Hairspray is the campy-but-classic work of John Waters at his utmost mainstream. The 1988 film is actually set in 1962 and was partly inspired by real events. Its the perfect example of Waters and Van Smith (the costume designer in all of Waters’ films) “action against good taste.” Together, Waters and Smith gave “bad taste” a good name with ease and humor. This collaboration lasted three decades and is what really made the strength of many characters and films. Hence Smith is considered one of the Dreamlanders, an ensemble of regular cast and crewmembers. An early exponent of the trash aesthetic, Mr. Smith was widely credited with having created the public face — once seen, not soon forgotten — of Divine, a look he said that was like Jayne Mansfield meets Clarabell the Clown.
The movie’s characters play a strong role in portraying the controversial issues of the early 1960’s. Overweight and lower class Tracy Turnblad (Riki Lake) and overly loving and cross-dressed mother Edna (Divine) are compared to rich, thin, and beautiful Amber Von Tussle and her mother Velma (Debbie Harry). Throughout the movie, there is much irony to be found and despite the whole emphasis on huge hair and doo-wop music, there is actually a deeper story that has substance. Regardless of one’s superficial desire to like the beautiful but despicable Amber, the viewer is automatically drawn to support and sympathize with the clumsy and un-attractive - yet up beat and bouncy Tracy. She dances her way through the film, stealing Amber’s boyfriend, her fame and her position as favorite dancer on the Corny Collins Show. During her transformation she also uses her notoriety to champion the cause of racial integration within Baltimore and the Corny Collins.
The film’s overall color palette is made up of pastels and soft-hued tones typical of the time. Every main character is distinguished in the crowd by the use of lighter Colors and stronger patterns than the rest of the group. Not much detail was put into the individual characters colors though, because more detail was put into differentiating the main cast. Mainly the palette is used to reveal how the different levels of status dressed at the time. For example, the lower class Turnblads’ driving colors are pinks, light blues and bright yellows, while the more “refined” and upper class Von Tussles colors are burgundies, deep blues, dark greens and burnt orange/yellows. For Tracy the color palette doesn’t really evolve along with her character, although the clothing does become slightly more tailored and perhaps more expensive as she gains popularity within the Show. The same principle can be applied to Edna: as her daughter reaches fame her social status escalates as well – she goes from barging around the house in loud printed house-gowns and pin curls to real dresses and beehives.
Hairspray is a wonderfully light-hearted film, which nonetheless is able to carry a strong social commentary, not only about racism but also about the prejudice towards overweight teenagers, as it was highly improbable even at the time to cast a chubby girl for a part as a lead dancer on a popular teen-age show. The way in which Waters delivers this information is very clever – the viewer, who is busy enjoying the up-beat story wont spend time concentrating on what it’s trying to communicate, for it will be transmitted subliminally. Although the film’s social commentaries are a central part of the plot I think it is more effective to appreciate Hairspray for its satirical comedy and wonderfully over-the-top characters.