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WHO IS LADY BIRD: April Napier's Storytelling Through Costume

Updated: Jun 27, 2022

“Do you think I look like I’m from Sacramento?”

The first words uttered by Christine McPhearson in Greta Gerwig’s 2017 Lady Bird ring out through the screen in truth. It’s a relatable sentiment for the inner-child in all of us: am I who I say I am? Am I who I believe I am? And, most importantly, how do people see me?

Lady Bird channels these questions into the very spirit of itself. Christine McPhearson, who has given herself the new name Lady Bird, (played by Saiorse Ronan) is a fiercely individual 17-year-old high school senior navigating the world in a 2002 America, living in Sacramento, California. While the backdrop of a post-9/11 newscape, impending war, and the turn of the century set the stage for a deep look into middle-class America’s new normal, Lady Bird in its essence, however, is much more. The only things Lady Bird feels as though she is living through are working her way through prevalent social problems at school, her monotonous hometown, dealing with her *stupid* Catholic high school for one more year, and being at constant war with her mother about almost everything, while attempting to connect. She struggles with not being able to afford the same things her affluent peers can because of her family’s solidly middle-class existence, and attempts to grapple with their financial instability after her father loses his job. In true teenager fashion, these dilemmas weigh heavily and are consuming to Lady Bird.

As we travel through Lady Bird’s mind for a year, we see things the way she sees them. We relate to this individual, rebellious nature of Lady Bird, because, at the same time, she still wants to fit in and be liked. Throughout this film, we see Lady Bird at war with herself and the world to decide if she can, or if she should even try. This is a story of growth through youth, and while self-discovery comes in waves, Lady Bird sees in time that every new day brings you closer to returning to who you are. Viewers can best visually understand this coming-of-age journey through what Lady Bird decides to wear, and looking deeply into what she puts on her body to represent her ever-changing self as she moves through this transitional year.

“Early-aughts” clothing had its claws around the trends in 2002, and so did “cool girl” fashion. Movies like 10 Things I Hate About You, She’s All That, and She’s The Man paved the way for alternative, teenage cool girls in popular culture. They represented the girls who, while maybe weren’t the popular girl next door, were the sometimes-brooding, diary-keeping, artsy, awkward, “unconventionally”-pretty girls. Movies, while they did feature these more alternative characters, almost always had them be a). an inherently “hot” girl or b). become hot by the end of the movie. Mostly, the media began to have a fascination with the counterculture of the “cool girl” achetype; Drew Barrymore and Chloe Sevingny became the poster children of this new era, an era of grunge, sex appeal, and a little bit of freakishness when it came to fashion. Graphic tees, plaid, creeper-esque shoes, and indie flair ruled this sector of popular culture, which was heavily influenced by the music and art of the day. Alanis Morisette, Patti Smith, and Fiona Apple are examples of society’s fascination with a “different” type of girl, emerging out of the Brittany Spears and the Paris Hilton’s of the time.

Lady Bird’s character is an actually accurate reflection of this type of girl, without the teenage movie magic of the 2000’s. April Napier, costume designer for Lady Bird, remarked that "it's a coming of age film, but it's a coming of age film that has not been told in such an authentic and realistic way." Napier drew deeply upon the trends of 2000’s indie grunge. Napier worked as a personal stylist for celebrities before she decided to work with Gerwig on Lady Bird. But, she applied a lot of the same principles to this job as she did her last. Napier expressed that she got into celebrity styling because she gets to spend all day picking out clothes that she feels would best represent and reflect what’s at the client’s core. Lady Bird’s core, in Napier’s words, is an “independent thinker” with a “punk rock mentality”: she’s rebellious and cultured, not outwardly concerned with her alternative style, and she wears what she likes. This goes hand-in-hand with Gerwig and Napier’s decision to have Lady Bird shop mostly thrifted pieces. Not only does it coincide with the idea that her family is financially struggling and has to thrift, but it gave Napier more freedom to mix and match trends and decades. Because of this, Lady Bird’s wardrobe ranges from pieces from the 1950’s to the 1990’s on. Gerwig and Napier worked together to make sure that this was an accurate portrayal of high school in Sacramento in the early 2000’s, and an accurate portrayal of a girl like Lady Bird.

