Almost any movie that director Sofia Coppola helms automatically enters the fashion film canon. From Marie Antoinette, a pastel-tinted flaunting of opulent, epoch-defining fashions, to The Bling Ring, an encompassment of every great (and cringe-y) fashion trend of the early aughts, Coppola’s films are as notable for their for their showcase of memorable fashion as they are for their nuanced portrayal of loneliness and young people on the verge of adulthood. And, at the beginning of it all, is The Virgin Suicides.
Based on the Jeffrey Eugenides book of the same name, Coppola’s first film is set in the ’70s, in a Michigan suburb. A melancholy look at what a conservative existence behind a white picket fence can do to young women on the brink of adulthood, it follows the Lisbon sisters, a quartet of girls who have just lost their youngest sister to suicide. As they attempt to get over this trauma, their freedom and sexuality are further repressed by their strict Catholic parents — a fact that’s made clear by the shapeless clothes they wear, among other things. According to Nancy Steiner, the film’s costume designer, these clothes weren’t just a reflection of their familial circumstances, but a fairly normal occurrence in the United States at the time.
“We really were just trying to make them average kids in the ‘70s,” she says of the vision she discussed with Coppola. “The girls were mysterious in the way they acted and all the other stuff. We didn’t feel like you had to press that in the way they dressed or anything. We just wanted to be not a big showy 1970s, but the real ‘70s.”
Those looks included prairie dresses (Steiner says Gunne Sax is responsible for some of the most popular versions from the time) and floaty gowns. It’s ‘70s fashion at its most delicate, with soft knits draping naked shoulders, and pastel florals and barely-there lace enveloping the sisters who appear as ethereal as the clothing they wear. While all popular in the ‘70s, the Lisbon girls’ clothes are in stark contrast to what the other characters in the film wear. This is made most evident in the prom scene, where the girls show up in white nightgown-like dresses — likened to “four identical sacks” by the boys who take them — while others appear in an explosion of colourful pinks and blues.
“The prom dresses, we made those. My idea was that their mum had made the dresses for them and that she wouldn’t spend money going out — she would make their dresses. So I made the design based on what I thought back then you would have: a pattern, and it would come with four different options — different flowers, colours,” says Steiner, noting that each dress was designed to “give the girls their own style.” While the dress of Lux (Kirsten Dunst), the most rebellious of the Lisbons, featured shorter sleeves and a tighter empire waistline, that of Therese (Leslie Hayman), the studious sister, had full billowy sleeves and cuffs.
Though the dresses were already sleepwear-like, the sisters’ looks turn into literal nightgowns once they’re put under house arrest, after Lux doesn’t come home the night of the prom. “All the girls would wear these flannel nightgowns,” says Steiner. “That was a big thing back then when girls still wore nightgowns.”
Still, there is something intimate and innocent about seeing the young women in them. Watching them sprawled on the bedroom floor, not allowed outside, we are reminded of how abruptly the sisters’ childhood has ended with the untimely death of their sibling. They are no longer girls, and yet they are not allowed to become women, having been literally trapped inside by their concerned parents — a fashion limbo that perhaps only a nightgown, one of the few items of clothing worn by children and women alike, is able to accommodate. “We felt the imprisonment of being a girl,” says one of the boys narrating the film. “We knew that the girls were really women in disguise, that they understood love and even death.”
"As they were kept in the house, they reverted to nightgowns which were [actual] pyjamas,” confirms Steiner. “It was just like a degradation of making any effort to look good or anything because they were kept in the house, they didn’t need to. It was just kind of depressing, and they just reverted to staying in nightgowns all day, which is kind of what we’re doing now… with our sweats and our T-shirts. It’s interesting.”
The parallel between The Virgin Suicides and our world right now is undeniable. Trapped within our own homes by the shelter-in-place orders, we are drawn to the comfort and ease that nightgowns provide. No wonder there’s been a #nightgown explosion on TikTok, instantly revitalising the fashion trend. But also, the resurgence of nightgowns is yet further proof of fashion’s fixation with eras like the ‘70s. “It seems like, to me, that style comes back every 20 years… but it’s a new version of the ‘70s. It’s combined with more modern takes on it,” says Steiner, likening the fashion nightie comeback to the recent revival of the high-waisted, full-leg pants, now featuring a shorter, ankle-length cut. “It’s just these little style details that make something more modern or less.”
We saw that with prairie dresses, updated to feel modern by the masterful hands of labels like Batsheva and, more recently, The Vampire’s Wife. We’re now seeing an extension of that, with more literal nightwear becoming trendy thanks to brands like Sleeper. The latter trend is interesting for the fact that, to wear something that’s intended for the indoors, where no one can see you, is an act of rebellion. There is something powerful about the choice of Lisbon sisters to wrap around the tree in their yard that they don’t want to be cut, while in sleepwear outfits that their mum surely doesn’t approve of being seen by the men who are intent on cutting it down. There’s also something about Therese styling her nightgown with a chunkily knit scarf, even if it is because of her preference for more conservative fashion in comparison to her sisters.
As the trend continues to take a turn for the fashion-forward, it’s once again becoming clear that the nightgown is no longer a look that’s only suitable behind closed doors. It’s one that deserves to be styled, with heels and jewelry, and taken outside — if only to hug a tree (and maybe take a TikTok video) — fashion rules be damned.