Pulp Fiction's Costume Designer Reminisces About the Movie’s Most Iconic Looks

From surprising designer items to the ridiculous T-shirts and bathrobes.
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From surprising designer items to the ridiculous T-shirts and bathrobes.
Uma Thurman as Mia Wallace. Photo: Miramax

Uma Thurman as Mia Wallace. Photo: Miramax

We've seen some major pop culture anniversaries this year: "Mean Girls" turned 10, "Seinfeld" turned 25, and next month, Quentin Tarantino’s "Pulp Fiction" celebrates its twentieth anniversary. I’m going to date myself here, but back in 1994 when it was released, I was almost a fully formed adult, so my fondest ‘90s memories are less about the Spice Girls and baby butterfly clips and more about brown lipstick and Nirvana. And "Pulp Fiction," of course. This movie, which I saw in the theater twice upon its release and have seen countless times since, made a huge impression on me. The dialogue, the extreme violence which was somehow – to everyone’s discomfort -- made entertaining, and the stylized look of the characters was like nothing I’d ever seen before. I wanted to talk in Tarantino-isms. But mostly, I wanted to dress like Mia Wallace, played by Uma Thurman. I even dressed up as her for Halloween that year. (Yes, I have a picture and no, I'm not posting it.)

I was able, 20 years later, to hop on the phone with Betsy Heimann, who designed the costumes for "Pulp Fiction", as well as Tarantino’s "Reservoir Dogs" and other classics like "Jerry Maguire" and "Almost Famous." She's still a costume designer, and the Motion Picture Academy just featured her in a "Creative Sparks" video; she’s even designed a namesake bra for Cosabella. And she remembered a lot more from 1994 than I do, frankly. Here is Heimann’s take on how the most iconic looks from the movie came to be, as organized by my favorite quotes:

Jules and Vincent, as played by Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta. Photo: Miramax

Jules and Vincent, as played by Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta. Photo: Miramax

"Pilot? What's a pilot?"-Vincent "Well, you know the shows on TV?" -Jules "I don't watch TV." -Vincent "Yeah, but, you are aware that there's an invention called television, and on this invention they show shows, right?" -Jules

Heimann said she met with Tarantino in a Denny’s to plan out the looks in "Reservoir Dogs" and at classic LA haunt Barney’s Beanery to discuss the costumes for "Pulp Fiction." If you’ve seen both films, you probably noticed the carry-over of the black suits from "Reservoir Dogs" to Vincent (John Travolta) and Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) in "Pulp Fiction". They’re a sort of all-purpose bad guys’ uniform, but Heimann gave each character’s suit a special twist. “I felt that Jules was like a preacher and so I wanted to do a smaller, very tight-to-the neck collar on him. Quentin liked that idea,” Heimann says. “Then I thought that Vincent was more of a mess and so I suggested a linen suit so that it could get all wrinkled and rumpled and kind of add to the laissez-faire quality of his character.”

Twist contest at Jackrabbit Slim's. 

Twist contest at Jackrabbit Slim's. 

“Don’t you hate that?” -Mia “What?” -Vincent “Uncomfortable silences.” -Mia

The image of Uma Thurman in an unbuttoned white shirt, blunt cut bob, and Chanel Vamp nail polish is classic at this point, and the whole ensemble still looks chic to this day. To Heimann, Mia was the female embodiment of a Reservoir Dog and a "bad girl," so she dressed her that way. The cropped boot cut pants Mia wore were a bit of an accident. “Uma is very tall. We had very little money to do the movie, and I couldn’t really find a pair of pants that fit her nicely that were long enough, and so I made an executive decision that since they were all too short I was going to make them really short,” Heimann says. “So I cut them off!” Since that made the shoes very visible, Heimann wanted an expensive shoe, as befits the wife of a gangster. The gold slippers Thurman wears in that scene, and later removes for the twist contest, are loaners from Chanel, which Heimann was thrilled to get. And what about that long, nipped-in white shirt, which is basically perfection in a garment? “A lot of people have claimed responsibility for that shirt, but in fact it was a homemade shirt. We made it!” Heimann says. She wanted Mia to wear a bustier underneath, which she found in a handkerchief print, because she “didn’t like the idea of Mia just having a bra on. I wanted her to be a little more covered up,” during the infamous OD scene.

