Marilyn Vance on dressing the Brat Pack

John Hughes's go-to costume designer chats about making Ferris Bueller and the Breakfast Club so sharp and so free

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Marilyn Vance dressed the Brat Pack

It’s 27 years since five kids – the brain, the jock, the princess, the criminal and the kook – met up for Saturday detention in John Hughes’s The Breakfast Club, busting out of their social stereotypes for an afternoon with some odd dance montages and plenty of teenage angst. Costume designer Marilyn Vance was responsible for dressing Hughes’ cast, as well as 1,000s of other characters during an illustrious career that has included the cherished likes of Pretty in Pink, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Weird Science and Pretty Woman as well as action movies from Die Hard to 48 Hours and The Untouchables.

This month, the V&A unveils Hollywood Costume, an exhibition spanning a century of Tinseltown costume design, revealing the stories and craft behind some of the silver  screen's most iconic outfits; the torn white vest Vance dressed Bruce Willis in for Die Hard will take its place beside over 100 ensembles from film history. From her home in LA, Vance discusses dressing the 80s Brat Pack, and revealed why Texans have a weird thing for Pretty Woman and shares the original Poloroids from the making of the Pretty In Pink prom dress. 

Dazed & Confused: Last week they auctioned the leather jacket Matthew Broderick wore in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off… it has a tear in the back from the scene where he runs through the bushes to beat his parents home…

Marilyn Vance: And it went for $30,000! I watched it happen!

You do these films, and you never know what the outcome will be. John Hughes, God rest his soul, was a magical storyteller. His characters jumped right off the page. Working with him on so many films was incredible.

Even without dialogue, you’d know exactly who each character is in The Breakfast Club by the way they look.

Because it plays out over one day, I only had one outfit to work with. So I used layers – each layer is a little piece of their personality – as they become more relaxed with each other, the layers come off – even though they’ll probably go back to their little cliques on Monday. I made a lot of Ally Sheedy’s clothing – she wears black and black wasn’t really in yet. We were only just getting hit with Commes des Garcons and all the Japanese – Matsuda, Yamamoto. So I made her purse and skirt out of a black printed fabric and put a black cashmere stole on her, that I wanted to look like she’d stolen from her mother. I made Emilio’s [Estevez] varsity jacket too, made sure his T-shirt was cut right. And then I asked Nike to please design Michael Anthony Hall those tri-coloured sneakers – I designed the colours and Nike did that for me. I really had to nail Judd Nelson’s misfit character – his coat was from a thrift store, but his plaid shirt was a nightmare, because plaid shirts aren’t even, and on film they distract your eye like a flag. So getting that plaid even was a huge thing – all these subtle things that no audience would even think about – costume designers really have to serve the character, from script to screen. John Hughes called me his ‘visual voice’. But I wanted to branch out.

So you went into action movies with Die Hard

I was the first female that did testosterone! I got a hard time from a lot of the boys for that, but I managed it, I wound up doing a lot of action films.

Bruce Willis’ white vest has made it into the V&A’s “100 years of Hollywood Costume” exhibition – is that one you would have chosen?

I’m honoured to be in the show. It is funny, the array of films I’ve done, that I’m represented by a white vest! [laughs] But it’s difficult to trace these clothes. That vest evolved from the story – Bruce plays a detective from New York, he arrives in LA and washes up in that private bathroom, takes the shirt and shoes off and all hell breaks loose – and there he is in his vest. As a costume designer you serve the actor’s body too. Some people have narrow shoulders, big hips, or a long face, and you have to design it so that you don’t notice. I had to make Bruce’s pants especially for Die Hard, because he has a long body and short legs. Don’t even write that because you’ll be looking now…

You worked with Molly Ringwald on Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink, did you build up a good relationship with her?

Well Molly – she still had a tutor on the set, she was about 17 in The Breakfast Club. She didn’t want to be the pretty little girl, dressed in short little things, she wanted to be more sophisticated. And that’s who Molly is – she is a little more sad than she is adorable. She is so not adorable. We dressed her in Ralph Lauren.

How did she like your design of the pink prom dress in Pretty in Pink?

