A Look at How Style Sets Female Characters Apart on 6 Iconic Teen Soaps

From the '90s to the aughts to today, clothing has been as crucial to showcasing characters' personality traits as their story arcs.
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Photo: Giphy

Photo: Giphy

Welcome to Pop Culture Week! While you can always find us waxing poetic about the hefty overlap between fashion and pop culture, we're dedicating the next five days to the subject of our favorite music, movies, TV, celebrities, books and theater, and how that all intersects with the fashion industry.

When I first sat down to write this piece, I was a bit overwhelmed. Write about the costuming of female characters in teen dramas through recent decades, Jess. Sure, that seems easy, but as I thought about it more, the idea started to come into focus, and I realized that what I really wanted to do was discuss how costume designers on teen dramas use style to set their teen girl characters apart and signal their personalities in both obvious and subtle ways, as well as reflect the trends of the time. 

I've picked six iconic teen dramas that I think provide meaty costuming material for me to examine through my style-analysis microscope. Two things to note up front: First, this article is only looking at hour-long teen dramas, which were not only my bread and butter growing up, but dominated the airwaves for a while, really coming into their own in the 1990s before transitioning into the "young adult" dramas of today, which focus more on 20-somethings than teens (but that's a topic for another time). Second, the majority of characters on these shows, and thus discussed in this piece, are white. We still have a long way to go when it comes to diversity in media, people, though you'll notice that the most recent show on the list is also the most diversely cast — perhaps the one good thing about 2017.

Now, let's take a walk down fashion memory lane, shall we?

"Beverly Hills, 90210"

Photo: Giphy

Photo: Giphy

Ah, the ultimate teen soap. The fashion of "90210" might look familiar to you, because it's almost all back in style today. And the costuming of the teenage girls on the show is best defined with one word: trendy. The gals of West Bev High were often clad in whatever was hottest at the moment — and they could afford it. When it comes to Brenda, Kelly and Donna, there wasn't a whole lot setting them apart from one another, fashion-wise. Kelly and Brenda even wore the same dress to the spring dance where Brenda lost her virginity to Dylan (I didn't even have to Google that).

The exception here is Andrea, who was pretty much always dressed like a woman-in-the-workplace who had plans to celebrate her 40th birthday after 5 p.m. (Gabrielle Carteris, who played Andrea, was 29 when she started the role, which is how old I am now and I feel weird about it). I guess her wardrobe was meant to convey that she was a Serious Teen Journalist, and then later a Serious Pre-Med Student and Mother. But you know what? All four of these girls wore a proto-professional blazer now and again, because blazers were very cool in the early '90s. Anyway, the gals of "90210" always looked of-the-minute and hip, which speaks to how many teenage girls consume fashion media and help set trends.

"Dawson's Creek"

Photo: Giphy

Photo: Giphy

Someone recently reminded me that the four core "Dawson's Creek" cast members modeled for a J.Crew catalog in 1998, lest you think that the nondescript clothing worn in this show didn't have its culturally relevant moment in the sun. (Albeit a niche one, considering that J.Crew once had a very specific New England look and, I assume, clientele.)

Anyway, the show dressed its' two female leads Joey and Jen very differently from the get-go, because it was very important to the plot that we understood that these girls were Different Kinds of Girls — and Dawson was torn between them. Joey was the tomboyish best friend whose family didn't have much money — she was from the wrong side of the titular creek — and Jen was the cool, mysterious new girl with wealthy parents from New York. Throughout the show's run, Jen was consistently dressed in a more classically feminine way than Joey, and her look was much more beholden to the trends of the day: lots of platform sandals, sheer blouses, babydoll dresses, and butterfly clips. Joey was often in loose-fitting basics, relatively in keeping with both her "just the best friend/no one sees me sexually yet" role and her limited financial means.

Joey's style did change as the show went on: once she started finding herself, she also found some trendier clothes. The other teen girl characters who cycled in and out with some consistency — Abby Morgan (RIP) and Andie McPhee — had distinct looks, too. Andie wore a lot of preppy pastels, school uniform-esque outfits, and nearly always wore two barrettes on either side of her middle part, all seemingly in service of telegraphing her girlish innocence. Abby, much like Jen, typically wore the hottest teenage trend of the moment to show us how cool (though mean) she was. Just look at her hairstyle from the night she died, it's ripped straight from a Delia's catalog.

"The O.C."

Photo: Tumblr

Photo: Tumblr

Moving from Capeside in the late '90s to Orange County in the early-mid aughts, we have arrived at the show that put writer/creator Josh Schwartz on the map. Much like the girls of "90210," the style of "The O.C."'s two leading ladies (Marissa Cooper and Summer Roberts) is best described as super-trendy. Sure, they had expensive taste, especially when it came to formalwear — Marissa is well-known for her love of Chanel — because the show was set in a wealthy community. Otherwise, Summer and Marissa were most consistently dressed in the coolest labels and trends of the moment. Low-rise jeans; silky spaghetti strap tops; short, flippy skirts; double-popped collars (yes, really)… the list goes on. Summer's style changed over the seasons as she evolved from a spoiled O.C. party girl to a smart, caring, socially conscious activist. When Summer came into her own, her clothing choices moved into cool hippie territory, which was also very in at the time.

