Every bit of low-grade neon chic in Spring Breakers, a glistening repast for the corneas, has got to feel real to anyone in Florida.
That doesn't mean you've bonged a beer with your triangle top hanging by a thread. But maybe you've gone to the airport on an afternoon in March and seen throngs of neon Victoria's Secret PINK sweatpants with words on the butt, Nike Dunks with fat tongues, knotted hair buns, chipped nail polish, sleepy party girls who rub their mascara with balled fists.
Heidi Bivens saw it. The costume designer for the Harmony Korine film set in St. Petersburg is a New York fashion maven who has styled celebrities, worked for Vogue and costumed films including David Lynch's Inland Empire. But she had her sights set on working with Korine ever since she was an extra in his 1995 movie, Kids. When she got the Spring Breakers job, she started doing prep work in the city.
No, Korine told her from St. Petersburg. You've got to get down here. So Bivens got on a plane and spent the next four weeks in St. Pete, watching people walk down the beach, going to the malls and the cheap T-shirt shops, amassing her collection of what's on screen.
There are tiger monokinis from Hot Topic. Cheap cotton cheerleader shorts airbrushed at a local beach shop. A tank top from Hooters, a phenomenon born in Tampa Bay. Ashley Benson, who plays Brit, wears a shirt in one scene that says "good girls go to heaven, bad girls go on spring break." It was her own. She bought it at Forever 21.
Bivens wanted to shape images as the plot unfolded.
"They rob a Chicken Shack and they have a little bit of money," she said. "So the idea is that they would go to the store and buy a new bikini or get something new from the beach. … These girls are at the beach and they're still teenagers, they're not quite women. We wanted to have everything about them, their bodies, their skin, their beauty, their sexuality, to feel like that age."
And the film does. Anyone who has ever dyed her hair pink knows about the initial candy-colored glee, followed by the wan, salmon reality of Rachel Korine's character, Cotty. Every brunet who has gone blond in a sink has come out the color of a Tuscan rug, like Vanessa Hudgens' Candy.
It's all perfectly sloppy, how girls look after drinking for hours in the sun. Faith, played by Selena Gomez, wears an orange bikini top that keeps peeling down to the white lining. It drove Bivens crazy. She wanted to pull it up every time, she said. Korine wouldn't let her.
"He loved the idea that that was what really happens with a bathing suit top," she said. "The director has his reason and has his vision for something. You just have to trust."
She tried, too, to perfect Korine's vision in a pivotal scene. The girls form a suntanned militia behind James Franco's character, a YouTube rapper and hustler named Alien. They wear black sweatpants that say "DTF" on the butt (watch Jersey Shore if you don't know what it means), and ski masks with unicorn appliques. The masks had to be dyed the perfect pink to glow under Korine's stylized black lights.
"Dyeing is a whole art form," Bivens said. "You're using chemicals as well, if you're trying to make something glow. You know how black light is, when you see something with your eyes in daylight and under the black light the color changes? It doesn't look the same. We went through a process of testing with the lighting and trying to be able to control what's in the frame for everything to be intentional."
The end result, whether you understand the movie or not, is a visual meal glazed with some dirty, yellow sadness.
"I'm guessing there are some people who will see this film and only see if for its surface level, which is very beautiful, and there's a great soundtrack and the story is there, but I think there's a lot of stuff underneath that he's getting at. I think that's the sign of a good director and someone who's doing important work."
When we see Alien's prized sneaker collection lined in a row, we realize they're a little old and coated with dust, a copy of a copy of a copy of what you'd find in an actual baller's closet. And that's style at its most real.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.