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Look of the Week: The fashion utopia of 'San Junipero'

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Jan 24, 2020

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! 

Black Mirror is rarely optimistic in its approach to how technology impacts and controls the way we live, but the love story at the heart of the Emmy-winning “San Junipero” takes a wildly different approach to the typically dystopian-leaning narrative. Instead, it explores a utopian existence that takes place somewhere between heaven and earth. No, this is not another version of purgatory, nor is it an exact representation of the Belinda Carlisle lyrics that play over the closing credits.

Credit: Netflix 

Starting with a meet-cute in an ‘80s bar, as the layers are peeled back, it is quickly established that all is not as it seems. A scene packed with extras who could've been in a John Hughes movie mirrors the desire to revisit clothing of the past and the cyclical nature of trends. This is a town dripping with sartorial nostalgia; the correlation between fashion and wish fulfillment within this episode ensures that Susie Coulthard's "San Junipero" costume design is the ideal candidate for the month of FANGRRLtopia.

"People try so hard to look how they think they should look. They probably saw it in some movie,” Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) explains to Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) when discussing her less glamourous choice of outfit. Clothing acts as armor, no matter the setting, which is why Yorkie is wearing glasses, despite not needing them. “I figured they were kind of a fashion statement. But then the rest of your outfit is not,” Kelly observes. The pleated khaki shorts, aqua striped sweater, and pink polo is part nerd, part preppy (or as Davis describes her, a "golf mom"), whereas everyone else in the bar has taken their cue from MTV or Molly Ringwald. In a reality in which most people are portraying an idealized version of themselves featuring their dream time capsule closet, Kelly tells Yorkie, “You’re authentically you.”

Credit: Netflix 

It is 1987, so Yorkie doesn’t think she can be her true self in public, and her clothes are the only way she thinks she can be authentic. Flirting at the bar is fine, but she spirals when dancing with Kelly tips into intimacy. But this isn’t actually 1987 — it is a time in the near future when the prejudices and fears of that decade no longer exist. It is the '80s without homophobia and the AIDS epidemic, a version of this decade in which you can dress like Janet Jackson or yourself. For the first time in her whole life, Yorkie can fly the flag of her sexuality without facing persecution. Nostalgia fuels this alternative reality, taking the best elements of clothes, music, and video games and indulging in this sentimental longing for the past. 

The glamour of this era is portrayed in Kelly’s sartorial confidence, including a stunning purple suede Versace jacket, which costume designer Susie Coulthard decked out with fringe and studs. Part Janet Jackson, part Prince — everything she wears could appear in a music video. Meanwhile, Yorkie’s outfits are begging not to be regarded or analyzed, but Kelly is drawn to her normcore aesthetic. In attempting to remain invisible, Yorkie is seen for the first time in her life.

Glasses play a big role in character transformations, whether Clark Kent’s attempt to hide his superhero persona or the classic teen movie makeover transformation from "ugly duckling" to knockout beauty. In Wonder Woman, Patty Jenkins subverted both aspects of this trope when Etta Candy exclaimed, “Really? Specs? And suddenly she's not the most beautiful woman you've ever seen.” Yorkie does eventually leave her non-prescription pair behind, but only after she has crossed over to San Junipero full time; she no longer needs the comfort they once provided.

Credit: Netflix 

This episode turns the classic makeover scenario on its head by showing Yorkie experiment with three quintessentially 1987 outfits, from a very Molly Ringwald pink frock to a severe black suit/slicked-back hair approach straight out of Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love.” In San Junipero, you can wear any outfit of your dreams, but for Yorkie, this means comfort over pop culture references. Her actual life was barely lived because the moment of freedom after coming out to her conservative parents was brief: A car accident left her bedridden for the next 40 years of her life. Rather than play dress-up as someone else, she wears the outfits that make her feel at ease.

1987 isn’t the only year Coulthard had to conceive for the central couple and background actors, but as with real life, clothes might change in silhouette but we often stick to a similar palette, regardless of era. Pink and aqua pastel shades combined with denim provide a throughline for Yorkie, whereas gold and purple are Kelly’s go-to tones. Even with an endless array of options for bar hopping and dancing, habits are hard to break.

Credit: Netflix 

And while these two characters clearly don't share a closet, the costume mirroring between Kelly and Yorkie in an emotionally triumphant scene visually provides a tether between these characters. 

Nostalgia fuels this simulation, which we learn in the second half of the episode is a simulated reality filled with the dead (residents) and the sick (tourists). Some of the therapy is used for patients with Alzheimer's, but others are offered a test drive to see where they can go after they have passed on. Another form of an afterlife or paradise might exist, but there is a risk of nothingness. In San Junipero, you know what you are getting. 

Credit: Netflix

It might be a place without fear of prejudice, but the path to true love doesn't run smoothly even in a utopian setting. Heartbreak can occur on what is meant to be a joyous occasion. '80s wedding dresses are a very specific kind of over-the-top that no other decade has managed to top. Kelly looks incredibly cool and effortless, Yorkie is awkward in the leg-of-mutton sleeves — she quickly ditches the hair accessory. Coulthard made two unique gowns out of the same material, tying the woman together through fashion. A wedding is an ultimate fairy tale fantasy, so it is notable that this day ends in a huge argument and the kind of car crash that paralyzed Yorkie. 

Credit: Netflix 

But this is not your typical Black Mirror and this love story ends with an uplifting resolution, not with wedding dresses but in a fabulous gold jacquard jacket, and simple jeans and T-shirt. Dancing and loving out loud, they are not with the stars but instead the flickering lights of a machine, free to dress and live how they desire. Maybe heaven is a place on earth after all.

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