who you think you are

I happened upon a copy of John Hughes: A Life in Film at the bookstore today--seriously, I went there to see if they had LEGO minifigures, didn't even go to look at books--and I noticed this scanning through it:

I already wanted to write about the clothing in this film, from Barry Manilow-wardrobe-raiding Assistant Principal Vernon's suit to John Bender's denim jacket with its various pins--and I really wished I could have seen some of his pins better on the bigscreen last night but the only one that ever really gets near the camera is the NOT SAVED pin on his glove.

These characters are quite deliberately defined by their clothing and their general appearance. And, there really isn't much to be said about the character types and what they wear that hasn't been time and time again--not that that stops me usually. What I think is notable outside of the costumes themselves in The Breakfast Club is two things: these characters try on parts of each others costumes throughout the film--every one of them (except Claire) does at least once; and partly because of the cold weather but also because shedding the layers works as a simple metaphor, these characters all remove layers as the film goes along.

As far as trying on each other's costumes, there are a few, obvious examples. John gives his sunglasses to Andy and both Andy and Brian later wear them. At the end of the film, Allison not only wears a headband we can assume belongs to Claire, not to mention the makeup, but also has Andy's hoodie (not that we called them that back then) over her shoulders... she is, of course, probably pretty cold without her own two coats on and that sleeveless blouse. And, most obvious, because the film focuses on it, John receives and then wears Claire's diamond earring. He also wears a different shoe (just one) when he's on the basketball course.

So, what's the point?

The shoe is actually a good example. He's playing basketball, even claims he's going for a scholarship, so he's got to play the part, got to wear the costume. I mean, how else do teenagers differentiate themselves in the crowd?

(I went to a small school that had uniforms, so this bit was even harder. Everyone wearing the same three skirts, or the same three pants, the same two shirts, it usually came down to jackets and hair.)

How are any of us, teenaged or not, supposed to let people know who we are at a glance? Dress for success, and all that, or the alternative, dress to fail, or any of the myriad of possibilities in between; it's not all about success or failure, but it is about identity, Goffman's presentation of self. It's about what we want to tell the world about who we are.

(When I teach, for example, I don't dress up in a suit and tie. I do wear a button-up shirt, but short sleeved, and open over a t-shirt, usually a fairly nerdy shirt I bought from TeeFury. I'll wear jeans or cargo pants, and if it's a speech day or I'm just not feeling the whole pants thing, I will wear shorts. As I tell my students--if you're new to this blog, I teach public speaking--you don't have to dress up to present before the class as long as you can draw attention to what you're saying. If I know what I'm talking about, if I come prepared, what I'm wearing won't matter so much.)

Allison's got her layers of black and grey, Andy his letterman jacket, Claire her leather jacket, John his trench coat. Underneath, consider Brian's plain green sweatshirt to John's flannel or Claire's pink blouse. It's normal to differentiate characters by their costumes, but this works on a different level, representing the reality of these characters and how they present themselves, how the real teenagers in the audience would present themselves.

In an interview with Elle magazine, Ally Sheedy calls her costume "perfect." "Right from the beginning there was nothing to change," she says. "There was Allison right there. She was already in my head and in my body. I felt like she was beginning to inhabit me, and when I put the clothes on I felt it was correct." And, she didn't like the makeover. She explains:

It was written in the script. I don't know if John [Hughes] wrote that or it was a studio thing that they wanted Allison to go from being very plain to being suddenly very glamorous. I didn't like that. I had come up with this thing about her black eye makeup and very pale skin so I thought, 'Could it be more that she's taking this mask off?' John did give me that and they didn't really put a whole bunch of makeup on me; it was more about revealing who Allison is. I wish it had been a little more of that and a little less of, 'Let's make her pretty.'

It does play more as making her pretty than revealing who she is. Who she is is that girl in black with her hair in her face. But, Hollywood doesn't work that way. Blubber McNeil can't be attractive naked and Allison Reynolds can't be attractive with too much black stuff around her eyes. "I liked how Allison looked anyway," Ally says. (I agree.) "I don't particularly subscribe to the idea that you have to to look a certain way to suddenly look gorgeous to everyone." She explains further:

But, it was a moment of passage in that movie. It had to do, I guess, with her becoming more part of the group in some way. Not using what she looked like to put people off. To become more inviting in some way. And then Emilio's character had to somehow see her as pretty. Honestly, I have no idea. I don't think it needed to happen. But I think everybody needed to have their moment of truth and I guess that was something for Allison.

I think we need to understand the makeover not in how it changes Allison--seriously, I don't think she's going to start dressing differently come school on Monday, with her hair pulled back out of her face. Maybe she will, but that's not the point. The point was not just for her to not use "what she looked like to put people off" but also for Andy to get past his own hangups. He has already made moves toward her previously but the makeover offers him the push to do something truly outside his comfort zone. Will it last?


In a comment on yesterday's entry, Maolsheaclann says, "The most poignant thing about this film... is that John Hughes admitted that the group would never have met up again." Yeah, there was talk of sequels, a reunion of the "Breakfast Club" every ten years, but it's probably better that it never happened. It does make the film more poignant, more meaningful. The point is not that these characters can become best friends in a day; that is unrealistic. We don't need to assume that Allison's makeover will be permanent or that Andy will still be interested come Monday, or that Claire and John will be together. What really matters is that they make the gestures, that they move toward each other instead of away, even if only for this one day. It doesn't need to last to matter.

Same with the layers... but I'll get to that tomorrow. The movie ended ten minutes ago.


  1. I am writing this in a university library containing three students, on a Saturday afternoon. All of them here of their own free will though! I'm hoping one of them will be naughty so I can say, "Don't mess with the bull, young man, you'll get the horns..."

    I just wanted to say, totally agree with you about Allison's makeover. I always thought she was much prettier when she was quirky and Gothic than when she gets all made up.

    Are you going to say anything about the greatest freeze frame ending in cinema history?! (Sorry if I missed it!)


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