“Would you ever swim in an integrated swimming pool?” Iggy, a teenage boy with a duck’s-ass hairdo, asks Tracy Turnblad, the chubby heroine of John Waters’s 1988 Hairspray and the relentlessly cheerful Broadway musical of the same name. Tracy, who is dying to join Iggy and his pals on The Corny Collins Show so she can dance on TV, isn’t fazed by Iggy’s question, though the rest of the kids are snickering. “I certainly would, Iggy,” she replies. “I’m a modern kind of girl. I’m all for integration.”
Tracy’s politics may be fresh, but her outfit is a throwback. It’s 1962 in Baltimore, and she’s wearing the kind of school clothes that were a tubby teen’s lot in the early ’60s: a white blouse with dowdy ruffles and a boring, too-tight straight skirt. Her classmates are dressed in perky plaid full-skirted shirtwaists and little shoes with kitten heels; Tracy’s got stubby sneakers on her feet.
But if Tracy’s outfit doesn’t dazzle, her coiffure does. She’s what Baltimore calls a hair-hopper, a nickname for teenagers who favor mile-high ‘dos that are kept towering with hairspray (thus the title). Her transgressive mane keeps getting Tracy into trouble, despite her argument that her hair, in its way, is a harbinger of social revolutions great and small. “Tracy’s flamboyant flip is all the rage, Miss Edna,” Tracy’s best friend Penny tells Mrs. Turnblad. “Why, even our first lady, Jackie Kennedy, rats her hair!”
Tracy’s mother is having none of it. Like Peter Pan in reverse, Mrs. Turnblad is always played by a man—Divine in the movie; Harvey Fierstein on Broadway—and she is a model of gloomy drag, shuffling around in a shapeless gigantic housedress that might have come from the late F.W. Woolworth, a dingy slip, and old bedroom slippers. (“What am I wearing?” Edna snorts to an obscene phone caller. “A shift, a pair of scuffies, and Supp-Hose.”) But all this sartorial sadness is about to change, for Hairspray takes as its themes not just the struggle for racial integration and the inalienable right of a chubbette to dance on television, but a third credo hidden in the shadows: that once liberated from society’s conventions, a sturdy girl and her heavyset mom can lead the fight for social change resplendent in paisley sequins and pink tap shoes.
After Tracy achieves her life’s dream of dancing on TV, Mr. Pinky, the owner of the local large-size boutique, invites her and her mother to pick out a few saucy new outfits from his Hefty Hideaway. In a story of transformation, this is the first major victory, a leap from the dour 1950s to the glittering ’60s vividly spelled out. (The show even has a huge production number called “Welcome to the ’60s” to make sure you get the point.) Tracy and Mom emerge from the Hefty Hideaway in outfits as nutty as the finest efforts of Carnaby Street. In the movie, Edna’s ensemble is a symphony of flowers, while Tracy is garbed in a lime and black striped number that looks like a cross between a Mary Quant original and a chandelier. In the play, Edna and Tracy sport matching William Ivey Long-designed extravaganzas—swirl-printed ostrich-feathered gowns, whose clashing wild colors bury the Eisenhower years forever. Thus accoutred, and with her stratospheric hair newly frosted, Tracy is ready to take on network executives, the mayor of Baltimore, and anyone else who gets in the way of her progressive agenda. Her foes refer to her as “that chubby Communist girl,” but what does she care? She may end up in jail for her beliefs, but the hottest guy in school falls for her, and in the end The Corny Collins Show, along with the city of Baltimore, is desegregated.
Something about this campy, poignant story appealed to the people at Bloomingdale’s, who have inaugurated a Hairspray boutique in the 59th Street store to coincide with the Broadway show’s opening. The éclair-brandishing Mr. Pinky, who described his Hefty Hideaway’s ideal customer as “the big-boned gals who are stylish and at the same time frustrated by the lack of sizes in the department stores today,” would be proud that there is, for the first time in memory, a plump mannequin in the window of Bloomie’s, with falsies as prominent as Harvey Fierstein’s. Upstairs, the Hairspray department, smack in the middle of the third floor, features 45 rpm records hanging from the ceiling and the cast album of the show playing in the background. To the strains of “Oh Mama, welcome to the ’60s” we admired a tulle half-slip in pink or lime that you’d wear today without benefit of overskirt ($38), an off-the-shoulder black and white shirt ($42), and a white circle skirt with black lace overlay ($210), though alas, they all seemed to be available in nothing larger than size 12. There was a special MAC cosmetic counter with Hairspray tie-in makeup, a lot of cans of Suave hairspray, and even a display of hairpieces from a company called Hairwear that included something called Bangz for $24. But where were the large-size clothes?
We circled again and were on the verge of screaming bloody murder when we noticed what we’d somehow overlooked, a happy rack that had a number of items in plus sizes, including a $79 Jezebel-red sleeveless cocktail dress with a tight waist, a capacious black skirt whose tulle slip was just visible peeking out from the hem ($59), and a lavender and black striped shirt ($44) that laughed in the face of all those old rules about big girls not being allowed to go near horizontal stripes. Now if only Bloomingdale’s, and stores like it, would pressure designers to make all their fashions in bigger sizes and sell them right alongside the other clothes, instead of relegating them to a special segregated plus-size area—that would be something a chubby Communist girl could really get excited about.
Michael Feingold’s review of Hairspray