Candy Wrapper Couture in Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion
By highlighting the many links between costume and confectionary in Romy & Michele's High School Reunion (David Mirkin, 1997), this essay argues that "candy wrapper couture" is a key factor in this female buddy movie's distinctive aesthetic. Realising they haven't achieved much in the ten years since graduating high school, Romy (Mira Sorvino) and Michele (Lisa Kudrow) decide to reform themselves in time for their reunion. With costumes designed by Mona May, best known for her work on Clueless (Amy Heckerling, 1995), the designer created an equally distinctive wardrobe of costumes for this film's titular characters.1 In the pictured shot, Romy bites cookie dough straight from the packet. Its purple wrapper blends temporarily with her lilac shirt, both materials shimmering in the light. Considering this moment alongside others from the film, I contend that aesthetics connect the protagonists' consumption of processed food to their personal style.
Throughout the film, we witness Romy and Michele's ongoing spread of junk food: edible necklaces, ice-cream, cookie dough, chocolate bars, potato chips and soda. Like the shots of their colourful closets and, by the film's close, their newly opened boutique, the camera lingers over the busy details: a medley of colours and shapes, often formed from glossy plastics. Romy and Michele's clothes and accessories are equally synthetic. Take Michele's cherry bauble earrings and matching charm necklace. Not only are they inspired by food, but they also closely resemble the cherries manufactured by candy brands like Haribo. Michele's gummy jewels are foreshadowed by Romy's discussion of her new diet in the opening sequence. Pulling at a glittery fabric as she stands next to a rack of sequined and brightly coloured clothes, she declares: "All I've had to eat for the past six days are gummy bears, jelly beans and candy corns."
As we learn in the film, the characters began making their own clothes in high school. Now in their late twenties, they tend to wear synthetic fabrics like faux leopard skin and spandex. This preference is presented as a mark of expressive individuality, rather than one of fast fashion and artificiality. Much as Romy is proud of her candy diet, the characters seek sartorial nourishment from mixing colours and textures: pairing sorbet shades of lemon and lilac with splashes of bubble-gum pink, lurex glitter weaves, and bright red pleather. Not surprisingly, when the pair transform their appearance in an effort to appear more professional and conventional for their reunion, the most notable difference is the sudden switch from coloured to black clothing. They also shift from clashing patterns and layered textures to more minimalist fabrics and shapes. Yet their attempt to "pass" as successful businesswomen also extends to food. Driving to the reunion in their fitted black skirt suits, the pair stop at a diner. In what has become one of the film's iconic lines, Romy asks the confused waitress "do you have some sort of businesswoman's special?" The question neatly signifies the close link the film suggests between what the women wear and what they eat. Romy assumes that if they're dressing differently they should also eat differently.
Lesley Speed discusses Romy & Michele's portrayal of "extended youth" as part of a broader article on films that reflect growing up in the 1980s. She notes how the protagonists "never tire of dressing up, going to dance clubs, and eating junk food."2 Though Speed doesn't consider the film's treatment of fashion or food in much more detail, she identifies how the narrative connects Romy and Michele's eventual success with interests and skills they developed in high school: "flashbacks demonstrate that Romy and Michele's interests in clothing and personal adornment derive from their teenage years when they both attended the senior prom dressed as the singer Madonna. At the reunion, the Vogue editor's praise for the ‘fun, frisky use of color' in their designs affirms the value of attributes that Romy and Michele have sustained since adolescence."3 As Speed rightly observes, the film creates a cathartic arc for the characters, one related to their interest in DIY fashion. The character of Lisa – the Vogue editor – is intrigued by their styles in the flashback, and she authoritatively praises them at the reunion.
The flashbacks also establish more direct motivations for why Romy and Michele's handmade couture is inflected with a certain edible aesthetic. Both characters are shown enduring food-based bullying, with one sequence accompanied by Bow Wow Wow's 1982 hit "I Want Candy." Romy, mocked for her weight, has her burger stolen and eaten in front of her by the popular mean girl. Scoliosis sufferer Michele is subject to a crueller joke, when the same girl attaches two magnets (a banana and a carrot) to her back brace. Considered in relation to these painful high school memories, Romy's candy-only diet and Michele's cherry earrings gain added significance. Romy may still have a somewhat disordered relationship to eating, but she is now comfortable enough with her body to wear bold clothing. This is a sharp contrast to the dark and modest clothes of her adolescence. Michele has also moved on from the painful, magnetic fruit and veg incident, now choosing to adorn herself with plastic cherries.
A sense of comforting tactility further connects the dual roles of fashion and food in the film's portrayal of the characters' extended youth. Sensory cinema scholars, such as Jennifer M. Barker, consider film's ability to allow audiences to "feel" textures presented on-screen.4 Drawing on Bill Brown's essay on materiality and child's play5 in The Tactile Eye, Barker relates his discussion of children's "tactile tryst" (the first discovery of the substantiality of things in the material world) to a number of films.6 Romy and Michele obtain a similar sensual pleasure from touching both fabrics and food. They soothe themselves by sucking straws or sweets, while the opening credit sequence is made up of close-ups of hands smoothing over vibrant fabrics. This kind of childlike "tactile tryst" is echoed in the film's closing shot, when the characters excitedly fold scarves. The tactility is also present whenever the women reach for their feathered accessories or faux leopard skins.
It is apt, then, that the characters' strategy for the reunion involves not only a switch away from their normal candy couture, but also from their junk-food diet. Equally, when they change into their shimmering pink and blue dresses for the climatic dance scene we might assume that this moment marks the end of their diets. Sensorially speaking, synthetic fabrics and food nourish them best.