She hated that dress! Molly actually hated it with such a passion you have no idea. A lot of her clothing as Andie Walsh I found in thrift stores, so I cut up two dresses to make the prom dress – just like she does in the film. Poor John Hughes, Molly’s in her trailer with her tutor, she hates the dress and he’s whining to me ‘You can’t make her do that, she hates it.’ I said ‘Andie is not going to wear like, a Madonna dress. And she’s not going to dress like the other kids, she’s an individual. She’s pulling clothes apart and making her own style.’ And John decided, OK that’s it, Molly is going to wear it…

Are men less argumentative to dress? You were nominated for an Academy Award for The Untouchables

The men’s clothing in The Untouchables needed to be incredible. It was all suits, in 1930s cuts. I made a deal with Armani factories to execute the design, brought everything over to Italy. I wanted all sorts of greys for the Feds, and the gangsters to have more elaborate camel, lighter grey and blue. I made beautiful suede gloves at a place called Alpo that were of that period, brought hats to Rival in Milan and they copied them for us. Brian de Palma insisted on overseeing all the fabrics, shapes and shades. Like Frank Nitti, Capone’s ‘angel of death’ had to be wearing various shades of white; Sean Connery was the ‘everyman’ so he got a brown corduroy jacket; we got their backgrounds and put it all together.

Do you keep underwear true to the character, even though you might not see it on film?

Well in Weird Science, I had to worry about all their underwear because they’re wearing them on their heads a lot. And if you remember, Kelly LeBrock shows up in blue Jockeys at one point…

I think a lot of teenage boys back then will remember that. Do you get requests for replicas of your costumes?

You know, couples – they’re often from Texas, I don’t know why – still play out the Pretty Woman scenario? They’ll rent the hotel room, get the jewellery Julia wore, the red opera dress I designed... In Pretty Woman I told the story in her look. She starts out as a street walker, a million things on her, a wig, big earrings, bracelets, a dress holding the top and bottom together – which is actually a copy of a bathing suit my mother bought me when I was a young girl. And an old band jacket, which was supposed to be like her old boyfriend’s jacket. The boots I got in Chelsea, on the King’s Road. When she meets Richard Gere’s character, she sees how clean and sleek he is and her clothes start to become more minimal. I had to get all the gabardine from Turin for Richard. Because at the time everything was thick and Harris-tweedy, nothing was sleek. I called Nino Cerruti – they have a mill in Biella – and had him send me swatches of gabardine to match the greyish colour of Richard’s hair.

How did you get started in costume design?

As a kid, my mother would bring me clothes and I’d cut everything apart and rearrange it. Later on my husband at the time was doing the music for The Warriors. I had a showroom for my junior clothing pieces in New York, and I was showing buyers how you can interchange different pieces, and I didn’t realise these guys from the studio were watching. Afterwards, they said ‘You should be doing film.’ They started sending me scripts and I got my big break coming out to LA.

And your first film was Fast Times at Ridgemont High? 

That was quite something. With Phoebe Cates and her red bathing suit. That was a Norma Kamali bikini I brought with me from New York – weirdly I couldn’t find one nice bathing suit in LA!

So you dressed Sean Penn as Jeff Spicoli? Was it obvious he was going to be a huge star?

Oh, Sean, you couldn’t talk to him unless you called him Spicoli. So that should answer your question! Jennifer Jason Leigh was particularly intense and amazing on Fast Times. And Sean of course was bouncing off the walls. I knew what east coast kids were like, but I had no clue about these California kids, so I was lingering around high schools taking pictures on campus of them having lunch – how they divided into groups; the stoners, like Sean’s character, the surfers rolling out of their cars smoking ganja, the preppies, the cheerleaders, the athletes… a security man took me into the school office; they’d called the police, said I was going to be arrested for taking pictures without consent of underage children, trespassing... they were absolutely right of course! I was so green. Luckily the studio backed me up. 

Which other of your designs would you put in the V&A’s show if you could?

Ferris Bueller’s black, white and grey jacket. All the boys at school wore leather jackets, so I needed another colour – he’s a clever, wise kid, I had to show off his individuality. His leopard-print vest was actually a cardigan. I couldn't find anything I liked so I lopped the sleeves off. I got it in Chicago at Marshal Fields in the men’s department. I can’t tell you how many people write to me about that.

You get letters?

All the time! I just got an email today about the glasses that flip up, that Mr. Rooney wears in Ferris Bueller’s. We’re talking over 25 years later! John Cryer, who played Duckie in Pretty in Pink, presented me with a lifetime achievement award recently – he said the most incredible feat I accomplished was getting him to wear Duckie’s clothes. He almost died when he saw those clothes.

I see people dressed like Duckie in London today.

I know! Isn’t that great?

Hollywood Costume, sponsored by Harry Winston, opens at the V&A on Oct 20th

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