Paramount Pictures
Jenni Berrett
May 03, 2016 11:41 am

I have pretty much never seen a true, overhaul makeover in real life, but that doesn’t keep them from being some of the best scenes out of every single movie they’re in. The movies of the ’90s and early ’00s had some of the best makeover scenes ever. Lookup “makeover scene” on YouTube and you’ll find a seething mass of videos with titles like “BEST SCENE EVER,” set to songs you forgot about but you’ll be glad to hear again. 

At some point after watching these montages, however, I always feel a pang of disappointment — and not just from the elicited “but this isn’t the real her” feeling that the main character will likely also experience later on in the story. She just seems a lot less cool in general — style included.

There’s just something about how Laney Boggs (She’s All That) looks when she wears that falafel hat, the knock-kneed way Mia Thermopolis (The Princess Diaries) inhabits her school uniform, the perfect shapelessness of Tai Fraiser’s (Clueless) flannels. Something about the style of these characters drips a sort of coolness that runs deeper than their post-makeover style. I always thought I was alone in this feeling, but when I talked about this feeling with my friends, they all nodded their heads in some sort of epiphany. “I never had the words for it,” a friend said. “But there’s just something about the way those ‘uncool’ girls dress before they get made over that I really like.”

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What is that “something”? Some of it is, of course, that most of these women are conventionally attractive. Roger Ebert throws this very critique at the feet of She’s All That in his review of the film (two-and-a-half stars, a point where he and I differ):

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Fair point, Roger, but I think there’s something else to this “something else” that so many of us have attached to our pre-makeover heroines. We feel this “something else” about women in the real world, too. They’re the women dressed for other women. The women who are dressed for themselves.

This is the part I think Roger Ebert misses about pre-makeover style: those women are styled for other women to look at, to admire and connect with before they’re given their makeovers. The makeover is pretty, beautiful even, but it’s not for us. The “something else” is that shift in perspective — the point at which Mia Thermopolis straightens her hair and opts for contacts is where the male gaze begins, and where our special insight to her “hidden beauty” and unique personality fades. It’s easy to see in the movie — that’s literally why many of these women get makeovers, to better attract men — but hard to recognize as we watch, because it’s something we’ve grown to accept as normal.

Women can see the personality in pre-makeover style, and we find it beautiful — this style hasn’t been perfectly curated to appeal to a mass audience. These pre-makeover characters are supposed to be invisible in their strange overalls and jelly heeled sandals, but they’re not invisible to other women. We see the fingerprints of care put into each chipped nail. We know that delicate balance between a messy bun and a bun that’s a mess. 

We lose that secret, intimate feel to the character’s style once they’ve been made over, and while I love watching these scenes (partially because it’s’ a great peek into routine that you normally don’t see), I think my favorite parts of these teen makeover movies are the introductory shots used to set-up how hopelessly “frumpy” our heroine is supposed to be.

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They look the way I try to look when I’m going to the grocery store, performing that perfectly put together appearance of falling apart. They’re styled to be just as aspirational pre-makeover as they are post-makeover. Laney Boggs’s prom dress is gorgeous, but I also yearn for overalls that fit that well.

I don’t understand how anyone could sit on Mia Thermopolis without realizing she was there. Because I saw her. I noticed those Doc Martens she had on — and I thought they looked great.

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