“Electric Flashes of Light That Appear In Dark Skies Out of Nowhere”: Fashion Tips from St. Elmo’s Fire

I took advantage of my recent summer holidays to watch movies that had been lingering in my wish list for a long time: among them, a classic of the brat pack period, St. Elmo’s Fire, directed by Joel Schumacher and released in 1985. I had seen this movie many years ago but never had the chance to watch it again; as a fan of brat pack movies, I felt it was the right time to take a walk down memory lane for the nth time. Despite not being my favourite [1], there are some elements in this film which I love: the cast is definitely one of its strongest points, followed by some fashion elements that I’ve been thinking about for a while. If you love the 80s, John Hughes movies and the most famous young actors of the time, I’m sure you’ll love it as much as I do: Andrew McCarthy [2], Judd Nelson, Emilio Estevez and Ally Sheedy are there (which means a cross-over between Pretty in Pink and The Breakfast Club), alongside Rob Lowe, Demi Moore and Mare Winningham.

The story investigates the passage to adulthood: the protagonists are friends who graduated from Georgetown University and are dealing with the real world, job and personal issues included. Each of them is presented as a sort of stereotype, representing a certain type of person and a certain social/cultural background. Susan Becker, costume designer of the movie, was great in capturing some key fashion elements of the 80s and in giving each character a style which immediately defines him/her. Here are some of the clothes and accessories seen in the movie which I think give it a special vibe and are part of my personal movie imagery.

Most of you probably remember Judd Nelson as John Bender in The Breakfast Club (the rebel boy with a story of domestic abuse), but here he takes a completely different role. Alec Newbury is the symbol of ambitious and career-oriented yuppies. He mixes formal outfits to relaxed clothes, each of which identify different spheres of his life. In the first part of the movie, we see him busy in decorating his loft: he’s wearing boxer shorts and a seersucker shirt with white collar. Such a formal piece of clothing tells a lot about him and about that peculiar historical period: it stands for ambition, hunger for money and power, as clearly shown by one of the most representative fictional characters of that decade, Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas), the protagonist of Wall Street (1987) by Oliver Stone. Wearing such a shirt in an informal situation tells us that Alec is training to become a ruthless yuppie, but he’s not quite there yet.

Alec’s girlfriend, Leslie Hunter (Ally Sheedy), has an artsy style which mirrors her desire to pursue a career as an architect. She’s the symbol of the cool and good girl: she’s a loyal friend, a caring girlfriend, who later finds out the importance of self-discovery and personal growth. She epitomizes a wasp attitude to fashion: she always wears comfy sweaters, elegant long skirts and white shirts, with vintage accessories which give her a more grown-up look. One of the most interesting outfits she sports in the movie includes a long plaid dress, worn with a long wool (grandpa) front-buttoned vest, ankle boots and a lovely leather satchel. The bag tells us she’s still connected to her school years, but gives each outfit a cool teacher-like vibe.

Jules Van Patten (Demi Moore) embodies another type, the party girl: she comes from a rich family, is obsessed with her dying stepmother, is addicted to cocaine and always finds herself in possibly dangerous situations. She is a drama queen, too, and this is reflected by her flamboyant style: in the opening scene, she’s wearing a strapless hot pink evening dress accented by a huge bow; later, she gives her version of casual dressing, wearing a red cape decorated by fur tails. Her outfits are always trendy, but her fashion attitude is similar to Alec’s: at work she wears formal clothes, even if her personality peeks through them. In the picture above, she’s working in her office: she’s wearing a white shirt (see the padded shoulders), a pencil skirt, a patterned scarf and glasses. She’s not the only character who wears glasses but she’s surely the coolest: I love the shape of her glasses and the frame, which looks a bit speckled.

Alec is back with another great piece from his closet, which we can see while he’s going to rescue Jules from a gang of Middle Eastern rapists at a posh hotel (it turns out it is just one of the many lies told by the girl). He’s wearing a blue sweater, jeans, loafers and a gorgeous long duffle coat. Duffle coats were trendy in the 80s and they’re a classic piece of clothing, but this one is special because it’s long; this feature gives it a special vibe, a mysterious touch which reminds us of the sweeping coats of romantic heroes like Sherlock Holmes.

