To celebrate Sofia Coppola’s birthday, we unpick the symbolic meaning behind the film’s boxy school uniforms and 70s prom dresses
How does fashion shape adolescence? Every month, Claire Healy deconstructs the ways that style culture has contributed to the idea of the teenager in new series Extreme Adolescents.
The current state of fashion is backlit by the sunshiny side of the 1970s; in The Virgin Suicides, Sofia Coppola’s darkened impression is part hazy nostalgia, part dazzling lens flare. Adapted from Jeffrey Eugenides’ book, Coppola’s debut film transposes the novel’s distinctive first-person-plural prose and filters it through her signature dreamlike aesthetic: here, it washes over a leafy Midwestern suburb, as seen through the eyes of the teenagers who live there. As the title suggests, the film chronicles the short lives of the enigmatic but sheltered Lisbon sisters – Cecilia, Lux, Bonnie, Mary and Therese. They are, like any tale of unrequited teen crushes, watched from afar by a group of neighbourhood boys. Now grown up, the boys narrate the girls’ story in flashback form: when tragedy strikes, it is them who will try to put the pieces together. In one scene, they have managed to get their hands on a diary belonging to one of the Lisbons. Turning the pages, they – and we – can briefly enter the interiority of 1970s girlhood. “We felt the imprisonment of being a girl, the way it made your mind active and dreamy,” the voice-over explains. “And how you ended up knowing which colours went together.”
The Virgin Suicides aesthetic has influenced an entire generation of bored teenage girls with their heads in the clouds. Tavi Gevinson is a self-admitted devotee of its dream world, and ritualistically returns to the book and film every summer. Coppola worked with costume designer Nancy Steiner to achieve a genuinely thrifted 70s look that didn’t appear deliberately retro – you need only look at the film’s late 90s contemporary, Boogie Nights, for a very different take on that style. Coppola, admittedly “struck by the beauty of banal details”, populates her suburban universe with the quiet fashions of authentic 70s girlhood: delicate lace dresses, bandeau tops, tiered maxis in dusky florals. The influence on the fashion world since has been seen in the whimsical style of Rodarte, as well as Coppola collaborator Marc Jacobs (the Daisy campaigns, as directed by Coppola, are clearly part of the Lisbon sisters’ world).
“Their outfits demonstrate the extreme poles of dress that defined the choice of teenage fashion in the 70s: demureness versus skimpiness, or the fabric of innocence against emerging sexuality”
Just like the other ephemera of the sisters’ everyday lives that the boy-narrators collect – Virgin Mary cards, pink lipsticks, whatever else they can rescue from the trash – the clothes of the Lisbon girls offer their own clues. Their outfits demonstrate the extreme poles of dress that defined the choice of teenage fashion in the 70s: demureness versus skimpiness, or the fabric of innocence against emerging sexuality – see the pink bra draped over a crucifix. In a contemporary culture that still has a problem with the handling and portrayal of young female sexuality, it’s a tension that still chimes with adolescents today.
As the boys astutely point out, the Lisbon sisters’ imprisonment is that they are girls. More than this, they are subject to their Catholic parents’ strict rules, curfews, and, eventually, house arrest. The sense of entrapment extends to their clothing. Their daily wear consists of boxy, traditional school uniforms. For prom, their mother is so distraught at her daughters’ growing up that she adds swathes of fabric to their already dowdy dresses – they emerge in “four identical sacks”. The long, pale dresses, dotted with barely-there florals, resemble the Gunne Sax dresses popular amongst teenage girls and their worried mothers in the seventies. Typically multi-tiered and high-necked, the dresses evoked nostalgia for 19th century prairie living. The name derives from “gunny sack”, the material used for potato sacks as well as the lining of early versions of the dresses – the polar opposite of s-e-x.
But as much as their mother tries, the girls aren’t identical, and it’s 14-year-old Lux who provides the film’s narratorial and stylistic focus. Her relationship with Trip Fontaine – who, in his aviators and flares, is the universalised 70s heartthrob – anchors the film’s tragic momentum. It’s a denouement spoken through clothing: what it hides, and what it uncovers. Played by Kirsten Dunst, Lux is the most attractive and effervescent of the sisters – all said, a “stone fox” – with an in-bloom sexuality that’s expressed in the details. Early on, she sits on the front lawn in the baggy clothing of her sibling – only her tee falls off her shoulder, just so. During a family supper at the Lisbon house, Lux is lectured to cover her chest while her bare toes caress an unwitting male guest under the table. As Trip pins her corsage on for prom, the camera reveals what lies underneath Lux’s sack dress: she’s written his name on her underwear, a heart dotting the I. When Lux misses curfew, the parent’s lockdown goes from bad to worse. Abandoned by Trip, Lux has sex on the roof, limply lifting layers of cloth for strange men. All the sisters wear the baggy nightdresses of Victorian children. “I can’t breathe in here,” says Lux, trapped in the wrong century.
The Virgin Suicides is Coppola’s first and most tragic elegy to youth, in a cinematic career that continues to chronicle lonely girls on the brink of womanhood: Scarlett Johannson’s Tokyo drifter in Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette’s partying princess. In many ways, the Lisbon sisters are precursors to these women, who are later freed from the (albeit sympathetic) male gaze that necessarily filters The Virgin Suicides. The film begins with the youngest sister, Cecilia’s first suicide attempt (she slits her wrists). Her elder sisters cover the bandages with piles of multi-coloured, plastic bangles. It is The Virgin Suicides’ most complete image of the clash of childhood innocence and the disillusionment of experience – something that will always define the anxiety of girlhood, and the clothes that locate it in time.