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How Eleven finds her identity through style in Season 3 of Stranger Things
Even if you haven’t spent the majority of your life as a top-secret government asset, finding a sense of self during adolescence can be hard enough. At the start of Season 3 of Stranger Things, Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) is finally getting to participate in regular teenage activities including first boyfriends and hanging out with friends without the added pressure of saving the world. However, there are still times where it feels like she is being pulled in several different directions by the very people who have her best interests at heart but aren't factoring in her autonomy.
Clothing doesn't necessarily define us, but it is a way to express who we are and so far Eleven hasn't had a lot of agency in this arena either. Instead, this sartorial journey has mirrored her integration into society as these garments are thrust upon her rather than curated carefully. Even after she escapes her experimental prison, she ends up squirreled away by Hopper (David Harbour) out in the wilderness and dressed in items that were probably his (or at least acquired from work).
Spoilers within for Season 3 of Stranger Things.
Each season has featured a version of the classic makeover scene, but it has taken three years for Eleven to figure out that clothing as a form of self-expression doesn't have to come from someone else's closet. Before her trip to the mall with Max, every outfit has pretty much been picked for her or is a hand-me-down of some variety. In Season 3, Eleven gets to choose her own clothes for the first time.
“How do I know... what I like?” That's the question Eleven asks Max when they enter the Gap at Starcourt Mall; the sheer amount of options is incredibly overwhelming to this person who has never gone shopping. Rather than selecting clothes for her, Max simply responds, "You just try things on. Until you find something feels like you.” Personal style is not something Eleven has really considered before.
In Season 1, she bounced from a hospital gown to an oversized T-shirt courtesy of Benny (Chris Sullivan) before he got gunned down. At Mike’s (Finn Wolfhard) house, she was gifted a pair of clean sweats before changing into something traditionally feminine so she could blend in at their school. This was the first makeover Eleven received, which consisted of Nancy's (Natalia Dyer) old pink dress and blonde wig. This ensemble by Season 1 costume designer Kimberly Adams — who designed the first four episodes — is one of the most instantly recognizable looks from the whole series.
Concepts of prettiness are instilled in us from an early age, so when the boys pick out the girliest of outfits for Eleven in “The Body,” it underscores the expectations about how girls are supposed to dress. They don’t think they can get her into the school unnoticed in sweats with a shaved head, but dressing her like a doll in a frock from the '70s just alienates her further. Mike is clumsy in his reaction telling her she looks “Pretty... good.” However, this does turn into a sweet moment later on when Mike tells her she's pretty without the wig.
The second season sidelined Eleven away from her friends when Hopper’s best intentions essentially made her a prisoner once more. When she crawled back out of the Upside Down, the pink dress was all she had, but this was quickly replaced by oversized clothing from Hopper’s cabin. The real-life doll aesthetic was replaced by tomboy attire.
Plaid shirts, baggy Adidas tees, dungarees, and grey sweatshirts made up her Season 2 wardrobe of borrowed items. Hopper was trying to keep her presence a secret so a shopping trip for tween girl clothes would've raised a few eyebrows.When Eleven did break free, she spent time with a bunch of teens who possessed powers similar to hers in “The Lost Sister.” This episode was a series low point; instead of giving Eleven more of backstory, it felt like a backdoor pilot for a future Stranger Things spinoff. Rather than giving us anyone to root for, this gang of outcasts is mostly a cartoonish and unsympathetic portrayal of 'punks.'
Eleven gets another makeover, but once again her outfit and makeup are picked for her. Instead of a picture of girlhood, she is now sporting slicked-back hair, super smoky eyes and black attire with the sleeves pushed up to reveal an arm full of bracelets. This costume change by designer Kim Wilcox is arguably the best thing about this story detour.
In the Season 2 finale, Eleven has wiped off the makeup switching this act of teen rebellion for another rite-of-passage as she attends her first school dance. Her grey dress is far more age and era-appropriate than her pink number from the first season. This is the first sign that Eleven is going to experience regular activities rather than getting hidden away on account of her powers.Cut to this season! Baggy plaid shirts are back and El is still being kept at arm’s length from the rest of her peers. Sure, the three-inches-open-door rule makes sense, but the earlier curfew and not being able to go to the mall (there are too many people) are kind of excessive. After Mike blows her off — at the behest of Hopper — she turns to Max for advice. Last season pitted these two as rivals, but thankfully the shift is towards friendship this year. Instead of telling her what she should do, Max gently encourages Eleven to enjoy new experiences including the quintessential teen hangout: a day a the mall.
A wardrobe overhaul linked to a break-up or a fight is somewhat cliched, but Eleven's desire to explore what she likes is less to do with Mike and more about her burgeoning friendship with Max, as well as this path of self-discovery. "I like the new look, by the way. It's cool," Mike later tells Eleven in "The Flayed." This style change-up is not about him, but she still thanks him for his compliment. She has come a long way since her hospital gown-clad introduction when she barely spoke a word. Now she is also discovering the language of fashion.
As the boys trawl the stores to find a suitable apology gift from Mike to Elle, Madonna’s “Material Girl” provides the montage soundtrack. Eleven finally has a carefree moment trying on clothes in the Gap with Max providing emotional support (and getting a pair of sunglasses). This gives costume designer Amy Parris the chance to showcase the epitome of mid-80s trends including an outfit featuring the trifecta of braces, beret, and suspenders. The graphic print romper Eleven lands on from the Gap (in reality, it is from Target) is a fun look for Eleven, which automatically feels right. It isn’t a dress fit for a doll or an attempt at blending in with the cooler kids. Max has a strong sense of who she is, but at no point does she force outfits in Eleven’s direction that mirror her own. She is not styling Eleven to be a mini-me in jorts and striped tees. The only time the two girls match is when they both play dress-up to look like the Madonna of the “Material Girl” era. Again, this is a fun nod to the big, bold accessories and silhouettes of this period but without having to commit to this aesthetic full-time.
Unlike the other makeover moments from previous seasons, Season 3's is not fraught with tension and self-doubt. Eleven is not dressing up to sneak into somewhere or pass as a regular teen. With a look she's chosen for herself, she is a regular teen.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.