According to Charlie Lyne’s dazzling odyssey Beyond Clueless, a journey through the genre’s conventions via 200 modern classics hypnotically spliced together, teen movies are made up of a predictable set of tropes – but no two are quite the same. Whether they were made in the ‘80s, ‘90s, ‘00s or ‘10s, one thing does unite them all: our longstanding love affair with their onscreen style. From fashion month’s catwalks to fancy dress parties via music videos and throwback Instagram accounts, the best looks from teen movies are hard to escape. Is our perennial love for a plaid skirt suit and Juicy Couture velour a natural symptom of fashion’s cyclical nostalgia – or is it reflective of a broader longing for our own youth?
For many of us, Hollywood’s most iconic teen movies are a far cry from our real high school experience – our formative years read more like The Inbetweeners than 10 Things I Hate About You. Sadly, there was no dreamy Heath Ledger type serenading us on the bleachers – just an awkward kiss with a boy called Dan – and there were certainly no designer accessories to hold our maths textbooks, just a Woolies carrier bag teamed with our ill-fitting burgundy uniform and black school shoes.
"High school is hypnotic," narrator and cult teen movie star Fairuza Balk says in her signature anodyne drawl over the opening sequence of Beyond Clueless. "It ticks and tocks. Drawing us into a world we know all too well; from memories, dreams and, most of all, from the movies." For the majority, the teen experience captured on the silver screen is not one they recognise from their own past but rather a neat, shiny, perfected Hollywood version. Therein lies the appeal: there’s comfort in this genre. Sure, teens experienced pregnancy, party drugs and exam pressures in the ‘80s, ‘90s and ‘00s, but the internet has multiplied those problems tenfold. Turn on a teen movie and you’re transported to a time before smartphones and social media, before the rolling doom and gloom of digital news was readily available at the click of a button and a nude selfie could circulate the school in three seconds flat. Teen movies may not hold up a mirror to our own past but life is hard and messy and complicated; put on a coming-of-age film and you’ll find a reassuring order among the chaos.
As Lyne’s micro-documentary reveals, this order comes from a universality in the genre, whereby each film follows the same blueprint, which, when cut up and placed alongside each other, easily read as one superfilm. Within the movies, though, this order is most evident in the cliques, where kids are defined by their social standing, their clothes acting as outward markers of who they are and what role they’re expected to play. No matter what you’re labelled – "a brain, a beauty, a jock, a rebel and a recluse", according to The Breakfast Club, or "a desperate wannabe, burnout, prep or sexually active band geek", as Mean Girls declared – the film’s costumes act as an essential visual marker of social hierarchy, not only anchoring the movie in its zeitgeist but also letting the viewer know which subculture you belong to, and whether you’re in – or out. From prom queens clad in pink, preppy pleats and pompoms to stoner slackers with their low-slung denim and psychedelic tie-dye tees, via misfits in stomping boots with heavily kohled eyes, so embedded in our collective consciousness are these aesthetic associations that we could pull together a fancy dress look for each of them without having to rewatch a single teen movie.
Another way in which fashion in teen movies is used as a tool of social definition is the well-trodden makeover narrative. "To a new arrival, high school is a jungle," Balk narrates. "Only by finding their rightful place can a lost and lonely teen make their way to safety." Mean Girls’ Cady gets turned into a Juicy Couture-wearing, lip gloss-smacking Plastic, while in Clueless, Cher and Dionne overhaul Tai’s grunge look (it should come as no surprise that her heart-emblazoned long-sleeved tee, made by cult ‘90s LA brand The Pretties, was reissued in 2019 for a new generation and subsequently flooded our Instagram feed). The Craft sees Sarah go from plain Jane to power-wielding witch with a penchant for monochrome outfits, heavy eyeliner and occult-inspired accessories, and a bespectacled and thick-browed Laney slips on a could-be-Reformation red mini dress to signify her upward trajectory through the school’s social circles in She’s All That. Submission to the school hierarchy is well-documented via wardrobe makeovers, where any trace of sartorial individuality must be left at the door in order to maintain social standing. Beyond Sandy in Grease, however, whose transformation from prim and proper midi skirts to body-hugging black spandex is celebrated, most of these makeovers are undone in the final phase of the teen movie character arc: staying true to yourself. Cady retires her pink velour upon returning to her real friends Janis and Damian, while Tai maintains her grunge roots and ends up with kind-hearted slacker Travis.
