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imogen
1st February 2024

Is it fetch? Hollywood’s struggles with teen fashion

Another year, another movie putting its own spin on teen fashion just to be met with a wave of criticism, and the Mean Girls reboot is no exception, but where did it all go so wrong?
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Is it fetch? Hollywood’s struggles with teen fashion
Credit: Paramount @ meangirls.com

TikTok is losing its mind over the outfits in the Mean Girls reboot which have been dubbed ‘Shein-coded’. I.e., cheap looking. The fashion from the original 2004 movie is undoubtedly iconic and fans were hoping for the same generation-defining effect 20 years later, but quickly took to the Internet to express their dissatisfaction. So how did the reboot manage to get it so wrong? And how does it stack up against other teen fashion on screen?

Every coming-of-age film or TV series likes to put its own spin on high school fashion that fits its aesthetic and time period. Mean Girls (2004) was all about mini skirts, slogan t-shirts, and, of course, monochromatic pink outfits on Wednesdays; Clueless (1995) focused on the 90s preppy aesthetic; Euphoria (2019) became known for its bold and daring costume designs. Because of the precedent set by such revered styling in the past, there was a lot of excitement for the Mean Girls (2024) wardrobe, with fans wondering how the film would tackle teen fashion in a reboot.

Since the original Mean Girls outfits, although iconic, are so firmly placed in the noughties, costume designer Tom Broecker couldn’t just replicate them in the reboot. The film highlights the role of social media and influencers in teenage life and fashion, which makes the reboot feel current and updated, but it also features heavy product placement from e.l.f Cosmetics for its mostly teen audiences. This contemporaneity had to be translated into the outfits too to fit with the film’s overall aesthetics. In an interview, Broecker said “[T]he world has changed greatly over the past 20 years and we needed to reflect that change.”

Whilst 2000s fashion has seen a resurgence in the past few years, it’s highly unlikely that the Plastics would only dress in low-waisted jeans, velour tracksuits, and mini skirts when they’re the most popular girls of Northshore High. There are references to original costumes, updated versions of beloved fashion moments like Regina George’s necklace, and the sexy Santa costumes at the winter talent show, but they feel modern, and more like something that would be worn by real teenagers. Characters are seen wearing cargo trousers and baggy jeans, corset-like tops, Uggs, and vintage pieces which are all current fashion trends. So what is TikTok‘s issue?

The main argument seems to be that the outfits look cheap, as if they could have been bought from Shein. Not only do I disagree with this, but I also want to unpack the criticism of so-called ‘Shein-coded’ fashion in a teen movie. Shein is a popular fast-fashion brand not just in the United States, but specifically with Gen Z. They are the world’s “Largest online-only retailer” accounting for “28% of the fast-fashion market in the US” and their app was “The most downloaded shopping app” in May last year. Their target audience? Teenagers, or Gen Z who can buy trendy clothes online very cheaply. Since the #sheinhaul has over 3.3 billion views on TikTok, it’s hardly surprising that teenagers turn to the site for outfits inspired by their favourite celebrities or trending aesthetics.

It goes without saying that there are huge ethical issues with Shein, but this isn’t where people’s criticism of Mean Girls‘ ‘Shein-coded’ fashion comes from. Their argument is that Regina George would never buy from Shein: she’d shop at designer brands or at least high-end retailers. Perhaps I’m overthinking this, but I’m pretty sure that very few teenagers buy their everyday outfits from Chanel and Gucci. This kind of aesthetic works perfectly in a show like Gossip Girl, but wouldn’t be as fitting for Mean Girls.

I think this recognition shows that Broecker is obviously very aware of contemporary audiences, contrary to TikTok critics’ beliefs. He understands shopping trends amongst teenagers such as how they no longer shop at “the mall” but “from their phone,” how naughties and Y2K fashion is resurfacing, and how prevalent aesthetics like ballet core are in teen fashion. Most importantly, he knows that “This is a high school in suburban Chicago… not a Euphoria high school or a Gossip Girl high school… Mean Girls is its own Gen Z thing, with a lot of gender fluidity, athleisure, and a lot of vintage and secondhand thrifting.”

He took inspiration for the looks from social media, as teenagers do, and even gave each character their own celebrity style icon such as Billie Eilish or Olivia Rodrigo because of how influential this is to teen fashion. Janis’ colourful and artistic makeup in the reboot seems to take inspiration from Euphoria‘s creative eye makeup looks on characters like Jules and Maddy, but this has not been confirmed.

Looking back on teen shows and films now, there are very few which I think actually portray teen fashion accurately. Usually, there are individual outfits which capture an aspect of it beautifully, but mostly I’m just left thinking “Who on earth would wear that?” Of course, I think films should take creative liberties with their costuming, but when a lot of teen movies, including the original Mean Girls, are frequently criticised for over-sexualising school-age characters, it does beg the question: can anyone get teen fashion right on screen?

Euphoria‘s costume designs aren’t exactly realistic in terms of teen fashion, but they’re a huge part of the film’s success critically and commercially. As well as having dozens of articles on its portrayal of teen fashion, the show has been nominated for and won numerous awards for its makeup and costumes, including winning two Emmys and a Make-Up Artists and Hair Stylists Guild award. The costumes and makeup also function to reflect character arcs and their moods therefore playing a key role in the storytelling too. Some critics have even gone so far as to say that the show does embody the ‘Gen Z aesthetic’ with its creative looks promoting self-expression and the rejection of antiquated beauty norms.

That said, I don’t think Euphoria is the best show for accurately portraying teen fashion; I would have to give that award to Heartbreak High. Similarly to Mean Girls (2024), this series is a reboot of the 90s cult classic and so garnered a lot of attention for how it would represent teen fashion today. As well as being a highly entertaining watch, Heartbreak High portrays teen fashion both accurately and creatively. The outfits feel realistic for the high school characters by showcasing a diverse “Reflection of the melting pot of Gen-Z trends visible everywhere,” whilst also being grounded in the show’s 90s roots and the well-known “Australiana sensibility.”

There are recognisable Gen Z fashion trends like Nike Dunks and the New Balance 550s, as well as inspiration from aesthetics such as the rockstar girlfriend look and the revival of sporty 90s outfits. These trend-conscious outfits are also mixed in with “Disoriented dressing” and some characters wearing “Contrived or overdone” looks which captures the complexities and intricacies of fashion as a teenager.

The teen fashion in Mean Girls arguably isn’t ground-breaking but it’s not deserving of all the online criticism it has received so far either. Broecker didn’t have as much room to play around with quirky outfits because the Plastics wouldn’t wear DIY customised clothes or divisive trends, but they might buy from TikTok shop. If the Mean Girls reboot supposedly couldn’t get teen fashion right, then I’m feeling quite hopeless about its future in other films.

Imogen Mingos

Imogen Mingos

Head Fashion & Beauty Editor 2023-24 | Winner of Best Newcomer (The Mancunion) at SU Awards 2023 | Written for 10 sections so far spanning culture and current affairs

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