Billy Wilder’s 1959 comedy begins in 1929 Chicago during Prohibition. Between 1920 and 1933, alcohol was outlawed in the United States. This period is known as Prohibition. To get around this law, people drank in speakeasies—essentially, illicit bar-like places. In Some Like It Hot, Jerry and Joe play music at a speakeasy until it’s raided by police. Soon after, Jerry and Joe see the mob figures who own the speakeasy kill some alleged enemies.
The gangsters know that Jerry and Joe witnessed the murders, which puts their lives in danger. To stay alive, Jerry and Joe dress up as women so that they can join an all-women band that’s traveling to Miami.
Here, dress, or clothes, transform the social identities of Jerry and Joe. They are two desperate male musicians on the run from gangsters no longer. Now, as women, they are protected. As long as they continue to pass as women, they’re safe.
Of course, not all women possess the same kind of social identity. The dress of Jerry of Joe indicates a specific type of woman. When they’re first boarding the train, the two dress like respectable society ladies. They wear long coats, prim hats, and fur. Thus one could argue that they’re using the trope of the respectable woman to their advantage and, indeed, to save their lives.
Dress transforms the social identities of Joe and Jerry in other ways as well. Joe’s temporary female identity lets him discover personal information about Sugar Cane, which he uses to his advantage later on when he dresses up as a wealthy oilman named Junior. Meanwhile, Jerry’s dress supplies him with a social identity that makes him vulnerable to the desires of a real millionaire. Now, Jerry’s social identity is that of a prospective wife.