The majority of us were unable to play around with the kind of outfit experimentation displayed in these movies due to the constraints of a uniform but this, too, is a sartorial touchstone explored on screen, despite many American public schools not requiring their students to wear one. Costume designers across the board played around with the notion of the school uniform, with the pleated skirt receiving many a makeover: Bring It On’s cheerleader skirts served up a literal representation, The Craft gave it a haunted Catholic twist, Empire Records paired it with combat boots for a grunge slant, while genuine Dolce & Gabbana made an appearance in Clueless’ high fashion take. In Heathers, school uniform came in the guise of ‘80s blazers so preppy and padded, they were practically oppressive.
Whether or not you dressed like the onscreen cliques of teen movies is irrelevant – you most likely sat somewhere in the middle of it all, dabbling in different groups and subsequent trends as your mood changed and friendships evolved – because watching these films as adults and proudly declaring which subculture you belonged to is a pleasurable way to feel part of a (perceived) community and to make some sense of what was a painful, turbulent and awkward time. "Longing for the past in a nostalgic way has been understood to be positive and desirable," Professor Carolyn Mair PhD, behavioural psychologist, author of The Psychology of Fashion and founder of psychology.fashion, explains. "However, a recent research study found that participants responded more negatively when they were exposed to an object that reminded them of the past. When they were asked to recall a nostalgic event, they responded more positively. This suggests that the word nostalgia itself triggers the positive associations, because we have come to understand the word nostalgia as a positive emotion."
It makes sense that we’ve reached peak nostalgia for teen films. "Fashion and TV have always been in a relationship with each other but as people livestream their favourite shows and movies, watching whatever they want, whenever they want, digging into the lives of characters has never been easier and their outfits are an important part of the narrative," explains Morgane Le Caer, data editor at Lyst. "This decade also marks a 20-year anniversary for most of these late ‘90s and early ‘00s movies, and taking into consideration the 20-year rule of the fashion trend cycle, it was expected that iconic outfits would be influential again." This is even more true in the pandemic – with no live events or real-world experience to inspire our fashion fantasies, TV and film are providing plenty of sartorial escapism.
Of course, all of this is exacerbated by Instagram, a rolling feed of archival stills from film history fed to us via throwback accounts charting the best of ‘90s and ‘00s looks, which, in turn, are currently available to buy everywhere from Urban Outfitters to Net-A-Porter. "Having gifted us with iconic outfits forever imprinted in pop culture, certain movies have become an immediate fashion reference for their decade," says Clara Del Genio, content marketing manager at Stylight. "The Breakfast Club or Sixteen Candles are a perfect example of ‘80s fashion: oversized coats, puffy sleeves and ruffles, while 10 Things I Hate About You and Empire Records are the embodiment of ‘90s trends: think tartan miniskirts, Steve Madden Mary Janes and spaghetti-strap slip-on dresses. And nowadays, when we think of the ‘00s, our mind immediately goes to the pink velour tracksuits and tiny Louis Vuitton bags from Mean Girls, or the lingerie dresses from 13 Going on 30." In real terms, the films which have driven the most search in recent years are Bring It On and Clueless. "Gen Z especially seem to be nostalgic for a decade they’ve never experienced, in the same way older generations are missing the '70s," says Del Genio. "Searches for yellow plaid skirt suits have been jumping high around Halloween season, while cheerleader-style skirts have been making a comeback on platforms like TikTok."