More important than their decision to thrift to make the pieces as authentic as possible, was Gerwig’s idea to make this film a reflection of her teenage existence. Lady Bird is inspired by Gerwig’s own youth and acts as a love-letter back in time to her own experiences. Through Lady Bird, Gerwig was able to artistically and accurately capture what her own high school experience was like. This is what makes it ultimately so personal, relatable, and touching; this also means that the pair were actually able to work off of old photos and accounts that Greta had of her high school years. They looked through year books and photo albums to understand what was truly popular among Sacramento teenagers, not just what movies depicted it as. Because of Gerwig’s commitment to her story, Lady Bird’s costuming becomes some of the most authentic coming-of-age-movie costuming ever. And, we watch Lady Bird’s story through her clothes because of this aspect, because unlike other coming-of-age movies, this is a deeply transparent illustration of what high school is like.

Lady Bird attends a Catholic school, Immaculate Heart, a girls-only high school where a uniform is required, as Gerwig herself did. In some of the earliest scenes, we see Lady Bird attending mass and reciting prayers; the painted glass windows and faces of the saints stare down at her. She stares back with angst.

The uniform she wears consists of a gray, knee-length skirt, a white polo shirt, and a navy blue sweater vest on top, making all the girls operate on the same fashion playing field in theory. But, in reality, the uniform acts as a way to emphasize what is distinctive about each character through how they accessorize. Every aspect that the character decides to add to their appearance is so acutely important, because it’s their only means of self-expression when you’re in uniform. It is this accessorization on Lady Bird’s part throughout the whole movie that highlights her journey of self-discovery.

We can tell a lot about Lady Bird’s personality through just how she styles her uniform. At first look, we see LB with her pink-dyed short hair, layered string bracelets, beaded chokers, black Doc Marten Mary Janes, and a bright pink wrist cast with “fuck you mom” written in small letters on it (the result of her jumping out of a moving car whilst in a fight with her mother.) Her garments are slightly ill-fitted, her polo boxy and her skirt draping down to her knees. Julie, Lady Bird’s best friend (played by Beanie Feldstein), also has her skirt pulled down to her knees, wears butterfly clips, and white Sketchers, all coming together to create Lady Bird’s sweet, slightly dorky sidekick. This presentation of Lady Bird in school on the first day gives the audience such a vivid look into who Lady bird is as a character: an independent, free-thinking, cool but not “cool” girl.

Through this look at school, not only do we see Lady Bird as she truly is, but we start to understand what current she is swimming against. While Lady Bird gets dropped off by her father, Larry, everyday in a 1994 Toyota Corolla, other kids drive their own luxury cars. In a scene taking place before school, Lady Bird and Julie stare into the parking lot looking at Jenna Walton (Odeya Rush), one of the most popular and pretty girls at their school. Jenna, having just gotten out of her Land Rover, stands, keys in hand, surrounded by other pretty and obviously wealthy girls. She wears a Tiffany & Co. Paloma Picasso heart pendant, white tennis shoes, and a “Baby One More Time!”-esque outfit; her skirt is hiked up with her tight white tennis shirt tucked into it, white socks, and a blue, silk ribbon tying up her hair. Her “luminous” (as Julie puts it) and tan skin and gorgeous face cause both of the girls to gawk with slight envy, but mostly adoration and reverence. Lady Bird remarks as they are about to walk away, “maybe we should try tanning.”

Jenna is the stereotypical, unimaginative, popular, upper-class girl that doesn’t experience much of a character-arc at all. But what she brings to the movie, while not explicitly valuable, is so important for the audience to digest subconsciously: Jenna represents all that Lady Bird, just as most teenage girls do, wishes she could be, while actively working against it. Even though Lady Bird is obviously extremely individualistic and not concerned with her supposed differences on the surface, Jenna underscores the insecurity associated with high school and demonstrates that even though Lady Bird is this quintessential coming-of-age character, she still deals with all of the human emotions that come with being a teenager. In this way, her internal struggle between being herself and fitting in is so acutely and authentically highlighted in this scene.

