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Thursday 29 March 2012

Movie costumes I have loved: Pepper Potts in the Iron Man franchise.

Thanks to Tumblr, I'm absorbing way more promo material for the new Avengers movie than I otherwise would. Which isn't to say that I'm not psyched about The Avengers (I am!) but I'm definitely thinking about it more than expected. Effective marketing, you guys! (N.B. The most effective marketing of all is Clark Gregg's Twitter -- ie, the guy who plays the Men In Black-style Agent Coulson in the Thor and Iron Man movies. Seriously. He's awesome.) Anyhow, today I was thinking about Pepper Potts, and how much I love her.
One of my favourite things about Pepper Potts is how terrible the character seems on paper. She's the PA to a self-destructive billionaire playboy who regularly ignores her advice and almost gets her blown up on multiple occasions. She stays with him because she loves him. He bribes her with expensive shoes whenever he's done something especially atrocious. Now, from that description the Tony/Pepper relationship sounds all kinds of awful, like some dire Mad Men/Miss Moneypenny throwback to the days when mainstream films didn't have to keep their rampant misogyny on the down-low. But the surprising reality is that Tony and Pepper are one of the most charming and engaging onscreen superhero couples ever, and that's mostly down to the casting. I mean, it's widely agreed that Robert Downey Jr basically is Tony Stark. Did you see his and Gwyneth's Tony/Pepper-in-all-but-name routine at the Oscars this year? Perfection.

Their couple-name is Pepperony. Almost as good as Peeta/Katniss from The Hunger Games = Peeniss!
I didn't realise it until after Iron Man 2, but Gwyneth Paltrow is really inspired casting for this role. Obviously her performance is engaging and she has great chemistry with RDJ, but physically speaking she really just... looks like the kind of person Pepper Potts would be.

Watching any blockbuster movie requires a certain level of disbelief-suspension just in order to accept that a bunch of people who look like movie stars are anything other than movie stars. How likely is it that every member of the X-Men is coincidentally going to look like Hugh Jackman or Halle Berry? I'm not seriously complaining about movie stars looking hot, but I'm still not wild about the fact that outside of chick-flicks there's rarely much acknowledgement of the fact that maintaining those looks is damn hard work. In real life, Scarlett Johansson is probably given free cosmetics and designer clothes on a regular basis, has a personal trainer and spends an hour in the makeup chair before filming, but her character in Iron Man 2 is a government agent who receives none of these benefits yet still looks like Scarlett Johansson.
Everyone knows that being a successful Hollywood actress hinges on image and appearance, but most of the time when a character played by one of those actresses is shown spending the same amount of time and effort on her appearance then she's portrayed as being neurotic or a bitch. I'm sure that any hardened pop-culture feminists reading this are now rolling their eyes because this isn't news, but it does bear repeating.
Gwyneth Paltrow is openly obsessed with the kind of New Age remedies and diets that a) often sound like nonsensical pseudoscience, and b) exclude everyone who can't afford juice cleanse ingredients and yoga retreats. But the flip side is: unlike the many women in the public eye who feel pressured to claim they look like poreless works of art without any outside intervention, Gwyneth talks about the effort she puts into maintaining her sylphlike figure. She's practically the poster-girl for weird famous-person dieting, and works out for several hours a day.
For Pepper Potts, this is perfect. She's a "career woman" (please feel free to imagine obnoxious finger-quotes around that particular phrase), and if she'd been portrayed as another female character who "just happens" to be stunningly attractive then she immediately would've been less authentic. Because Pepper probably does diet and spend intimidating amounts of money on pedicures and facials. Not only is looking good a job requirement for someone who has to be the sane face of Stark Industries whenever Tony's off getting wasted on a private island or crashing a robot into the Chrysler building, but I'd also guess that she just likes looking pretty. I find it oddly heartwarming to see, for once, a character in a comicbook movie who is acknowledged as being feminine and girly but not mocked for it or relegated to a damsel role. She's the kind of person who relaxes by going to the spa, which is vanishingly rare among the hero characters in geek/genre narratives.
I'm so used to being bombarded with token female characters like Megan Fox's sex-object role in Transformers that I end up overvaluing characters like Natalie Portman's Jane Foster in Thor, just because she wears sweaters and plaid shirts like a Normal. By superhero movie standards Jane Foster is a great character, but when I compare her to Pepper Potts, I can't help thinking... isn't it a little disingenuous to suggest that Natalie Portman looks like a workaholic physicist who lives in a trailer in the desert, on a diet of Pop Tarts and cereal? This isn't so much a criticism of Jane Foster (whom I loved) as a personal qualm I have about the trope of "normal"-looking female characters being played by world-famous beauties. When it comes to female beauty and its relationship with makeup/vanity (oh, the good old "natural-look makeup" debate) there are already about fifteen levels of backlash.

