Death, Life, and Costuming: Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude

In Hal Ashby’s cult classic Harold and Maude, we follow Harold (played by newcomer Bud Cort), a morose and eccentric teenager who enjoys pretending to kill himself to annoy his mother. His mother is Mrs. Chasen (played brilliantly by Vivian Pickles), a wealthy woman who is very controlling of Harold and others, is snooty, and not affectionate in the least. She is more concerned with looking good in front of others than cultivating a relationship with her family — Harold in particular. Over time, she has grown accustomed to Harold’s strange antics and seems mostly unaffected by them (in one scene, Harold pretends to hang himself; when his mother walks into the room, she talks to him as she would in any normal situation between mother and son). Nevertheless, she still wants Harold to succeed, thrive, and get a girlfriend (throughout the movie, she interviews various girls for Harold to date, most of whom he drives away by strange, eccentric, and awkward behavior) so that her pristine image is upheld.

Nevertheless, Harold shrugs off his mother’s attempts at getting him a girlfriend and begins to frequently visit the eccentric 79-year-old Holocaust survivor Maude (played by the ever-charming — now sadly deceased — Ruth Gordon), a woman whom he first considers his friend and then his girlfriend. Fittingly, the two initially meet at a funeral for a person neither know. In fact, they both love to attend funerals for those they do not know; to leave those funerals, Maude takes to stealing other peoples’ nice cars. Harold, on the other hand, drives a black hearse, which is symbolic of his obsession with death and doing strange things for attention, something he desperately craves. To reinforce this, as well as to reflect his obsession with death and general distaste for life, Harold’s clothes changes dramatically and becomes lighter and lighter as we progress through the film and as Harold begins to truly learn the wonders and happiness that can be life.

Initially, we see that Harold is dressed in dark colors – a black suit, dark undershirt, and black tie. At this point in the film, Harold’s antics are at their height (he fakes death/suicide the most and speaks negatively and about death even more than he fakes his suicides/death). Once he meets Maude at a funeral, his garb begins to gradually lighten. At the same time, he begins to get out of the dark place he had inhabited for most of his life and starts to learn about life and how wonderful it can be. To show this, his black suit and tie becomes a black suit with white undershirt and red tie. The change is certainly very subtle, but it is very useful in keying audiences into Harold’s general attitude and mental processes’ — specifically to illustrate how energized and passionate Harold feels when he is with Maude. Shortly thereafter, he wears a brown suit with white undershirt. Again, this change is very subtle but it illuminates how important costuming is to the overall progression/development of characters. Then, the costuming changes become more blatant as it shifts to yellow-based. The color yellow is associated with happiness, energy, and positivity; Harold is shifting away from the negative characteristics and is beginning to embody the positive characteristics associated with yellow.

Finally, his costuming is almost totally white, a color associated with purity, goodness, and general lightness. Essentially, as he becomes less and less obsessed with death and more focused on living life, having fun, and not acting as strange, Harold’s costuming becomes much lighter. During the same time, he mostly stops faking suicide to mess with his mother. This is reinforced towards the end of the film after Maude kills herself. At that point, his costuming shifts quickly back to black-based to reinforce how grief-stricken and very upset he is. However, towards the end of the film, his dress once again becomes much lighter, suggesting to the audience that Harold had finally decided to embrace life and take it – and the struggles that go along with it – in stride (this is reinforced when he destroys his black hearse by making it drive off a cliff, a symbol of death and negativity).

Life is finite and death is infinite. Even after she faced certain death by the Nazis, Maude continued to live by these fantastically true and wise words. To put it differently, life is so short that people should spend it living – not thinking about death, something that will come sooner rather than later and will last forever. Even when facing the possibility of gruesome death by the Nazi’s and the struggles when she was older, Maude never stopped living life with her trademark passion and intensity and didn’t waste time wallowing in misery. And that’s what she is trying to teach Harold: that life, no matter the hardships people have to endure, is worth living to the fullest. It is Harold’s costuming that gives audiences a window into his changing mindset, but it is Maude that inspires Harold’s radical change.