Film

Accidental Style Icon: "Rocky's" Adrian Balboa

Come for the iconic Philadelphia scenes, stay for the magical love language of a hat.

by Erin Schwartz
10 November 2019, 2:00pm

This article originally appeared on Garage.

There are many ways to measure the depth of trust within a relationship, but one of the most reliable is whether, when asked, you can honestly tell your partner that their outfit looks stupid. This happens early in Rocky II, when newly famous boxer Rocky Balboa is shooting an ill-fated aftershave commercial in which he’s dressed up as a caveman in a horrible tiger-print tunic with a matching headband, a necklace of cheesy fake animal bones draped around his neck. He’s just been assured that he looks “fabulous” by his agent, but he’s not sure. “How do I look? I look stupid, don’t I?” he mutters to his wife, Adrian, as they walk to the set. “Yes,” she responds with a small, efficient nod. Soon, Rocky quits the commercial.

Rocky, one of the best sports movies of all time, is also the story of two gentle-hearted Italian Americans who bond over their shared love of animals and ice-cold fits. I am incredibly frustrated that this information was kept from me; before seeing the film for the first time a few months ago, my received cultural knowledge of Rocky led me to believe that it was about a beefcake fighter who was tough and stoic and liked punching people. I assumed that Adrian, Rocky’s love interest, would be extremely hot and stressed out, like Heidi Gardner’s Every Boxer’s Girlfriend from Every Movie About Boxing Ever character on SNL .

Instead, Adrian is introverted, steely, makes hard decisions briskly and unsentimentally, and has a strong stomach for boxing-related gore. Both she and Rocky have dealt with incredible amounts of bullshit from the people around them: Adrian’s mother once told her that she’d “better develop [her] brain” because she wasn’t “born with much of a body,” and in the franchise’s first entry, she lives with her borderline abusive brother Paulie before moving in with Rocky. When his fight with Apollo Creed catapults Rocky to fame, he gets caricatured as a stupid meathead, something he can only confide in Adrian that he finds hurtful. “I think we make a real sharp couple of coconuts. I’m dumb, and you’re shy. What do you think, huh?” he tells her.

Of course, the people who think Rocky is dumb miss that he is earnest and kind, and the people who think Adrian is shy miss that she only chooses to share her rich inner life with the people who understand and care about her. When Rocky first starts flirting with her at the pet store where she works, he gets this. The night of their wedding he reminisces about the first time they met: “I says to myself…Underneath them sweaters and hat and…what did you have on? About twenty sweaters, was it?”—“No, three,” Adrian responds, and he continues—“three sweaters, is the best girl in Philly.”

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"You could be a heartbreaker."

This also gets to the heart of Adrian’s style, which has two main modes: she is either in camouflage (three! sweaters! in! one! fit!), or she is showing off. The camouflage fits always include some incredible, bonkers marker that Adrian is tougher and funnier than she seems (in Rocky II, when she is pregnant , she wears a maternity T-shirt printed with the word “BABY” and an arrow bluntly pointing down); the showoff looks usually involve red. On her first date with Rocky, she throws a big tweed coat over the outfit she was wearing to cook a turkey, then adds an astonishingly chunky blue wool beanie that sits on top of her head like a doughnut, a cartoon version of a cold-weather hat. Later, when she ends up at Rocky’s apartment, she keeps the hat and coat on while he peels off his leather jacket and sweater. The image of Rocky lounging in his ripped white tank while Adrian stays comfortably bundled up in her coat remains one of my favorite summaries of relationships between extroverts and introverts.

There’s a scene in between training montages in which Rocky jogs down his north Philadelphia street and finds Adrian sitting on his stoop, wearing her first all-red outfit: a long tomato-colored coat with furry lapels and cuffs, a white beret, a cherry-colored blouse and knee-high boots. She is here to give him a pet dog, a mastiff named Butkus who was abandoned at the pet store by his owner, a dog they will raise together. Confronted with such beauty, Rocky is almost at a loss for words, “Yo, you look great,” he pants. “Really?” Adrian asks. “Terrific,” he replies. “I mean, you could be a heartbreaker. You’ll walk down the street breaking hearts the way you’re looking. Ver-ry sharp!”

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If you know one scene from Rocky, it’s probably the boxer hollering “Adriaaan! Adriaaan!” from the ring after his fight with Apollo Creed ends, his face swollen, pink and bloody as a rare steak. I knew this scene was coming, and it began as I expected. Adrian runs out from the stadium’s dressing room; she’s wearing a ruffled white blouse under a black velvet suit, plus an incredible shearling beanie dyed a bright, lush red. The hat gets knocked off as she pushes her way to the ring; she takes advantage of a scuffle between her brother and a policeman to slip under the ropes. Rocky’s eyes are nearly swollen shut, but he spots her. “Adrian!” he shouts, grabbing her shoulders, then pauses, concerned. “Hey, where’s your hat?”

As part of a couple for whom fashion is their love language, Adrian misses nothing; she understands what this means. She shouts it back: “I love you!”