Pre-milkshake. Photo: Miramax

Pre-milkshake. Photo: Miramax

“That's a pretty fucking good milkshake. I don't know if it's worth five dollars but it's pretty fucking good." -Vincent

For his big date with Mia, Vincent wore a suit coat with a velvet collar, courtesy of Agnes B, who also designed the cut velvet coat Mia briefly wears in the film. “Agnes B was a great friend to us. She came to us through Harvey Keitel, who wore her suit in 'Reservoir Dogs.' I had a relationship with Agnes that continues to this day and so I went to her when we were doing 'Pulp Fiction,'” Heimann says. “Agnes is a big supporter of independent film and she was very generous to us.”

The vintage overcoat in action. Photo: Miramax

The vintage overcoat in action. Photo: Miramax

The huge overcoat Vince wears on the date, and stashes his heroin in, was actually envisioned for Mia, so Heimann had to work backwards. “I remember liking the idea of Mia wearing that old overcoat while she was dancing through the house,” Heimann says. “That was born more of the image of Uma wearing it, but how was I going to get there? By putting it on Vincent. It was vintage.”

Jimmie and Lance, berobed. Photos: Miramax

Jimmie and Lance, berobed. Photos: Miramax

“White people who know the difference between good shit and bad shit, this is the house they come to.” -Lance

Heimann didn’t plan for the bathrobe theme, but it just worked out that way. She had a very distinct vision for heroin dealer Lance’s (played by Eric Stoltz) look. “I thought, ‘This is a guy that never leaves his house. He doesn’t really need to get dressed,’” Heimann says. “Back then everybody wasn’t running around in their exercise gear like we do in LA now. To me, he was wearing shorts and a graphic t-shirt and an old funky robe.” The "Speed Racer" shirt is from Tarantino’s own extensive collection, and Heimann dyed the thrifted robe “that horrible green color” in her washing machine.

Jimmie, played by Tarantino, he was another character that Heimann felt didn’t really need actual clothes. “He’s a guy whose wife works nights, and he was waiting for her to come home,” Heimann says. “Maybe they were just going to get back into bed!”

Admiring the newly clean car. Photo: Miramax

Admiring the newly clean car. Photo: Miramax

“Dorks. They look like a couple of dorks.” -Jimmie “They’re your clothes, motherfucker.” -Jules

One of the best sight gags in the movie happens when Jules and Vincent have to remove their brain-splattered signature suits in favor of Jimmie’s T-shirts. The Santa Cruz Slugs t-shirt Vincent wears has some meaning. “I went to Santa Cruz briefly, and I forget what Quentin’s connection was, but we both had a connection to Santa Cruz,” Heimann says. “We had to get permission if we wanted to emblazon Santa Cruz on the screen. I got on the phone -- this is what I used to do -- I’d get on the phone and fast talk these people into giving me permission.I don’t know what I said, because once I get on a roll I really don’t know what I’m saying! But I talked them into giving us permission and sending us the T-shirt.”

OMG, the Gimp. Photo: Miramax

OMG, the Gimp. Photo: Miramax

“Bring out the Gimp.” - Zed

S&M dungeon scenes were not really a mainstay in American cinema at the time, and indeed, even Heimann was a bit uncomfortable with this part of the film. The Gimp’s costume came from the Pleasure Chest in LA. “I told my assistant to go over there and get that stuff. I didn’t even want to go in there!” Heimann laughs. “I was freaked out by that, me personally. Nobody else was, though.”

Jules and Ringo. Photo: Miramax

Jules and Ringo. Photo: Miramax

Finally, I had to ask her about what was in THE BRIEFCASE. Her reply: “I’m sorry, I can’t answer that question.”