Not only does this scene through the girls’ accessories show Lady Bird’s insecurities, it also calls attention to their socioeconomic differences, a lasting theme in the film. Jenna acts as the “control group” character throughout the movie, and makes the disparity between Lady Bird and her classmates that much more prominent to the viewer. And, as Lady Bird starts to vie for Jenna’s friendship, we see her start to transform herself later in the movie to fit with what she thinks Jenna would like.

Lady Bird, however, in her first semester of senior year, stayed fairly true to who she is style-wise at school and away. At the homecoming dance, Jenna and her friends are again highlighted for their outfits; the theme being “Western” and Jenna wearing a denim mini-skirt and bedazzled tank top that reads, “Ditch the Horse, Ride a Cowboy!” Napier said that in prep of this scene, she watched mainstream teenage classics like Dawson’s Creek to get a feel for what a “kind of boring, unimaginative” girl of the 2000’s would wear. Her and her posse all sway around seductively to the music, while Julie and Lady Bird jump and dance. Lady Bird is dressed in one-half of a '50s gabardine country-and-western suit by legendary North Hollywood-based "Nudie the Rodeo Tailor,” an amazingly unique and cool piece. "It has her rebellious spirit and so much character and individuality to it. It's different than what everybody else is wearing," Napier said of the top. She went on to say, “Greta suggested that it shouldn't be the whole outfit and I thought that was a really good decision because it would be too much of a costume. When it's just the shirt with jeans, it makes it more real, like Lady Bird could have found it in a thrift store." This again demonstrates Napier and Gerwig’s commitment to the truth of the story and the truth of Lady Bird as a character, and emphasizes why these choices were made. Lady Bird is characterized so poignantly by this outfit, as well as her big outfit following it: the Thanksgiving dress.

After meeting her newest major crush, Danny, at that very dance, she gets invited to his Grandmother’s house on Thanksgiving. The house is in the “fab 40’s”, a neighborhood that Marion highly regards for being more fancy and “formal” than their own. So, Lady Bird and Marion have to go shopping for a dress that says “rich people Thanksgiving.”

As they browse the aisles of “Thrift Town”, so much is revealed about the mother-daughter relationship between Marion and Lady Bird. Marion has a warm and sweet disposition when talking to the clerk, but snaps at and criticizes Lady Bird when she is talking to her. They bicker about how Lady Bird should be spending her last Thanksgiving with them, and how Lady Bird is dragging her feet, and how Marion is passive aggressive, until they find the dress. And, as soon as Marion holds it up, they almost melt into each other again, exchanging warm smiles and “it’s perfect”’s with each other. We see immediately after that Marion stayed up all night altering this dress for Lady Bird, and when she is done, she affectionately smooths it out and hangs it up in her closet for her.

While the dress itself, a classic 1950’s thrifted light pink lace prom dress, is so important in showing again that Lady Bird has her own sense of self-expression through her clothing, this whole sequence of scenes shows something so much more: Lady Bird’s mother truly cares for her. Up until this point, the audience is unsure of whether or not Marion even enjoys being a mother to Lady Bird. In this sequence, we understand she does, despite the previous scenes. Even though we know that Marion doesn’t want to be without her daughter on Thanksgiving, she still wants Lady Bird to be happy and worry-free and look beautiful. This is the point in the movie that the audience truly understands that, while she may go about it in the wrong ways, Marion just wants the best for her daughter. And the audience is able to discover this not by hearing it said, but by the shopping scene itself contrasted with the action of altering her dress for her.

Over the course of the next few months, the closing of her school play, her breakup with Danny, submitting her application to colleges in New York City, and the dawn of 2003, starts to move the momentum of Lady Bird’s character. We see Lady Bird at her new coffee house job, in dark wash bootcut jeans, a plaid flannel, and choker necklaces, looking a touch more grown up and weathered. Through her job, she flirts her way into a connection with Kyle (Timothee Chalamet), a rich, wanna-be indie rocker who happens to be a friend of Jenna’s.

