Creating Divine: Rethinking Costume and the Transgressive Body in Cult Film

The films created by John Waters in the 1970s and 1980s shifted from their original indie status into iconic films known for their commentary on and rejection of social and cultural norms. The shock value for which Waters’ films became notorious, and through which they achieved their cult following is in no small part due to the over the top, oftentimes offensive, and transgressive performances of their supersized star, Divine. From midnight showings of Pink Flamingos to the commercial success of Hairspray, their collaboration continued until Divine’s untimely death in 1988.

At the very center of many of Waters’ films was Divine, and at the very center of Divine’s on and off-screen identity was his body. While Waters’ provided the perverse sense of humor, Divine embodied it. The aim of this research was to investigate how Divine’s on-screen persona was constructed through costume in his performances as Dawn Davenport in Female Trouble (1974) and as Francine Fishpaw in Polyester (1981). In addition, the researched conducted explored how these performances unpack the function of fashion in cinema and how this may potentially create a new definition of costume.

While Waters’ films and Divine’s persona have been popular subjects in gender and film studies for decades, it is interesting to reexamine them at a time when so many of their once-transgressive qualities have been normalized in today’s. Furthermore, there has been a recent reevaluation of Waters’ work, and by extension, of Divine, by many of the cultural institutions which once denied them critical approval. Two case studies analyze Divine’s costumes and performances as the crazed criminal in Female Trouble and as the sympathetic victim in Polyester. In each film, Divine’s costumes are significant to the evolution of the character’s story, and through visual and discourse analysis, this research unraveled the role of costume in shaping Divine’s body and costume as an intrinsic part of his persona.