Hand-Me-Downs, Helena and Identity on Orphan Black

23 Jun

“We’re so different, all of us.”

This assertion made by Sarah in the Orphan Black season 2 finale is by no means a bold statement as it has been clear from the outset that no one clone is like another (aside from the obvious matching faces). Nature vs. nurture is being won by the latter on Orphan Black and from a narrative perspective having such easily identifiable and contrasting characters helps an audience when these characters are played by the same actress (the formidable Tatiana Maslany and I could spend this entire essay discussing how phenomenal she is).

As I discussed in the Best of 2013 Orphan Black article costuming plays a big part in establishing who these women are; it helps to identify through non-verbal communication and provides a way for each clone to pretend to be another through clothing and accessories. The clone that has undergone the most changes is Helena and I want to take a look at how costume has been used to signify this and why she is the one person on this show that doesn’t have a definitive look beyond her wild blonde hair.

HelenaIn season 1 Helena’s white satin baby doll and scarred back gave the impression of a deranged angel and her feral instincts (and accompanying off kilter theme music) made her unpredictable nature a terrifying prospect for Sarah. There is far more to Helena beyond these moments of intense violence and she is someone who is easily impressed upon when a family is dangled in front of her; it’s why the Prometheans managed to get their claws into her with such ease. Sarah, her twin, changed everything and despite a battle to what seemed the death at the end of last year Helena comes searching for her “seestra” once more.

Light and dark are key components to both Helena and Sarah’s look as Sarah favors black clothing and Helena is often wearing the color of purity. It’s not a simple case of good vs. evil or ying and yang as these visual cues are disrupted by the presence of blood. Bloodstained clothes are an unfortunate side effect to all the shit Helena has been through and this is no more obvious than the wedding dress bathroom scene with Sarah in “Governed As It Were By Chance.”

Helena bloody wedding dressBlack and white with a big dollop of red; it’s a scene that is about terror and forgiveness, it’s also one of the most effective and devastating Orphan Black has delivered. I was initially worried when they revealed Helena hadn’t died at the end of season 1 that she would again be the unpredictable obstacle who obsessed over her relationship with Sarah and it would end up being a repeat of the previous year. What actually happened is Helena’s murderous side, while still bubbling under the surface was eclipsed by her heartbreaking desire to be part of something and to bond with her “seestra” and *if* I had to rank the clones (please don’t ask me to do that) she would probably be number one. I never saw that coming.

In the bathroom scene Sarah is dressed in her standard all black attire and Helena is once again in clothes that don’t belong to her. Angel and now wife, the innocence motif is strong with Helena and yet it is always subverted by something more sinister that has been done to her. Helena’s wardrobe consists of hand-me-downs and none of her clothes are ever truly hers; this character just can’t hold onto anything. In season one she dressed as Sarah (or rather as Sarah dressing as Beth) and outerwear helped mask who she was when she was initially targeting clones.

Borrowing clothes is what also happens when your current ones are covered in blood (and when these clothes also double for a wedding dress from a super creepy ceremony). Felix provides Helena with her next outfit (including a unicorn tee I adore) and this one is also an eclectic mix of style: Orphan Black HelenaBeetlejuice pants, another coat, unicorn tee and cowboy boots (these are not from the Felix collection and are from the farm). It is unlikely that Helena has ever had much to call her own as she grew up in a convent and so obtaining clothes from a variety of sources is part of why she isn’t fazed by the mismatched outfits she has worn so far. Helena’s identity exists outside of the clothes she wears and because of this she is probably the hardest of the clones to mimic. When Sarah doubled for Cosima she wore The Cosima Coat and pretending to be Alison through wardrobe involves pastels, Lululemon and a headband to hide the lack of bangs. Helena’s defining characteristic isn’t her attire, it’s her hair and it’s not easily faked.

Helena returns to the Promethean farm on the promise of children and a family; this means the Felix borrowed threads are ditched and replaced by ultra conservative attire with a hint of cowboy (those boots).

Orphan Black HelenaTerrible high necked white patterned night dresses ahoy! Oh and super invasive procedures too. The violation of the female body involves extreme methods on Orphan Black and Helena gets to exact her revenge with a giant needle followed by lighting a fire. Helena is rather Old Testament when it comes to these matters.

Orphan Black Helena plaidThe clothes she escapes the farm in for a second time are less ridiculous than the first and once again there is an element of innocence to her attire. This time she looks like a school child in plaid and the clashing patterned blouse beneath the uniform like dress once again gives the appearance of hand-me-down clothing. This is what she is wearing when she meets Alison and Cosima for the first time; it reflects the sweet, shy and longing for an emotional connection side of Helena that we have come to know this season – “I like your hairs” – and it is only when Cosima puts on a record that Helena allows some of her more eccentric qualities to shine through.

In the extraordinary dance sequence Helena starts off slow and then she finds the freedom her other sisters are displaying through movement. Helena’s dancing is wild as she headbangs with her glorious mane and there’s even a point where she bites the bottom of her dress. It’s why what happens to her next is so devastating as she is taken once again, just as she was finally feeling freedom and being part of an actual nurturing family with no hidden agenda.

Orphan Black 2.10 HelenaThe red coat comes from the farm and it’s another mismatched part of the Helena look (and also makes me think of Cosima) and the only costuming addition (and yet another piece of borrowed clothing) is the beanie and this does nothing to assimilate her with the ominous military figures surrounding her. It can’t contain her locks and her fear/confusion is etched all over her face. Reasons to take Helena center on the baby she is now carrying and separating her once again from the family she has just found feels incredibly cruel. Helena was about to go looking for Jesse – the guy from the bar who she shared her first dance and kiss with – she leaves behind his hat that she was sniffing so tenderly (as tenderly as something can be sniffed) and for Helena this one possession means a lot.

Each clone has a distinct personality and they share a strong ability survive despite the inherent weakness that exists in their genetics; together they are a formidable opponent and their vulnerabilities are exposed when they are pulled apart. Helena is a survivor and has already escaped from various tormentors who want to poke, prod and use her. This is another in a long line of personal battles for her and now that she is pregnant her self-preservation instincts are going to kick in even harder. Helena’s abilities shouldn’t be underestimated even when her appearance suggests otherwise as she is so much more than the unhinged fanatic we met in season 1.


5 Responses to “Hand-Me-Downs, Helena and Identity on Orphan Black”

  1. aboutnici June 23, 2014 at 12:12 pm #

    Reblogged this on aboutnici.

  2. trinity July 20, 2014 at 2:36 pm #

    I never realized the sort of motif Helena’s clothes represented until you mentioned it, wow. Great article, really made me think about all the sort of thinking that goes on behind a character’s planning, and how minute details like the color or style of a character’s clothing help the audience understand them.


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