Booksmart is not one of those teen movies where every character is a gazillionaire and wears Prada. To be fair, one of its characters is a gazillionaire, but he’s sort of pathetic, and is, as is appropriate for 2019, a hypebeast.
For all the elements of the typical last-hurrah-of-high-school comedies that Booksmart expertly borrows from — its two main characters realize that in their single-minded quest to get into Ivy League schools, they’ve sacrificed a social life and decide that they have to go to at least one party before graduation — it also plays against some of these same stereotypes. You won’t see the popular girls in school carrying tiny Chanel bags, for example, and when the leads undergo their “makeover” sequence, they end up in ... matching coveralls.
In short, Booksmart’s costumes feel just as subversive as the film itself. In it, Molly, played by Beanie Feldstein, and Amy (Kaitlyn Devers), are the staunchly feminist and socially aware best friends, whose bedrooms are stuffed with Ruth Bader Ginsberg merch and, as its costume designer April Napier explains, wear blue throughout the film to prove their registered Democrat bonafides. Throughout the film, Amy’s political patches sewn onto vintage denim and Molly’s stuffy Ivy League uniform separates them from their far more chill peers.
Napier designed the costumes for the film Lady Bird, which also features Feldstein and takes place at an upper-middle-class California high school; she spoke to Vox about the project and working with director Olivia Wilde, who wanted to highlight each character’s sartorial identity while making it clear that none of them was a stereotype.
As Vox’s film critic Alissa Wilkinson writes, “No one in Booksmart, as it turns out, is an archetype — they’re just people, doing their best. Becoming an adult often involves realizing that everything you assumed about someone was wrong, that people are much more interesting and complex than they seem.”
Below, Napier chats about dressing the film’s quirky cast of teen characters: the hypebeast, the skaters, the hot bully, and one particularly well-dressed cocaine fan, and also discusses how teen movie wardrobes have changed over the decades.
Right off the bat, we see our main character, Molly (Beanie Feldstein), in a turtleneck, blazer, and tights. It’s the last day of high school in Southern California, which feels hilariously out of place.
[Director Olivia Wilde] made a reference that it was the last day and everyone is in short shorts and ready for summer, not paying attention to school. But she had a memory from when she first came to Los Angeles from the East Coast, where she always wore a turtleneck and a brown corduroy suit and never felt like she fit in. It was really important for us to make sure that Beanie held that same [aesthetic].
She’s so East Coast-based in her looks and in her thinking: She wants to be a lawyer and the youngest woman on the Supreme Court, so we wanted to keep her very collegiate and inappropriate for the time. I ended up getting that plaid jacket on some weird website called Chadwicks of Boston, which sold very traditional clothes, and I thought, that’s exactly what she should wear. That’s where she would buy her clothes, on a weird website called Chadwicks of Boston. It keeps her very separate from the rest of the crew.
The other kids at Crockett High School feel so realistically dressed. How did you start that research process into what Southern California teens are wearing right now? Did you stalk Instagram?
Not at all. I never tend to use Instagram as a tool, which is strange because I think a lot of people do. I tend to look at old photographs and other films, and just imagine it in my mind. I like to use things that are more vintage, real, and authentic. I tend to thrift things or do flea markets or costume stores, which I did for Kaitlyn’s character [Amy], who is much more vintage-inspired and bohemian, as a lover of the planet and feminism.
I think about who their influences are, the music they listen to, their intention. A costume designer is there to support the action and story and help them define their characters. We knew [Kaitlyn] should have a denim jacket because Beanie had a plaid wool jacket; I knew she should be in pants because Beanie was in a skirt. Her denim jacket we bought vintage and then thrifted on eBay and Etsy a lot of political patches. She wears a bolo tie, which I think you can never really see, but it says “Democrat” on it.
So much of the film riffs on and flips the script of the typical teen comedy. Were there any parts where you were aiming to do that with the costumes?
