Welcome back to Look of the Week, celebrating the best in TV and film sartorial excellence, past and present across sci-fi, horror, fantasy, and other genre classics!
Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) didn’t get to experience milestone moments like a regular teenager. Birthdays were heavily impacted by a variety of supernatural incidents, including her boyfriend losing his soul and a draconian test courtesy of the Watchers' Council. It wasn’t Halloween that Buffy had to be wary of, but the days leading up to and immediately after January 19. She is unlikely to look back with fondness at events surrounding her birthday, and who can blame her?
Nevertheless, to celebrate Buff's 39th year around the sun, here is a look back at the very late ‘90s looks from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the symbolic choices behind these garments.
Nightmare turns reality for Buffy when her 17th birthday is hijacked by Drusilla (Juliet Landau) and Spike’s (James Marsters) dastardly plan in Season 2. Instead of enjoying the surprise birthday party at the Bronze, she is gifted with a new demon to face. What is the return policy for this? At least Angel (David Boreanaz) got her jewelry before all went to hell. The Claddagh ring is symbolic for a variety of reasons, including a link to Angel’s Irish heritage (let’s not talk about his flashback accent), but also doubles as a statement of love before the pair take things to the next level.
Age difference aside — which is hard to ignore, I know — this is a sweet declaration and a perfect gift, which fits in with Buffy's ring-wearing aesthetic. Still experiencing the honeymoon phase, the heightened emotion of this peril-filled life coupled with this romantic gesture results in one thing leading to another.
Earlier in “Surprise,” Buffy has worn an outfit to school that could double as a going-out ensemble — a black and white mini dress paired with white go-go boots is perhaps a little dressy for daytime, but throwing an oversized white jacket over the top makes this mod-adjacent look more appropriate for the setting (even if the jacket itself hasn't aged particularly well). It is not an outerwear all-timer for Buffy.
Later, she changes into a floral velvet shirt (because it is 1998, see also her leather backpack) and green pants that are fine for patrolling in, but isn’t a birthday party outfit of our (or her) dreams. But vampires and surprise parties don’t exactly go together. There is a thread of innocent-leaning clothing throughout her birthday episode, with costume designer Cynthia Bergstrom doubling down on this notion by putting Buffy in a silk ivory dress in her nightmare. The use of white has several purposes — including the purity element, as it reads bridal — and it also puts the audience on high alert that blood could be spilled. Red is at its most visually potent against light shades.
Coincidentally, it also resembles the prom dress that she wore while facing off against the Master in Season 1. Buffy’s “visions” usually depict her dressed in delicate attire (including the satin pajamas from the opening scene), which further emphasizes how vulnerable she is feeling. Birthdays aren’t always a joyous occasion, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer underscores how anxiety-inducing this day can be, no matter how much your friends intend to celebrate with you. Sometimes life — or this case, the fear of a loved one's death — gets in the way.
A change of clothes is required after an impromptu dip in the sewers, and at least Buffy’s pants are getting in the fun patterned spirit to balance out the beige of her matching cami and cardigan set. No one loves spaghetti straps more than our girl the Slayer.
Another no-holds-barred fight leads to an escape to Angel’s place, but not before they get caught in a downpour, requiring the removal of another set of wet clothes, which spills over into desire. There is something very messed up about Buffy’s first sexual encounter resulting in a breakup this devastating. Sure, there are many incidents of people losing their virginity only to have their hearts stomped on, but this feels somewhat judgmental toward her having sex in the first place. She doesn’t get pregnant or an STI, but Angel losing his soul is the vampire equivalent and smacks of morality policing. Of course, there is the impetus to underscore how awful it is for Buffy in terms of her loss, but it still doesn’t mean I have to agree with this narrative choice — and on her birthday, too!
It is also notable that after Buffy and Angel do the deed in “Innocence,” she wears black lace as a way to signify her sexuality. After she finds out Angelus has returned, her white jacket is replaced with black, which can be read as mourning attire but also makes her look more badass — whether holding a crossbow or an anti-tank weapon.
If black and white are used in Buffy’s Season 2 birthday episodes to evoke the battle between teenage purity and sexuality, then her next milestone age goes full fairy-tale symbolism. She gets stripped of her abilities in an episode that doubles down on the cruelty of the men in her life.
First, her father cancels their annual birthday hangout, and then the other paternal figure in her life betrays her in a manner that cuts deep. The Watchers’ Council is symbolic of the patriarchy, and it is no surprise to see Buffy’s costuming regress to childhood imagery — from the overt nod to Little Red Riding Hood to the denim overalls that visually turn back the clock.
Both are very cute looks, but it is no coincidence that she is infantilized when she faces the Cruciamentum test, an ordeal stripping her of the powers that she thinks define her. But the denim also leans into the Final Girl of it all, particularly in the house of horrors scenario. She, of course, triumphs, using the smarts she possesses that cannot be taken away with drugs. It doesn't matter what she is wearing or whether she is at full strength: Buffy will triumph.
"The important thing is that I kept up my special birthday tradition of gut-wrenching misery and horror," the Slayer notes at the end of "Helpless," and each subsequent season (except for Season 7) follows this mandate. So, wherever you are on your birthday this year, Buffy, hopefully your outfit isn't required to kick ass in and this yearly tradition has finally been broken.