Like most teenagers, I went through different style phases in my teens. I was totally uncool, so I guess all the outfits I sported from 1984 to 1993 fall into the category “hopeless loser”, which is fine with me. This definition is quite accurate and tells a lot about my self-perception: I knew I could have never become part of the bunch of the beautiful and fashionable ones , so I indulged in dressing like Millie Kentner, wearing what made me feel comfortable. If Millie is the fictional character more similar to me, Lydia Deetz is the opposite – a kind of goth, totally cool character who is obsessed with photography and has supernatural powers (she can see ghosts and speaks to them).
This character, played by Winona Ryder in Beetle Juice (1988) by Tim Burton, is often considered a style icon and it’s easy to see why. Despite what her stepmother Delia thinks, Lydia is not “a regular girl”: “I, myself, am strange and unusual,” she says of herself, and this being unusual is reflected by what she wears. Aggie Guerard Rodgers, the film’s costume designer, did an impressive job with her: she didn’t turn her into a Siouxsie-wannabe, but gave her a very special, modern and unique vibe. Lydia’s outfits lack the drama and the shocking factor of traditional Goth style: most of her clothes are basic in shape and it’s the styling which makes them special.
Both stepmother’s and step-daughter’s styles refer to specific cultural areas/sub-cultures, but their physical detachment from the places where they make sense turn them into style heroines. Both of them are true to their own selves and don’t surrender to the little-house-on-the-prairie style, embodied by Barbara Maitland (Geena Davis); the contrast between their being out-of-place and the New England small town where they move to is striking. Lydia, in particular, is a dark spot in the middle of any scene in which she appears: she always wears black clothes and accessories, which enhance her corpse-like complexion. She never wears make-up (distinctive of traditional Goth style) but indulges in messy and spiky hairstyles (which serve as a model for Edward Scissorhands’ hair).
Lydia is introduced when her family arrives in New England from New York: she enters the house sitting on a couch, wearing an old-fashioned black raincoat (see the nice detail of the capelet), black gloves and matching hairband. After spotting a spider in a web, she realizes that living in that house won’t be bad, after all. The teenage fascination with anything creepy, gothic and scary is nothing new, but Lydia takes it to a higher level: she’s not just a lover of the darkness, but she’s part of it, as her powers prove. She may look like a poser, but she doesn’t flaunt her strangeness like the protagonists of The Craft did: she poses more like a damned poet, sad and lonely.
The family has dinner and Lydia wears a black lace veil over a pagoda hat, one of the most impressive outfits seen in the whole film.
It’s clear Burton has a thing for this combo: Lisa Marie sported pagoda hat and veil as accessories of a mourning outfit in Ed Wood (1994); the director even portrayed his former girlfriend sporting the same combination. As for Lydia, the function of the veil is more general: she’s not mourning anyone but probably herself. In any case, the effect that we get from such an unpractical choice is not dramatic, but just eccentric. In this scene, Charles promises he’ll build a dark room for Lydia in the basement: the girl’s reply (“My whole life is a dark room. One big dark room”) emphasizes her pessimistic and bored vision of life.
The white house of the Maitlands undergoes a heavy renovation and Lydia documents it with her camera. It’s sunny outside but she’s wearing an all-black outfit and hides her pale face under a wide-brimmed straw hat. The hat speaks a million words: it reminds me of old Hollywood divas but also refers to an older time, when ladies tied their hat under the chin with a ribbon (Scarlett O’Hara’s straw hat with velvet ribbon is a good example of what I’m talking about). This is a very important scene because it’s the first time Lydia sees the previous owners of the house, looking outside from an attic window.
Her outfit includes a 3/4-sleeved coat, embellished with a beautiful gold button, and a long skirt, worn with black socks and flat shoes. This combination of long coat and long skirt is a mix of experimental Japanese fashion and Vivienne Westwood Buffalo Girl vibe.
Lydia’s bedroom reflects her attitude and vision of life: walls and sheets are purple, contrasting with the green floor, a contrast which reminds me of some Miami Vice atmospheres. Purple is not a coincidental choice, because in the Victorian age it was considered a mourning colour. Her bedroom is very essential, especially considering it’s a teenage bedroom: there are no posters on the walls, for example, but only a doll wearing a black dress lying on the floor.
The moiré pattern on her sheets is another interesting element, because it reminds us of luxury (it was considered precious in the Middle Ages) and religion (many vestments are made of it). In the screencap above, we can also see her nightwear, an oversized long-sleeved nightshirt with trimmed cuffs.