It’s important to be realistic. They’re all so different, there’s Beanie being collegiate, there’s Kaitlyn being the activist, there’s Billie Lourd [Gigi], whom Olivia had said wants to be like a specter, who just shows up all the time and the continuity of her clothes doesn’t matter, she can just show up in a different outfit every time — a wild child, a la Penny Lane from Almost Famous. Then there’s Jared, who my assistant Katina was like, “That guy’s gotta be a hypebeast.” We did this whole thing of him being the poor rich kid, really struggling to buy all the coolest things. We used the obsession with skate culture here in Los Angeles. Kat was friends with Cali Dewitt [the designer of Kanye’s Life of Pablo merch], so he made those T-shirts and sweatshirts for us that were a spoof of his own commodification.
Jared is so interesting because he’s so wealthy but so sad. How do you show this rich kid with embarrassing taste?
It’s hard, but the actors really embraced their characters — there was Noah Galvin [George], where he wears his black turtleneck as Bob Fosse, I’m-a-Broadway-director thing, Austin Crute being so outrageous playing Alan and embracing a queer sensibility. They made it really easy. We overdid Jared so much when we shot the scene on the boat. He walked on the set and everybody was like, “Oh my god, he looks amazing. He looks so cool,” and we were like, “No he doesn’t! What?” He’s got layers and layers of everything that’s cool which is such a sad, pathetic thing. In my mind the coolest people are like, Patti Smith, who wears the most simple, discrete thing. They don’t need to it show off on their bodies because it oozes out of their pores.
You see that so well in the character of Hope, the mean hot girl.
Exactly, and all her stuff is thrifted as well. [Diana Silvers] has the most simple, beautiful look anyway so you want to keep her as minimal as possible.
And that’s the opposite of Gigi, who’s this coked out fairy princess. How did you come up with those crazy, super girly, amazing outfits?
Aren’t they great? Billie really is that character, she’s wild and free and spontaneous. We knew that she should have a lot of sparkle and feathers and fur and be outrageous. We wanted to keep her palette very light because a lot of her scenes were shot at nighttime. I did a lot of vintage on her and rented a lot of stuff from costume houses.
I went to the Ruby, a high-end designer rental place in Los Angeles. I thought about sparkle in bringing the bindi onto her forehead and this 1930s veil that she wears, which is from the vintage store Please and Thank You in Los Angeles. When she jumps off the boat, she had two stunt doubles, so all that stuff had to be multiples, so I think that dress came from Forever 21 or something. When she falls in the pool, the idea was that she would just find a fur coat from Nick’s aunt’s closet and be like, “I don’t give a fuck, I’ll just jump in the pool with that.”
There’s such a stark difference between what the cool kids are wearing and what Amy and Molly are wearing. Amy and Molly clearly put a lot of care and intent into their outfits but the cool kids are more “whatever.”
They’re the leads, and the story’s about them being academic and focused and obsessed with doing research and being detailed in their work. It’s clear to them that everything they put on their bodies makes a statement or is important to who they are intrinsically. That’s why they’re so different but they also work together — they represent the same things about being powerful and affecting change.
Whereas everyone else is a little bit more “whatever.” That whole skate crew, they were fun to do but we gave them a lot of freedom, because they came in and they didn’t give a fuck about anything, so we could use a lot of their own clothes. I remember Nico Hiraga [Tanner] came out of his trailer during the party scene, and we had decided he was going to wear white overalls, and he came out with them on backwards and the straps twisted around and was like, “I just thought maybe I’d wear it this way!” And I was like, “Dude, do it.” It’s so important to honor the characters, specifically because those guys were cast for who they were. You have to honor that and let them inform what the character would do.
The gender presentation was done so playfully in the film, especially in the look of Ryan. She’s Amy’s adorable crush-worthy object, but she’s also so laid back and low-key.
When I got the script it said, “She wore a polo shirt to prom,” so I knew that she wasn’t going to be so fashion-centric, and she was going to be really genuine to herself. The woman who plays her, [Victoria Ruesga] is sponsored by [the skate brand] Deathwish, so we got some T-shirts from them that we used.
