Welcome to FrockTalk, the web’s only costume-based movie review site. The goal of Frocktalk is to shed light on the magnificent artistry of costume design in motion pictures. Reviews on this site are written by working costume designers in the entertainment industry – people who know, better than anyone, what it takes to make it all happen. The focus of FrockTalk is not to comment on the big flashy costume dramas, but to call attention to the seemingly ordinary costume design work in film that silently and persuasively moves the audience toward understanding the characters. Costume design for motion pictures is an art form that deserves more recognition than it usually gets. Fancy, pretty costumes do not always equal effective, appropriate costumes. The art of the costume is in letting the audience know who the character is, before the actor even has a chance to open his mouth. Read on, and enjoy. ** CAUTION: ALL REVIEWS CONTAIN SPOILERS! **

Mean Girls

photo courtesy Paramount - thanks, Brian!!

photo courtesy Paramount - thanks, Brian!!

Review Date:  10/6/2008
Release Date:  4/30/2004
Runtime:  97 min.
Period:  Contemporary, 2004
Costume Designer:  Mary Jane Fort

Now, I am a big fan of Michael Lehman’s film Heathers (1989).  I have seen that film about three hundred times.  My friends and I quoted it all through college, and we dressed up like the Heathers for Halloween.  It was with great interest that I rented Mean Girls, and I was not disappointed.  I watched this film on DVD, paying extra-close attention to the special features section.

Mean Girls is a classic fish-out-of-water-turned-revenge-then-redemption movie.  Cady (Lindsay Lohan) has been home-schooled in Africa her entire life.  Her mother accepts a teaching position at Northwestern University, and Cady is forced to attend (gack!) public high school.  Cady quickly learns that high school is more perilous than the jungles or the savannahs of Africa when she meets the “Plastics”, the clique of queen-bee-type high school girls.

Initially, Cady does make two real friends, “Art Freaks” Damian (Daniel Franzese) and Janis Ian (Lizzy Caplan)   *Side-bar: It should be noted that in real life, Janis Ian is a singer/songwriter who wrote the plaintive ballad At Seventeen, which was a big hit in 1975.  Funny enough, many of the more angst-ridden passages in the film echo At Seventeen’s lyrics and themes.*  Damian and Janis help Cady break the code about who’s on top at their high school.  Cliques at this school include: the Burnouts, the Varsity Jocks, the Cool Asians, the Unfriendly Black Hotties, the Sexually Active Band Geeks, and the Asian Nerds.  The Plastics, however, are always on top.

Janis used to be BFFs with Regina (Rachel McAdams), the Alpha-female Plastic.  But since Regina dumped her as a friend in Junior High, and then went on to spread a rumor that Janis was gay, Janis is more interested in revenge than anything else.  Sensing a compliant surrogate in Cady, Janis suggests Cady infiltrate the Plastics to destroy them from the inside.

The Plastics readily take Cady in, based on her good looks (she’s a “regulation hottie”) and slowly build her up only to put her down in cruel and humiliating situations.  When Cady finally agrees to Janis’ plan, after one particularly harsh humiliation, it starts to get very interesting.  Revenge plans against Regina are launched, and many of them fail.  One revenge plan involving weight gain actually works, and in turn, Regina takes revenge on Cady, turning in the Plastics’ “Burn Book” – a secret book of rumors, hate-wishes and the like, the revelation of which launches the entire school into chaos.

In the end, math teacher Ms. Norbury (Mean Girls writer Tina Fey) calls all of the female students together in the gym for a sermon about how girls are mean, and about how they need to be nice to each other and respect one another.  It is followed by a “trust exercise” where a girl stands on a platform, admits a wrongdoing, leans back and is caught (stage-dive-style) by the girls standing under the platform.  It’s a clunky device to get the message of the film across, but when one of the lesser Plastics is dropped, it makes for a good laugh.  As Regina exits the auditorium, she steps backward into the street, arguing with Cady, and is run over by a bus.  Cady must deal with the perception that she is at fault for the accident, and Regina must spend the rest of the school year in a halo device.