Wanting to get closer to Kyle, she befriends Jenna, and cuts ties with her best friend, Julie. This is when the audience starts to see Lady Bird changing herself in multiple ways: her wardrobe, most prominently, but in different directions. As we watch Lady Bird start to tie her hair with a pink ribbon and tailor her clothes like Jenna, we also see Lady Bird wearing 90’s-grunge jumpers, more flannel, and more denim. Lady Bird, while simultaneously becoming who Jenna wants, is also at this point becoming what Kyle wants. We see her trying to strike a balance between her own style, Jenna’s polished, preppy influence, and being that mysterious, rocker “cool-girl” that she needs to be for Kyle.

Around the climax of Kyle and Lady Bird’s relationship, when she decides to lose her virginity to him, is when we see Lady Bird’s style the most mixed up and diluted. She wears a more fitted light green polo, a plaid skirt, and a light pink jacket that Jenna loaned her. This really illustrates the internal struggle that Lady bird is going through with her personal expression. In this scene, when Kyle tells her after they’ve had sex that he’s in fact not a virgin like he said he was, Lady Bird is visibly questioning her choices, her path, and who she has become. After she comes down from his bedroom, she sits on the front lawn, waiting to be picked up by someone. When she sees her mom, she gets in the car, looks up, and cries. Her mother, while consoling her, picks at her clothing, asking, “what is this sweater?” Lady Bird’s reply, “my friend Jenna gave it to me.”

“Who’s Jenna?”

“She’s my friend.”

This scene perfectly encapsulates not only how Lady Bird has picked up pieces of others to fit in, but also just how easy it is to lose yourself in high school. Marion picks at her sweater critically but curiously, because she knows this is not something Lady Bird would or could ever wear. It shows she knows her daughter to her core, and has a foggy idea of the girl she has become. After their embrace, they go to do their favorite activity: looking at houses for sale that are too expensive for them. Emerging out of a moment where the audience hurts for Lady Bird, we see her maybe not triumphing over it, but instead having this pure, healing moment with her mom. It shows that Marion knows Lady Bird, more so than any of her new friends.

But, this aspect is not super apparent for the viewer. At this point, in true 2000’s teen movie style, the audience is still kind of rooting for the moment where Lady Bird is happy. Traditionally, this comes when she gets the guy or the popular best friend. However, this formula that Gerwig chose to play with starts to dissolve a bit more by this point.

Even after the situation with Kyle, Lady Bird still really wants to go to prom with him. Her and her mother return to Thrift Town, in a parallel scene that serves to help the audience understand and remember Lady Bird’s perspective when it comes to her mother. Even though we know that Marion cares for Lady bird, we also know that Lady Bird cares for Marion; the two have trouble knowing how to love each other. While we see Lady Bird go in and out of the dressing room, trying on a short, 80’s-esque, fitted blue bodycon dress, Marion makes comments about Lady Bird’s weight and silently criticizes the dress she has on. She finally finds the dress she likes, a magenta, lacy, mid-length prom dress from the 50’s, similar to the one she wore to Thanksgiving. This dress, in Napier’s vision, was picked purposefully because they were trying to pick a decidedly unattractive dress for Lady Bird to wear, indicating that she’s picking something because she’s comfortable in it even though it doesn’t “fit” at all. Even though Lady Bird said at first look that she loves it, Marion replies, “is it too pink?”

This is when Lady Bird comes back, defeated, with some of the most telling lines in the movie: “Why can’t you just say I look nice?”, “I still want you to think I look good,”, and, finally, “I just wish that you liked me.” This dress-shopping scene provides the audience with so much more insight into how Lady Bird really feels about her mother, and that she’s not only rebellious and trouble-making for the sake of it. She actually feels as if her mom dislikes and misunderstands her, and really wishes deep-down that she could please her mom. This is one of the most hurtful feelings a teenager can feel, whether it’s founded on validity or not. This scene reminds the audience and myself of how parental and child relationships can feel sometimes, and ultimately solidifies that this is not a movie about just high school. This is a movie about mother-daughter love.

