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John Waters: A life in style

William Boroughs called him the King of Puke and he's been dubbed the Pope of Trash and the People's Pervert in his time. John Waters was a pioneer of cultivated bad taste. Here's his life in style.

The boy from Baltimore

Director, screenwriter, artist, writer and actor, the multitalented John Samuel Waters Junior was born in 1946 to upper-class Roman Catholic parents in Maryland, USA. The suburban Americana of his upbringing in Baltimore has provided the backdrop for every film he's made.

Waters was clearly a creative child. Inspired by the film Lili, he was staging increasingly violent Punch and Judy shows for children's birthday parties from the age of just seven. 

It was the perfectly 'good' taste of his parents that sparked Waters's rebellion into the domain of filth. Despite their wildly different tastes, however, his family have always been very supportive of his art. When he was filming Desperate Living in 1977, they even allowed their antique bedroom window to be smashed, offering no explanation to the curious neighbours. 


A troublesome teenager

The first time the young Waters watched The Wizard of Oz, it changed his life forever.

In an interview with Robert K. Elder, he explained how, "I was always drawn to forbidden subject matter in the very, very beginning. The Wizard of Oz opened me up because it was one of the first movies I ever saw. It opened me up to villainy, to screenwriting, to costumes. And great dialogue. I think the witch has great, great dialogue." 

After school, Waters enrolled at NYU, although he was less than enthralled by what he found there. He was presumably therefore somewhat unfazed when he was kicked out of his dormitory for smoking marijuana. He returned to Baltimore and set about creating short films. 


Early work

For his 16th birthday, Waters's grandmother bought him an 8mm camera. Growing up in Baltimore, Waters found it easy to find people who were willing to star in and assist with his amateur, self-financed movies. 

Inspired by the low-brow B-movies that he watched through binoculars at his local drive-in, Waters made Hag in a Black Leather Jacket, his first short film, when he was just 18. It was 17 minutes long and made on a budget of $30.

The film starred Mary Vivian Pearce who would feature in several of his movies, becoming part of the 'Dreamlanders', the recurring group of cast and crew that John Waters used in all his films. Perhaps the most notorious member of the Dreamlanders was the drag queen Divine, who was one of Waters's best friends and closest collaborators. 

From the first films of his career, Waters's enjoyed playing with the contrast between the candy-coloured backdrop of suburban Americana and utterly subversive dialogues and plot. His dark humour is intimately acquainted with the grotesque and perhaps nowhere is that more evident than in Pink Flamingos where Divine eats dog faeces, without the use of special effects. It is widely regarded as one of the most nauseating moments in cinema.  


Friendship with Divine

In the mid-1960s, John Waters met Harris Glenn Milstead through a mutual friend. The pair were the same age, lived in the same neighbourhood and gravitated towards the same countercultural scene. They soon became close, part of a group of friends they described as a kind of family. It was Waters who first named Milstead 'Divine', the stage name that would send his drag queen persona to notoriety. 

Roman Candles (1966) was the first of Waters's films to star Divine, and she played a smoking nun. This was shortly followed by Eat Your Make Up in which Divine starred as Jackie Kennedy.

Divine was Waters's muse and would star in most of his films. He referred to her as "the most beautiful woman in the world, almost” and together they embarked on a mission to create "the trashiest motion pictures in cinema history".


Female Trouble

Released in 1974, Female Trouble is unapologetically, fabulously, anarchic. It's John Waters's favourite of his films and Divine is at her outrageous best as the leading lady, Dawn Davenport. 

The film is yet another exercise in 'bad taste', and ugliness as beauty. When Davenport is disfigured from an acid attack, for example, she is spotted by a group of fashionistas who think her look is inspired, and she becomes a model. 

In his book Shock Value, Waters explains, "To me, bad taste is what entertainment is all about. If someone vomits watching one of my films, it's like getting a standing ovation. But one must remember that there is such a thing as good-bad taste and bad-bad taste. It's easy to disgust someone; I could make a 90-minute film of someone getting their limbs hacked off, but this would only be bad-bad taste and not very stylish or original. To understand bad taste, one must have very good taste. Good-bad taste can be creatively nauseating but must, at the same time, appeal to the especially twisted sense of humour, which is anything but universal."


THAT moustache"I trim my moustache, then fill it in with Maybelline Velvet Black eyeliner pencil. That’s why they call it a pencil moustache."

