Why Was Maureen from ‘Rent Live’ Wearing a $240 Anthropologie Coat?
Isn’t she supposed to be a starving artist?
Last night on Fox’s RENT Live, Maureen, played by Vanessa Hudgens, struts across the stage during “Goodbye, Love” in a red and navy patterned trench coat. That trench coat currently holds one star on Anthropologie (for being too sheer, the reviews suggest), where it retails for $240. In other words, instead of skewing cheap/vintage, RENT Live decided to dress a bisexual performance artist living in the East Village in 1989 in the clothes of a NYU freshman from Connecticut dressing up for her first internship in 2019.
RENT Live was styled by Angela Wendt, the same woman who designed the costumes for the original Broadway production. There was a nod to Mark’s original striped sweater, but overall, as with every iteration of RENT, something felt off. Everything was too clean, too new. These people are supposed to be poor, right? Why did all their clothes look like something Benny, the rich, evil landlord, would wear?
RENT’s many iterations have sometimes been criticized for being a too-glossy depiction of the realities of living with AIDS in the late 1980s. None of larger-than-life drag queen Angel’s clothes look like the homemade dresses Maureen talks about her making. Broke professor Collins looks shabby, but ultimately chic and clean. Disaffected guitarist Roger looks like a straight-up Hot Topic punk. That could be because, while the play’s characters are disenfranchised, there’s only so much poverty and hardship we’re really willing to see. This is still Broadway (or a glossy movie musical, or a live TV performance), after all. If we wanted reality, we wouldn’t be here.
However, when you look at some of the characters’ backgrounds, their clean, fashionable clothes start to make more sense. RENT’s fashion choices paint a picture of a group of people fetishizing the starving artist lifestyle. Because for all the things stacked against them, there’s also an element of choice with some of the characters (notably, those who don’t have AIDS). Mark’s mom is constantly calling him from Westchester. Joanne is an Ivy League-educated lawyer with ritzy parents. Many of the characters appear to have access to a different kind of lifestyle, and choose not to partake because of their morals and values, so it makes sense sense that they look a little more put-together than the starving artist ethos of the story would imply.
Class anachronisms aside, Maureen’s coat tells a very familiar story—as Mark sings at one point, “you can take the girl out of Hicksville, but you can’t take the Hicksville out of the girl.” She’s a Long Island girl who brought her political ideals and art to the city, and who has a girlfriend with rich parents. It’s not absurd to think that she might have stopped by the Anthropologie in Manhasset before catching a train to the city.
There’s a scene in RENT where Mark is confronted by a homeless woman, who accuses him of trying to get rich and famous off of his footage of her. He may see poverty as a temporary condition to suffer through for his art, or even the price to pay for not selling out, but for her, the situation is involuntary. Her clothes are dirty and full of holes (and not the “poverty chic” kind), and she’s wearing layer upon layer in the cold. Mark, on the other hand, is wearing a well fitting-sweater and a shearling coat with nary a stain on it. He may look better because he’s the star, because we want our stars to be pretty and edgy without ever veering over into actual, visible signs of poverty. But he also looks better because she’s right.
RENT Live’s decision to clothe a “struggling” artist in Anthropologie makes a certain kind of sense when you consider the company’s legacy. Ever since its founding in 1992, Anthropologie has traded on what the New York Times’ Alex Kuczynski referred to as a “sensibility cloyingly referred to as French flea market chic,” also known by the equally tiresome “boho-chic” descriptor. In Anthro-world, markers of poverty are magically turned whimsical—why not ride a rusted-out bicycle, or appropriate a sheet as a tablecloth? It’s not hard to imagine the Maureen of the 2010s growing up, leaving performance art behind her, moving to Park Slope and taking a job in corporate PR—as RENT LIVE shows, she already has the wardrobe for it.