Welcome to Final Girl Fashion, a new column focused on fashion throughout horror movie history! With a specific focus on women and girls’ roles in horror, this column is meant to highlight the work of costume designers and wardrobe departments, while also analyzing the ways in which a killer outfit can seal the fate of a character and a film.
Fashion crimes are, believe it or not, committed every single day. Thankfully, unlike real crimes – say, murder or fraud – they can be forgiven because, well, they are innately subjective, determined by a person’s preferences and overall taste. In the same sense, an objectively heinous crime shouldn’t be brushed aside simply because the suspect in question has a great haircut, or a killer wardrobe. This is a lesson that Suzanne Stone has to learn the hard way in Gus Van Sant’s criminally underrated To Die For.
While not a horror film in the traditional sense, To Die For is, much like its supposed heroine, fueled by darkness and sinister intentions. You just wouldn’t know it by looking at either of them outright.
“…costume designer Beatrix Aruna Pasztor’s styling of Suzanne might seem fun and frivolous […] but paired with Kidman’s delightfully unhinged performance, they actually tell a pretty dark tale…”
Based on a book by Joyce Maynard (which was itself inspired by actual accessory-to-murderer Pamela Smart), To Die For follows the aforementioned Suzanne (Oscar winner Nicole Kidman), an aspiring newswoman that would, well, kill for a chance to make it on TV. Whether she’s heading to her day job as a local weather girl, or simply hanging out with her idiot husband Larry Maretto (Matt Dillon, most recently of The House That Jack Built), Suzanne is always dressed and ready for her proverbial closeup.
Part ’60s dream girl, part ’90s career woman, Suzanne Stone is a vision of hyper-femininity. Her strawberry blonde hair is consistently done up to frame her flawlessly made up face. And then there is her pristine, pastel-coloured wardrobe, made up of matching blazers and mini skirts, clingy cashmere sweaters, and flirty sundresses. From a distance, costume designer Beatrix Aruna Pasztor’s styling of Suzanne might seem fun and frivolous, a fine compliment to the film’s devilishly satirical tone. But paired with Kidman’s delightfully unhinged performance, they actually tell a pretty dark tale about the dangers of serial narcissism and internalized misogyny.
You see, Suzanne’s actions do not match her suspiciously sunny wardrobe. She’s not meticulously applying lip gloss and colour coordinating because she loves it and feels it’s an expression of who she is. She’s doing it to get attention, to keep all eyes on her. Her femininity and sexuality are her weapons of choice, and she will off (or get off) anyone who gets in her way of using them to her advantage.
When Larry suggests Suzanne have kids with him and take a break from her career, her true colours start to show. She starts a sexual relationship with a horny high school student (Jimmy, played by an especially dopey Joaquin Phoenix) and, while wearing a saucy baby doll dress, pressures him into helping her murder her husband. Larry, meanwhile, is none the wiser. And why? Because she’s still looks and acts like that impossibly beautiful woman he married. One of the only people who sees through the cracks in Suzanne’s vicious veneer is her sister-in-law Janice Maretto (Illeana Douglas, Ghost World). Of course, Janice is the true antithesis of Suzanne, not only in terms of personality, but also in terms of style.
While Suzanne tries to come off as perky and bright, Janice is naturally sarcastic and subdued, donning mainly muted tones and full coverage sweaters even when she’s doing her favourite activity: ice skating. She is hesitant about Suzanne from the start, trying to convince her brother not to fall for what she (rightfully) sees as an act. And while she’s not successful in that particular pursuit (RIP Larry), she does eventually get the rest of the Maretto family on her side.
Suzanne’s eventual demise comes at the hands of a hitman (horror icon David Cronenberg in a short, but unforgettable role) hired by the Marettos. The film’s final shot actually follows Janice as she joyfully skates across Suzanne‘s icy grave in an uncharacteristically pastel skirt and sweater set (talk about retribution). Still, Janice is not the true final girl of the film. That title goes to another maligned brunette: teenage outcast Lydia Mertz (Alison Folland). Unlike Janice, Lydia is easily lured into Suzanne‘s web of lies. A wallflower by nature, Lydia lays low in graphic tees, oversized jeans and a curtain of messy bangs that any hipster girl of today would, well, die for. She finds Suzanne‘s bold attitude and wardrobe to be captivating and even, on occasion, seductive.
Suzanne assumes Lydia is just another casually unkept young woman is to be pitied. But what Suzanne doesn’t realize is that this soft-spoken underdog has something she’ll never have: a conscious. Lydia is the one who actually kickstarts Suzanne‘s downfall, wearing a wire under t-shirt to try and coax a confession out of her former idol. Suzanne gets a brief brush with fame following the confession, but her time in the sun is cut short after she arrogantly follows a mysterious Hollywood type (a.k.a. the hired hitman) to a secluded location. With her Suzanne no longer around to hog the spotlight, the cameras turn towards Lydia.
To Die For concludes with Lydia talking to the camera (or is it cameras?) about all her upcoming interviews (with Oprah, Phil Donahue, and a few others she can’t remember offhand). Still wearing her signature grungy garb, Lydia notes that it’s “really something” that she, of all people, is the one who is “gonna be famous” at the end of all this. And with that, Suzanne‘s superficial ideology is smashed to pieces in front of the captive audiences she spent so many years preening to hopefully, eventually please. To quote Lydia, “Suzanne would die if she knew.”
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