It would be hard to imagine John Waters without his trademark facial hair, a look he first remembers debuting in 1970. He told the NY Times, “I dressed like a hippie pimp. I had long hair and wore ridiculous thrift-shop shirts. The moustache just went along with my sleazy look.”

He first began using pencil because of his frustration at not being able to grow a full moustache, and the look stuck. The 'tash perfectly surmises Waters's aesthetic, both in film and in real life. It's easy to see how he became known as 'the people's pervert', suggesting as it does both sophistication and perversity. 

On the continuation of this look, long into his twilight years, Waters explained to Vice, "I always say you need something weird on your face and some good shoes and nobody looks in the middle. That's my fashion tip as you get older." 


Hairspray and the mainstream consciousnessA dramatic departure from his other work, Hairspray took Waters's art to a mainstream audience for the first time. With a PG certificate, it carries the mildest rating of any of his films before or since, yet the aesthetic of his previous work can be seen throughout the musical. 

Unapologetically camp, the film is once again set in suburban Baltimore. It was the last of Waters's films to star Divine and the only one in which she didn't take the lead role. 

It's Waters's most accessible film and managed to expand his audience without compromising his iconic style and vision. 

Hairspray is also the only one of Waters's films that his parents enjoyed"My mother could finally say she loved my work, and didn’t have to lie,” he told Gay City News. "I’m thrilled that they were alive to see it. They were very supportive, but we went through many rocky times, you can imagine. My mother says, ‘Well, you growing up to be known as the Puke King wasn’t exactly what we had in mind,’ but they’re proud now."


Unique personal style

In his book, Role Models , a collection of interviews and essays on his heroes, Waters explains that "fashion is very important to me. My 'look' for the last twenty years or so has been 'disaster at the dry cleaners.'"

Speaking to GQ about his penchant for suits, he explained the mantra behind his flamboyant personal style. "You know, I shop for fashion like I shop in a joke shop… I have a Yohji Yamamoto jacket that has stab wounds in the back, cuts like someone stabbed you."

"I have a [Maison] Martin Margiela suit that’s the best of all. It’s got rain splatters on the cuffs and on the collar. It looks like when you got out of a cab, you know, you got splashed by a car, and people say, 'Oh my god!' when they see you. Like you didn’t notice! And I have another one that looks like it has cat hair all over it. [laughs] And it’s really great, because people panic and they say, 'Oh, John!' You know, you’re at an opening or something. Like you didn’t know that you had cat hair all over. It’s really good. So wit is what I look for." 


Suits you

Today, Waters's style is most notable for his love of a flamboyant suit. The cotton-candy pink number above is his favourite of his collection, as he told GQ. 

“That Comme des Garcons pink one that looks like your aunt’s bedspread with the little balls on it, that one was pretty radical. Most of the ones that are my favourite, a jury would let off the person that beat me up for wearing them. Whenever I leave the stage, whenever I’m on my speaking tours and I’m in a hotel, I wear what I wear onstage when I come down from my room and go to the car, which is always embarrassing in the elevator."

"The other people are, you know, on a business trip or something, and they get on the elevator and see me in these ludicrous outfits and they look away in alarm. And it always makes me laugh because I’m so ridiculously dressed for a hotel lobby, but perfectly dressed for the stage! I never realise how ridiculous I can sometimes look until the door of the elevator opens and I can see them looking at each other and rolling their eyes."


Fashion advice for the younger generation

Waters continues to inspire young artists across the world, and although he tends to brush off those who approach him with his signature moustache copied onto their own faces, in his book, Role Models, he does have some words of fashion advice for today's youth.

"You don’t need fashion designers when you are young. Have faith in your own bad taste. Buy the cheapest thing in your local thrift shop—the clothes that are freshly out of style with even the hippest people a few years older than you. Get on the fashion nerves of your peers, not your parents—that is the key to fashion leadership."

"Ill-fitting is always stylish. But be more creative—wear your clothes inside out, backward, upside down. Throw bleach in a load of coloured laundry. Follow the exact opposite of the dry cleaning instructions inside the clothes that cost the most in your thrift shop. Don’t wear jewellery—stick Band-Aids on your wrists or make a necklace out of them. Wear Scotch tape on the side of your face like a bad face-lift attempt. Mismatch your shoes. Best yet, do as Mink Stole used to do: go to the thrift store the day after Halloween, when the children’s trick-or-treat costumes are on sale, buy one, and wear it as your uniform of defiance.” 


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