Closely related to this is Hollywood's love of casting extremely thin women, an action that's frequently followed up by a shrilly defensive exclamation of, "But she eats like a horse!" -- Case in point Lisbeth Salander in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, a character who lives off energy drinks and oven pizza but is portrayed by an actress who was more-or-less ordered not to eat for the duration of filming. I feel like although Pepper is an unusually slim person, there's a tacit acknowledgement that she's not among the ranks of the Salander-like "I eat like a horse!" characters, and that's partly due to casting.
from here.
In her role as the other side of Tony's coin, Pepper dresses the way the head of Stark Industries should be dressing, even before she's promoted to CEO. Thanks to the boardroom uniform of two-piece suits it's a lot easier for men to look businesslike than women, but Pepper's an expert. Tony only seems to wear a suit when Pepper picks one out for him, otherwise he'd be perfectly happy to show up at press conferences in the same Styx t-shirt he'd been wearing for the last fifteen hours in the lab. Pepper, on the other hand, is a very careful dresser and has a distinctive style. With the exception of formal/party outfits, everything we see her wear is either black, grey or white, and all of it is very closely tailored. In fact, Pepper's wardrobe is quite similar to what Gwyneth Paltrow wears in real life, which must have been helpful for branding purposes while promoting the films. I recall that during the publicity tour for at least one of the Iron Man movies she wore 5-inch heels for all her interviews and TV appearances, still visually in-character as Pepper.
In the above still from the new Avengers trailer, Pepper's wearing something that looks quite similar to the outfit she wore to the Oscars, with the same type of structured shoulders. The only major difference between Gwyneth's own style and the costumes she wears as Pepper Potts is that Pepper more closely toes the line of suit/office themes. (Seriously, google-image "career woman" some time -- every single picture is a woman wearing a black skirt-suit.) Pepper's costumes are feminine and very chic, but generally incorporate some aspect of the classic suit, such as faux lapels or squared-off shoulders. She's the perfect Vogue-editorial CEO.

Previously on Movie Costumes I Have Loved: A fan's introduction to costume design.
More costume design reviews can be found with my Movie Costumes I Have Loved tag.

Costume design review of Iron Man 2 at the Clothes On Film blog.


  1. Eeeee! A Pepper Potts love post! Yay!

    For real, Pepper is my second favourite thing about the Iron Man franchise. My first favourite thing is, of course, RDJ as Tony Stark, but I wouldn't love Iron Man as a whole if it weren't for the awesomeness that is Pepper.

    She was such a breath of fresh air in terms of comic book love interests. She was played by an actual woman and not a 22 year old or a 26 year old - I'm so tired of men in their 40s wooing significantly younger women. When Pepper goes toe to toe with Tony they feel like equals and though she calls him on his bullshit she's not shrill or humourless because she clearly enjoys their banter.

    I also love that she's not unaware of his secret identity and isolated from his superheroics in the way that many love interests are. And though she is put in danger and threatened, she never feels like a damsel in distress because she works with him to take down the bad guys, not by turning into a badass herself but just by doing whatever is within her abilities. When she gets in trouble she calls the cops (aka SHIELD) like any normal person would! Love it!

    Seriously, if Joss messes with Pepper I will rage like I have never raged before. Marvel has improved with the writing and casting of love interests but she is still the gold standard as far as I am concerned.

  2. What's sad is one of the few films I can think of that shows that 'hello, this look takes effort' is Princess Diaries - where, yes, Anne Hathaway is gorgeous, but with the makeover they show that the character has had half a tonne of makeup, hair straightening, pedicures, manicures and deportment lessons to show off a specific image as the public face of a royal family.

