Generation Euphoria

Decoding the relevance of Euphoria as the fashion voice of its generation.

Key Takeaways

  1. Coming-of-age movies immortalize the aesthetics of teenagers. Their costume designers capture the zeitgeist—in the best-case scenario, they become iconic.
  2. Euphoria is the ultimate representation of Gen Z’s approach to dressing: individuality, creativity, and remixing are key. The characters in the show encapsulate this attitude.
  3. The show’s aesthetic proposal is regurgitated by the viewers, who replicate its outfits and makeup looks on social media, and create a conversation between reality and fiction.

High school looks hot on camera. While real life is synonymous with boring classes, stained uniforms, non-existing romance, and acne breakouts, cinema has consistently convinced us that there is a bigger and better version of it happening elsewhere. Sex, drugs, rock and roll, and very good outfits: coming-of-age pictures capture a generation’s experience and immortalize it. And successful costume design can position a movie as the aesthetic icon of its times.

In our teenage years, clothes, for the first time, matter. Deciphering who one wants to be, at least aesthetically, is an experience that leads to bold decisions and conspicuous results. Each trend we follow seems to be the definitive one, each new idol, the one that truly mirrors us. This is the basis over which teenage characters are created. In the noughties, Mean Girls established that queen bees wore pink on Wednesdays, in contrast with the green miniskirts of Ghost World’s arty outcasts. ‘90s teens toyed with grungy shirts and combat boots, seen in Empire Records or The Craft, as opposed to the ‘80s exuberance of Pretty In Pink’s New Romantics. Further back in time, Grease and American Graffiti showed us the divide between preppy and rockers and decided that leather jacket wearers will always have more fun. These movies epitomize past generations’ wardrobes. But to understand the present, one needs to look at Euphoria.

Photography by Eddy Chen/HBO

Euphoria premiered in 2019, becoming an instant success among viewers and critics alike, and its second season has just come to an end. It reads almost as auteur TV, given its experimental nature and the creative control that lies in the hands of filmmaker and writer Sam Levinson. The key to its appeal might be the mix between relatable high school symbols, thought-provoking conflicts reflecting social issues, and forward-looking cinematography. It is coming-of-age filmmaking on steroids, and this boundary-pushing attitude is also present in the characters’ aesthetics. 

Heidi Bivens, whose work as a stylist has been featured in the likes of i-D or Purple, is the costume designer of the show. On the topic of defining the characters’ wardrobes, she told Vogue, “I was like, ‘I could do this, and it would be more realistic, or I could do this other thing that’s not as realistic.’ [Sam Levinson] said, ‘I don't give an eff about reality.’ That resonates with me.” This predisposition to disregard the limitations of the real in favor of artistic liberties has led to the creation of an entirely unique aesthetic for each character, a move further emphasized by the makeup designed by Doniella Davy. Each character is a subculture of its own, and instead of isolating, their appearance is a mark of their uniqueness. While the writing of the characters does not necessarily make them cliched archetypes—no one is the absolute villain or hero, mean girl or nerd—the construction of their personality traits is found in their aesthetics. Jules, who is on a journey of gender definition, is initially characterized by her hyper-feminine wardrobe of pastel colors and kawaii references but becomes more comfortable with masculine tailoring as she evolves. Rue, battling with addiction, has little interest in clothes, other than finding comfort and going unnoticed, which results in a sort of accidental skater vibe. Maddy’s overconfidence and her knowledge that sex is power are seen in her skin-tight matching sets and cut-out dresses, which become more refined as she grows apart from sadistic Nate. And both Kat and Cassie exemplify the use of clothes to redefine one’s sense of self, Kat as a sex-positive girl in corsets and BDSM accessories, and Cassie as Nate’s object of desire with her babydoll dresses. 

Photography by Eddy Chen/HBO

Aesthetic evolutions also charter the changes in the characters’ emotions. Even for a brief scene, complex costumes or makeup will be designed to present the emotional space occupied by the characters. When feeling defeated, they might be on their sweatpants and no makeup, and then propel themselves to another mental space through glitzy clothes and shiny eyeshadow. What the characters wear exists, therefore, somewhere between their headspace and real life, allowing for a level of originality that is inspirational. That is one of the biggest messages of the show: presenting not only who you are, but what you feel, by means of what you wear. 

The choice of clothes and makeup often involves the participation of the actors. Sourced from Instagram, Etsy, or Depop (much like any teenager would buy clothes nowadays), but also from high fashion designers or vintage collectors, the pieces can easily be tracked down. At the same time, the show also makes a point of not relying on the overtly recognizable, a choice that opens up space for fans to recreate the looks freely. While the show reflects the directions in which teens are dressing now (there is a healthy dose of Y2K nostalgia, cutout dresses and skin-tight fabrics, and genderless combinations of layers and pieces), it also exists in a bubble that feels slightly atemporal, with 60s babydoll references, supermodel-era outfits, or standard normcore pieces.

Photography by Eddy Chen/HBO

Bivens told Fashionista that the aim was to create looks that would permeate to real life: “[Sam Levinson] said that by the time people had seen the first season, he wanted girls to be able to see someone wearing an outfit on the street and say, 'Oh, that's so Maddy.'” Judging by the rapidity with which the show’s outfits are sold out IRL, that desire is probably fulfilled. Furthermore, the show’s aesthetic has become a phenomenon because its recreation can, if not literally in high school, exist on Tik Tok or Instagram. With the release of each episode, social media is flooded with recreations of the looks seen in the likes of Maddy, Jules, or Lexi. At a time when trends are dictated by hashtags (think #cottagecore or #darkacademia), this virtual dialogue between show and fans is perhaps the ultimate sign of fashion triumph and the mark of Euphoria’s influence over an entire generation.