When I was 7, I broke my arm and my nose falling out of a stationary Honda Civic. The blood made an interesting addition to my karate uniform, which I insisted on wearing every time my dad picked me up from practice, my little hands still sore from pretending to break bricks. Shortly before falling out of the roll-down window of his dilapidated Civic, I attempted a daring maneuver that—if successful—would have been the first step in a long and storied career as a ninja (or a secret agent). With my incredibly short child body, which allowed me to stand upright on his car seats, I vaulted myself through the window and did a kick. I hoped it would impress my dad and any would-be ninja masters who happened to be watching. Instead, I wiggled around with one leg in and one leg out before sliding out and—CRACK!
Too much television was absolutely to blame for my jumping out the window, and also the fact that my mom had made the mistake of sitting me in front of the television to watch the 2000s remake of Charlie’s Angels. The movie was made during that millennium transition that saw women leading feminist-lite, irreverent comedies: Bring It On, Josie and the Pussycats, Legally Blonde, Miss Congeniality, Coyote Ugly. It was an interesting time to come of age, with all these women on screen in fantastical clothes, backflipping in cheer competitions and acing Harvard exams. I still frequent these films more often than I am comfortable admitting, but none have caused me as much physical pain as a broken (and permanently crooked) nose, outside of Charlie’s Angels.
I remember telling myself, “I want to be exactly like them.” My dreams remain haunted, decades later, by one garment in the movie: a sparkling YSL gown made for going deep undercover that also doubled as a tactical suit for chasing down would-be assassins. Practical and glamorous!
Through its art direction, Charlie’s Angels became a touchstone for an industry not yet bogged down by reactionary, post-9/11 war movies, a recession, and the stranglehold of the Disney-Marvel Animated Superhero Industrial Complex. Outlandish camera movements sweep through vibrant sets filled with over-the-top gowns and hairdos and ninja jumpsuits. The women in those clothes were more competent, intelligent, and athletic than the men around them who were dressed so plainly.
When yet another remake of the 40-year-old franchise hits theaters November 15, the series will undergo another transformation. The industry that released the 2000s reboot, and its (much better) sequel Full Throttle, doesn’t exist anymore. Movies haven’t been so stylistically vibrant or ambitiously campy in more than a decade. Trailers show a much tamer environment around the Angels, gritty-adjacent and painted in the neutral palette loved by action-movie directors. And despite a scene involving a closet chock full of sequins and saturation, most of the costumes look like the sort of outfits worn by girl bands whose labels dress them exclusively in Top Shop and Forever 21.
Because of this, I figured it’d be best to look back on the film that defined my childhood and the costumes that had me (in my own mind) jumping through windows and roundhouse-kicking my enemies. It isn’t without its many, many flaws—but fuck is it a spectacularly good time.
While she had already been nominated for an Emmy and won a Screen Actors Guild Award for Ally McBeal by the time she was cast in Charlie’s Angels, Liu was arguably the least known actress next to Barrymore and Diaz. Despite this, it’s clear the filmmakers knew they had a star on their hands—her outfits, and the scenes she wears them in, are the funniest and most imaginative of her co-stars. She’s an astronaut who fences in skintight white jumpsuits and bakes rock-hard muffins in a leather corset. (Leather, as you can tell, being a popular choice for her character.) While Barrymore might have the more flamboyant costumes, and Diaz your more typical “hot girl” looks, Liu steals the scene every time. When she’s not screaming and breaking the back of a tech magnate deep undercover, she’s backflipping and baking a soufflé while dodging gunfire, or whipping tech bros in a dominatrix ensemble. “Iconic” doesn’t even begin to describe it!
While giving chase to a dastardly henchman they spot at the aforementioned party, Alex and Dylan tear away their gowns to reveal expertly tailored black suits with high-heeled combat boots. Normally, you’d imagine a heel would hinder a high-stakes chase through the alleys of Downtown Los Angeles, but the Angels are nothing if not practical, and the heels allow them to climb chain link fences, roundhouse-kick their assailant and backflip off the wall. It also shows how economical the art director was when planning the scene. Natalie, who was stuck with the catering role, is already dressed for combat when she joins the other Angels. Hot bitches plan ahead!
I’m told these are “old-timey” Oktoberfest outfits—for which I have absolutely no frame of reference! I’m mostly obsessed with the skirts, which look like something Marc Jacobs would have done a few seasons ago. I also love that they forced Natalie into shorteralls, which desperately need to make a comeback! The outfits excel at being absolutely nonsensical while somehow filling an important plot role. In this scene, the Angels use a tuba (played by an off-screen Bosley) to scan the retina of a security guard slash henchman slash unassuming dummy. While I have nowhere near the technological sophistication to do anything of that sort, I’d gladly blog in this ensemble (complete with Alex’s wig) any day of the week!
Raise your hand if you still leave the house looking like a teen delinquent! The brilliance of the film’s costume direction really shines through Dylan (Drew Barrymore), who manages to pull off Stone Cold Steve Austin t-shirts as much as she does the jumpsuits and ballgowns. I was shocked how much I still dress like this: either the character left more of an impression on me than I realized, or that late-’90s dirtbag look will never die. It’s probably both! (Also, shout-out to the costume designers for the not-so-subtle nod to Barrymore’s real-life notoriety.)
