What 'Big Mouth' Gets Right About Painfully Awkward Pubescent Fashion

For the cast of tween cartoon characters, clothing choices are a key part of their hormone-fueled journey through adolescence.
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Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

A cartoon is maybe not where most of us would go for style inspiration — though I do often find myself unintentionally dressing like Sid from "Hey Arnold." Even with the increased fashion presence in cartoons and comics, thanks in part to technological advancements that make it easier for animators to experiment with clothing and accessories, when I set out to watch the breakout Netflix animated show "Big Mouth," fashion was the last thing on my mind. Andrew, Nick, Missy, Jessi, Jay and the rest of their "Big Mouth" peers mostly abide by the ol' Doug Funnie or Daria Morgendorffer rule: same outfit, every day. (Who among us doesn't remember Doug's wardrobe of khaki shorts, white tees and green sweater vests, hilariously portrayed as a full outfit on a hanger six times over in his closet?)

But I quickly — like, episode two quickly — realized that fashion was going to play a bigger role in this raunchy animated comedy than I'd expected. The moment Jessi's mom urged her to wear her white shorts on her class field trip, I knew: This girl was going to get her period. (It's like an unwritten rule of menstruation: Where white pants appear, a period is sure to follow.) This deviation from Jessi's typical outfit of cranberry-colored pants and a lilac T-shirt foretold the adolescent trauma that was to come.

As I made my way through the series, I noticed more moments in which fashion became a tool in the show's quest to accurately portray the awkward discomfort of puberty in all of its hormonal glory. Style is often tied to the tween experience, whether it's about not feeling like your clothes fit because of how your body is changing, or worrying about wearing the "right" clothes to avoid getting made fun of (middle school sucks). The "Big Mouth" writers clearly understand this. For Jessi — the character for whom fashion-related incidents seem to occur the most — Missy, Andrew and the rest, these moments are a key part of their adolescent journey through puberty, and they stand out because they're a visual change for the viewer.

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

There are some looks that are used purely as sight gags or one-offs: Matthew's cowboy outfit; Jay's magician costume; the black bomber jacket and aviator sunglasses Jessi wears when her hormone monster pressures her into shoplifting. A handful of costume changes align with the plot in smaller ways, like Missy's Ancient Mesopotamia dance dress, Nick's blazer on his first (and last) date with Jessi, the purple scarf Andrew wears when he's trying to figure out if he's gay, the makeovers that Jessi and Missy get at a slumber party (involving sock boobs, too-big high heels and lots of tears), Nick and Andrew's ill-fitting basketball uniforms highlighting the different speeds at which they're growing and the girls' soccer uniforms that show off Gina's newly-blossomed chest. But the biggest fashion moments in the show's two seasons are inextricable when it comes to fashion, plot and puberty.

First, there are the aforementioned white shorts, which Jessi's mom suggests after her daughter laments that she "feel[s] gross and nothing looks good." Jessi promptly gets her first period, leaks all over said shorts and has, well, a terrible time on the Statue of Liberty field trip. (Shout-out to tween hero Andrew for at least attempting to help his friend by bringing her a 9/11 "Never Forget" towel to wear as a diaper.) This clothes-ruining disaster — and her mom's inadvertent role in it — portends the arrival of Jessi's own Hormone Monstress (Connie, voiced amazingly by Maya Rudolph) and kickstarts her roller coaster of a puberty experience, which takes a rebellious turn in season two.

A few episodes later, Jessi contends with fashion again, after some critical self-examination in the mirror makes her want a new bra. She and her mom head to Veronica's Closet at the mall, where Jessi eyes a lacy red bra called the Mega-Voluminizer and throws a Connie-inspired fit — complete with an Eleanor Roosevelt quote — to convince her mother to buy it for her. But when Jessi wears the bra to school, she realizes her mom was right: She was not yet ready to wield her feminine power in this way. She wasn't prepared to have all those eyes on her, though she kind of liked some of them, too, which is very confusing — just like puberty. But this bra-tastrophe does lead Jessi to get to know her body by meeting and getting acquainted with her genitals (voiced by Kristen Wiig).

