I never truly understood fashion until I watched Killing Eve. I’d seen it, read about it, but was never really confronted with its lethal distillation of beauty, affront, and risk. The British television series, produced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, follows the neurotic and symbiotic relationship between a Russian assassin Villanelle, played by Jodie Comer, and an MI6 agent Eve Pilastri, played by Sandra Oh. Their mutual fascination builds up around a vortex of casually grizzly murders and frenzied responses. The violence is made palatable, even seductive, by the show’s wickedly black humor, physical comedy, and mesmerizing deployment of fashion. Killing Eve is a whole new genre of costume drama, deftly curated by wardrobe designers Phoebe de Gaye and Charlotte Mitchell.
Eve, whose sense of style borders on grunge, is the foil to Villanelle’s haute couture. The government agent’s closet is a study in neutrals, while her counterpart’s is as highly keyed as her sociopathic personality. Villanelle fears nothing, certainly not color. Her wardrobe is as eclectic as Eve’s is predictable. But then Villanelle’s costume changes are part of her job. A succession of targets in international locales—Tuscany, Vienna, Berlin, Moscow, and so on—demands a new persona and a different outfit for each. Every hit is designed. The Amsterdam kill is especially disturbing: Villanelle wears a pig’s head mask with a wench’s peasant dress. In other thrillers, the ensemble would be read as a disguise intended to obscure the murderer’s identity. But in Killing Eve, fashion-cum-costume is both signature and calling card. Villanelle’s games of dress-up are an extension of a cheerfully disturbed personality. However, this isn’t a case of schizophrenia. We’re watching the psychodynamics of compartmentalization. Each ensemble speaks to a different manifestation of Villanelle: Sloane Ranger, Oxford undergrad, baby doll ingénue, Russian peasant, and, of course, pig-faced wench. Even Villanelle is a cover story, as it were. Her real name is Oksana.
Villanelle in Alexander McQueen vintage mourning dress, Season 2, Episode 5: www.elle.com/culture/movies-tv/g27470837/killing-eve-season-2-costumes/
However, Villanelle’s outfits aren’t only worn in the service of a hit. They are also the objective of the hit. She works for these indulgences: how else could she afford them? Villanelle doesn’t have a style or a look. She wears fashion. The point of a bubblegum pink Molly Goddard tulle dress or a black Alexander McQueen mourning dress is to shatter norms and normality. This is precisely what Villanelle does when she refuses the role of criminal-on-the run and becomes Eve’s stalker, suddenly appearing in her London home, keeping tabs on her husband, and even murdering the husband’s flirtatious co-worker.
Villanelle’s sartorial brilliance is evenly matched with her murderous cunning. Together they whip up a maelstrom of psycho-sensual effects. Fashion is hyper-present, but not self-consciously serious—no more than the character herself. Consider the scene where Villanelle flees a hospital in a pair of bright blue pajamas she borrows from the boy in the next bed—just before she kills him. The snug fit and goofy pattern would smother another woman, but on Villanelle they slay, making a literal cartoon of both violence and fashion, while winking at fashion’s flirtations with camp. Villanelle subverts the status quo that Eve is supposed to defend. Not even children and their pajamas are taboo. Villanelle regularly plays on (and with) the alleged innocence of youth, not only by dressing like a child but also by deploying children as lures and fatal distractions.
Villanelle preparing her hospital escape in pajamas, Episode 1, Season 2: www.decider.com/2019/04/08/killing-eve-villanelles-pajamas/
For all the show’s spectacular violence, however, it doesn’t devolve into the sinister. Villanelle wears her crimes like her dresses—lightly—leaving Eve to feel frustrated and inadequate, even though she has the moral high ground. “A lot of people wish they were more fearless and more confident,” reflects Sandra Oh, “and a lot of people wish they had a lot more style.” However, most of us don’t wrestle with our envy, or our nemeses, so literally.
Jody Comer’s flamboyant portrayal of Villanelle charges every scene with Sandra Oh’s Eve, who is taunted by the assassin’s uncanny ability to insinuate herself into her private life. This becomes evident early in the first season, when Villanelle sends Eve a dark blue spaghetti-strap dress that fits her perfectly. At this point, the two have yet to meet, so it’s eerie that Villanelle knows Eve’s size. This is a power play with fashion, in which the tacit message is “I know you better than you know yourself.” Villanelle offers Eve just a sliver (the dress really is slinky) of her forbidden fruit: absolute freedom, a state of being promised by fashion and reached by narcissism.
It is remarkable how thoroughly Jody Comer conquers fashion as Villanelle. I wonder whether another actor could animate the outfits so powerfully. It takes a particular body to infuse the clothes with the risk they represent. Without Villanelle, my experience of fashion would still be confined to the static stuff of museums and magazines. Clearly I’d never seen it truly worn. It took a psychopath to make me realize that when fashion does its job, it truly kills.
Fashion’s inherently dangerous nature—think of the femme fatale—accounts for why so many of us are unable to submit to it as completely as Villanelle. Apart from going broke, there’s the fear of being erased by someone else—though usually not killed—in the art of incorporating a designer’s ego into our own. Instead, we settle for something we like to think of as “personal style”—which is code for the mashup of knock-offs, basement bargains, and vintage finds that make up our personas.
Villanelle is able to carry off fashion because it underscores her artifice. Jodie Comer pulls it off because, like Villanelle, her job is to be someone else. The character-actor manages to do something more extraordinary. She makes “fashion” an actor as well, yielding something exponentially more powerful—something close to the tour de force we usually associate with literature. To paraphrase Karle Ove Knausgaard, Killing Eve draws the essence of what we know, or think we know, out of the shadows. The show magnifies the inherent risk of fashion, making it synonymous with a truly hysterical personality disorder with no compunction about killing.
Susan Yelavich is Professor Emerita, Design Studies, Parsons, The New School, where she continues to teach in the MFA Transdisciplinary Design program. Her collected writings can be found at Assaying.