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April 13, 2024

How Jawbreaker Delivered Epic Fashions With a Tiny Costume Budget

How Jawbreaker Delivered Epic Fashions With a Tiny Costume Budget

Near the beginning of 1999’s Jawbreaker, directed by Darren Stein, the audience is graced with one of the film’s most iconic scenes. A stylish clique of high schoolers—Courtney (Rose McGowan), Julie (Rebecca Gayheart), and Marcie (Julie Benz)—walk down their school hallway in slow motion, set to Imperial Teen’s “Yoo Hoo”; Courtney, the leader, struts down in a tight red bustier, cropped cardigan, and pencil skirt, while her minions Julie and Marcie flank her on each side, donning blue and green plaid dresses. Judging by their fabulous outfits, you’d never guess they just accidentally killed their best friend Liz—by gagging her with a jawbreaker as a prank, and suffocating the teen in the process. “[The clothes] were supposed to look really happy,” Vikki Barrett, the film’s costumer designer, tells Vogue. “There was a surprise element to [them]—so that you wouldn’t know these girls were dark.”

What unfolds throughout the film is a classic tale of power, popularity, and deception, as the three girls try to cover up their secret murder and continue to dominate their school in the process. (As part of this plan, they invite a new girl, Fern (Judy Greer), into their clique.) It’s akin to a dark version of Heathers or Mean Girls—before Mean Girls was thing—and 25 years later, the style still holds up. As Stein and Barrett recall, the film’s splashy fashions were meant to drive the plot forward. “When I was younger, I’d look at high school girls and think, ‘They’re so glamorous.’ I wanted the Jawbreaker girls to feel like that,” says Stein. “It was all about what would girls not wear in high school; What would be intimidating, fashion-forward, and larger than life?”

Julie Benz, Rebecca Gayheart, and Rose McGowan

Photo: Kate Romero

To give the main trio a distinct and cohesive look, Stein and Barrett landed on colorful pieces with retro silhouettes. “We were immediately on the same page,” says Barrett of the duo’s initial conversations. “We wanted it to be timeless, with a little bit of fifties and sixties mixed in.” They nodded to the era’s pencil skirts and fitted dresses, for one, but incorporated a cheery color palette inspired by—what else?—jawbreakers. “We let the colors of the jawbreaker inform all of the girls’s colors,” says Stein. “You had lots of roses, bright reds, and purples.” This elevated approach to school outfits was also applied to the casts’ accessories of sky-high heels and cutesy bags. “We didn’t want this to feel like any other school, so nobody was carrying backpacks,” says Stein. “We decided they would all carry vintage purses.”

Rebecca Gayheart, Rose McGowan, Julie Benz, and Judy Greer

Photo: Courtesy of Darren Stein

Still, each of the three characters had their own fashion flavor going on. For Courtney, the most evil of the trio, the designers went for a look that was strong and severe. “She was the leader—she wanted to be seen, and to intimidate,” says Stein. “Courtney isn’t just a typical mean girl; she’s pure evil in the body of a high school girl. So we thought it would be natural if she was dressed like a femme fatale.” They styled her in corsets and the aforementioned retro pencil skirts, but did them in modern fabrics like rubber, and added tights that were dyed to match them. McGowan says she looks back on the character fondly—especially the clothes. “I remain endlessly proud of costumer Vikki and Darren’s brilliant collaboration,” she says. “Every detail in the film’s costuming was considered. What I love about Jawbreaker is that everyone came to win—and we did.”

Then there were the minions, of course. “Marcie’s character was a tamer version of Courtney—a little bit of a wannabe,” says Barrett. “Her silhouettes were similar to Courtney’s.” Julie, meanwhile, was the sweetest of the trio, and the duo played that up with her style. “She transitions into more gentle colors and denim [throughout the movie],” says Barrett. “It got more realistic—not as wild as she started out.” Fern—who transforms into Vylette, thanks to a movie makeover from the clique—also asserts her newfound confidence through her wardrobe. “As Vylette becomes more and more powerful, the pink gets more bright and glaring,” says Stein.

Rose McGowan 

Photo: Courtesy of Darren Stein

While the clique all dons an array of statement looks, fans may be surprised to learn that the film actually had an extremely limited costume budget. “A lot of things were vintage, or from thrift stores that I recreated,” says Barrett. One of the scenes they did do custom for, however, was the climactic prom night; Barrett custom-made most of the gowns. “Vylette’s prom dress was pretty funny,” says Barrett. “That was just a $5 piece at a thrift store that was massive; It was hideous—it was like this old lady’s dress. But it was really fun to make it more modern, and have some tulling underneath to give it a mermaid flare.” Courtney’s signature silver hair bands, meanwhile, were a spontaneous last-minute costume addition. “Rose saw Rebecca with all these flowers in her hair, and she didn’t feel special enough, [so we added them],’” says Barrett. “It ended up looking so good!”

Darren Stein and Judy Greer 

Photo: Courtesy of Darren Stein

That willingness to experiment and take risks is precisely why, more than two decades later, Jawbreaker is still a total fashion delight. And there’s good news for fans of the original: A reboot could soon be on the way. Stein is currently developing a movie-musical adaptation of the cult-classic film. “The remake is very much from Fern’s perspective,” teases Stein. “Fern is actually trans in the film; so many queer and trans people over the years have sent me messages saying how meaningful the film has been to them, and how Fern—and her transformation into Vylette—has echo echoed their own trans journeys.” Until its release, however, he and Berrett are simply relishing in the fact that Jawbreaker remains a fan-favorite 25 years later. “You really hope that your film will stand the test of time,” says Stein. “That’s all you can ask for when you make a movie. The fact that we’re getting interviewed by Vogue 25 years later is pretty cool.”

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