‘Pretty In Pink’ Designer Marilyn Vance Talks About The Stories Behind The Clothes

Molly Ringwald’s Andie Walsh makes a stunning entrance to her senior prom in the final scene of Pretty In Pink. But before her grand arrival, she sits on the couch at home with her father (Harry Dean Stanton), heartbroken over rich-boy Blane McDonough, played by Andrew McCarthy. She tells her father she has to go to prom. “I just want them to know they didn’t break me,” she declares. Them, of course, being the preppies who have taunted her throughout high school due to her societal class standing (“You’re a bitch,” James Spader’s character Steff mutters to her in the school parking lot). But Andie knows the truth, that despite her lack of wealth she has impeccable fashion sense (“This is really a volcanic ensemble you’re wearing,” Jon Cryer’s Duckie admiringly tells her) and is at the forefront of music (“She thinks you’re shit, and deep down, you know she’s right,” Blane reveals to Steff). Following her declaration she makes her way to prom in an ensemble fashioned from two prom dresses. While the film shows Andie cutting away and reconstructing the two gowns, all to the sounds of New Order’s “Thieves Like Us,” it was costume designer Marilyn Vance who fulfilled the character’s creative vision in her L.A. home.

Vance is responsible for a number of films’ memorable fashion senses: Ferris Bueller’s two-tone leather jacket and leopard sweater vest, Sloane’s white fringe leather jacket, the red gown worn by Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, every tank-top Bruce Willis wore in the Die Hard series, and the white turtleneck with a pink poncho combo Sean Penn’s Spicoli fashions in Fast Times, to name a few. In celebration of Pretty in Pink’s 30th anniversary — available throughout the month on HBO NOW in honor of the occasion and available on Blu-ray and DVD from Paramount Home Video — we talked with Vance about working with John Hughes, a frequent collaborator on this film, from Duckie’s flip-up sunglasses and suspenders, to Iona’s (Annie Potts) Sade-inspired rubber dress, to the pink prom dress.

How was it working with John Hughes?

He was amazing. He’s a fantastic storyteller. He would go on and on and you would sit and listen because it was so amazing. He spun the story and the characters, he made it come alive. He was also very hip about music. I never heard Simple Minds before he played it and he would say a scene, like in Pretty In Pink, then he’d say, “And I’m going to play this song, this is going to represent that scene,” and it was crazy. It just danced in front of your face, you saw what it was.

And did that help when creating the look for the film?

For that film, absolutely, because that was closest to my background. I grew up pretty much like Molly’s character, and I felt very close to it and I was also involved in the music business in London that was very influential to me, and lower Manhattan, various music that was going on in New York at the time. The scene was just incredible. I also started designing because we didn’t have much money and my mother would buy me clothing that was absolutely hideous. [Laughs.] But I loved her so much, I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. So I would rearrange what she bought. I taught myself how to sew and how to put things together and that’s why that particular character is so close to me.

So your experience really was like Andie’s, when she takes the two dresses to make her own prom dress. I’m curious about that dress. How did you come up with the design and what were the reactions?

Molly absolutely loathed it. [Laughs.] Her character in the film had two pink dresses and she puts them together to make her own dress. One was Annie Potts’, which I found in downtown L.A. in those stores that sell prom-type dresses. And then her father brings this dress, I got that dress at a quinceañera store on Van Nuys Boulevard. It looked like it was made out of curtain fabric, sheer with embroidery on it. The idea was that Andie, being her own person, puts the two together to create her look. I put that dress together in my house at the time. Annie Potts’ dress was the base of the body of the dress that I put together. Then the other one I used as the neck piece and for the trim.

It really turned out great. It was very unusual. Molly hated it, was very unhappy. Molly had a tutor at that time and the tutor didn’t help any. She hated it also. [Laughs.] The director only wanted her to be happy, as we all did. But it wasn’t working for the character to have a Madonna poof like all the other girls. She was unique and did her own thing, and that would have been going against the grain if it was anything other than something unusual that wasn’t like anyone else’s. I had to bring John Hughes in and it was John’s final decision that it was proper and she had to wear it. She wasn’t happy.

Have you talked to her about it since? Does she appreciate the dress in retrospect?

No, I haven’t talked to her at all. But she was on a TV show, and there was also a write-up about how she would give anything to have that pink dress now because it became iconic. Her character was a mish-mash, she was the girl with the imagination to put herself out there with a look when everyone else were these rich kids or kids that were band together in clubs. And she was an outsider, as was Duckie. They were so great to be together, that whole look for that whole movie, and the different kind of characters. I loved it. So when you glance you get a feel of who these people are. Annie Potts was such a trip to put together. She was gung-ho though.

Her look is amazing, it’s also interesting that you had to completely transform her character’s wardrobe, who by the end becomes this complete yuppie. Can you tell me about putting together her look?