Amy and Molly’s matching jumpsuits are a big part of the film. How’d you come up with the outfits themselves, and the fact that they’re matching?
It came about very organically. You have to think, a) they’re pulling from clothes they already have in their closet. Who would they look to as the coolest people in the world? I thought, “Oh, Hanoi Jane, the era of Jane Fonda in the Vietnam War, and Rosie the Riveter.” And a jumpsuit looks cool anyway, so it’d be likely that they’d both have blue jumpsuits in Amy’s room.
Molly has drawers that are well-labeled in Amy’s room full of her own clothes because they spend so much time together, so I put them both in those outfits thinking that one or the other would wear them, and then suddenly I was like, “Wait, you should both wear them!” We suggested that to Olivia and she really liked that idea, because it brings them together and keeps them united but it also is their idea of what’s cool and powerful and how they’re just gonna kill it.
They ultimately change out of those outfits and into some sequined dresses that happened to be in the back of Ms. Fine (Jessica Williams)’s car. All three actresses have different body types and have super different styles, so how’d you make it work?
I credit Olivia with this, because Olivia was like, “They have to change.” In the original script they fall off the boat and end up soaking wet, so they would have to change [outfits]. But they didn’t go off the boat, so I was like, “What is that gonna be?” I was trying to think about what Ms. Fine would have in the back of her car. Well, what does every woman have in the back of her car? It was scripted as some yoga clothes, a tank top, leggings, and a weird, like, Ukranian Miss America sparkly dress, and I was like, “Wait, that isn’t gonna look better than these two jumpsuits.” So what could we do that looks as good?
Jessica Williams is six foot tall and those girls are like, 5-3, so we had to think of what she would have in the back of her car, and it has to be outrageous. It’s a comedy, so you have some freedom where it doesn’t have to be that attached to reality. I had to push myself a little more to embrace the idea that it can also be outlandish because we’re making straight-up comedy, so we came up with the idea of keeping them in the blue, to carry on that theme of them being hardcore Democrats.
But maybe Ms. Fine had in her car some old sparkly club shirts. Since they’d be shirts for Ms. Fine, they’d be so long on the girls that they’d be dresses. I think I got both of them at Jet Rag in LA. They’re old ’80s sequined dresses. I let Amy’s just drape off of her, and with Molly’s I added the collar, appliqués and a belt so it’d be more in line with her buttoned-up, collegiate look. They worked really well because they were shiny, and we got so much reflection bouncing off of them in the night shoots.
You mentioned you did a lot of research in watching old teen comedies in preparation. Have you noticed an evolution in the way the “cool kids” dress versus the quirky main characters?
The thing that’s rough for me now is that it seems like a lot of people are influenced so much by social media. People tend to dress a lot alike more — an idea gets commodified so exponentially because there’s so much access to information. I grew up in the days of yore during punk rock where you didn’t have access to information.
You were really on your own to read books or watch old movies and figure out who you are, and you made a lot of mistakes along the way. I think mistakes are really important for individual development, and I feel like people right now are scared that they’re going to not look cool, because there’s a blog to tell you what to do, and I think it’s crippling to individuality. And if there is an individual, it gets commodified so quickly.
I did a movie about 10 years ago called Bad Words and I was really obsessed with that normcore look. Normcore itself began as an underground reactive idea to labels, but then it got commodified, too. How many thousands of pairs of white dad trainers are out there now? You can pay a thousand bucks for a Balenciaga pair right now. Fashion always comes from the streets — it always starts with poor individual artists and musicians who influence it, but now because there’s so much media presence it happens so fast and so intensely.
You also did the costumes for Lady Bird, which takes place almost 20 years before Booksmart, but they both share this kind of laid-back, California style. I’m wondering what you’d put Lady Bird in if she were in Booksmart.
I guess that would be after her being in New York and being really grounded. Maybe she’d wear some kind of 1920s Bauhaus outfit. Or she’d wear the most simple thing because she’s so comfortable in her skin at this point that she doesn’t care.
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