The day after, Delia asks her stepdaughter to be kind to their guests – they’ll be having a dinner party with some of her friends, artsy people from New York. In this scene, Lydia is wearing a variation of her all-black uniform, which includes sweater, oversized jacket and long skirt. The girl has already met the ghosts of Barbara and Adam: they immediately get along well, and Lydia grows affectionate of them. She’s fascinated by their condition, in contrast with her parents, who would like to use the ghosts as attractions.
Lydia is asked to convince Barbara and Adam to appear to Delia’s guests, but something goes wrong: they have no intention to do it. During the dinner party, the girl sports a lovely all-black outfit which perfectly sums up an 80s-meet-Goth mood: it’s stylish but at the same time out of fashion. It includes a long skirt and a sweater with lace inserts on the sleeves. Her hairstyle is more spiky and puffy than ever: it mixes the trend of big hair and a rebel twist.
In the screencap above, we can also get a glimpse of her shoes – she’s wearing pumps with high heels. It’s interesting to see that Delia is dressed in black, too, and her outfit, which includes a long tulle skirt, is reminiscent of what Lydia is wearing.
The day after the funny/tragic dinner party, Lydia decides to kill herself: she’s “utterly alone”, so committing suicide and joining the Maitlands sounds good. The apparent contrast between living and dead is erased by Lydia, who finds the Maitlands to be more caring “parents” than her own. In this scene, we can see her bedroom from a different view: she’s sitting at a writing desk, topped by a wooden-framed mirror; the purple walls are decorated with flowers, a detail which tones down the dramatic appearance of the room.
This outfit is decadent and romantic, an anticipation to what she’ll wear later in the story. The birdcage veil on her face is a dramatic accessory but also the rest of the outfit is.
She’s wearing a sort of mourning ensemble, which includes a long skirt and a lace jacket, completed by a jet beaded necklace (another reference to Victorian mourning traditions) and a lace choker. Her hairstyle with spiky bangs is the same she sported at the dinner party. She’s depressed and wants to die, and Beetle Juice (Michael Keaton), a “bio-exorcist” summoned by Adam and Barbara to chase the Deetzes away from their house, is ready to help her.
Lydia accepts to marry Beetle Juice, the only one who can rescue the Maitlands, endangered by an exorcism summoned by Otho, Delia’s assistant. Her red wedding dress is a catalyst of old traditions: “Married in red you’d be better off dead” is an old saying which perfectly describes Lydia’s condition, but there’s more. White is the most used colour for wedding dresses, but red is used in many Far East countries as a symbol of good luck and auspiciousness, the same meaning it had in Ancient Rome.
The dress is awesome – a triumph of tiered tulle and lace – and is paired to matching long gloves and veil. The hairstyle is the spiky and puffy ‘do we’ve already seen on her. Despite the devilish colour of the dress and the frenzy atmosphere of this scene (the Maitlands are finally able to chase Beetle Juice away), the dramatic force of Lydia’s outfit is noteworthy and is still one of the most impressive costumes from the 80s.
The film closes on a positive note (it’s a comedy, after all) and is a reflection on one of the central themes of the story, the contrast between dead and alive. Lydia has again the role of bridge between the two worlds: thanks to her, the Maitlands and her parents peacefully live in the same house. The girl of the final scenes is very different from the solitary and creepy teenager we’ve seen all through the film: she’s leaving school and rides her bike home, she’s happy and smiling. Her outfit slightly differs from her schoolmates’, but she’s not sporting an all-black outfit.
The last scene is hilarious: Lydia is floating on air and sings a Harry Belafonte song, a team of ghost football players as chorus boys. She’s wearing her own version of a school uniform, which includes a white shirt, a black cardigan with gold crest and a white and black plaid pleated skirt, worn over a black petticoat. According to Chris Laverty, “rumour has it a final change outfit was procured from the closet of Ryder’s own grandmother (that long black petticoat worn under the plaid skirt for the Jump in the Line number perhaps?)”. Whatever the origin of the outfit, it’s an ideal step towards the process of Lydia’s growth and self-discovery: the black petticoat is a personal touch, an element which connects her to her old Goth persona and marks a change at the same time.
I’m currently on a Tim Burton kick and I’m enjoying most of his earlier movies a lot: after Beetle Juice, I watched Ed Wood (one of my favourites) and I’m planning to watch Sleepy Hollow again soon. The costumes in Beetle Juice are quite unique, but all the movies by Tim Burton have costumes as key elements. What are your favourites? Do you plan to watch some during this summer?
 Being part of that club is not my thing. Nowadays I’m still a loser, but that’s ok: I wasn’t born to be admired for what I have or for the clothes I wear and I don’t want to give them this function.