While watching the movie, the first idea was to write a post about Wendy Beamish’ style, which I totally feel connected to. Then I changed my mind, but the style of the innocent virgin girl of the group has really made an impression on me. She’s hopelessly in love with Billy Hicks (Rob Lowe), the wild boy who has lost sight of his potentialities and of what he wants to pursue in his life. She comes from a rich family but doesn’t feel connected to any member of her family; she is a social worker who believes in the power of personal independence. Her style mirrors her naive attitude and I love it for that. The pink cardigan/patterned tie-neck shirt with ruched collar she sports in the screencap above, in particular, is lovely: it reminds me of myself in the 80s and of Millie Kentner, one of my favourite style icons.

If Wendy embodies a clumsy and uncool kind of girl, Dale Biberman (Andie McDowell) is the opposite. The beautiful hospital intern is Kirbo Keager’s (Emilio Estevez) love object and we can see why. She exhudes an understated refinement and class; all her outfits are perfectly balanced, not strictly connected to the trends of those years. In particular, there’s one scene in which she looks flawless: she gets to a party wearing a strapless black dress and an impressive pair of Art Deco earrings with diamonds and onyx. As a fan of Art Deco jewellery, I’ve always gushed over these earrings.

Leslie is back with another beautiful piece from her closet – a jacket with lace lapels. The screencap above is taken from the party Kirbo organizes at his boss’ mansion, but she wore it before, when she had lunch with Wendy and Jules. The jacket gives its best in this evening outfit, which includes a crisp white shirt with upright collar and a long black skirt. Accessories are key elements and Leslie knows how to make a vintage brooch and a pearl necklace work. I like this jacket because it’s a romantic and versatile piece.

Talking of romanticism, nothing beats the quirky ensemble seen on Wendy at the party. She seems to dress as if she lived in a time warp: she’s wearing a long-sleeved floral dress and a pink apron dress with dark red trims, accessorized with a dark red thin headband. I love this outfit so much because it’s reminiscent of one of my favourite style moments, the unique version that Laura Ashley gave of the 19th century working women’s/rural style in the 70s. Wendy is out of place at the party and her outfit proves it: she’s part of a group of friends, but she always stands out, there’s something different about her which I think is charming.

The self-discovery and growth process of some of the protagonists leads to painful moments, like the break-up between Leslie and Alec. He desperately wants her to marry him, but it seems he’s so determined because he hopes marriage would prevent him from cheating on her. The break-up mixes to another important moment – Kevin finally expresses his feelings for Leslie, the only woman he’s ever loved. At first she’s flattered, but later she explains she has no intention to start a relationship with him. In this scene, she’s wearing another nice outfit, which includes a taupe cardigan and a beautiful blouse with lace lapel collar, reminiscent of the black jacket with lace lapels we’ve already spoken about.

As a long-time fan of Converse All Star hi-top sneakers, I couldn’t leave Billy out of the list. His style is hard to define and bizarre: it mirrors the boy’s inability to cope with the present (he’s got a wife and a child), so it mixes frat boy’s pieces (a blue blazer and a striped tie) and items with a rock vibe (colourful t-shirts or the yellow tank with bat print he sports at a Halloween party). Though apparently very different, he’s pretty similar to Wendy: both of them live in a sort of time warp and strive to find their way to adulthood and independence. As for the outfit he sports in the screencap above, it includes a mechanic jumpsuit, paired to orange thick wool socks and Converse All Star sneakers in mismatched colours (one purple and one green).

