muscles during exercise, or even function as protective armour. Through fashion, I can evoke a powerful response, both with others and within myself. It’s really no wonder that Villanelle keeps her knives and pistols stacked in her wardrobe alongside myriad wigs, outfits and accessories. For her, fashion constitutes a weapon, symbolising power through self-expression.
So what exactly does Villanelle, and her chameleonic wardrobe have to do with feminism? The important thing to note is the theme of active transformation. After all, change is arguably the only constant in fashion— each season the pendulum swings toward mini-skirts and body-conscious fabrics, only to return faithfully to voluminous capes, flares and puddle-hemlines once again. Of course, this choice is a privilege. It takes power to fantasise, make decisions and express a voice through clothing. Surely it is no coincidence that Villanelle is portrayed at her weakest and most vulnerable while abandoned in a Russian prison, devoid of her sartorial autonomy? This sequence is particularly poignant in illustrating how Villanelle’s divergent wardrobe is synonymous with her personal freedom as a human.
Admittedly, I would have commended Waller-Bridge in any circumstance, for championing the idea that a person’s intelligence is not automatically compromised by an interest in fashion. But what’s more, Villanelle represents the paragon of active female choice. She dresses meaningfully rather than parading her sexuality, or pandering to the male gaze. Killing Eve tells the story of an autonomous young woman whose power is predominantly derived from the freedom of self-expression. Finally, a feminist heroine we can all relate to.
Words: Caroline Welsh