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Costume, Colour and Semiotics of Heathers

Filmmaker and costume designer Sophie Black recounts her personal interpretation of Heathers, a film defined by vivid visual interpretation.

It is just a coincidence that the first time I saw Michael Lehmann’s Heathers (1988) was within hours of the first time I saw David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), and I immediately made comparisons between the two films which I may have not noticed otherwise. More people are quick to compare Heathers to the work of Tim Burton, because of the associates he had on the film (producer Denise Di Novi and star Winona Ryder, to name but two) and the fact that the candy-coloured suburban setting mirrors that of Edward Scissorhands (1990). But the picket-fenced world of Blue Velvet equally does so, and preceded both films, and only Blue Velvet matches Heathers in its extremity at portraying unusual characters, and capricious changes in editing and tone.

Blue Velvet_Picket fence_cap

Heathers_wide intro_cap

One cannot also help but find comparisons between Heathers and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks (1991 – 1991), which came later, but which featured a similar high school setting, and the characters which the American High School scene demands (the jocks, the teenage beauties and the outcast, darkly dressed, angry teenage boy). Plus, in a note of trivia, Twin Peaks star Heather Graham was offered the role of Heather McNamara in Heathers, before her parents disallowed it.

But to hone all these Lynchian notes into one clear source of inspiration, one needs to only look at the scenes including and leading up to Heather Chandler’s death. Veronica (Winona Ryder) and the aptly-named Jason Dean (Christian Slater) walk into the aforementioned Heather’s kitchen, like two darkly-clad creatures creeping into Heather’s world. The kitchen is littered with red objects, not mainly because the addition of red items in a kitchen add a retro-kitsch look, but because production designer Jon Hutman is playing with the semiotics of the colour red in a way that would make Lynch proud (he uses this colour in clever flashes throughout his own films). Because, as I said, this is Heather Chandler’s world, and the addition of red throughout refers to one little costume accessory; her red scrunchy.

Heathers_Christian Slater, Winona Ryder waistcoat mid_cap

Heathers_Kim Walker rear scrunchy_cap

The use of red in art often reflects themes of lust, war, and blood – all of which this film uses it for throughout – and giving it to Heather Chandler as her signature colour suits her character perfectly, for all these reasons. But above all, the colour red here is a symbol of power, and wearing the red scrunchy shows everyone around her that Heather Chandler is the leader, like a queen wearing a crown. The opening shot in fact shows her putting on the scrunchy before leading the other Heathers in a somewhat cruel game of croquet.

By always wearing the colour red in other elements of her clothing, Heather Chandler reinforces this power, leaving the other colours for the rest of her group – Veronica in blue, Heather McNamara in yellow, and Heather Duke (at first) in green. Green not being one of the primary colours pushes Heather Duke out of the group slightly, making her more of an outcast than Veronica, who Heather Chandler favours more highly, in spite of the name. When playing croquet, Heather Chandler reminds them all that “I’m always red”, and she says a lot with this line.

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Heathers_Shannen Doherty rear red hair_cap

I’ve always believed that production design and costume design are part of the same discipline, and great film design should always be in sync to create the type of overall look that Heathers achieves. Because the colour red leaks into the rest of the film’s ‘world’, not only in Heather Chandler’s home (even in the linings of her drawers) and in her locker – even the stationery that she uses – but in the environment of the other characters as well. The school’s signature colour is red, shown in the jocks’ sport jackets and in the inserts of the cheerleader’s skirts, with the principal constantly wearing a red tie. Even the straws the pupils drink their milk out of is red – and red flowers are featured throughout which, unsurprisingly, the three Heathers walk all over in neat-as-a-pin coloured shoes. By featuring the colour in all aspects of the film, it shows Heather Chandler’s power over the school, and later – after her death, and through the media – the larger world around her.

After Heather Chandler’s framed ‘suicide’, the oppressed Heather Duke steps up – with some encouragement by JD – and wears the scrunchy herself, signalling her promotion to head of the group. At first, she wears this red scrunchy with her allocated green ensembles, but then adds a red belt (at which point she starts a game of croquet with Veronica, echoing Heather Chandler’s words with “I’m red”), and finally dons a full red suit and similarly-coloured blouse as she basks in the sunlight, and in her new power and glory. By wearing Heather Chandler’s colour, she adopts her attitude and her bitchiness, in a similar way to how the wearer of Laura Palmer’s sunglasses in Twin Peaks immediately becomes sultry and confident.

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Heathers_Red mid_cap

When alone in her own space, there is no red in Veronica’s world, just as there is little suggestion of yellow or green. The set dressing reflects the costumes again, with blue objects dotted around her desk and bedside table. Even the lighting echoes this, with an unnatural blue light appearing at windows when Veronica is alone, and even behind JD, as though this light were suggesting that he and Veronica are kindred spirits, luring her towards him. Veronica is completely at one in her own space and more herself when away from the Heathers – at one point the costume and set design is so in sync that blue stripes on Veronica’s collar perfectly echo the blue stripes on the curtains behind her. This signature colour is not lost on the other characters – when mocking Veronica, Heather Chandler refers to her as a ‘bluebird’.

