As the bolshy but sweet tale of star-crossed lovers hits 30, Susan Becker reveals how she dressed ‘cute, innocent’ Alabama, Clarence’s Elvis-inspired style, and how a vintage $3 crab shirt almost blew the budget
Doomed lovers make for excellent cinema. There’s something undeniably irresistible about a love story between two people who either shouldn’t belong together, or can’t help but leave a wake of destruction in their path to domestic bliss. In True Romance, which premiered 30 years ago this week, Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette starred as Clarence and Alabama, a couple who meet, fall in love, get married, and immediately take off on the lam after Clarence kills Alabama’s pimp [played by a dreadlocked Gary Oldman] and accidentally steals a suitcase of cocaine. It’s pretty much the 1993 version of Bonnie and Clyde.
Written by Quentin Tarantino and directed by Tony Scott, True Romance is filled with nihilistic tête-à-têtes and brutal, hard-to-watch violence, but has a heavy dose of sweetness thrown in to tie it all together. Comic book shop clerk Clarence runs into hooker [for exactly four days] with a heart of gold Alabama at a Sonny Chiba triple feature. Their manic pixie meet-cute was not so serendipitous; Clarence’s boss had secretly hired Alabama to be his employee’s birthday present. But they fall and fall hard.
The movie has everything and everyone, including Christopher Walken, Dennis Hopper, a pre-Sopranos James Gandolfini, Michael Rapaport, and Brad Pitt as Floyd, a permanently strung-out roommate. Clarence and Alabama’s unconventional love story told through Tarantino’s sharp storytelling and Scott’s high-octane cinematography catapulted True Romance to enduring cult classic status decades later. Not to mention the electrifying chemistry between the two leads [which resulted in an on-set hookup, according to a cast interview with Maxim back in 2008.] But another big reason is the incredible costumes by Susan Becker.
Becker, who was also behind the stylish vampires of The Lost Boys, Diane Keaton’s Baby Boom businesswear, and Madonna’s silky loungewear in Body of Evidence, dressed Slater and Arquette in strikingly vivid hues and prints that perfectly complemented Scott’s visuals. Once you take in the various animal prints and eye-candy color combinations, it’s not surprising why Becker’s costume design is legendary, and why Clarence and Alabama are a popular couple’s costume to this day.
Celebs like Margot Robbie, Peyton List, and Julianne Hough have all dressed like Alabama for Halloween, as well as Sydney Sweeney’s character in Euphoria. And how could we forget Kourtney Kardashian and Travis Barker’s very own True Romance Halloween photoshoot – so obsessed with the film is Barker, he has a daughter named Alabama from his previous marriage to Shanna Moakler. Clothing brand Pleasures also came out with a True Romance collection in 2020, and plenty of 90s-influenced brands like Blumarine’s collections are clearly indebted to the movie.
There may have not been any mention about the characters’ fashion sense in Tarantino’s script, but Becker says Scott, who passed away in 2012, put a lot of faith in her costume design, and it clearly paid off. When Alabama and Clarence first meet at the movies, he’s in an M-65 military field jacket over a boxy blazer, while she’s wearing a red dress with a leopard print coat, bright blue ankle booties, and a pink box purse. “Her costumes were sort of a combination of Frederick's of Hollywood, classic sex worker clothes, but adorable,” says Becker. “She was cute, sweet, and innocent.”
As Alabama and Clarence get into his purple Cadillac and head out to the warmer West and further away from Detroit, their clothes begin to get more and more colorful. In one scene, the two make a pit stop to call his best friend Dickie, and have a wild romp inside the phone booth. Clarence’s outfit is pure rockabilly: a turquoise-coloured bowling shirt, Levi’s, and Elvis-style aviator sunglasses [he worships The King], while Alabama is decked out in a glorious mélange of patterns and prints. She has on a cow print mini skirt, a white polkadot off-the-shoulder top, turquoise bra, giant turquoise belt, and blue cowboy boots, with a red, long-sleeve, western shirt tied around her waist.
Becker says the phone booth scene was pivotal, because it showed the transformation into their new look, which was inspired by the idea of them on a road trip and stopping at vintage and thrift shops as they travel. “I always need to reference things in a way,” she explains. “Like in The Lost Boys, I thought, ‘these are homeless kids,' that's what they are. They're kids, so I would marry a fairytale with reality. In a sense, True Romance is a fairytale as well, but also married to a kind of reality.” [The fantasy feel is evident in the costumes’ pink and turquoise color scheme, as two people on the run probably would not opt for such attention-getting clothing.]
For the cow print skirt look, Becker found inspiration from the Guess Jeans ads of the era, which featured Claudia Schiffer, Eva Herzigova, and Anna Nicole Smith. She made the skirt, while the red western shirt was a vintage piece. “Tony just loved that idea of that cow skirt. And I've always loved cowboy stuff, ever since I was a little girl. I've always been attracted to the same things. It's funny,” she says. Scott also “fell in love” with the leopard print motif she had going for the costumes. She made the leopard print robes that Oldman’s character wears, and Scott’s wife kept one of them.
One of the pair's most iconic looks is the one they wear when they get to LA. Clarence has on a red Hawaiian shirt, a vintage piece [and one that Becker theorizes may even have inspired Pitt’s yellow Hawaiian shirt in Once Upon a Time in Mexico], and Alabama’s pink leopard print look. Becker built her pink leopard print leggings, and paired them with a sheer turquoise blouse embroidered with shiny crabs— a quirky $3 thrift store find. However, Scott loved the blouse and wanted it for a particularly difficult scene: the one where Alabama gets in a drag-down fight with Virgil, played by Gandolfini. Because it’s a bloody action scene, it requires multiple pairs, which can be an issue for rare pieces like the crab blouse.
“My assistant’s main job became finding that nylon fabric, which we found in an off-white color and dyed turquoise, and then had it appliqued and embroidered to look like the exact same top,” she explains. “So, that $3 top turned out to be the most expensive item and I didn't have a high budget. It must have been about ten grand for that $3 top.”
Unlike star-crossed couple Romeo and Juliet, Clarence and Alabama manage to escape a deadly fate and reach marital happiness, albeit with Clarence missing an eye. The outfits in the final scene, which show them on a beach in Mexico with their young son, symbolize their final style transition: Clarence and Alabama are both in denim cut-off shorts, with Alabama in a halter top and a Panama straw hat that belonged to Becker. “They’re very relaxed, going with the fairytale vibe, now they're all cleaned up and happy with their child, four or five years later finally enjoying some paradise,” says Becker. One thing’s for sure, whether it’s thirty years or 100, Clarence and Alabama will forever be style icons.