“Mean Girls” Costume Designer Tom Broecker on Dressing the Plastics as Gen Z
The movie based on the musical based on the 2004 movie Mean Girls is here, with Angourie Rice taking Lindsey Lohan’s place as Cady, the homeschooled teenager plunged into the catty horror of American public high school social politics. Written by Tina Fey and directed by Samantha Jayne and Arturo Perez Jr., in this musical Gen Z update, everyone has smartphones now, but the movie stays true to the original’s most beloved beats. Cady’s motivation to join the popular girls, the Plastics, crystalizes at a Halloween house party. Her place within the set changes after a disastrous Christmas talent show. And she’s egged on by the same fun, artsy weirdos, Janis (Auli’i Cravalho) and Damian (Jaquel Spivey).
Having just landed in the Chicago suburbs from Kenya, Gen Z Cady doesn’t look all that different from her Millennial predecessor in a loose plaid shirt and a non-specific cut of jeans. Regina (Renée Rapp), the school’s feared and admired queen bee, takes on a tougher look today, in black leather and bright tones, all the better to pop in an Instagram reel. Her sidekicks, Gretchen (Bebe Wood) and Karen (Avantika), are consistent with their original selves, in goofily risqué looks true to clumsy adolescent attempts at sexiness.
For costume designer Tom Broecker, who’s been the costume designer for Saturday Night Live since 1993, in addition to working with Tina Fey designing seven seasons of 30 Rock, what was important to get right in this contemporary update to Mean Girls was making sure the movie’s high school students actually look like they shop the way real teenagers do. Luckily, Broecker lives next door to a New York University freshman dorm, so he had ample inspiration right outside his front door.
He spoke with us about what had to be kept from the original film, dressing Janis and Damian as self-actualized outsiders, and Cady’s slower rise, fashion-wise, from homeschooled newbie to Plastic queen.
Let’s start with the Plastics. How did you incorporate designer gear into their still very adolescent looks?
I dressed them in terms of high-low more than in terms of designer-designer. The directors and I thought it was very important to have that mix of street wear, and no one wears high-high from head to toe, particularly young teenagers. In terms of this story, Regina comes from the wealthiest family. We didn’t want them all to be rich girls, so Karen and Gretchen are subsequently lesser than in that sort of way. In terms of designers, there’s Versace, Isabel Marant, Valentino, Kurt Geiger, and Stuart Weitzman, but all of that is mixed with American Eagle and Cider. We used a lot of TikTok-endorsed fashions, really trying to get into the mind of the teenager, because teenagers shop very differently than someone over the age of 30. In this, too, we used a lot of secondhand and consignment stuff, mainly because it was a way to get individuality in their characters. Teenagers like the idea of standing out a little bit, but at the same time, being part of the group. Each day is a new version of what you feel like — who am I today?
Cady’s fashion arc, as she becomes a Plastic, is subtler than the 2004 film. How did you approach that?
It’s a little more subtle because it happens gradually, then it happens, then it’s over. This is a movie musical, and it’s a little shorter than the original. She becomes the true Plastic in the cafeteria, where she’s wearing her own version of Regina’s necklace, with her own C, then she fully becomes the black widow in the party scene, where she truly steps into Regina’s shoes, the pink shoes Regina gave her at the very beginning. As she comes out, she literally falls on her face and can’t handle it because that’s not her true nature. The next scene, she’s done.
That party outfit was such a teenager thing to wear, a black strapless dress with a completely visible bra.
It was a takeoff on three things — the Jennifer Aniston little black dress, the Olivia Rodrigo little black dress, and referencing a little bit of the original Lindsay Lohan party dress. And then it is just such a bad adolescent thing. The strapless dress is super hard to pull off.
Someone who consistently pulls off his looks is Damian, like the cape he wears during the Revenge Party scene. What was your inspiration for him?
This movie is clearly framed now from the perspective of Damian and Janice. So part of it is also how they see Regina, how they see all the other kids in school. In the Revenge Party song, it’s their version of the most candy-coated, fabulous version of themselves. In addition, he’s a sort of magician. It’s a take-off on a gay Andre Leon Talley magician. He’s the person sawing Regina in half.
He and Janice each have a distinct perspective that sets them apart from the Plastics and the rest of the student body.
So many people want to talk about the Plastics, but the characters who are truly actualized are Janice and Damian, because it’s their story and they’re telling it. They’re played by two amazing actors. We talked all about representation. There’s a reality to them, an aliveness to them and their performances, and we keep going back and finding out more and more about who they are. The texture of Janice’s craft and how she’s always doing her needlework — it was important to have that texture telling her story. Then Damian is the amazing, gorgeous theater geek guy who’s not afraid to be himself. They’re not like other high school students in that way of having to try new outfits on every day to become other people, because they know who they are.
For all the other high school students, did you wind up shopping for them where teenagers shop?
Correct. We had an approved list of TikTok fashions, Instagram fashions. I live next to a freshman NYU dorm, so it’s all I get every morning, a nice visual of what they’re wearing today. Particularly with teenagers, they wear their pajamas as outerwear. They have their UGGs and their backpacks and their pajama bottoms with an oversize hoodie, and they go to work-slash-school.
For those of us who’ve managed to resist downloading TikTok so far, what’s a TikTok-approved fashion?
Just in terms of TikTok branding, it’s a weird thing on TikTok where there’s this whole world of influencers who wear monochromatic outfits. And then TikTok brands are more like ASOS, Cider, Princess Polly.
Getting back to the original, how did you decide what you wanted to keep from the 2004 film?
Part of that was what was written. Halloween is still a big plot point in both films. In our musical version, we changed some of the looks. We didn’t think Regina should be a Playboy Bunny anymore, so we made her a golden vulture. We changed Karen’s look a little bit. She’s still a mouse, but we didn’t want to put her in black. And then Cady is still an ex-wife bride of Frankenstein zombie. Those were things we tried to update. The sexy Santa looks they do for the talent contest were the same in terms of writing. But in this film, the directors were influenced by the Ariana Grande video, so there’s a little more sparkle. Then there were Easter egg moments we wanted to put in, like Tina’s last polka dot blouse references the first polka dot blouse. Tina and I would talk about whether we should reference or not. Most of the time, it’s fun for the audience.
You’ve worked with Tina Fey for a long time. Is she pretty involved when it comes to costume design?
She is. It’s a really good collaborative relationship. I love that she writes visually. Our job is to help make a visual reference and visual support to the comedy. It’s great to figure out how to make whatever she’s writing visually work.
Mean Girls is in theaters now.
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Featured image: Avantika plays Karen Shetty; Renee Rapp plays Regina George; Bebe Wood plays Gretchen Wieners and Angourie Rice plays Cady Heron in Mean Girls from Paramount Pictures. Photo: Jojo Whilden/Paramount © 2023 Paramount Pictures.