Although allocated a colour, the reclusive Veronica opts more for blacks and greys, with hints of blue through her jewellery or hosiery. Her hair is darker than the Heathers’, and her whole appearance suggests that she is not one of them, and that she is miserable amongst them without going so far as to give her costumes a gothic look that resembles Ryder’s character in Beetlejuice (released in the same year as Heathers).

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Heathers_Shannen Doherty, Lisanne Falk, Kim Walker, Winona Ryder front_cap

In the scene when we are first introduced to the Heathers group, and shown their place within the student body, all four are wearing skirt suits. This was typical of 80s ‘power dressing’, and immediately gives them status, in the same way it does for similar characters in 1995’s Clueless. With Heathers McNamara and Duke playing it safe in all-over yellow and green, respectively, Heather Chandler teams her scrunchy with a skirt in the exact same shade of red. Whilst clearly being part of the group in a similarly-shaped jacket, Veronica opts for a black patchwork print, with military style frog fastenings on her blouse, immediately showcasing her different nature and own sense of (quirky) style. However, by carrying Heather Chandler’s red clipboard at the same time, she shows the power that the Heathers still have over her at this point in the story.

When Heather Chandler and Veronica go to a University boys’ party, they dress to impress (although Veronica reluctantly so). Heather wears all over figure-hugging red, with a shaped 1940s neckline and era-matching pearls. She is the picture of a femme fatale, and wants others to see her that way. Although this is an image she comes to detest, as we see when she’s alone in the bathroom. Veronica’s pinafore dress is also figure-hugging, mimicking Heather Chandler’s style (one cannot help but think that Heather had a say in what Veronica is wearing here), and she showcases her attempt at sultry, sophisticated style. But by staying in her comfort colours of grey and black, with blue featured in a brooch on her chest, and by wearing layers, she’s still very much Veronica. Her shoulders are on show, but little else – and this revelation of skin is cut into by blocks of thick, black straps. Nonetheless, when she sees JD before the party, she seductively sucks on a red twizzler, suggesting that she needs a little of Heather Chandler’s essence in her in order to act sexy.

Heathers_Winona Ryder grey mid, Kim Walker red_cap

Heathers_Kim Walker front bed_cap

The night robe that Heather Chandler wears when she dies is perhaps the most noteworthy of Rudy Dillon’s costume designs for this film. She sleeps in her scrunchy, almost protectively, and her robe reflects the power-suits she’s worn before with a similar collar and double-breasted buttons. The brocade silk fabric of the robe is faux-rich, and she looks regal as she sits up in bed surrounded by similar silks and colours in the set design. Dillon may have softened her colour pallete from red to pink here, after all she is the victim in this scene, but she still has power in her final moments.

On the back of the robe are two large bows, which work to cinch in the robe at the waist. These are not just a dated piece of gaudy 80’s fashion, but add interest to the scene in an important way; as any costume designer knows, if a character is about to fall to the ground on their front, you had better put the most costume detail on their back!

Heathers_Kim Walker gown top_cap

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Colour plays another important role here, in the form of liquid. When Heather Chandler accidentally drinks the bright blue drain unblocker that kills her, it stains her tongue and lips blue as she chokes. Blue represents Veronica throughout this film, and never more so than here; although JD put the blue liquid into the cup, it represents Veronica taking power over her ‘friend’, and forcing control over her life. Whereas, when Heather McNamara goes to kill herself later in the film, the tablets she puts into her mouth are yellow – her signature colour – showing that this act is her choice alone. As Heather McNamara puts it, “Suicide is a private thing.”

Although she wears hints of blue throughout the film, Veronica does not embrace this colour fully until after Heather Chandler’s death, when she wears full blue suits; these ensembles even going as far as to her hat in Heather Chandler’s funeral scene. She is freer without Heather Chandler and happier because of her romance with JD, and these bursts of colour show a blossoming of spirit.

Heathers_Winona Ryder fez blue, Kim Walker_cap

Heathers_Winona Ryder blue gun, Christian Slater rear_cap

For Veronica’s final costume, she wears a thick grey jacket over a blue top. This jacket, with its full peplum and large shoulders, evokes not only power dressing, but also gives Veronica a sort of Victorian heroine look. With this jacket on, and the confidence in her face, she has the strength to confront JD for his wrongdoings, and ultimately to take power – and the red scrunchy – back for herself.

Heathers writer Daniel Waters, when interviewed, has said that he wanted Stanley Kubrick to direct the film. Looking at films such as A Clockwork Orange, it is easy to see how the director would’ve worked with the material (and Christian Slater, who evoked Jack Nicholson for his role as JD, would clearly have loved to be mentored by the Shining director). But, with some suspension of disbelief, one can imagine how David Lynch would’ve treated it too. The editing and performances would’ve been changed, and the bizarre elements exaggerated (the original ending, where they all dance together in Heaven’s version of a prom, would certainly have been kept). But I imagine the set and costume design would remain the same.

By Sophie Black

Sophie Black is an independent filmmaker, costume and production designer based in Derby city centre. Her latest film, Ashes, was available to view at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. You can find out more about Sophie’s work at Triskelle Pictures.

Note: All screencaps from Heathers (DVD), apart from the first – a white picket fence and yellow tulips – which is from Blue Velvet (DVD).

You can watch Winona Ryder in Heathers at

© 2013 – 2014, Lord Christopher Laverty.