Photo: Giphy

Photo: Giphy

Taylor Townsend and Anna Stern, the semi-outsiders to the main group, were given much more distinctive looks to set them apart from Marissa and Summer. Taylor was preppy, wearing a lot of bright colors, collared shirts and cardigans to signal her Type-A, chipper and competitive personality to the world. Anna was quirky and hip, with a questionable penchant for newsboy caps. Her style was a collision of Anthropologie and Urban Outfitters, which might not sound all that offbeat now, but it was in the land of "The O.C." She was basically the female Seth Cohen with funkier clothing, and though this was her downfall when it came to her romantic relationship with the actual Seth Cohen, I'm sure she did just fine for herself back on the East Coast, where we love spunky, blonde pixie-cuts and vintage-inspired goods.

"Gossip Girl"

Photo: Giphy

Photo: Giphy

Oh hello, Josh Schwartz's oeuvre, nice to see you again so soon. Here we are in another mega-rich community in which the teen girls dress better than most adults. But hey, television is supposed to be aspirational, right?

As Fashionista has noted before, "Gossip Girl" boasted some iconic sartorial choices over the years. And how did the show set Serena, Blair, Jenny and Vanessa apart? Well, Blair was almost never seen without a headband and tended to favor classically girlie clothing — pussy bows, flared skirts, opaque tights, ballet flats — projecting her preferred fussy, rich bitch, in-control persona while hiding her deep insecurities. Serena was a bit looser in style, always looking a little rumpled and thrown-together, with messy hair and lots of cleavage to boot, signifying to the world that she liked nice things and dressing up, but often felt conflicted about her upbringing and rebelled against the stiff Upper East Side world she inhabited. 

Photo: Tumblr

Photo: Tumblr

Little Jenny Humphrey, well, she went through quite the style evolution over the course of the show, going from an impressionable copycat who wore pared-down Blair and Serena looks to a grunge designer princess who wore pounds of kohl eyeliner. And as the ultimate outsider (she lived in Brooklyn!), Vanessa's style really set her apart: It was quasi-boho with lots of artsy jewelry and bright colors, definitely funkier and more laid-back than anything the other gals wore, which assured she never quite fit in on the Upper East Side — not that she wanted to.

"Pretty Little Liars"

Photo: Giphy

Photo: Giphy

There's no secret to the way costume designer Mandi Line displayed the four main girls' personalities on "Pretty Little Liars" through their clothing. In the show's first few seasons, any unseasoned eye could take a look at Aria, Spencer, Emily and Hanna and clearly put them in their stereotypical personality bucket. Aria was artsy with a bit of a dark pop-punk edge; Spencer was preppy and smart; Emily was sporty and casual; and Hanna was spoiled and very image-conscious. Their looks evolved as the show progressed, but each girl's personality type remained a through line when it came to their clothing, and their style was always distinct — even when Cameron Dale took over after Line's departure from the show. Aria would always be in some kind of print or pattern combination that was borderline awesome in its creative tackiness. Spencer's uber-preppy look softened into a love for classics and riding boots. Emily's sporty look turned her into the queen of comfy casuals and to-die-for fall jackets. Hanna, who became a fashion designer when the show jumped forward five years, was always the trendy one — even when those trends were real head-scratchers.

And Alison? I'll never be able to remember her in anything other than that damn yellow top.

"Riverdale"

Photo: Giphy

Photo: Giphy

Much like the main characters on "Pretty Little Liars," the personalities of the girls on "Riverdale" are clearly telegraphed through their signature costume touches. Betty, the wholesome girl-next-door and teen sleuth, is almost always wearing a pale pink or blue sweater with her blonde hair in a no-nonsense, let's-get-down-to-business ponytail. Veronica, the new girl from New York who's a bit more world-weary and sultry, is usually found in dark purples and black, with a strand of pearls reminding us that she comes from money. 

Photo: Giphy

Photo: Giphy

Cheryl Blossom is always in her signature red — to match her fiery hair — and tends to wear a gothic touch or two (like a spider brooch) to let us all know that the Blossoms are dark and scary AF. Josie, true to her role as lead singer of Josie and the Pussycats, is often wearing cat ears and some kind of animal print. And when she's not, her look is pretty "casual teen," with lots of 90s touches, like chokers, signifying that she's above it all when it comes to separating the women in Archie Andrews's life into neat style buckets. (Josie is the only girl listed here who hasn't yet had a romantic entanglement with Archie, nor does she seem to want to.)

It seems the lesson here is that television costume designers will always take fashion trends into account when dressing their teenage girl characters, particularly if they're concerned with realism — because, hello, teen girls are where trends often live and die. But even when trend-conscious, there's still a way to make these characters stand out sartorially, both in the television landscape and from one another.  

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