Inspiring Donatella Versace’s AW18 collection, Iggy Azalea’s 2014 video for "Fancy" and, most recently, the virtual wardrobe in Gucci’s Cruise 2021 presentation, it’s fair to say that no teen movie’s style has had as much of an impact on popular culture as Amy Heckerling’s 1995 masterpiece, Clueless, which was resurrected last year in celebration of its 25th anniversary, helping the classic to reach a new generation of fashion fans. Though the yellow plaid Dolce & Gabbana skirt suit may be the jewel in costume designer Mona May’s crown, creating a silver screen wardrobe presence so strong it essentially becomes a character in its own right is no mean feat. When researching, May scouted around high schools in Los Angeles and found that everybody was wearing "Nirvana-inspired baggy clothes". As Heckerling wanted to create a completely new visual identity, May had to source catwalk collection books and cut out pieces to create the looks. "It was like being a detective, a fashion designer and a costume designer all at once because this was pre-computers so I couldn’t Google anything," she tells Refinery29. "Prior to the film, people in the ‘90s either owned luxury fashion or shopped at mainstream markets – there was the grunge scene of course, but nobody mixed high and low. I borrowed the Alaïa dress and then bought pieces from the mall and thrift shops."
What does May believe is the secret to its continuing relevance? "I grew up in Europe and created a lot of the looks with that timeless European sensibility – take French style, with the cuffs and the big white collars, the pea coats and the berets. Our characters were rich girls in Beverly Hills, they had any kind of money you can imagine. So they could have gone to the runway shows in Paris and London – that's where the cues were, so that's what I did. I borrowed from those timeless pieces and from the beginning, [Karl] Lagerfeld copied certain things from the characters in his collections," she muses.
May, who also designed the costumes for Never Been Kissed and Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, used fashion to illustrate more subtle differences between the characters, beyond their various cliques.
"It had to feel real, it had to be authentic; Amy didn't want snooty models running around – they were meant to be in high school, so it had to be age-appropriate. We wanted to make the girls very sweet in a sense, and I think that's part of the magic of the film, that innocence, that girliness that we all love, and long to have.
"Cher is so quintessential in that way because she’s really a good girl, even though she was the queen of the school. She always meant well, so her clothes had a soft colour palette. It was opposite to Dionne, who was a little bit more experienced with the boys, so it was a bit sexier, the skirts were a little bit shorter, there was vinyl and a lot of leopard."
Clueless may be the most referenced but perhaps the most sorely underrated onscreen style (in mainstream narratives, at least) is in Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. Leslie Harris’ critically acclaimed 1992 film follows smart and assured Chantel through the trials and tribulations – pregnancy included – that threaten her dream of becoming a doctor. Beyond its triumph as a Sundance-lauded, seminal coming-of-age movie, it’s also a masterclass in ‘90s street style. From XXL scrunchies, John Lennon-inspired tea shades and statement hats (the florals, the velvet!) to colour-block bombers paired with high-waisted mom jeans, the film perfectly distilled the style of Brooklyn-based teens at the time.
Look beyond the ‘90s and you’ll find that teen movie style has shaped fashion and culture in myriad ways. James Dean’s 1955 Rebel Without A Cause made the white tee and true blues a dynamite duo, while Vans’ popularity can be traced back to Sean Penn wearing a checkerboard pair in 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High (another Heckerling triumph). Now, the ‘00s canon is getting its airtime, thanks to Gen Z reviving the decade’s trends through thrift flips on TikTok. With Bella Hadid and co. recycling low-slung jeans, cropped tank tops, fitted cardigans and kitsch hair accessories, we’re sure to see a new appreciation of gems like Freaky Friday, What A Girl Wants, A Cinderella Story, Crossroads and New York Minute (to name but a few – the ‘00s was a prolific time for the genre, so much so that parodies like Not Another Teen Movie came about, too). In the same way that millennials didn’t actually watch ‘90s-made teen movies in the ‘90s, Gen Z didn’t grow up on Amanda Bynes, the Olsen twins and Lindsay Lohan but, with hope, the throwback Instagram accounts will come soon enough, prompting us to pay homage to them as serious style contenders. The jury’s out on whether sarongs layered over low-rise jeans will return but if Instagram’s fondness for butterfly motifs, cargo trousers and chunky highlights is anything to go by, we’re already there.
