The whole premise of The Graduate revolves around Benjamin lacking direction. Nothing says, “I’m feeling completely out of sorts” quite as clearly as wearing diagonal stripes.
Benjamin’s diagonal striped tie and unbuttoned jacket certainly don’t fit in with the other men at his graduation party. All the other men we see have their jackets buttoned up and are either wearing ties in solid colors or with a floral/geometric print.
Before Benjamin starts seeing Elaine, Benjamin is mostly seen wearing white dress shirts. But after Elaine finds out about Benjamin having an affair with her mother, he falls into a deep depression. From then on, his basic day-to-day uniform becomes a black shirt with khaki pants and a tan or khaki jacket. This whole ordeal has had a huge impact on him and his sudden change in clothing reflects that.
Mrs. Robinson sure loves her animal prints. Tiger print, leopard print, giraffe print, she doesn’t shy away from any of them. Animal prints are definitely something that command attention and Mrs. Robinson is a woman who desperately wants to be noticed.
When we meet Mr. Robinson, his outfit makes it loud and clear that he and Mrs. Robinson are no longer on the same level. While Mrs. Robinson has her hair done and is dressed to the nines in her fabulous cocktail dress, Mr. Robinson appears to have just come home from a round of golf at the country club and looks like he’s ready for a low-key night at home.
Mrs. Robinson also tends to wear a lot of black. Black can be a very powerful color and in Mrs. Robinson’s case, the color seems to signify two different things. Like an animal print, black is a very bold thing to wear. But black is also a color that is often associated with death and mourning. The person Mrs. Robinson wishes she could have been is dead and she knows she’s never going to be able to have the life she wanted for herself when she was younger.
When Elaine finds out what has happening between Benjamin and her mother, Mrs. Robinson is wearing a black robe, but there’s nothing strong about it. She looks like a mess, her life is a mess, and she’s literally backed into a corner. It’s a moment of total defeat.
Elaine Robinson starts out dressing like the polar opposite of her mother. For her first date with Benjamin, she wears a cream colored coat with a pink dress. Not even a hint of her mother’s fondness for animal print or black to be seen here. She looks very young and fresh.
Unfortunately, we don’t get to see much of this vibrant, more innocent version of Elaine Robinson. After she finds out about Benjamin having an affair with her mother, she heads into a much darker place and her wardrobe reflects that. Just like Benjamin, she starts favoring darker clothes — black boots, brown coats, black and dark blue shirts and sweaters.
When characters have a connection in some way, particularly in a romantic way, it’s common for costume designers to dress them in ways that reflect that connection. Benjamin and Elaine’s costumes in the last half hour of The Graduate are a prime example of that. For the first time in the movie, Benjamin looks like he’s finally found a person he really connects with. Elaine hates to admit it at first, but she connects with Benjamin in a way she doesn’t with anyone else in the movie. At least Elaine looks like she has more of a connection with Benjamin than she does with Carl Smith: