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.
When the clock strikes twelve on December 1st, sweater season officially begins. Whether genuine wool or simply well-worn, there’s truly nothing better than a cozy sweater when the weather turns from pleasantly brisk to downright chilling. Except, maybe, an ugly, cozy, holiday-themed sweater.
There are many things to love about Black Christmas (1974), directed by Bob Clark. Made in my home country (oh, Canada!) and set around the holiday it’s named after, Black Christmas is a true horror classic, a film that remains as scary now as it was when it was released. The plot – sorority girls are terrorized by a murderous man hiding in the attic!- is one that, sadly, continues to resonate, especially with young women (see: the woman-directed remake, now in theatres). But what I might appreciate most about the yuletide slasher is that it seems to have a distinct understanding of winter fashion and the trends.
Thanks to wardrobe wizard Debi Weldon (who would go on to work on another Canadian genre flick, The Silent Partner, as well as Freddy vs. Jason!), Black Christmas features characters outfitted in assorted cold-weather staples including knitted shawls, fuzzy nightgowns, dark turtlenecks, plaid skirts, and statement scarves. Most of these pieces are as fashionable now as they were when the film was made (the ’70s silhouette is back, baby!), but none of it compares to the unforgettable wardrobe of the film’s Final Girl, Jess Bradford (Olivia Hussey, Psycho IV: The Beginning and the 1990 version of Stephen King’s It).
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Jess is, admittedly, not the most fashionable girl in her class (see: Phyllis “Phyl” Carlson, played by Canadian comedy legend Andrea Martin, or the sultry Barb Coard, as portrayed by the late, great Margot Kidder). But Jess has a definite uniform throughout the film, one that inadvertently informs us both about her character and her fate. With a stark colour palette and playful iconography, it is – much like those incessant phone calls from the vile and voyeuristic Billy – hard to ignore.
“Thanks to wardrobe wizard Debi Weldon […], Black Christmas features characters outfitted in assorted cold weather staples including knitted shawls, fuzzy nightgowns, dark turtlenecks, plaid skirts, and statement scarves.”
Jess starts the movie in what might be her most iconic piece: a black v-neck sweater with two large, white hands stitched across the chest. It might be easy to dismiss Jess‘s sweater as a descendant of the ugly Christmas sweater. Combined with her chunky wooden cross necklace, functional (yet funky) yellow pants and a matching collared undershirt, it could be classified as “so campy, it’s chic!” But given the themes of the film and the reveal that Jess is, despite appearances, sexually active and self-assured, The Sweater takes on more meaning.
Over the past few decades, the Final Girl has come to be a sort of symbol of chastity, a beacon of goodness tailor-made to battle the (mainly masculine) forces of darkness. This is often translated in the Final Girl’s signature style, with heroines like Halloween (1978)‘s Laurie Strode (a direct descendant of Jess) making sure to change into pants – a sensible choice for a sensible girl! – before the shit gets real. Meanwhile, the more sexual and/or outspoken women in the film are killed while wearing a dress/skirt (see: poor Clare Harrison, Black Christmas‘s first on-screen victim, played by Lynne Griffin) or, worse, with their pants down.
We only see Jess in pants, but that doesn’t automatically set her apart from her peers, all of whom seem to share a love of a good flare (until, of course, it’s their time to die!). What does make her stand out is her taste for bold colours, as evidenced by her yellow pants from the opening, which are so bright they could top a Christmas tree. She can also be seen in lively accessories, including an oversized pink beret as well as an orange and black scarf. Then, of course, there is The Sweater.
Jess‘s signature seasonal topper doesn’t scream chaste. In fact, it’s rather suggestive, especially given the placement of the hands. It suggests that she’s is more than your stereotypical virginal survivor, the kind of young woman who is in control of her body and style. And as the movie progresses, Jess reveals that she is just that, telling her boyfriend Peter (played by Keir Dullea) that she’s pregnant and seeking an abortion as a result. She stands strong in her decision throughout the film, even as a distraught and, honestly, dangerous Peter pleads that she keep the child and marry him.
“It might be easy to dismiss Jess’s sweater as a descendant of the ugly Christmas sweater. […] But given the themes of the film and the reveal that Jess is, despite appearances, sexually active and self-assured, The Sweater takes on more meaning.”
Interestingly, Jess doesn’t wear The Sweater during the film’s climax. She is in a more subdued version of her first outfit (a black sweater vest with her mustard collared shirt and dark pants) as she goes up against the wicked man (or is it men?) who infiltrated her and her sisters’ safe space. Perhaps she chooses to tone down her look because she no longer feels the right to be fun and flirtatious after spending hours being verbally assaulted by an unseen man who doesn’t understand or respect boundaries. Or maybe she reserves that particular sweater for especially festive occasions – you know, moments when life is being celebrated over death. Still, in the end, poor Jess is left alone to fend off her attacker, with no additional hands – human or mohair – to protect her from Billy or Peter.
We don’t know exactly what happens to Jess thanks to the film’s infamously ambiguous ending, which alludes to Billy still being in the house as Jess sleeps soundly (still dressed in her final outfit!) upstairs. But I like to believe Jess is a true Final Girl. I like to believe that she survives to see another Christmas, or at least a less stressful occasion to show off The Sweater. I like to believe that she gets the chance to regain her autonomy over her body, her space and her style.