Heathers, the 1988 film that spawned a genre about privileged high school mean girls, from Clueless to, well, Mean Girls, outdoes them all right out of the gate by focusing on the story of a psychopathic teenager on a killing spree. But underneath the surface, you can find all the particular obsessions of the ‘80s: conformity, tribalism, and the lust for power.
And what better way to illustrate these concepts than through costume design? Costume designer Rudy Dillon indulged in all that late '80s fashion had to offer and dressed the film's leads accordingly. Those shoulderpads and ankle socks made some sobering points about the nature of people in a cookie-cutter, status-hungry society.
As the credits roll, we're treated to a fantasy sequence starring the three Heathers of the film's title. It wouldn't normally be worth our time dwelling on a short dream sequence playing under the credits, but this one establishes the themes and motifs both of the film and of its costuming. Much is made of Heather Chandler's red scrunchie, which provides the opening shot of the film and which will serve as its most important totem. Look at how their croquet balls are matched to their outfits, a nod to the strictly conformist lifestyle of these A-list mean girls and the establishment of the film's strongest visual motif.
Note the '80s-esque take on the schoolgirl look, which is taking a lot of its cues from elite prep school uniforms with a heavy dose of female executive power-dressing of the sort you might find in Working Girl, which came out the same year. The film's themes of status, power, privilege and rigid conformity are all being expressly laid out in these opening costumes.
As we go from dream sequence to the real world, we meet the film's ostensible heroine, the one non-Heather in Westerburg High's A-lister's club: Veronica. As we'll see when she joins the other girls, she is very much part of their tribe and dressed for the part, but what's notable in this introductory scene is the blue tights she's sporting. Note how, in the following scene, you almost never see these tights. They needed to be established in these introductory shots for reasons we'll get to in a bit, just as they needed to be obscured in the following scene when she stands next to her cohorts and meets her new love interest.
In this scene, Veronica is constantly framed to keep that color blue as out of the picture as possible. Instead, the focus is on her black jacket with its clashing prints. This establishes two things about her: one, that she's a darker sort than her brightly-colored friends and two, that she's feeling quite a bit of confusion and tumult regarding her status as a mean girl.
Notice the similarities in all the girls: their broad-shouldered menswear-style jackets; their collared shirts buttoned all the way to the neck; the brooches several of them sport. The three Heathers will all rigidly adhere to these style motifs through the rest of the film. While all of these elements were very much on trend for the late '80s, these girls are dressing rather precociously on some level. As we noted, their styles owe as much to '80s ladies executive wear as they do to teenage trends. It's not that teenage girls didn't dress like this in 1988, it's just that these four girls are so religiously imitating a style that is slightly advanced for their age. You will never see a female character in any of the many large crowd scenes dressed quite like these four girls are. Unlike Cher and Dionne in Clueless, these A-List girls don't set the trends for the school. Instead, they deliberately set themselves apart from it and everyone "beneath" them understands that.
As you can see, like most high schools, the social atmosphere is strictly divided into cliques and those groupings all have their own rather rigid dress codes. The jocks dress in varsity jackets, the B-listers seem to have a shared affinity for stripes, the nerds all dress in purples and greens, and the greasers tend to sport a lot of leather and denim. Westerburg High is a collection of tribes who stay among their own kind and all dress to signal their inclusion in their own tribe. This is why Veronica's reliance on black in her wardrobe is notable. She's dressing for her tribe, but she's putting a twist on it that signals the darkness in her own personality. But the main reason for it is because it establishes her connection with her future partner in crime and love, JD:
Who is, of course, wearing black in every one of his scenes (as will Veronica, in most of her scenes with him). He's a depressed, disturbed, angry kid with violent tendencies and in the '80s—before goth made black clothes a symbol of one's sensitivity and before Columbine unfortunately made black trench coats into a real-world symbol of teenage spree killers—you dressed a teenage character in all-black to show that he was a kid who had some problems.
Jason Dean's name is a mashup of one of cinema’s most prolific teen-killers (Jason Voorhees of the Friday the 13th films) as well as one of its most iconic teenagers (James Dean of Rebel Without a Cause). It's also not a coincidence that his initials, by which he is referred by most characters, are also the abbreviation for "juvenile delinquent." Most of the symbolism in this film isn’t exactly buried deep. That's not a criticism of it. Shallow symbolism can be quite effective, especially when you're attempting to make a point about universal truths and behaviors. So while it might seem a bit too easy to go the black=disturbed route, it makes sense within the world of this film. Besides, as we'll see, he's not the only character color-coded in a somewhat shallow way. All the main characters are.
Heather Duke is constantly at the mercy of the more popular Heather Chandler, whose social standing in the school she more than covets. In fact, at the first sign of an opening (i.e., Heather C.’s murder), she makes her move to become the school's Queen Bee, giving us a hint of just how much she must have wanted it all along. Heather Duke's color scheme is envy-green and she sticks rather strenuously to it (until she decides not to—more about that later).