Lady Bird gets picked up for prom with a distant honk from Kyle’s car. She walks towards them as Jenna, her boyfriend, and Kyle all discuss how weird she is under their breath. She gets in the car in her bright pink, fluffy dress, noticeably out of place in a sea of dark colored clothing. While the rest of the group discusses ditching prom for a party, her and Julie’s favorite song comes on, “Crash” by Dave Matthews Band. Kyle remarks that he hates this song. It is in this moment that Lady Bird realizes that these aren’t her people, they don’t care for or about her, or who she actually is. She replies that she loves the song. She asks, without hesitation, “can you take me to my friend, Julie’s house, please?”

Jenna responds, “who’s Julie?”

“She’s my best friend.”

In this scene, so similar to the earlier scene with her mother in the car, Lady Bird is able to understand herself in the way her mother did. She goes from defending one friend to her mother, to defending another friend to said friends. This scene so accurately demonstrates how easy it is to lose yourself in high school. The caveat here is that Lady Bird doesn’t lose herself because she’s a bad, inherently selfish person. She loses herself because she’s just a kid.

Julie and her end up going to prom together, Julie in a purple, silk dress she’s been saving, and Lady Bird in the dress that she loves. They dance together all night, Lady Bird for the first time in a long time, is not concerned who’s watching. She has really come back into herself, and there’s no better representation of this than that dress. We see Lady Bird, after this long journey, return to who she used to be and always was.

The ultimate message conveyed at this point in the movie is that being a teenager is a messy, potentially lonely experience, where you have to make mistakes in order to grow up. It’s not that Lady Bird, even when she lost herself a bit, turns into a bad person, and then a good person when she finds herself. She was simply trying to exist in a circumstance at every point, and so was Marion, and so was Julie, and so was Larry, and so was Jenna. Right or wrong, Lady Bird shows that we’re all trying to do our best with what we have on the inside and out. Because of this, her growth was inevitable.

Beautifully and poetically, Lady Bird returned to the things that she once despised. We see her in college in Manhattan, walking around in her same bootcut jeans she wore at her coffee job and a blazer over top of a striped shirt. She walks alone to her first college party. And when she gets there, and is asked her name, she says Christine. The things that you try to run from when you feel suffocated, are the things that bring you comfort when you feel alone. These constants that Lady Bird once resented in high school become the things that make her who she is, and make all of us who we are. This tells a vivid truth, that while we are never set in stone, you return to the places in your mind that belong to you. You return to the things that make you happy, the things that make you feel like home.

The costuming in Lady Bird is essential in proving this message. It is the seamless costuming of April Napier and Greta Gerwig’s commitment to the truth and love of this story that makes Lady Bird’s appearance throughout the movie so poignant. They are dressing a real girl, because even though Lady Bird may be fictional, there are so many individuals that relate so deeply to her. This is because it is so authentic, so true, that viewers see their internal struggles in Lady Bird. They understand and relate to Lady Bird, because Lady Bird is the epitome of being a teen: selfish, misunderstood, and at times naive. But we love her because we were and are the same. We’re all just trying our best.

In the final scene, Lady Bird wakes up hungover in a hospital, her makeup running down her face and the same clothes on as last night. She still has a lot of growing to do. As she gets up and walks the September streets of New York, she asks a passer-by what day it is; he replies, “Sunday.”

Lady Bird walks into a church very much like Immaculate Heart, climbing the steps and listening to the choir’s voice ring out. This time, she stares back not with angst. She stares back with love, and longing. She stares back in knowing. She stares back with sadness.

She calls her parents from outside and gets the answering machine. She stands, looking like the exact version of herself she’s supposed to be at this time in her life. After she spent so much time trying to get away from her home, she finds herself missing it’s very fabric. She leaves a message for her mom, “it’s Christine.” She flashes back to all the curves and bends of Sacramento, all the stores, all her memories. She realizes that she got exactly what she wanted. The very first words of the film are, “do you think I look like I’m from Sacramento?”

Marion’s reply: “you are from Sacramento.”


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