When Buffy the Vampire Slayer came out in 1992, it was far from the Chosen One. Sure, the film, starring Kristy Swanson (the original Flowers in the Attic adaptation), the late Luke Perry (Beverly Hills, 90210 and, more recently Riverdale) and Donald Sutherland (Don’t Look Now, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1978), did decently at the box office, earning $16 million on a $7 million budget. But the Fran Rubel Kuzui-directed, Joss Whedon-penned horror-comedy was panned critically and retains a 35 per cent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. To this day, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992) still looked down upon as lesser of the two Buffys (the other, of course, being Whedon’s hit TV series of the same name that ran from 1997 to 2003).
I can certainly understand criticisms of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (remember that subplot about cramps signaling nearby vamps?), especially when you compare it to the long-running, richly developed series and Sarah Michelle Gellar’s unforgettable performance. The movie does feel a bit like a failed pilot, following an iteration of the Buffy Summers character, a Valley Girl who just wants to “marry Christian Slater and die” and is forced into fighting the forces of evil after discovering she is a Slayer, or rather, the latest representative of a long line of women destined to defend Earth from vampires. But without the Buffy film, we wouldn’t have the Buffy series. And more importantly, we wouldn’t have one of Buffy’s most iconic fashion moments.
“In both the movie and the series, Buffy is a true trendsetter, completely unafraid of bright colours or bold fabrics.”
Buffy Summers is a feminist icon for many reasons, including her obvious sass and unmatched physical strength. But one of the things that makes Buffy extra special is her keen fashion sense. An indirect descendant of Sam from Night of the Comet, Buffy is, and has always meant to be, the true antithesis of the Final Girl archetype, a blonde-haired beauty with an overtly feminine name and taste in clothing who can not only take down murderers but also stereotypes about women’s roles in horror and beyond.
In both the movie and the series, Buffy is a true trendsetter, completely unafraid of bright colours or bold fabrics. This is seen almost immediately in the film, as we watch Swanson’s Buffy peruse the mall with her friends, including Hilary Swank’s Kimberly. Buffy points out a very cool yellow leather jacket in a store and the group turns their nose down at it calling it “so five minutes ago”. Just a few scenes later, Kimberly is seen in that very jacket, claiming that the look is now “retro” while Buffy rolls her eyes knowing she was on point, if not ahead of the curve, all along.
The Buffy that we meet at the start of the series is quite aware of her power and role in the ongoing fight against “good” and evil”, with Episode 1 (“Welcome to the Hellmouth“) picking up not long after the film. The Buffy of the movie, however, is just coming to understand who she is and what she is capable of. She begins the film a popular cheerleader mainly concerned with her social life and what she’s wearing. Then, once she meets her Watcher (Sutherland as Merrick), she has to reconsider everything, and every item of clothing, she’s come to know.
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Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992) opens with Swanson’s Buffy prancing around the school gym in her cheerleading outfit: a yellow and purple sweater and skort set, paired with a purple bodysuit, white socks and sneakers. We’ll soon find out that this hard-to-forget look is very much in line with the rest of her wardrobe, which is full of fun colours, patterns and materials that even a teen today would love: a red mini-dress, a perfectly oversized jean jacket with floral trim, blue high-waisted shorts, kitschy-cool earrings, and yellow Doc Martens. Even her workout gear has a personality, with her seen at cheerleading practice in a masterful mix of function and fashion: a mustard yellow sports bra, floral shorts layered over hot pink leggings, and a thin bandana in lieu of a necklace. That look is what Buffy is wearing when she connects with Merrick.
During their first meeting, Buffy is rightfully suspicious of Merrick, initially keeping her distance from this mustache-twirling, middle-aged man asking her to “come to the graveyard” (you can see why they created a different kind of Watcher- the soft-spoken, yet strong-willed Giles– for the series). But after Merrick mentions her birthmark (a symbol of the Slayer, according to movie lore) and asks if she’s been having strange dreams (she definitely has), Buffy softens. She puts on her purple letterman jacket and follows him to the cemetery. There, she’ll kill her first vampire, getting her previously pristine jacket and leggings covered in dirt in the process.
Buffy may have had her birthmark surgically removed, but she cannot escape her destiny. Once she realizes that Merrick is more than a creep trolling for teenage girls, she starts training with him and we get a killer montage of Buffy in different workout outfits (hello, purple sweatshorts!) as she rolls around a loft and tries out wooden stakes. By the end of the montage, Buffy’s outfits are notably toned down, with our heroine even wearing some muted blues and greys. Her fun accessories from the opening scenes are nowhere to be found, save for maybe the occasional scrunchie.
“…Buffy Summers is always her most powerful when she manages to find a happy medium between practical pieces and funky finds.”
When Buffy finally goes to school again, she’s much more casually dressed, rocking a summer-appropriate Canadian tuxedo (denim vest and shorts). We also see her fight a vampire in an alley in jeans, a grey zip-up hoodie and a black beanie. Then, when she starts hanging with hot burnout Pike (Perry) more regularly, she starts wearing plaid shirts (tied tastefully at the waist, of course) and black combat boots. Once a prospective precursor to Clueless‘ Cher Horowitz, Buffy suddenly looks like the lovechild of Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love. We, and her friends, can’t help but notice.
Much like Gellar’s Buffy, Swanson’s Buffy can pull off just about anything and still looks pretty damn great in these more butch iterations on her typically femme style. But, as the movie shows us, Buffy Summers is always her most powerful when she manages to find a happy medium between practical pieces and funky finds. When she finally comes face-to-face with the film’s big bad, Lothos (Rutger Hauer of Blade Runner, The Hitcher and Hobo with a Shotgun), she is wearing her bright, but breathable cheerleading outfit again. Then comes the film’s finale, where she arrives at her school dance in long white halter dress, delicate silver earrings and a classy low-bun.
In the school dance scene, Buffy looks typically stunning, but in a more subtle way than ever before. When a smittened Pike tells her that she is not like the other girls, she smiles and says, in fact, she is. She has come to realize that being feminine and being strong do not need to be mutually exclusive. She can do both.
When Lothos’s vamp crew shows up at the dance accidentally invited (geez thanks, Kimberly!), Buffy throws on Pike’s leather jacket, loses the bottom half of her dress and heads straight into battle. This outfit becomes the perfect blend between Buffy’s former life as a fashion-loving girly girl and her future as a vampire-killing machine. The leather jacket protects her arms, while the shorter dress gives her the room to jump and kick with reckless abandon until she finally defeats the evil Lothos.
Buffy’s final movie outfit is more than just the culmination of the character’s development in that specific text. It’s cannon, the obvious inspiration for the much-referenced costume seen in “Prophecy Girl“, the Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 1 finale which sees Gellar’s Buffy go up against her own version of Lothos (The Master) on the night of a different dance. This is a look that not only continues to be associated with Buffy Summers, but also continues to resonate with fans, as evidenced by the huge reaction to Gellar pulling out the outfit for a recent #tbt post.
Whether you prefer Buffy the movie or Buffy the show (or, like me, enjoy both), it cannot be denied that the movie is an important part of the character’s legacy. It introduced the world to a subversive heroine for girls and femmes of all ages, one that didn’t need to change the way she looked to survive and to thrive. In doing so, it introduced us to the chosen outfit, a look so ideal in both its functionality and femininity. That look, alone, will stand the test of time.
“[Buffy] introduced the world to a subversive heroine for girls and femmes of all ages, one that didn’t need to change the way she looked to survive and to thrive.”
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