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

Andrew gets his own sartorial moment in the spotlight when he wears his "jazz fedora" to audition for the Jazz Club (catching Missy's eye) and then on a New York City adventure with Nick — which leads to the boys catching Jessi's mom cheating with another woman when the hat blows away and they chase after it. Not only does the fedora inspire Andrew to attempt to embrace adventure — specifically, cutting school and also fighting with Nick — but it also functions as a key plot device, leading Nick and Andrew right to Shannon's affair and forcing them to make a mature decision: Do they tell their friend about her mom's infidelity or keep it to themselves?

At the end of the first season, Jessi has her long-awaited Bat Mitzvah, and no Bat Mitzvah would be complete without some devastating family turmoil and a terrible, boxy Bat Mitzvah dress that everyone — including the Bat Mitzvah girl and her Hormone Monstress (but excluding her mother) — hates. The dress sets Jessi off a mere three minutes into the episode; she's upset about her parents' fighting and her mom cheating, but also the dress, but also everything, because she is a hormonal tween. Her initial outburst, directed towards her mom, is crucial: "I hate my life and I hate my dress," she screams, because she's fixating on the dress instead of confronting what's actually bothering her. Or rather, she's choosing to hate on the dress instead of confronting her mom; the two are linked in her mind because, as she says, her "stupid mother made [her] get [the dress]." Later, the truth comes out and it's a mess — not unlike much of daily existence for girls her age.

It's worth noting that all the characters are dressed in different outfits for the Bat Mitzvah, and they all go through some tried-and-true "puberty stuff." For instance, Andrew and Missy embark on a secret relationship after their parents forbid them from dating, only to break up when Andrew moves too fast, emotionally, for Missy; Nick rejects his mother's cloying love and she starts to mother Jay (who craves parental affection) instead; and Jay and Jessi kiss at the end of the night. Now that's what I call plot momentum, all accompanied by new, slightly out-of-character outfits.

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

The second season, which was released on Netflix on Friday, is filled with formative costume moments, too. The first one involves Missy: After the sight of Gina's new breasts sets off boob-mania at Bridgeton Middle School, Missy falls into a deep hole of body image issues. Her reflection comes alive as "Mirror Missy" and volleys insult after insult until she's so consumed with self-loathing that she wears a lumpy, oversized purple hooded sweatshirt for most of the episode to hide her body. Luckily, Missy's mom overhears her daughter and Jessi hating on themselves and takes them to a Korean spa, where they're treated to veritable eye-buffet of women's bodies in all different shapes, sizes and colors — all set to a catchy song called "I Love My Body." This gives Missy the confidence to shut down Mirror Missy for good and, though we don't see it, hopefully burn that purple sweatshirt and all it represents to her.

And then there's Andrew and his oh-so-unfortunate moments of ejaculation — first inspired by Leah's red bathing suit (which brings the evil Shame Wizard to the scene) and then at bully Lola's condo (as they're "rubbing fronts," OMG this show), which results in him wearing her hot pink personalized sweats and staying with her for longer than he wants to out of guilt. Two later episodes of the second season feature all of the kids wearing pajamas at a school sleepover, which mostly serves to highlight how horny these characters are — Missy says of Andrew's sleep shorts, "you can’t hide anything in those" — and how awkward it is to be wearing pajamas around your peers when you're thirteen.

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

Though I didn't expect much in terms of notable fashion when I began watching "Big Mouth," I was pleasantly surprised at how the show uses clothing to contribute to the plot and put a period (pun intended) on its larger commentary about puberty. What we wear is a key signifier of who we are to the world, and that can be especially charged with importance when you're trying to figure out who you actually are and what you want to broadcast during what can be the most embarrassing-yet-developmental years of your life. Whether dealing with the kinda-funny-though-still-traumatizing issue of a period stain in white shorts, serious body image issues and the desire to shield your body from both the male and female gaze with an oversized sweatshirt, or experimenting with different kinds of headwear, "Big Mouth" nails the intricacies of adolescent dressing — and the cringe-y feelings that often accompany it.

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