In the year 2000, Sofia Coppola made her screenwriting debut with a haunting adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides. The novel, published in 1993, is told from the perspective of a coterie of neighbourhood boys who are entranced by the five Lisbon sisters. The prose is delivered in the first-person plural as the young men attempt to make sense of the girls, depicting their naivety as a certain coy mystique. Cinematically, Coppola translates their romanticised gaze through hazy, sun-drenched camerawork. The film documents the lives of Lux, Cecilia, Bonnie, Mary and Therese as they navigate the complexities of adolescence, the frustrations of their sheltered Catholic upbringing and the intoxicating splendour of budding sexuality.
At the mercy of the boys’ perceptions as her primary source of artistic direction, Coppola ensures that viewers of her film absorb the Lisbon sisters accordingly. Costume designer Nancy Steiner uses soft lace, muted pastels and mismatched florals which resound as a glorious ode to girlhood. The garments worn by the sisters are delicate, dove-like, and emit a nostalgic glow linked effortlessly to the 1970s suburbia in which the narrative unfolds. Bewitched by the sisters and unfulfilled by merely observing them, the boys begin to rescue discarded belongings from their trash, collecting them like talismanic souvenirs. Rosy lipsticks, Virgin Mary cards; the boys even manage to obtain a diary. It offers acute insight into their world, revealing they ‘felt the imprisonment of being a girl, the way it made your mind active and dreamy…and how you ended up knowing which colours went together’.
Their clothes, in this way, simultaneously embody suffocation and expression. Their outfits are a manifestation of the polarising ideals of modesty and exposure; the pink bra flung over a crucifix epitomises this dichotomy. A sense of stifling is evoked not only by their parents’ strict rules - from the initially patronising curfew to the eventually horrifying house arrest - it is also woven into the very threads the girls must wear. They are made miserable by their conservative school uniforms, and mortified by their mother’s insistence upon sewing frumpy ‘identical sacks’ for prom dresses. However, the sisters use their clothes to achieve fleeting moments of rebellion; Lux carefully inscribes her prom date’s name into the lining of her knickers, indulging her fantasies. And after Cecilia’s first suicide attempt, her sisters adorn her bandaged wrists with colourful plastic jewellery.
The film cleverly marries these contrasting realities of the teenage Lisbon existence; the idyllic interpretations of the swooning boy-narrators, and the hidden melancholia which bubbles beneath the polished exterior. Lux, once a ‘stone fox’, is soon defeated by the circumstances which oppress her, and is depicted having sex with strange men on the roof of her house. She lifelessly lifts up layers of her clothes, void of both passion and indignation, now only numb. Unable to adhere to the dizzying expectations confronting them, the sisters’ suicide becomes a tragic elegy to wasted youth. They have been controlled and documented for the entirety of their short lives, with one of the boys recognising the halter-top Lux wears on the day of her death as an item first worn in ‘July, two years ago’.
In the wake of the film’s success, Sofia Coppola has cemented an aesthetic now intimately linked with its haunting dreamscape, inspiring the Marc Jacobs Daisy campaign, which she co-directed. It is an aesthetic which is cloudy-headed, pure-hearted, innocent. And yet, if the Lisbon girls were allowed full access to autonomy, if they were able to sculpt their own identities rather than have their story told by voyeuristic boys and dictatorial parents, perhaps the way they dressed would have looked a little differently, after all.