The costuming (the character design) of Ghostbusters announces itself graciously but doesn’t demand your attention. It takes the introduction of the third protagonist to blossom into full life. Once it does, it only gets better.
First Protagonist Erin, Dr Erin Gilbert (played by Kristen Wiig), has several scenes of her own before the rest of the cast opens up. A physicist at Princeton, Gilbert wears a professor’s wardrobe adjusted for femininity: a wool suit, a bowtie in the same pattern as her shirt. Her superior, the Dean, whom she hopes will give her tenure, discusses her potential and the pitfalls he sees before her, while she assures him that she is the woman for the job (tenure). Of course she’s hiding evidence that she’s not, during this scene, and he seems only partially convinced. As he leaves though he says “about your clothes–”
Erin responds with openness and full attention. “Too sexy for academia?” she suggests, apparently without guile, and tries to convince him to say what he really meant when he brushes off the subject as unnecessary after all. This could be a horrible or stupid scene if it weren’t for the Dean being played by Charles Dance. Charles Dance has the tragic inability to look like he is not thinking. This is what makes him such a dab hand at playing sinister people, even when (Alien 3?) he is not supposed to. It is also what allows the scene to become tender and meaningful, without the narrative betraying Erin as a sad loser: Dean Charles Dance sees and hears Erin Gilbert open to criticism on her clothes, and his ever-thinking eyes say “Oh, gosh. She actually wants me to help her. She wears these because she is trying.” He can’t handle a person that desperate and it would be cruel to try. So he neverminds it, and leaves.
Erin’s clothes are “a professor’s wardrobe adjusted for femininity” — she is trying to look correct for her job. As Erin’s backstory unfolds over the course of the film, the shape of her character is redrawn over these same lines. Nobody believes in Erin (except Abby), and Erin wants to be the person that they will believe in. She wants to be believed, and because she isn’t, she remodels herself as best she can to fit. She believes everybody when they say “you are the problem.” She’s a personality built around anxiety and purposeful enforcement of image; of course she looks so near-parodic. Stiletto heels and a kneelength skirt that’s part of a matching two-piece suit, over a shirt with its own bow-tie. Nicely pressed fabric up to her neck and down to her wrists. Neutral colours. She’s in camouflage for an environment she doesn’t fully understand: validated authority. But none of this really registers, because it’s impressed upon the audience so briefly, so subtly, so Charles Dancily. Watch how her outfits change as her feelings about validity do.
Abby’s clothes are so lowkey that they’re best discussed last — the third protagonist, who makes such a wardrobe impression, is Holzman. Jillian Holtzman, the cartoon Egon dressed as if the artful dodger robbed Ebeneezer Scrooge. She’s fantastic, obviously, totally textured, layered, gleeful, labcoat silhouette and total absence of feminine welcome. And then. The moment that made me go back and reassess Erin’s introduction and really pay attention to the costuming across the board. Holzman gets up so they can all go catch a ghost, and… crop top. CROP TOP!!!
The great thing about Egon (and Holtzman is not an Egon clone, she’s very little like him in general, but in terms of being “the really psychobabble one–”) is that he’s actually rather coarse, underneath that neat tie and neat hair and long face and formal speech. He’s the one who yells “YOUR MOTHER!” when his patience goes, and who tells Venkman that science chicks would be more interested in his balls than in his cranium. He’s the second most handsome, after Winston, and combining that uptight nerd image with occasional flashes of ripe dirtiness makes Janine’s powerful lust for him make quite a lot of sense. Those moments make him a whole person, a rounded character, and that’s what a long-sleeved, cut-under-the-boobs crop top does for Holtzman.
We’ve seen her wink at Erin in the trailers. We’ve seen women fall wailing all over Twitter at what a babe she is. We know that she is a Ghostbuster. She’s already awesome and strong and aspirational and off-piste for “woman in Hollywood film.” But we’ve also seen her cocooned up in five or six kind of grimy looking layers. We haven’t seen her exhibit any sense of intake — winking at Erin, who feels awkward, is not so much a suggestion of honest sexual or romantic advance as it is an exhibition of confident sexual power that women don’t usually get. You see the skin on her ribs and you see how someone could touch that if she let them. You see she’s a physical human who, to take a girlfriend, would have to be moved by her. You see a whole person. A rounded character. A person who will wear vintage men’s smoking robes over her dungarees and neckerchief, and a person who wants to wear a crop top on her own time. Holtzman is allowed to be as untraditionally feminine as she likes, but she is also allowed to crop her shirts. Because sometimes girls want to crop our shirts. Even when we’re engineering geniuses who wear wide-legged dungaree jorts, like sorting through industrial junk, and possibly don’t wash our scarves. Grotty girls are also sensual. Being both at once is real.
