The life of housewife Francine Fishpaw (Divine) is crumbling around her in her middle-class suburban Baltimore home. Her husband, Elmer (David Samson), is a polyester-clad lout who owns an X-rated theater, causing anti-pornography protesters to picket the Fishpaws' house. Francine's children are Lu-Lu, her spoiled, slutty daughter, and Dexter, her delinquent, glue-sniffing son who derives illicit pleasure from stomping on women's feet. Also adding to Francine's troubles is her snobby, class-conscious, cocaine-snorting mother, La Rue, who robs Francine blind and only cares about her "valuable shopping time."
The film boasted the use of scratch-and-sniff 'Odorama' cards, with the in-universe explanation being that Francine has an acute sense of smell. Whenever a number flashed on screen during the film, you had to scratch the number on the card to get that particular smell. The smells ranged from normal things like pizza, roses, and leather, to more things you wouldn't normally smell like skunk spray, gasoline, glue, and a fart.
List of tropes found in Polyester:
- Asshole Victim: The antagonists of the film die pretty systematically. Elmer is accidentally shot by Sandra after Dexter steps on her foot and Lulu strangles her with her macrame. And after Todd revealed himself to be having an affair with Francine's mother, he's later run over by Cuddles and Heintz who happen to be driving by in their limousine, and Francine's mother is hit after they back up. The film stops right there as Francine and her children hug.
- Abusive Parents: Francine's mother, who steals money from her and often tortures her through emotional abuse.
- The Alcoholic: Francine becomes this, after seeing that Elmer, her husband, has been cheating on her with his secretary.
- Alliterative Name: Francine Fishpaw, Todd Tomorrow, etc.
- Big Beautiful Woman: Subverted. The film doesn't really highlight it and Elmer insults her about her weight. Then Todd Tomorrow came and seemed to have fallen in love with her with one of these being the reasons. It was all an act because he's actually working for her mother to get the money and the house from her.
- Black Comedy: Divorce, cheating, drugs, foot fetish, mental illness, abortion, suicide, death, etc.
- Butt-Monkey: The bulk of the film's dark humor is around Francine and how her life sucks.
- Cloud Cuckoolander: Cuddles Kovinsky is pretty happy throughout and while she genuinely tries to make Francine feel better, she's rather undeterred at everything around her. This is most obvious when Francine's mother openly mocks her right in front of her and she doesn't seem to mind at all.
- Convenient Miscarriage: Lulu, after Bo-Bo's death and her attempted suicide. She's able to turn her life around and discover macrame.
- Feelies: The film had the Odorama scent cards that you scratch whenever a number comes on screen.
- Fetish: Dexter obviously has a foot fetish but not in the usual way it's portrayed. He likes to look at women's feet in shoes and seems to get off to stomping on their feet that so much so, he's been labeled the "Baltimore Foot Stomper". Even after he's been reformed and is now an artist, he still has the weird fetish towards shoe-clad feet and many of his works revolve around them. Then again, it's not like he's hurting anyone anymore.
- Genre Shift: This movie was Waters' first step towards the mainstream and as you notice, is a bit more polished while it still retains some of his signature touch.
- Good Girls Avoid Abortion: Averted, since Lulu, Francine's daughter is far from good so of course it's the first thing on her mind after learning that she's pregnant, while her mother refuses her to get on with it and is harassed by protesters in the clinic. She later gets a Convenient Miscarriage after being reformed
- Gratuitous French: Cuddles talks like this, simply because she's now rich.
- Mood Whiplash: A pretty quick one. After her daughter attempted suicide who just seen her boyfriend shot dead, the scene switches to Dexter having been released from jail and rehabilitated and her daughter who sees the error of her ways and is seen doing macrame in which Francine's life begins to change.
- Moral Guardians: The anti-pornography protesters that picket on the Fishpaws' house and later, to Lulu at the clinic when she tried to get an abortion.
- Mugging the Monster: One of the people Bob hits with a broom, an obese black woman, proceeds to steal a bus, chase him down and trap him, pop a tire with her teeth, drag him out of the car, and beat him.
- The Nose Knows: Francine has a strong sense of smell, which is played with throughout the film with the viewer encouraged to smell what she smells through scratch and sniff Odorama cards.
- Only Friend: Cuddles to Francine, and is the only one who treats her with any humanity at all.
- Prince Charmless: Todd Tomorrow, as it turns out who has been conspiring with Francine's mother to embezzle Francine's divorce settlement.
- Smelly Skunk: Francine is able to sniff one out during her and Cuddles' picnic.
- Suicide as Comedy: The family's dog that seemed to have left a note that says "GOODBY[sic] CRUEL WORLD" and then hung itself by the fridge.
- Super Strength:
- Francine was able to rip a car's door after he saw Lulu with Bo-Bo, a guy she's not supposed to see.
- The black woman who hijacks a bus just to get to the kids who are driving away in their car after they smack her with a broom. She's able to flatten their tire after just biting on it.
- Title Theme Tune: "Polyester", sung by Tab Hunter with the lyrics revolving around the main character.
- Weight Woe: At the beginning, Francine steps on the scale and the scale reads she's over 300 pounds, the numbers on it having run out because she's just that fat.