On Popular Girls and Money as Style
I recently went to a birthday party where all guests were expected to dress like a character from Twin Peaks. I didn’t watch the show when it was on, and have only seen a few episodes in the years since, so I used Google image search to get some style inspiration.
Naturally, the character I most wanted to dress like was Audrey. Her fashion seemed imitable enough: a tight sweater, a pencil or a plaid skirt. Alas, I don’t look like Audrey: I’m blonde; I’m not “curvy”; I have some freckles but no well-placed, high-contrast beauty mark providing punctum on my face. A friend even told me bluntly, “You’re not an Audrey.” (Who asked you, asshole?)
Physical gorgeousness aside, what is it that defines Popular Girl style? In teen movies and TV shows from the ‘80s and ‘90s, the popular girls are almost without exception rich; having money is always already a kind of style. See, for example, Claire in The Breakfast Club, contrasted with Andie from Pretty in Pink, both played by Molly Ringwald. Moneyed, popular Claire has impeccable hair, a leather jacket, and diamond earrings (one of which she gives to John Bender at the end of the movie in a gesture of love/solidarity). Wrong-side-of-the-tracks Andie has awkward hair and quirky, ill-fitting homemade clothes. (We’re supposed to believe she’s got real style, but honestly, she’s no Annie Potts.)
Diamond earrings make an appearance as a symbol, too, in Some Kind of Wonderful, a kind of reboot of Pretty in Pink wherein the poor unpopular lead (Eric Stoltz) ends up with his poor unpopular tomboy friend (Mary Stuart Masterson) instead of the hot popular girl (Lea Thompson, who, incidentally, is not as rich as her friends, which allows her to retain a kind of moral core despite her depraved milieu). Teen movies in the ‘80s were all about class conflict: When your parents come from different tax brackets, you’re as good as star-crossed.
Clueless’s Cher is another icon of rich/popular girl style, her wealth so excessive she uses software to choose an outfit in the morning. A recent re-viewing, via Netflix, of the ‘80s dance classic (?) Girls Just Want to Have Fun reveals this trope is either a reference or a rip-off (or perhaps they both reference some earlier illustration of the paradox of choice). In the latter, rich and popular mean girl Natalie watches outfits scroll by on an electronic, remote-controlled rod in her closet, the kind you’d see at a dry cleaner’s, and moans “Decisions are the worst!” (Getting-dressed tip: If it’s warm enough to drive with the top down, it’s too warm for a fur coat.)
So much of what gets counted as style is just money by another name. I’ve read magazine articles about “expensive-looking hair” – which, unshockingly, actually is expensive, since it involves high-maintenance highlights and regular blow-outs, or at least the free time to DIY them. Obviously, this is because rich people get to decide what’s stylish. It’s the same logic gatekeepers have used to give all the money and jobs and prizes disproportionately to white men, claiming and even believing they’re just using “objective” standards to publish and reward the “best work.” This reasoning is actually consistent as long as rich white men get to define what “best” means.
As for the Twin Peaks party: I ended up dressing as Shelley; my hair is pretty similar and I happen to have a waitress dress. Fetishizing working-class uniforms seems as “problematic” as defining wealth markers as style. Still, these women are hot, right?