Grease: Stockard Channing as Rizzo

Teenage, 50’s diner-style wear at its stereotypical best. Save for it’s funky 70’s Barry Gibb disco theme tune, you might be forgiven for thinking it was 1959 at Rydell High.

Grease (1978) bursts with pep, which the company to this day pertain to be genuine fun. They spent all day in character on set; obvious to the viewer as the chemistry between everyone at Rydell is so apparent. When the 50’s costumes, by Albert Wolsky, arrived on set, the cast were apparently overjoyed.

This article focuses on Betty ‘Rizzo’, captivatingly played by Stockard Channing; not only the most complex character (many say she stole the film) but in costume terms fascinating.

Rizzo is introduced as she pulls up with the other ‘Pink Ladies’ in her pale pink Studebaker Commander. The Pink Ladies, Rizzo the unofficial leader, “rule the school” apparently – if this means wearing a pale pink satin bomber jacket with ‘Pink Ladies’ scrawled across the back with your name embroidered on the front. Immediately Rizzo stands apart from the others, exiting the car without her jacket in her entrance to the film.

When Rizzo does eventually wear her jacket,  she slings it over her shoulders with the collar turned up to be ‘hep’, the other Pink Ladies following suit throughout the film to follow their leader. Rizzo wears here her trademark outfit: short sleeve fitted blouse, waist cincher, below the calf pencil skirt, giant sunglasses, clutch bag – all black, all as form-fitting as she can squeeze into. She also wears a gold locket and a bracelet throughout for a touch of class (though they are worn by the actress in other films of the 1970s). Tough and sexy with a homely charm, like her character. Not actually the original outfit chosen – luckily the purple blouse and green skirt didn’t fit.

Even in the opening titles, ‘Cartoon Rizzo’ strips off her pink polo neck jumper in favour of her signature black. But Rizzo needs her girl-gang to mask her insecurities and make herself look good – she may be abrasive spurting out her flippant gum-chewing one-liners in her ‘20 Benson and Hedges a day’ drawl but inside she is a vulnerable kid. Compared to her ‘pretty in pink’ counterparts, Rizzo wants to be sophisticated and a real worldly-wise woman – she tells Jan they “don’t need to flaunt it!” when she reminds her they are “adolescents”. Believe it or not, Stockard Channing was actually 33 during filming and was a teenager in the 1950s, but unsurprisingly passed the director’s so called “crows’ feet test”.

The differences are even more apparent in ‘Summer Nights’, where girls frolic joyously in virginal white and pastel ensembles with huge circle skirts and bobbysocks with bouncy ponytails, as well as California tans and sunkissed locks compared to Rizzo’s pale freckled skin, dark green eyeshadow and short brunette pincurls. Rizzo is having none of Sandy’s slush and sulks at the side in her slinky black number, until her star turn when she kicks Sandy and co. off the bench, revealing sassy red round-toed ballet flats matching her strong red lips.

There are rarely any 50’s pastels for Rizzo. The short sleeved tight blouse is worn in not only black, but bottle green (complete with Kenickie’s biker leather jacket), Cambridge blue with black contrast piping, Egyptian blue at the drive-in, and red for the carnival finale. No nonsense, figure-hugging sluttiness all the way.

Rizzo’s nightwear is telling. No flounces, sporting a man’s purple shirt with big yellow knickers. She isn’t shy to show these (though Channing wears flesh coloured tights underneath), legs akimbo proudly singing “I’m no object of lust!” in the film-stealing ‘Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee’, with Sandy-a-like blonde wig, uttering the immortal line “Keep your filthy paws off my silky drawers!”.

This was filmed the day Elvis died; ironic when Rizzo references Elvis here, reminding us of a female Elvis, with super-cool swagger, (almost!) sideburns and sneering pout.

She sets herself apart again as she throws on her rolled-up denim pedal pushers and climbs out the window for a necking session with Kenickie.  The “hickey[s] from Kenickie” were actually real love bites from actor Jeff Conaway. Rizzo, at the cutting edge of 50’s casual wear, wears these jeans on many evenings out to ‘The Frosty Palace’ and the Drive-In.

Rizzo’s most stunning costume comes at the Dance-Off when she vamps it up in a voluptuous scarlet red silk strappy cocktail dress with black corsage and sequined polka dots with provocative plunging neckline, a smattering of smaller sparkles cupping the cleavage, fishtail hem and black tulle underskirt, plus delicate red high-heeled sandals and even matching red fingernails and black circular earrings. The camera is panned from her shoes upwards for a reveal, and throughout this magnificent scene she stands out above anybody else on the screen because of the dress’s vibrancy.

Rizzo would obviously choose to wear this as opposed to the frou-frou ‘prom queen’ dresses; the colour and Spanish flamenco-style chosen in particular to show Kenickie the passion he is missing at this point in the movie. No surprise she is removed from the dance-floor for “vulgar movements”. For (my) notes/etchings of this outfit and others, please click HERE.

Singing in the soulful, torchy ‘There are Worse Things I Could Do’, we realise that for Rizzo, for someone to see who she really is under her ballsy exterior would be much worse than being gossiped about for sleeping around. Surely no accident then that she is dressed conservatively in a soft, possibly cashmere majorelle blue collared short sleeve sweater tucked into her black pencil skirt wearing flat black slingbacks, clutching her school books.

Jeff Conaway insisted on being in the background fixing his car for added support. We want to reach into the screen here as we see the fear this youngster is going through as she comes to terms with the fact that she might have to grow up faster than she ever wished to. Stockard Channing won the People’s Choice Award for favourite motion picture supporting actress as Rizzo, and it is easy to see why.

Rizzo’s finale costume is perfectly chosen as she can be the adolescent that she didn’t want to be at the start of the film, but is glad she is after her pregnancy scare. Clad in the cutest red blouse with ‘RIZ’ sewn in white, snug high-waisted pink shorts, red belt and beads and high sandals, she sings and dances in ‘We Go Together’ with the fervour of the girls she mocked at the beginning. Now Rizzo has her fella and is in lurrrrve.

Having seen Harvard-educated Channing play Rizzo so brilliantly it is unbelievable to imagine her as anyone else – Stockard Channing just is Rizzo – let alone one of the most ‘proper’ characters in television, the First Lady in The West Wing. However, while keeping Rizzo’s feistiness, Abbey Bartlet also has her glamour.

© 2009 – 2014, Lord Christopher Laverty.