While the ‘00s revival will more closely reflect millennials’ high school experience (if not in the beer pong parties and perfect prom nights, then at least in the costume design), the appeal of teen movies doesn’t lie in nostalgia for our own youth but rather for a time before we were born. "It’s more about feeling nostalgic about a bygone time when things were better than they are now – or so we believe," Mair says. "In times of uncertainty, like now, when many people are experiencing negative emotions, nostalgia serves as an opportunity to escape to a perceived better world." Of course, free from lived experience, the past always looks best through rose-tinted glasses and Hollywood movies provide that squeaky clean picture for us. "The '90s have been refined by an air of freedom and creativity, one of the happiest decades in the minds of millennials despite all of its imperfections," says Le Caer. "As recent years have seen a large number of socioeconomic factors affecting people’s lives (such as a growing financial crisis, climate change and racial injustice), teen movies are now served as an onscreen comfort food reminiscing the good old, carefree times."
Teen movies of the ‘80s, ‘90s and ‘00s are hardly utopias, though. The genre is made up of mostly white, privileged young teens, with Black women often assigned two-dimensional sidekick roles and hardly any people of colour cast in romantic leads, an issue comedy writer Tyler Young spotlights in her homage to Just Another Girl On The I.R.T: "Hollywood has its fair share of Sixteen Candles, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Lady Bird narratives, with white girls front and center. I watched them all growing up; I even laughed and cried at them — inspired by the fate of the protagonist but also feeling extremely invisible, because these stories were not mine. These girls did not reflect my life or the people around me."
Thankfully, from To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before to Euphoria, this is changing, as networks finally answer the call for more representative and diverse casting for teens and beyond. Will the onscreen style of today’s teen-centred stories hold up in 20 years, the same way those of the past have?
"Definitely!" Del Genio says. "I bet that if a series or movie is already making waves during its time, it will become a good reference for fashion to rediscover. Where do I place my bets? Rather on teen series than movies (we're the binge-watch generation after all!). One example could be Riverdale: at the height of its popularity in 2019, the preppy look went viral. Just one month after its season four release, Stylight registered a 43% increase in clicks for V-neck sweaters, 24% for knee-high socks and 17% for miniskirts. Take Stranger Things: we all fell in love with Nancy’s shearling corduroy jacket, so much so that it boomed on Google, with over 1,000% increase in search interest just two weeks after Netflix dropped season two in 2017. I have a sense that if these series are influencing fashion and beauty trends today, they will definitely be revisited tomorrow too."
Euphoria certainly feels like a groundbreaking shift in the teen drama genre, exploring key issues facing kids today – from gender fluidity and monetising sex to drug addiction and the omnipresence of porn – in a far more realistic and less patronising way than previous depictions. And while its contemporaries, such as Sex Education and Stranger Things, root their style in the past, Euphoria’s costume designer Heidi Bivens does a brilliant job of capturing the style of Gen Z, whether it's Rue’s scumbro aesthetic or Kat’s goth cam girl vibe. Sure, most of these contemporary subcultures borrow elements from past decades – Maddy’s prom look was inspired by Rose McGowan’s ‘98 MTV VMAs look, according to Bivens – but that’s at the heart of all fashion. "The ‘90s actually had a big obsession with the early ‘60s – think about the miniskirts, pastels and flipped hair ends – while the early ‘00s revived a lot of ‘70s trends like low-rise bell bottoms, oversized tinted shades and macramé belts," explains Del Genio. "And now, in 2021, we’re looking back at the ‘00s for inspiration: it’s a never-ending cycle."
For as long as we seek out a hit of nostalgia for a perceived trouble-free time, and for the innocence of our youth, we’ll turn to teen movies for a serving of sweet escapism; plaid suits and pleated skirts a physical manifestation of the thing we ultimately all long to return to: the past.