Educating Rita (1983, directed by Lewis Gilbert) is about self discovery. At the beginning of the film, she is married, 26, and her family and friends expect her to have a baby. Before having a baby, Rita would like to understand more about her self. Rita (Julie Walters) is a working-class hairdresser who wants to gain an education. She does not want to be a hairdresser for the rest of her life. She also believes there has to be more to life than being a wife and mother. The screenwriter, Willy Russell, marks Rita’s character metamorphosis through changes in her personal appearance.
Over the course of the film, changes in dress include changes from skirts to pants, from blond to brown hair, from open-toed high heels to oxfords and more modest high heels, and Rita begins to wear jackets with wide collars on a regular basis. Rita’s changes in personal appearance are not simply about developing a different style. These changes are about Rita developing her own style. In a similar way, her education is no simply about learning new things. Gaining knowledge is about Rita developing an educated point of view, a way to approach and understand the world and her role in it.
The first time the viewer sees Rita, she is already on the campus of Cambridge University, enrolled in the Open University program, and is on her way to Dr. Frank Bryant’s (Michael Caine’s) office. In the introduction to Rita’s character, aspects of her identity as a hairdresser are emphasized. She wears a short, layered hair style, her hair is dyed blond, and has a section of hair dyed pink in the back. She wears a white, button-down blouse tucked into a red and white vertically stripped skirt, which stops short of the knees. Rita also wears stockings and open-toed, high-healed shoes.
The shoes are soft silver leather, crisscrossed at the top of her foot. In terms of accessories, Rita wears small, thick, gold, hoop earrings; a chain linked gold bracelet; a gold wedding band; and, a watch with a brown band. Clearly Rita takes great care with her appearance. It is also clear that her standards of beauty are informed by the working-class neighborhood in which she lives and works. The irreverent Rita is far from the young man, all in tweed, from Frank’s seminar, who disputed Frank’s assessment of William Blake’s work.
Despite Rita’s desire to become educated, her family and friends pressures her to have a baby. Rita and her husband have agreed to try to get pregnant. The audience learns of this fact as Rita goes to her hiding place in their bedroom to take one of her birth control pills. Her husband thinks she stopped taking birth control pills six months earlier. When he finds the pills and throws them on her study materials at the kitchen table, she explains that she wants to find herself, understand herself better before making the decision to have children.
Her husband’s response is to gather her materials, including the books, and burn them in the back yard. After this encounter, when Rita returns to campus, she wears a somber blue button down blouse and a matching blue skirt. Her makeup is more subdued. This is the moment when Rita demands that Frank treat her as a serious student, teaching her how to write and think in ways similar to students in his seminar classes. Rita takes the essay she had written on Howard’s End, throws it into his fireplace, and tells him that she wants to know when what she has written is crap.
She then proceeds to sit at a work table by his window in order to re-write the essay. The moment is not definitive in her transformation into a serious student but it marks the beginning of such a transformation. Frank invites Rita to a party at his home, further evidence of her belonging and his comfort with her. Rita tries on four different outfits, each outfit suggesting a very different persona. She finally settles on a blue-green, short-sleeve, V-neck blouse and jacket, blue pants with alternating light and dark blue vertical stripes, a black belt and black boots.
Rita wears her standard watch with the brown band and chain-linked gold bracelet. New accessories include a red purse and brown, high-heeled shoes. Rita goes to Frank’s house with a bottle of wine but is too intimidated to go in. Then she goes to the pub with her husband, parents, and their friends. They are singing a song learned from the juke box. Rita is sitting next to her mother, who starts crying. When Rita asks her why, the mother explains that “there must be better songs to sing than this. ” This idea becomes an important way of understanding Rita’s transformation.
While she wears or intends to wear the same clothes to the professor’s party and pub, she feels between the two worlds. She has not found a secure place in either one. Rita’s sister’s wedding pushes her away from her working-class community. She wears a purple dress with matching jacket and shoes. Her coat is grey with a matching hat and feather. Her father quizzes her about getting pregnant as they pose for her sister’s wedding pictures. He points out that her sister is already four months pregnant and she just got married. He also tells Rita that her mother was three months pregnant at the time of her marriage to him.
Such information only makes Rita more determined to be able to choose when, if, and under what circumstances she would become pregnant. At the reception, where the camera comes in for a close-up on Rita and her husband’s faces, they are discussing having a baby. She has her hair in an upsweep and wears a silver necklace with silver earrings. The husband explains that she will have to choose between her education and him and leaves her standing on the dance floor. The kind of isolation Rita experiences at the wedding and reception make her more secure in her intellectual identity.
She wears clothing made of high-quality fabric and this quality distinguishes her visually, matching the subject in her discussions with her father and husband. The audience understands how serious Rita has become about her studies when we see her with Frank at the train station. Rita spends a summer of intensive study in London. She writes Frank while he is away in France. When she returns to Cambridge, he is there to meet her. Rita is dressed all in white, blouse and pants. She wears a blue sweater/jacket with pockets and a white silk scarf. Her hair color is back to its natural brown.
As Rita walks away from the train, she throws her scarf across her shoulder and the same scarf holds a central place visually as Rita gets into Frank’s car. Rita’s self-confidence is evident. They drive to a park. When Frank explains that they will study William Blake in their next round of tutorials, Rita says that she studied Black in summer school. She also offers a critique, the kind of critique that makes Frank wince and contributes to his alcoholism. When asked if she studied “Innocence and Experience,” Rita responds of course, that it is impossible to study Blake without studying this specific poem.
Here, Rita fully inhabits the role of student/intellectual. She feels as if she belongs in college. However, this kind of belonging is just as prescriptive as the belonging in her working-class neighborhood. Rita has not necessarily discovered her self or become intellectually independent because she now knows how to dress like other students. What she has gained at this point in the film is the option to emulate the way other students dress and talk. She understands the culture well enough to follow its rules.