  3. complete with stress, that *wonderful* scene of her chewing him out for being romance-y in public (media etc thinking she'd slept with him to get the position) and her superpower being superefficiency.

  4. obviously i completely love tony stark. UGH, HE'S SO GREAT. considering the fact that he has the advantage of backstory (for once, a Daddy Issues backstory that doesn't seem horribly manufactured and dull -- i've only really seen this done effectively in iron man and Thor) and being the main character it's impressive that pepper seems like such a fleshed-out and engaging character.

    you know, i didn't even take into account her age? maybe because it's often quite hard to judge a) movie stars' ages, and b) the age of their characters relative to that. but gwyneth paltrow does look about 35 (but amazing) unlike the many 35/40-year-old actresses who either look like their in their 20s or try hard to do so. so yes, that's a really good point! their relationship IS a lot more balanced. but at the same time, tony stark is probably the oldest superhero i can think of...

    CALLING THE COPS. i know, right. maybe this is unfair because i haven't seen the spider-man movies since they came out, but i found mary jane very annoying because she was so impractical and seemed very much like an appendage of peter parker's angst rather than a character in her own right. very much the CONSTANT PERIL/TIED TO THE TRAIN TRACKS character, but unlike, for example, xander and willow in buffy, she never seemed to learn from her experiences.

    fff he CAN'T mess with her, can he? also paltrow's signed on for iron man 3 i'm pretty certain. i think she only has a cameo role in avengers -- the cast is already pretty big.

    p.s. can i just mention how much i love that pepper screams when scary things happen to her? IT'S A NATURAL REACTION OK.

  5. yeah that's true. (i love the princess diaries!) but it's also true of quite a lot of movies aimed at women, maybe because it's almost universal for women to get annoyed at the effort they go to and/or are EXPECTED to go to in order to look pretty, so including scenes where characters work on and/or complain about their appearance is a universal girl-movie moment. i guess that sounds kind of derogatory when i put it like that? idk. but for example, legally blonde has lots of scenes of Elle Woods working out, going to get manicures etc... and at the other end of the scale, Whip It, which centres around a woman quite different from Elle Woods and who is far less "girly", nevertheless shows scenes where she's dying her hair etc.

    so you tend to get pedicure scenes and what-have-you in "girl" movies because they're is from a female perspective, whereas almost all other movies are from a male perspective so women just sort of show up looking amazing like some kind of magic trick. so even though i'd guess that almost as many women as men are going to watch The Avengers, it's still going to skew automatically to being from a full-on male perspective.

    1. Late to this party, just wanted to mention there's also Miss Congeniality with Sandra Bullock.
      I also liked the theme of beauty as self-indulgence in Queen Latifah's Last Holiday, but perhaps that movie's less well-known (at least no one I mentioned it to, has seen it).

  6. thank you! :)

  7. I think the reason why Tony's (and to some extent Thor's) Daddy issues work is that they are centred on the way his father lived, rather than the way he died. Like, he doesn't angst because his father is dead, but because his father did so much while he was alive - and how can Tony live up to that while still being himself?

    Joss killed Wash. I wouldn't put anything past that bastard, even though she is meant to be in Iron Man 3. Also: she better not show up just to be put in danger.

    p.s. can i just mention how much i love that pepper screams when scary things happen to her? IT'S A NATURAL REACTION OK.

    THAT IS WHY SHE IS THE BEST. Something scary happens? She screams. Someone threatens her? She calls the cops. Someone plans to blow up a door? She goes far away and sticks her fingers in her ears while Coulson and co. stand around like stoic badasses. Pepper Potts is the most normal person to ever be in a superhero movie. Having appropriate reactions to fantastic events is novel.

  8. theoncominghope22 April 2012 at 07:20

    I was going to watch Thor, but "I can't help thinking... isn't it a little disingenuous to suggest that Natalie Portman looks like a workaholic physicist who lives in a trailer in the desert, on a diet of Pop Tarts and cereal?" makes me want to kill myself.