In the end, Cady admits to her part in the “Burn Book”, and as part of her reparations she joins the nerdy Mathletes squad for a statewide math competition, which occurs on the same night as the “Spring Fling” dance.  The “Spring Fling” dance is where the “Spring Fling Queen” is crowned, an honor to which Regina is widely assumed entitled.  Regina is nominated, along with Cady and others, and she shows up to the dance in a pink cocktail dress and the halo device.  Cady, returning to the school with the rest of the now-state-champion Mathletes, arrives just in time to hear her name announced as “Spring Fling Queen”.  She delivers a contrite speech to the assembled student body about how, really, everyone is a “Spring Fling Queen”; she breaks off pieces of the crown, and distributes them to her fellow nominees.  I thought this ending was a little too-convenient, too clean, but given the fact that this is a teen movie, it seemed fitting, contextually.

This film is set in the Chicago suburbs, which interests me greatly for a few reasons:  1) All of John Hughes’ films were set in the Chicago suburbs; 2) I spent four years living in Evanston, Illinois while attending Northwestern University; 3) The denizens of Chicago and its suburbs have a very distinct way of expressing themselves through clothing; and 4) There is a distinct weather pattern in Chicago, allowing for greater range in costuming as the seasons change.  This is not a John Hughes movie, for sure, but the Chicago idea was nice.  However, we don’t really ever see even a hint of Chicago in the locations or production design, and sadly we don’t get to see the weather change at all throughout the film.  The movie was shot in Toronto and New Jersey, so that may explain the lack of Chicago locations. Boy, those tax incentives really take the soul out of the movie sometimes, don’t they?  For mentioning bastions of North Shore culture like Walker Brothers Pancake House, Hecky’s Barbeque, and Old Orchard Mall, we didn’t see any of it.  It felt like a game of bait and switch.  John Hughes would never have let that happen.  Come on, Illinois, get your tax incentive plan together!!  Save Ferris!

Cady’s character has a very big, sweeping arc in the movie, and it is deftly handled by costume designer Mary Jane Fort.  Cady starts out as an earth-toned, regular, quasi-schlumpy high school girl, then she shifts into the pastel, tight-fitting, short-skirt-wearing, high-heels-at-school Plastic, and then reverts into khakis, letterman jacket, and sneakers by the end of the movie.  Her character’s arc is clearly delineated in the film, and it helps to tell her story.  I paraphrase her costume changes in the following breakdown:

Change one: schlumpy earth-toned top, Gap-style jeans, sneakers and jacket, hair in ponytail. Change two: semi-baggy plaid shirt, sneakers, Gap-style jeans, ponytail. Change three: (it’s Wednesday*) oversized pink polo shirt (ostensibly borrowd from Damian) and Gap-style jeans, hair back in a barrette.  Change four: Halloween – she’s dressed as a gruesome zombie bride/ex-wife, complete with fake teeth, wig. Change five: (she’s agreed to destroy the Plastics) tight fitted zip-up hoodie, push-up bra, designer-style jeans, hair blown out & fabulous.  You get the picture.  She arcs into looking Plastic.  The change in her character, and Lohan’s characterization of her, is augmented by the costumes.  The costumes make the change in the character crystal clear.

The Plastics (Regina, Gretchen and Karen) have a distinct set of rules about their appearance:  1) On Wednesdays*, we wear pink; 2) No tank tops two days in a row; 3) Jeans and track pants are only acceptable on Fridays; 4) Hair in a ponytail only once a week; 5) Violate any of the rules, and you can’t sit with us at lunch.  It is an impressive code, and the costume department made the most of it with these girls.  The Plastics are not the cartoonish, over-stylized, unreal girls we have seen in movies of this ilk before.  These girls seem to be more real – teenagers in high school, similarly inclined, would actually wear what these girls wear.  It’s not outlandish or over-the-top, and that’s what makes it all work – the threat that these girls pose to Cady is real; it’s not a threat coming from comic-book Glamazons.