Heather McNamara has low self-esteem and crumbles under the trauma of so many of her schoolmates killing themselves, which in turn causes her to make the attempt herself. She is constantly fearful of losing her status and desperately afraid of Heather Chandler's wrath. Heather McNamara's color is a cowardly yellow. Just as the opening shots established that these girls will match their outfits to their croquet balls, various shots of their surroundings and things they own or interact with tend to match their outfits as well; not just the yellow decor of her bedroom, but the pills she tries to take to kill herself.
Heather Chandler rules the school and her color is an assertive, powerful red, a wildly popular color of the decade. It was, in fact, described as "power red" at the time. It showed up on Nancy Reagan and in the iconic '80s red ties of the Wall Street contingent. As we noted, much is made of her Scrunchie of Power and it should be noted that the only two times she doesn't wear it are the two times when she has no power. First, at the frat party, where she's out of her element and pretty much forced into giving some guy a blowjob, and secondly, when she drinks the poison that kills her. She takes it off just before she downs the drink. Her death is not, however, the last we see of her Scrunchie of Power.
Once again, note how even her car and home decor reflect her preference for this color. This is a world that doesn't allow even the slightest deviation from its prescribed rules and norms.
And what of Veronica? What's her color story? Well, that's why we were so focused on her blue tights in the opening scenes, because despite her preference and predilection for wearing black (which she does in most of her costumes, along with gray), Veronica is a girl who's feeling very blue:
Since the film tends to make these somewhat shallow color theory intimations (yellow=fear, black=evil, red=power and green=envy) we see her constant reliance on blue to be a manifestation of her own depression and disaffection. She's cynical, unmotivated, and disassociates herself from her actions and from meaningful connections with others ("I've gotta motor if I want to make it to the funeral on time.")
She clearly wants to be the quirky, expressive one in the group, since she spends so much time writing in her diary and the Heathers all turn to her to write the love letter that humiliates Martha Dunstock. Her monocle is one of those affectations she uses to set herself apart from the other girls, as is her deployment of hats ranging from showy to ridiculous. It's all very much in the Blossom and Punky Brewster mode of '80s/'90s “quirky girl” style.
Note that she tends to step away from the '80s Power Bitch dressing of the Heathers when she's doing something un-Heather-like, such as ditching a potential date rapist in the woods, playing croquet with an unpopular girl, or confronting JD one final time before he blows up the school. In those three scenes, she wears a pale gray jersey jacket over a light blue collarless shirt. No strong lapels or brooches; none of that buttoned-up conformity that her tribe insists on. She sticks to her color story fairly consistently but most of the film is about her struggle to have an identity of her own in a system that expects tribalism and conformity out of her. And while you'd think the heavy use of blue would be about her own identity, even that isn't fully about her.
There's also the idea that blue represents a sort of beckoning to the dark side, since JD is often bathed in an ominous blue light. Now, part of that could readily be attributed to the trends and conventions of '80s filmmaking, like vertical blinds casting noirish shadows over a scene, or neon and saxophone solos during montages. Blue lighting is just one of those things you expect to see in a film from this period.
But there also seems to be a very concerted effort to cast him in this darkly strange light, as if to make a visual representation of what he means to Veronica and how he has such a pull over her. It's a blue that doesn't just connect with Veronica's signature color and highlights their bond, it's also a blue that has a seductive quality to it, just as Heather Chandler's power-red has a seductive quality for Heather Duke, who immediately appropriates the color when Heather Chandler leaves a vacancy at the top of the school's social strata:
Not only does Heather D. adopt the color, she actually takes some of Heather C.'s belongings, like her plaid hoop earrings (which is a phrase one can only type when one is talking about '80s fashion) and of course, her Scrunchie of Power, which Veronica literally rips off Heather D.'s head after saving the school from JD. "There's a new sheriff in town," she says as she puts it on over her smoking and charred hair, leaving absolutely no question that she is taking power for herself and she's using the totems of her own school to do it. It also tends to go nicely with the blood on her face and reminds us that, while she might have saved the school and she might even plan on being nice to Martha Dunstock, she still managed to find herself and come back from her mean girl status by climbing over a pile of bodies.
Hey, it's a dark film that doesn't hide the fact that its heroine is at the center of a killing spree. Even her final showdown with JD illustrates her journey from light to dark:
Until she's practically indistinguishable from JD by the end of the film, covered as she is in soot, blood, and darkness. The closing shots of the film (with Veronica and Martha in her wheelchair) tend to put a lighter capper on it than it probably deserves. These shots are the true ending of the film, showing that Veronica is still a very dark and cynical character, dressed in the black, grey and blue color scheme she never deviated from. The film that made “What’s your damage?” a catchphrase of the period is, at its heart, a film about very damaged teenagers.
Tom Fitzgerald and Lorenzo Marquez blog at TomandLorenzo.com, and are the authors of Everyone Wants To Be Me Or Do Me.