  9. theoncominghope22 April 2012 at 07:22

    Yeah, but the flip side of this is a devaluation natural beauty. Like, omg, Sandra Bullock isn't pretty unless she has an army of stylists sprucing her up!

    That's actually one of my favorite things about The Hunger Games. If you're into it, it's awesome, but if you're not, it's soul-destroyingly superficial.

  10. no! thor is brilliant! it has the ONLY sympathetic antagonist out of any superhero movie, like, ever (TOM HIDDLESTON IS SUCH A GOOD ACTOR i can't wait to see him in the avengers) and the portrayal of the female characters in general is unusually good. and natalie portman wearing shapeless plaid shirts and being a workaholic physicist is way better than if natalie portman was a workaholic physicist and wore stupidly sexy clothes all the time. i mean, some people are just naturally hot. :D and her character is adorable because her relationship with thor is basically her sort of just staring at him and being like, "SO.... MUSCLY...." in a total reversal of the male gaze.

    you should definitely watch it!

  11. theoncominghope22 April 2012 at 07:32

    Hmm...I want to see it for the reasons you mention, but what you just said about NP makes me even less inclined...

  12. slightly tempted to get embroiled in a probably-neverending war with you in the comments here WRT natural beauty because i know we have such differing opinions on the subject. ;)

    basically: what's WRONG with devaluing "natural beauty"? by definition it's something we have no control over. and for women, "natural beauty" is often implicitly what we're supposed to value above everything else, and/or are judged on immediately regardless of other facets of our personality/skillset/etc. whereas the way you dress, put on makeup, etc IS a choice, although obviously tempered in most cases by other unavoidable factors like wealth and society's standards of typical beauty.

    do you mean that one of your favourite things about the hunger games is that katniss' "natural beauty" is ignored? if so, i kind of see where you're coming from but i don't really agree. rather than katniss being a "natural beauty" who is some kind of pure ideal compared to the corrupt, vain people of the capitol (a trope which i hate), i think she's several steps beyond that -- someone who barely even knows or cares what she looks like. it's not a case of the reader and/or her love interests being all like, "we love you even though you don't shave your legs", or "we love you because you're not vain like all those horrible people who care about their appearance," it's more like for once, she's a female character who is loved because of her actions and personality, both by characters in the book and by readers.

  13. theoncominghope24 April 2012 at 09:22

    I tots agree with you about Katniss.

    I'm just particularly sensitive to the other stuff because I hate the idea that I HAVE to wear makeup to be feminine or whatever.

  14. i agree that the idea of makeup = feminine is mindblowingly stupid. i hate that + wish that everyone, regardless of gender idenfication, could wear as much or as little makeup as they want. but whether or not you wear makeup/dress in a "girly" way, etc, you're still choosing the way you look, and it's part of your identity -- for example, if you're butch in appearance and don't wear makeup lots of people are going to say, "that's not beautiful", but someone who looks different "naturally" but wears almost exactly the same kind of outfit (you know... different shapes of the same type of jeans-and-t-shirt combo) plus no makeup -- they're going to be called a "natural beauty" because they have more feminine features. and then when it comes to makeup, different people/cultures have all sorts of different levels of comfort, like some people (i guess in southern US states like texas?) still do retain this "makeup = feminine = attractive" mindset whereas in other places people wear hardly any makeup (austria? -- tom has remarked on this several times, anyway, because he hates makeup and always viewed jess as some sort of alien because she wore so much).

    most of my female friends, especially from school, wear less makeup than me (and i don't really wear much) but are still way more traditionally feminine than me, i think.

  15. more succinctly: the choice to rely upon "natural beauty" is a luxury afforded to people who are born with symmetrical, pleasing features that are culturally acceptable to everyone else. someone who looks like keira knightley can go around unshowered with no makeup on and wearing shapeless clothes, whereas other people doing the same thing would be perceived as ugly or slobbish.

  16. theoncominghope24 April 2012 at 10:39

    I disagree. In Texas, only sorority girls wear makeup on a daily basis. Everyone else wears it only for special occasions, and same with dressing up. Whether you're working on a farm, working in the kitchen, or heading up an investment bank, you're expected to project toughness.

    You're more likely to be respected for being "butch" than otherwise.