Regina, the Alpha-Plastic, wears some interesting pieces, including a bejweled initial “R” necklace.  The name Regina is derived from Latin, meaning queen-like.  The necklace is a subtle detail that, while omnipresent in almost every scene, disappears into her character as a part of who she is, the queen.  (Side note – in once scene, Cady wears a “C” necklace – a gift from Regina?) As Regina gains weight, she is relegated to wearing the only things that fit her: sweat suits, breaking the code of the Plastics.  At this time, the colors in her costumes fade from pastel, going darker and darker, until she is in all-black, in the principal’s office, delivering the “Burn Book”, the nadir of her character’s manipulation. When she resurfaces at the “Spring Fling,” she is back in pastels, with her halo device adorned with roses and baby’s breath, a very nice touch.  Like Cady’s, her arc is well-thought-out and precisely executed, aiding in the overall storytelling.

The costuming of the supporting characters is also excellent.  Notable is Mrs. George (Amy Poehler), Regina’s mom, who is such a wanna-be Plastic that even SHE wears pink (baby pink velour tack suit, to be specific) on Wednesdays.  Her costumes throughout the movie are quite comedic and serve to “dork her up” a little bit in the face of her fashionable daughter.  The teachers at the school, including Ms. Norbury and Principal Duvall (Tim Meadows) are very well-costumed.  These teachers look real, not frumpy or cartoonish, and their realness serves the story well – it makes the story more believable, as if this could happen at any high school, anywhere.  And truthfully, it can, and it probably does.

Janis is portrayed in the film as a Goth.  Lizzy Caplan is a very pretty girl, and so turning her into the embodiment of a disenfranchised, angry, vengeful fringe-dweller had to be a bit of a challenge for the costume, hair and makeup departments.  However, she looks like she was born in this look – the costume does not wear her; she fully inhabits it.  Well done to all departments on that!  Her sidekick Damian is a bigger fellow, and “too gay to function”.  Thankfully, he is spared the indignity of the homosexual stereotyping of years past.  He is not dressed like an Easter egg, or like Richard Simmons or Liberace; in fact, he looks like just a regular, semi-nerdy teenager.  Again, this film has a realness to it that makes it relevant.  These characters are not cartoons, and I think that the subtle, honest interpretation of these characters is what makes the movie so special.

The background players in the film serve as walking scenery.  I didn’t see as much Chicago-style influence, or changing of the seasons as I had hoped, but nothing stood out as unbelievable or totally incorrect.  There is a great Halloween party scene in the film that illustrates just how depraved our society’s ideas of Halloween costumes have become.  At the party there are costumes like: sexy bunny, sexy mouse, sexy cat, sexy tiger, sexy cheerleader, sexy devil; you get the picture.  The “sexy-fill-in-the-blank” has become a sad catch-phrase in our Halloween costuming vernacular, and it is dealt with in a very funny manner in this film.  We are all in on the joke.

There is also a song and dance number in the film with our Plastics dressed as sexy Santas.  These costumes are additional testimony to the sexification of teenaged girls like the Plastics, obsessed with self, body, fame, image, MySpace, Facebook, sexiness, and notoriety.  The costumes in this film are really, really good because they do not belabor or exaggerate the issues or the ideas conveyed therein.  The costumes simply hold up a mirror to what is actually happening in our world, right now.

This movie is full of thought-provoking characters and situations that just happen to be funny, or perhaps more precisely, that are explained in a humorous way.  Mean Girls would not be the same movie without the spectacularly sensitive and adroit costume design of Mary Jane Fort.  You can’t help but be unwittingly influenced by the story the costumes are telling, within the context of the bigger picture.  The movie succeeds on its sense of reality, and the costumes complete the picture.

Thanks to Brian at Paramount!

-KMB

Thanks to Brian at Paramount!

Thanks to Brian at Paramount!

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