When we think of the fashion of the go-go ’80s, we look to Molly Ringwald the dork. Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink, sewing a wacko prom-dress to answer her classmates’ $800 taffeta confections. Molly Ringwald in her giant men’s blazer in The Pick-Up Artist, or her geeky round glasses and turtlenecks in For Keeps. Molly Ringwald in Sixteen Candles, looking like the platonic ideal of the Urban Outfitters catalogue.
And all the while we forget about the bad-ass Rich Bitches. I hesitate to call this a travesty, because they were so damn nasty. And yet the Rich Bitch always looked so wonderful as she revealed to a room of partygoers in Pretty in Pink that she’s just taken “a giant step away from virginity;” so put together as she tells Winona Ryder that forging a love note from the most popular guy in school to Martha Dumptruck would be “Very.”
The Rich Bitch look is discerning, over polished elegance. It’s Benny from Pretty in Pink, teasing Andie in history class over her grandma look while wearing a cream yellow silk shirtdress and matching diamond necklace and cuff. It’s Ferris Bueller’s girlfriend Sloane, the sleeves of her white turtleneck pushed up just so. It’s Heathers’ Veronica, journaling in her monocle. It’s basically WASP mom clothing, worn by a teenager with a tennis-perfect figure and freakishly pristine skin. Exquisite grooming is a key component to the Rich Bitch look. Long, almond shaped nails painted nude. They all had such great hair.
Teen films in the ’90s and ’00s try to peddle the idea that popular girls are the way they are because of some deep-seated, parent-related issue. Clueless’s Cher never had a mom; neither did Bianca in 10 Things I Hate About You. Mean Girls’ Regina George had an overindulgent set of parental units, and the parents in The Easy A are too cool to realize Olive is losing her mind to the kingdom of slut.
But ’80s films are bold enough to suggest that popular girls are mean because they look so good that they’re bored. When Pretty in Pink’s Andie shows up at a party, the rich bully Benny hisses, “Is this a nightmare?” More contemporary movie morals would have us believe this is because Andie is like a total individual in a bad-ass outfit who came to this rich kid party with Blane, the most popular guy in school, and Benny is jealous. But Benny is not jealous. Benny is wearing her bra and a sportcoat that belongs to the guy she’s just bagged, James Spader’s Steff, who is perhaps the babeliest babe in the history of ’80s male movie babes, a J. Press lothario swaggering around high school like it’s a country club and uttering things like, “If we’re gonna shoot some trap we gotta shake it.” Benny is having the time of her life, and Andie and Blane are like, capital bores.
Meanwhile, in Chicago, Molly Ringwald gets to play the kind of girl she usually hates in The Breakfast Club. She wears a blouse with a tweedy skirt, cropped burgundy leather jacket, and knee-high boots; who in high school wears a blouse, let alone tucks it into a Scottish tweed skirt, slings a belt over it, and pushes up the sleeves of their wine-dark leather jacket just so? A Rich Bitch, baby. That’s who.
Also in Chicago: Ferris’s Sloane is such a queen of self-awareness that she’d be intimidating if she weren’t perfectly polite. It’s not even that she’s nice. She’s a sophisticated flirt, thanking her bumbling principal for his “warmth and compassion,” then gently ribbing her boyfriend’s best friend for peeking when she changes her clothing. It’s infuriating, except that her hair is so shiny, and she speaks about cheerleading with Grace Kelly glamour in wacky bermuda shorts and a white leather fringe jacket. It’s like she knows she’s the most beautiful girl in the history of beautiful high school girls, and has decided to greet this laurel with a kind of humble self-possession that’s enough to make you genuflect.
All of this is perfectly distilled into Heathers’ Veronica. Heathers is the rare film that is more shocking now than it was when it first came out: the tale of three horrible snobs who get taken out (like, actually) by the wry and whip-smart Veronica and her Patrick Bateman-in-training boyfriend J.D. Veronica is a misanthrope, who rolls her eyes at every foolish mean girl request from her fellow popular Heathers; she is hyper-literate and articulate, and could so easily be the above-it-all foil to the Heathers’ self-involved small-mindedness. And yet the genius is that she wants to fit in. She wants to play croquet with the Heathers. She wears blousy short suits to play murder games. She wants people to think she’s hot. Heathers showed that even super-smart, wry girls could want to be high school cool, especially if it conveyed sophistication. Even when it all explodes (literally), Veronica looks somehow put-together. No teen film since the ’80s has made fitting in look like anything fun, fashion-wise. You just get mocked for dressing provocatively. But for a moment, there was nothing scarier than a 17-year-old who was immaculately groomed.