    But this is a state that's always had women in positions of power, with no issue (only recently have the evil conservatives invaded). Even women of other races (Barbara Jordan). We have the first lesbian mayor (in Houston)! No one gives a shit about superficial femininity in Texas, apart from the super rich.

    ::end defense of Texas::

  17. theoncominghope24 April 2012 at 10:42

    In Britain they're perceived as slobbish. Totally expected in Texas. Where pajamas are acceptable wear for pretty much anything.

  18. ah, this was why i put a question mark on texas because i wasn't sure. :) i was curious because i've heard various different things from people who've lived in southern states and/or from what i've seen in pop culture and i got the impression of a girly-makeup type culture going on. however, i am aware that texas =/= "all southern states" and vice versa, even when it comes to stereotypes.

    in glasgow most girls from around 13-30 straighten their hair daily, probably have it dyed as well, and wear makeup. less so with hipsters, but they're in the minority. a lot of the time i'll go out to a bar and be the only girl in the room who doesn't have straightened hair.

  19. lol, yes. my friend who went to MIT (from my school; fairly similar upbringing to me) was astonished when nearly everyone wore either jeans or sweatpants and a hoodie every single day. she was perceived as a wild fashion queen because she'd somehow wear a skirt or a hat (she was kind of... rock chick/indie-kid-ish, i guess).

    when i went to california i was totally fixating on everyone's clothes because even when i went to a music festival in san francisco i still looked so drastically different from everyone else. even when i was wearing what i'd think of as a really simple outfit i'd still just look fundamentally different from the uniform hordes of jeans shorts and hoodies.

  20. theoncominghope's experience of Texas is not representative of most Texans. I'm 41 and have lived in TX all my life. The women around here, for the most part, do their hair and makeup (including manis and pedis) everyday. They might not, I might not, do it all (hair and makeup) just to go to the store and get milk but if I'm (we're) going to be out and about for most of the day, then yes we do put on makeup and non-pj clothing (seriously, where does this person live where it's common in TX for people to wear their pjs out in public all the time? I've rarely even seen it in Walmart where people are famous for dressing badly). I get comments like, "Don't you ever wear polish?", etc. b/c I might wear polish a couple of times a year and it's "strange" to see a woman w/o mani and pedi done.

  21. Rooney Mara basically didn't eat to play Salander? Chalk up another reason not to see the American version. (Noomi Rapace worked out several hours a day, and there's at least one scene in the movie that's a SALANDER WORKS OUT montage.)

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  23. It's not JUST staring, to be fair, though that's funny. He kind of latches onto her like a baby chick, and she latches onto him as a source of knowledge about astrophysics and magic and for once we don't have the 'workaholic girl realises her priorities are wrong' story. Jane's priorities are why it works: Thor learns how to serve people, and she gets access to this advanced alien knowledge of the universe, and nobody has to give up their career or whatever usually happens in these things. She's totally committed to her field, and the narrative doesn't feel the need to punish her for it.

  24. I don't quite get where you're coming from on Natasha's IM2 appearance. Yes, the actress does all that stuff to maintain her appearance irl and for the movies. But so does Natasha.

    She's a very skilled martial artist type (witness her take down of Happy and the bad guys in the hallways) so she probably does hour(s) of practice every day to keep her physical skills sharp and ready to go at a millisecond's notice in order to save her life.

    Also, she trades on her appearance as a beautiful woman to get close to her targets, so she learned how to do her hair and makeup to enhance that (she also probably learned how to make herself look different/unrecognizable with her hair and makeup to avoid detection and/or get close to targets that way. So, I wouldn't be surprised to learn she's had makeup artist training at some point in her life.

  25. The interesting thing about Pepper was that when Tony hired her she was "plain" and didn't wear makeup or work out... but she was damn good at her job. And Tony figured he wouldn't fall for her. When she realised he didn't return her feelings, she quit her feelings for him cold turkey and had a huge makeover to make her feel better and got a whole lot of self confidence along with it. With that self confidence came Tony's attraction. Plus she wore slinky dresses, I'm sure that helped.

    But! Pepper never used to look like a movie star, and when she did, she had to work for it. And she did it because she wanted to, not for anyone else.

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