Sade was big at the time so I decided to put Annie in that rubber dress. I was very influenced by Sade. She had come on the scene and my God, she was so different from anyone else and wearing close to body clothes and her hair was this incredible slicked-back ponytail and she became, to me, that was the character that Annie portrayed. You should have seen us put her into the rubber dress, we had to powder the inside to pull it up on her. Annie was reminiscent to me of all the music that was going on at the time and the British invasion, plus our music, our early soul, blues, rock ‘n roll. It was great, the combination, so that’s how I came up with her. She was just out there.

In what ways did you want to set Andie apart with her clothing? 

Molly had her own look going, which was very unique. It looked like she thrift-store shopped or put together pieces or rearranged clothing. And that was the idea of her character. She presented herself in a certain way, a way that was unique. The sweater from the opening, I found that sweater—and we only had one of a lot of things—and most sweaters have jewels from the ’50s and ’40s, jewels and stones. So I got a bunch of charms, little dogs and cats and various silver charms, and I sewed them on the sweater. The opening scene, she’s wearing the hat, her glasses, and that sweater, which shows she takes things and enhances them. Molly will tell you she did everything though, of course. [Laughs.] I’ve heard that she did most of her clothing, very interesting. It’s funny, it happens.

Duckie Dale has incredible style; how did you come up with his look?

Jon Cryer was so incredible to do. He was game. He’s kind of the straightest guy you’ve ever met in real life. I have all the Polaroids from his fitting. We didn’t have the luxury of what we do now, to be able to show everything and send it over on the computer and let the producer see. Which also takes away a little bit from the closeness that you have when you have to present things in front of people. It’s changed that way in putting together a film, the visual aspect of it anyway. But I have the Polaroid of Jon Cryer and it’s hilarious when you look at them. He said that the biggest feat of my life, has been getting him in that wardrobe. [Laughs.]

Wow, but it’s the greatest wardrobe.

But he’s so straight and so different and so not that person. Such a good actor, he’s a wonderful person too. And Molly was perfect, she was just very young and very influenced by things she saw, Madonna specifically. And she wasn’t that character.

When you’re developing such an array of looks for high-school characters, to what level were you looking to actual high schoolers of the time?

I did a lot of research by going to the places and seeing the actual kids, how they function, the groups they were in, the color. It was just so interesting. At the time I didn’t know how interesting it was, I just did what the script said and the environment and the characters. When I first started as a designer, I got the film Fast Times at Ridgemont High. And I’m from New York, Brooklyn, I was very influenced by a certain group of people that I knew while I was in high school. And it was interesting to come to L.A. because I got asked to do this movie. So I did research, I had to see what the kids look like. Now it’s different because we share looks on the computer, we know the type of people. But at the time we didn’t have that luxury so I almost got arrested.

I went to this high school, Van Nuys High School and I was sitting in my car. I had a Polaroid, it must have been the size of a portable television. And I had a bunch of film with me, which was also a pain in the ass, excuse me, pain in the neck. There I was sitting in my car, taking pictures of groups of kids on the street walking around the school, near the school. I saw all the different groups of kids, they had the athletic group, the cheerleader types, the collegiate guys, then there was the group that Sean Penn was involved in. I have all those Polaroids. I started walking around the campus and a security guard comes over to me and says, “Miss, do you think you could come with me to the office?” So I followed him and then they called the police. They said I was taking pictures of underage minors without the parent’s approval. I was loitering. I was trespassing. They had me on three counts. I was so upset. I said, “Please, I have to call my producer!” We didn’t have cellphones, I didn’t have a pager, we didn’t have anything like that but that big damn Polaroid.

There’s a particular article of clothing that is my favorite from Pretty In Pink, and that’s the green Korean jacket. Where did it come from?

That came from me. That was my jacket. [Laughs.] I got it in downtown Manhattan in a retro kind of store but they also had a lot of Navy store clothing and they happened to have a line of those jackets. When I bought it it was very gently used, but it caught my eye. I still have the second one in my closet. I had two and that one I gave to Paramount when we did the film, so it’s gone, gone. I’m so happy, you have very good taste. Thank you.

Is there a particular article of clothing people ask you about the most?

The gown from Pretty Woman. My other Pretty movie. Someone just did an article where it said the two most famous gowns ever are the white dress Marilyn Monroe wore and the red dress that was Julia Roberts’ in Pretty Woman. It was very complementary and it’s going to be displayed in the new museum for The Academy. We had a showing of it. They wouldn’t let the gown out of California to go to the V&A; it was such an honor to be part of that. They did have my dirty T-shirt from Die Hard. That went into the Smithsonian permanent exhibit, believe it or not.

Oh, amazing.

It’s pretty amazing because when you’re doing something you don’t plan on it becoming iconic, that word, or even a smash or a hit. You just serve the characters for a story, for a script, and you hopefully visually move it along and help round out that character. Once you’re on film, that’s it, you’re memorialized for life. So you can’t show off because you think something is such a great trend. You really have to service the characters of the story and the clothing helps you move things along.