The last picture is not part of my ten-item list but I’d like to say something about the double strand pearl necklace Leslie wears all the time. It’s a conservative and classy piece of jewellery that can be considered her trademark: it’s the symbol of the good girl, but she gives it a new twist in the sex scene with Kevin. The whole movie is deeply rooted in the decade it was directed in, but some elements are more 80s than others: the pearl necklace as worn by Leslie is one. The connection between a pearl necklace and sex reminds me of Playboy imagery and of some erotic movies from the 70s (Emmanuelle by Just Jeackin, starring Sylvia Kristel, for example): did women think wearing a pearl necklace in sexy situations enhanced their sensuality? Probably yes, which would explain why Leslie doesn’t take it off. I think it’s an interesting point, also considering that steamy circumstances and a pearl necklace create a contrast: pearl necklaces are often seen as a symbol of respectability, so wearing them while making love blurs the borders of one of the most loved dichotomies of patriarchal society – the saint vs the bitch.

Choosing ten items only from the movie has been quite hard, because there would be many others to write about. What are your favourite outfits from this movie?

[1] My favourites are Pretty in Pink (1986) and Some Kind of Wonderful (1987): both written by John Hughes, they were directed by Howard Deutch.

[2] Needless to say, his character, Kevin Dolenz, is my favourite.



  1. OMG – I might have to watch this movie again. You’ve inspired me! At the time, I most identified with Leslie. I wore lots of long sweaters with long skirts and lace collar shirts with flat shoes or boots. AND pearls. LOL. I also identified with Jules, not for her addictions, but how she felt so worn out at a young age. I think you take on so much at that age — achieving in school + getting your first job. Having to be ‘grown up’ + not really enjoying yourself in the process. It can be exhausting. Would be interested if kids that age feel the same today. I suspect they do not. BTW, I think they need to do a “St.Elmo’s Fire…Where are they now?” movie. 🙂

  2. My favorite outfit was when Jules shows up at Alec and Leslie’s loft in the middle of the night and Demi Moore has on that hat? Perfect. I’d love to get my hands on a hat like that.

  3. Thanks Dallo for writing an article proffering wonderful sartorial insight into the clothes the characters wear in this film – probably my favourite from the 80s. I’ve seen the movie many times and just never noticed that Alec’s duffle coat was that long – it escaped my attention until now. I’m hoping they come back in fashion so I can wear one in autumn/winter!

    There are three costume items that have always stuck out for me: Billy’s yellow singlet covered in bats which he wears at the S.E.F Halloween Party – of course! Then there’s that pink leather jacket (square padded with zips on sleeves) worn by Jules both at Kirbo’s party and also in her Jeep when she drops Billy back to the ‘the little woman and the kid’ after the party is over.

    However my favourite item of clothing in that film is the beautifully gold embroidered eye-catching circle skirt worn by Jules, also at Kirbo’s party, which she teams with a matching sear green circle petticoat (and shown to great effect when she swirls the skirt whilst dancing with the other pardy people) and pink suede Peter Pan boots with heels. Billy’s red print shirt, gold tie and black flat cap are also worth noting in this scene, as it’s such a cool look for him.

    Demi looks stunning in the outfit I describe above and I wish we could see more of that skirt in the scenes. I think Demi and the film’s stylist were very much aware of Madonna’s rise to stardom in ’84 and I think there is an influence there. I mention this as Demi brazenly does not wear a bra with the sheer black top she wears with that skirt! This is all blink-and-you’ll-miss-it-stuff above, but this is 1984 and Demi was pushing out the boat with that top. I just wish there was an image going around on Google where I could see her in this outfit and not for prurient reasons either. If it exists I haven’t seen it.

    Oh and there are just two more items I have to mention. There’s that bizarre red cape with rabbit tails she wears as she drives the gang in her Jeep to the SEF bar to “suck back some Bloody Mary’s on me” (so invites the unstable gal with unlimited credit to her name). Maybe this was a common item of clothing back in the 80s but I’ve never seen anyone wear something like this. It seems OTT to me – but Jules is OTT and I think that’s why this item is in her closet. However the pastel pink satin ‘bathrobe’ she changes into after inviting Kevin back to her apartment is another sartorial gem from her wardrobe.

  4. Demi Moore (as Jules) was one of my biggest fashion icons in high school! I have 2 80’s prom dresses that look similar to the dress she wore at the beginning of the film! 🙂

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