This post isn’t about books exactly, though actually it is a book that saves the day in the end. You’ll see.
They show old movies at the Roxy sometimes, and last night they showed Pretty in Pink. It’s one of my all-time favorites, so Joe and I went and I dressed in an outfit I’d put together to reference the one Andie wears to the club one night. Most of the people there—most of whom were women—seemed about as devoted to the movie as I am, and even though it was muggy last night and I felt kinda hot in my black blazer and black ankle boots and lace, I had a blast. It makes me want to share a piece of writing I did a few years ago for the Utne Reader on these very topics: my favorite movie, and the art of getting dressed.
Whenever I feel fretful I watch Pretty in Pink. I feel fretful fairly often, and I’m not sure I could tell you why. It’s just a thing that happens, especially when I have to get ready to go out and be in front of other people. When I have to get dressed. I’m always able to get over it, eventually, but sometimes I need a little help. Andie Walsh helps me, with her elegance (half on purpose, half accidental), her inventive thrift-store style and orange hair. I’ll put on the movie—for what, the 200th, 300th time?—and watch its opening scene, which shows Molly Ringwald as Andie getting dressed piece by piece. My reaction to the shot of her zipping up the back of her silky, ivory-colored skirt is a nearly physical throb of recognition and longing: That could be me. I could wear that skirt, slinky and sweet. If only I could climb inside the movie and inhabit it, I could possess its main character’s sense of self. I could be that girl.
I’m not really a “fan,” generally speaking. I’m pretty devoted to my favorite bands, and there are a handful of books I love more than most people. But fandom is its own thing, with costumes and conventions, new stories and imagined pairings, and it’s not a culture I’ve ever participated in. I think fan culture is incredible, creative and surprising and useful, but when I’ve tried to negotiate it I feel like I’m visiting a foreign city, never totally sure what people are talking about even though I know a few key phrases.
But then there’s this Pretty in Pink … thing … that I have. I was a little kid when the movie came out, so when I saw it a couple years later — when it started playing on TV — I watched it like I was doing research. Okay, this is what being a teenager will be like. I’ll know about music and drive a Karmann Ghia and hang out, incredibly, in a smoky rock club. When the time came, what I actually did was spend four years in uniform at an all-girls’ Catholic lockdown, with mean nuns for teachers and not a single rock club, though my best friend Laura and I did teach ourselves to smoke. It was the 90s by then and I had new, tougher heroes, but the idea of Andie still haunted me, like the promise of something I was about to become. In that opening scene she reveals her sources: All the stuff she’s wearing she either made herself or bought in a thrift store. Thunderstruck, I was. Her good looks weren’t movie magic, but something I could do myself. I didn’t have to wear the same old boring clothes everyone else did! I could look weird. For fun!
Since then I have met people, now and again, who I identify as being like the other characters in my favorite movie. There’s a lovely consignment shop in my neighborhood that’s run by a woman with impeccable taste, who goes by a name she made up and spells with an umlaut. She’s tall and elegant like a teenage Molly Ringwald, but since she’s both older than me and a shop owner (and kind of a kook), I view her as a Iona type. (Iona owned Trax, the record store where Andie worked.) The woman I know doesn’t look half as outrageous as Iona, who was all rubber dress bondage punk one day, beehived nostalgist the next, but she’s got a similarly appealing Betty Boop thing going on. I look up to the Pretty in Pink people I meet in real life. It’s still an aspirational thing for me.
I don’t necessarily need to watch the whole movie, which I own on a special edition DVD called “Everything’s Duckie” that includes interviews with the cast, writer John Hughes, director Howard Deutch, and costume designer Marilyn Vance. I can get some of the same comfort from looking at stills, which by the way blow up tumblr on a daily basis. The images are all so perfect: Andie wearing her rock-star sunglasses, soulful, chin in hand. Duckie pointing down at his busted shoes, with their dirty white leather and pointy toes. In times of stress the movie is never far from my mind, and since I can’t bring it around with me and watch it all the time it’s lucky I have an encyclopedic knowledge of the silly thing in my head. Remember in The Shawshank Redemption, when Tim Robbins comes out of his months in the hole all dazzled and weird, but he’s okay? And he talks about having Mozart or whatever memorized so that he can listen to it whenever he wants? As long as I have the movie up here, I’ll be cool.
A lot has been written about John Hughes and what his early movies meant to 80s teenagers, who allegedly hadn’t see many realistic representations of themselves in the mainstream media till then. People valued the way he gave kids an identity that wasn’t smiley and fake, but spoke to all the passion and pain and utter seriousness folks feel at that age. And I can understand all that, but I was too young to get that from it, and I don’t think that’s quite what I was responding to. As a kid I identified with Andie, but I also used the idea of her to piece together the person I wanted to turn into. And honestly? An awful lot of it was about the clothes.
Andie has influenced my style directly, for sure. There are a few pairs of black ankle boots on my closet floor—when I saw the flat ones with the pointy-ish toe at the secondhand store my heart did this alarming fluttery thing it sometimes does when leather products are really inexpensive. I’ve got a long skirt I never would have looked at twice if it weren’t for the character, and a pair of white mesh gloves that just seemed like something she would wear.