Early in the film, the audience learns Natalie (Cameron Diaz) is an extremely smart, outwardly ditzy blonde who exudes the classic “girl next door” vibe that permeated the movies of the aughts. She’s a Jeopardy champion who can’t drive, an expert hacker with no coordination, despite her fantasy as the centerpiece of a disco dance floor, she can barely shake her hips without seriously injuring someone (or making an endearing fool of herself). The three outfits she wears in each of her dancing scenes, meanwhile, are simply iconic.
The classic slip dress hugs her beautifully, shimmering under the flashing lights of her daydream. Her one-shoulder top and low-rise jeans were the envy of models everywhere and could have been seen on any average telecast of MTV’s TRL. Who doesn’t remember the first time she slid into the mirror, gyrating in her Spider-Man underwear and babydoll top (before accidentally seducing the UPS delivery man). While she doesn’t make this here list as often as the other Angels, it was hard to pick any one of these as better than the other.
No matter how hard I scoured, I could not decipher the origins of Dylan’s black gown, but it looks a lot like YSL at the turn of the century. So let’s run with that! The red lips, a motif throughout the film, work in both gowns’ favor here: Dylan, again playing up her vampiness, looks like she was pulled straight from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Alex, on the other hand, manages to transform an otherwise run of the mill sequin gown into something exquisite. Often, with floor-length gowns, the downfall will be in the hairdressing. Updos can make you look like a bad prom date, while an overly curled coif runs the risk of dragging your features down. The side parts here are the perfect middle ground for the strapless dresses they’ve been paired with. Dylan’s updates a “classic” look, while the flip in Alex’s flat-ironing adds to her outfits sophistication. I also applaud whoever made the decision to dress Bosley (Bill Murray) in something other than a black tux, which would have swallowed Dylan and thrown off the synchronicity with Alex.
Oh, and if Dylan’s dress is still in a studio backlot storage facility, I wouldn’t mind taking a peek at it for “research.”
On the opposite end of the sexy spectrum is Dylan’s Farrah Fawcett homage, replete with a jumpsuit and a wig straight out of a Halston catalog. Like Dylan herself, the outfit is perfectly brazen—a welcome foil to Alex’s more reserved style, or Natalie’s “girl next door” appeal. Rewatching this scene, I was shocked that her breasts didn’t jump clear out of that dangerously low-cut jumpsuit. And the fact that the film’s costume designers managed to hide the large quantity of boob tape underneath this jumpsuit warranted, at the least, an Oscar nomination. As for its function in the scene, I couldn’t imagine a better outfit for distracting an evil genius’ henchman than this.
I’d also like to draw attention to the colorways at work in this outfit: the red lip matches the trip on the jumpsuit and her nail polish. (The glasses are slightly more obvious.)
Where do I even begin? The two-piece is constructed beautifully, with the hidden corset giving the jacket dimension as it flares out into the skirt and without looking like a cheap peplum top. Most dominatrix-esque outfits would also have it unzipped to her bellybutton—or much more skin exposed—but there is something much sexier about the modesty of barely showing Liu’s cleavage. In any other fabric, this could pass (almost) for a department store skirt suit. The red lip, meanwhile, is perfection, as are the cat-eyes glasses and voluminous blowout (which magically appears the minute she begins talking to her peons.)
Yell at me please, Lucy Liu!
This outfit is supposed to signal that Alex is hot, skinny, and also down to earth. While the characterization tracks with the rest of the film, I wouldn’t mind recreating this when 2020 rolls around and I’m enjoying a cool, 125-degree California summer.
Listen: The director’s intention in framing this shot is absolutely clear, and it works! While the outfit is employed for sex appeal, Liu also makes a comical moment out of it, using the gum she’d been smacking on to fix the broken drive-thru intercom. As for Drew Barrymore’s face: Same!
I genuinely hope we will see a strong comeback of the shaggy bob and rectangular shades in 2020. (I also wouldn’t mind a resurgence of coral-toned makeup, an early aughts staple we abandoned for no particularly good reason.
While enjoyable in many ways, Charlie’s Angels is not a film I’d like to see remade in its entirety. Its biggest flaw and downfall, in retrospect, is its absolutely mind-boggling approach to race and culturally appropriative outfits. If I told someone who’d never seen it that LL Cool J was actually Drew Barrymore in a mask, they’d laugh. It’s also a decision that would rightfully see this film panned by modern audiences. Then there’s the belly dancing scene, where Alex is dressed in an I Dream of Jeannie ensemble, while Dylan wears far, far, far too many shades of bronzer.
Whether or not the remake will manage to pull off its predecessor’s unique sense of style seems unlikely, judging by trailers and promotional images. And besides, would a movie this outwardly goofy, with as many clueless fumbles, even succeed in 2019? I doubt it. (It’s sequel, Full Throttle, made up for the previous film’s many downfalls in practically every way.)
However, re-watching Charlie’s Angels did make me yearn for the days when film was able to be more outwardly ridiculous. Everything is so fucking serious now, and sometimes, I just want to watch Lucy Liu do a backflip in heels!