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High-stakes 90s fashion with Buffy the Vampire Slayer

The iconic show premiered 17 years ago. Let's revisit an age of chokers and leather jackets

17 years ago today, a little show called Buffy the Vampire Slayer debuted on WB. A television spin-off from the moderately successful 1992 film of the same name, Buffy would later go on to become one of the most-loved cult dramas on television, attracting an army of diehard fans and launching Joss Whedon’s career.

It’s been almost two decades since Buffy was first brought to our screens, but the costume choices of its iconic characters still loom large in popular imagination. The 90s were boom times for teen TV drama (Party of Five, Sweet Valley High, Popular, to name a few), but none of them really showed high school kids battling demonic forces while wearing cute tie-dye and A-line mini skirts. And unlike the varying fortunes of many high school-set shows – some of which, like Roswell, were cancelled after a few seasons – Buffy ran for seven years, finally ending in 2003 with a final blow-out battle between good and evil. 

Cynthia Bergstrom, the head of costume on the show, outfitted over a hundred episodes for the show. Back in 1994, she costumed another teen classic: Scream, another show that synthesised high school horror with cutting, reworked commentary on the ‘damsel in distress’ trope. According to Bergstrom, Whedon approached her directly to see if she was available for Buffy.

Bergstrom’s designs are a far cry from those of the initial Buffy movie, which shares far more with its close contemporary, Clueless. As cutesy or girly as Sarah Michelle Gellar’s Buffy could be, it’s hard to imagine her in Kristy Swanson’s acid yellow crop top and pink hippy-print leggings. In fact, Buffy’s clothes – and most of the cast wardrobe – represented a more realistic and muted take on teen dressing, partially to provide a much-needed sense of normality to the whole teen-battles-demons narrative.

Unlike more recent teenage dramas like Gossip Girl, which are heavily invested in uniformly decking characters out in designer labels to make them look stylish, aspirational and desirable, Buffy characters were allowed to be frumps, schlubs and losers – all the better to shore up essential differences between characters. (Just think back to upper-class snob Cordelia telling Willow, “Good to know you’ve seen the softer side of Sears.” Or, any of Xander’s button-downs.)

Fashion in Buffy was also crucial to blur the distinctions between good and evil. Just when you think every vamp in Sunnydale is professionally obligated to dress in leather and dark clothes, along comes Angel, the good-guy vampire that Buffy falls in love with (ditto Spike, although this came much later in the series).

It served to set up expectations for certain characters and then offered the chance to subvert them: when Faith turns up in dark lipstick and a goth-y leather jacket, you know immediately that she’ll be trouble – but what viewers didn’t anticipate is her touching struggle to find a father figure (a drive that ultimately led her into the arms of Sunnydale’s Mayor, the central villain of the third season).

Sure, there were a few hideous missteps – I have no idea why Willow and Tara spent part of their relationship dressed like escapees from a nearby Renaissance Fair, or what was up with any of Angel’s atrocious wigs – but by and large, fashion and Buffy had a mutually beneficial relationship. You want to talk about 90s fashion making a comeback? Forget Clueless; everyone on this show lived through the 90s. There’s no other TV show that provides such a living, breathing, vamp-staking document of what young people were wearing in that era. And for that, Scoobies, we thank you.