Pretty in Pink, like virtually all movies written by John Hughes, is about teenagers. But it’s also fundamentally about clothing, about the transformative power of wearing what suits you best. This motif is certainly not a rare one in Hollywood. Way back in 1939, Ernst Lubitsch directed Ninotchka, a satirical look at the USSR of Stalin’s day. It features Greta Garbo as a by-the-book Soviet envoy who arrives in Paris wearing a sensible suit and a stern look on her lovely face. Fairly quickly, though, she’s seduced by the French attitude toward life, which includes romantically-inclined men and gorgeously romantic gowns. A change of clothing inevitably produces a change in attitude, which leads to the famous advertising catchline, “Garbo Laughs!” (The musical version of Ninotchka, with tunes by Cole Porter and starring Cyd Charisse in the Garbo role, is appropriately titled Silk Stockings.)
In the 1950s, a good many of Audrey Hepburn’s best romantic comedies involve the changing of clothes. Roman Holiday, from 1953, details the evolution of a princess when she flees her royal digs, ditches the white gloves, gets a pixie haircut, and tours Rome on the back of a motorbike. Sabrina (1954) shows Hepburn evolving in the opposite direction: once this chauffeur’s daughter returns from culinary school in Paris, she’s so modishly turned out that wealthy suitors come flocking. In Funny Face (1957), once photographer Fred Astaire spots her in a New York bookstore, Hepburn blossoms from a hard-core turtle-necked Bohemian into an elegant fashion model. And then of course there’s My Fair Lady (1964), in which her Eliza Doolittle learns not only to speak proper English but also to garb herself like a duchess.
Anne Hathaway’s discovery of the art of looking chic is central to the plot of The Devil Wears Prada. But when it comes to high school movies, style generally goes hand in hand with a focus on conformity. Take Grease (1978), in which the romance between Sandy and Danny is nearly thwarted because her prim good-girl clothing doesn’t jibe with his leather-jacket greaser look. When true love finally wins out, the finale is marked by Sandy’s sudden metamorphosis into a hot chick squeezed into tight pants and black leather. But the quintessential high school fashion flick is Clueless (1995), in which Cher Horowitz and her coterie at Beverly Hills High turn up their pretty noses at anyone who lacks their style savvy. A good deed for Cher is giving a drab newcomer a makeover, which of course includes a wardrobe overhaul. And Cher and her friends seem far less interested in education than in the contents of their trendy, extensive closets.
What makes Pretty in Pink distinctive is that it celebrates those high school non-conformists who write their own fashion rules. Though Andie Walsh (played by Molly Ringwald in a role written with her in mind) is unable to afford the stylish duds the rich kids wear, she also clearly takes pride in her thrift shop finds and in the outfits she’s cobbled together from odds and ends. In Pretty in Pink, an urban L.A. high school is divided between the pampered “richies” and the outcast “zoids,” who consciously elevate oddness into a fashion statement. Some, like Andie’s pal Duckie, merely look peculiar in their clashing patterns and eccentric accessories. But Andie’s sartorial experiments are born out of a true artistic sensibility that we know will ensure her a bright future. She may be mocked by her more upper-crust female classmates, but her bravery, originality, and flair also win her admiring glances—and get her the guy of her dreams.