But the role of clothing in Pretty in Pink is, honestly, bigger and less silly than that. One of the movie’s important lessons is that looking like yourself is an integral part of being yourself, so even if you get taunted for it, you absolutely must leave the house every day dressed like the character that is you, and keep your head held high. Andie didn’t look like any of the other kids at school: In old-lady lace and clusters of dangling earrings, she looked like herself. “Where’d you get your clothes, the five and dime store?” says class mean girl Benny to Andie during American history. In that scene Andie has on these fugly round John Lennon specs and a sort of lumpy boiled wool-looking jacket thing, and she couldn’t possibly look better. Can you remember what the bully was wearing? I can’t. (FYI: I watched that scene again just now, and actually Benny looks gorgeous, in a pale yellow blouse to match her pale yellow hair. But who cares? Her meanness makes a caricature of her, all broad brush strokes to Andie’s fine details. She’s forgettable, and the movie doesn’t even bother giving her a comeuppance at the end. She just kind of dries up and blows away.)
And Andie’s clothes aren’t just about who she is, but who she wants to be. She’s embarrassed that her dad is unemployed, and tired of being humiliated by the spoiled kids at school. When dreamy “richie” Blane wants to take her home at the end of their date she refuses, eventually confessing desperately that she doesn’t want him to see where she lives. But even though she’s in pain, she knows that demographics isn’t destiny. In that opening scene, after she finishes getting dressed in her protective armor of jangling jewelry, she shows her dad her outfit, identifying the origin and price of each element of this “latest creation.” The price is significant because Andie’s character doesn’t have much money, unlike the richies with their “American Express Platinum cards.” But for me, a solidly middle class kid who didn’t have the worry of being perceived as poor (but also definitely did not have access to anybody’s credit card), Pretty in Pink spoke to the concept of self-invention in a larger sense. I didn’t fit in—not within the confines of my Catholic upbringing and, because of it, not outside it either—and it might be an adolescent cliche but believe me, it hurts. Sometimes, the movie seemed to be telling us, the place and time and body we’re born into can be a kind of cosmic mistake. You might be unliked or come from an unstylish part of town, but you know that’s not you. If you can make yourself look like the thing you’re meant to be, you might be able to transcend the thing that you—oops! accidentally—are.
Fans of the movie know that it was originally written and shot with a different ending than the one that got released. In that version, instead of ending up with Blane after he’d broken her heart and repented, Andie rejected him at the prom and danced with Duckie instead. The idea wasn’t that she chose her devoted best friend as a boyfriend, I don’t think; it was more like a punky morality tale about taking pride in who you are and not letting anybody trash you around. In the sequence that precedes the dance, Andie sits at her sewing machine and concocts a (you can say it) fugly pink prom dress out of the pieces of a couple of only slightly less atrocious ones, while “Thieves Like Us” by New Order plays. It’s so stirring, watching her work—she’s getting her mojo back. When she explains to her dad why she’s going to the prom even though Blane dumped her and she has no date, she says, “I just want to let them know they didn’t break me.” In case you missed it, the whole point of making the dress was to tell people that they could kiss her ass. Have you ever heard of anything better than that?
According to the interviews on my DVD, that first movie was screen-tested to focus groups of teenage girls who hated the Duckie ending. They wanted the heroine to end up with the stupid dreamboat, so the final scenes were rewritten and shot again (this time with Andrew McCarthy wearing a horrible wig because he had already started shooting another movie for which he’d had to cut his hair). In the new version, Blane finds her at the prom and blurts out an awkward “I love you” (haha what!), and with Duckie’s encouragement Andie forgives him. In the darkened parking lot, lit from behind and through a mist of soft rain, the two have what has got to be one of the all-time great movie kisses. It’s still a major let-down of an ending, though. With respect to you Blane apologists out there (and I know, he was really lovely), that isn’t the Andie I know. She liked herself better than that, would have done something surprising and cheeky and sweet. When it comes down to it, the cheesified Hollywood ending just doesn’t make good on the promise of Andie’s incredible clothes.
As I’ve gotten older, watching the movie sets off pangs of wistfulness in me that never used to be there. Molly Ringwald’s skin is so perfect, and neither she nor I (or any of the rest of you jerks) will ever be that young again. But within the universe of the movie nothing has changed, and I can see now what I couldn’t see then: That the movie isn’t just about teenagers, but seems to live in the mind of a teenager as well. It’s the deadly serious idealism, the unblinking belief in true love, yeah, but it’s the outfits too. Those kids knew that looking cool was important—worth much more, in fact, than most old people would have you believe, and I say this as a getting-old person myself. If you ever feel misunderstood—and really, who doesn’t—get yourself to the thrift store and channel Andie. Let them know they can’t break you. I’ve been doing it for going on 20 years now, and it’s never become one tiny bit less fun.
p.s. A little Pretty in Pink novel came out in 1986, the same year the movie was released, and it was based on the screenplay with the original ending, so if you’re having trouble imagining Andie choosing Duckie over Blane you can buy yourself a used copy and read it. It’s really nice.