Patty’s introduction is spent wearing uniform trousers, uniform shoes, uniform shirt and sweater vest. But these scenes also feature a lot of closeups, and Patty wears her “Patty” necklace framed by a jauntily opened collar. Four very different women united by friendship in New York City, one (the most gregarious?) wearing her name around her neck. That sounds kind of familiar, huh?
Patty is the tallest by some way and Patty’s voice is loud; Patty’s often very visible. But she’s also an extremely focused communicator. She doesn’t, by default, call attention to herself (note the scenes in which she sits quietly, unnoticed, waiting to be announced by Kevin). She’s a customer service worker when she debuts in the film and she’s welcoming and aims to be engaging to the people to whom she sells tickets. She pays attention to them as she’s working, and she knows the regular visitors to the station. The former is how she learns the face of the villain, which is a vital piece of information later in the film, and the latter is how the Ghostbusters come to receive their logo. This attention and focus, presence of mind and contextualised relation to her surroundings are repeated in her off-duty wardrobing. Patty is the most fashionable of the Ghostbusters, her clothes are the most current in cut, fabric, shape and composition. This doesn’t stand out, especially if one is not looking directly at the costuming and the outfit details, which is good, because fashionable people don’t tend to be overly observable. Fashion-forward people, sure, and dramatic sartorialists, but not people who follow the trends of the high street or stay on top of a regular intake of relevant clothing.
Patty is also the most beauty-attuned member of the team. Abby and Erin both wear basic natural look-ish make-up, and Holtzman’s lip liner is occasionally visible where she seems to have chewed off her lipstick in concentration. Patty is not so reserved, not so standard. Her nails make their presence felt in a gadget testing scene: not by being long, pointed, or especially decorated, etc, but by being short, rounded, well shaped and neon pink (with no chips). Her earrings change by the scene, her eyelashes are long, curled falsies, and the colours in her hair change with her outfits. They generally match. Patty is reassuring in her put togetherness. She looks like she understands how to navigate “today,” because she is wearing the things that people like to wear today, and she looks like she can take care of you because she clearly takes care of herself. Patty is the team’s municipal historian, which means that she knows about what happened in buildings a long time ago, or what happened in places before buildings were even on them. By costuming her in such modern and relevant styles, the character enforces the relevance of this knowledge instead of seeming like a mad old weirdo with strange boring interests, as she would if she were costumed like Erin or like Holtzman. History is not very cool. Patty is not especially cool either, but she is fluent in modernity and at home in modern culture. Again, not a caricature, but a rounded person. A viable suggestion of somebody you’d real-life befriend.
Abby is the second Ghostbuster introduced but she is the hardest to define prior to establishing the other three’s solid statements. Abby’s clothing is effectively neutral. Never too far one way, never too far another. Much like her personality. Abby was left behind by Erin, who abandoned ghosts to make it in the serious, ghostless Princeton physics department. Abby is hurt by that, and somewhat hostile when Erin returns to ask her to stop printing the book they wrote together — she’s not unreasonably hurt, and she’s not unreasonably hostile. Her ex-friend is asking her to stop earning money. You’d be annoyed too. She forgives Erin without a second thought when Erin gives up the pretence that ghosts don’t exist, and she tries to keep her friend steady, when Erin finds herself reliving the trauma of being a subject of doubt in the public eye. Right up to trying to think out reasons to live for a man threatening to bring about the apocalypse, Abby is a mediator. As well as a medium. Ha ha.
She has plastic-rimmed glasses, which still hold a certain “nerdy” cache. And she occasionally buttons a shirt up all the way to the neck. She wears her hair up throughout the film, in a ponytail or a bun. She could have looked comedic, strict or frumpy. But: the glasses are just normal glasses (the yellow arms say “fashion!” before they say “NERRRDDSS!!”), the shirt is never tucked in, and the up-do is never prudishly tight or too low to be chic. She’s sort of hipster-preppy, with subdued, structured cardigans over relaxed button-ups and skinny jeans. As style-literate as Patty, but in a muted vein. Without the rest of the Ghostbusters, on a random highstreet, Abby would probably look notably well dressed. She could get street-snapped. Every outfit is balanced; she tends to stick to a basic silhouette which reinforces her look scene to scene; she’s got that “I was there when grunge happened” tidied up aesthetic that women born around 1970 do great things with. But the presence of Erin’s gimmicky, zealous primness, Holtzman’s ragamuffin aesthetic, and Patty’s glammer, partier-looking neatness — Patty wears a few skirts, actually, short skirts, denim (relaxed where Erin’s are reactive) — Abby’s underplayed look forms a solid base on which the rest take turns to shine. She grounds the team in 2016 like Patty does, giving a 50/50 now/timeless ratio, but she’s studious-looking like Holtzman and Erin. Similar to how Ray is the only Ghostbuster you get the sense really wants to be around all the other members of the team, Abby provides a reassuring, comparatively understated confidence that each of the other Ghostbusters (and their aesthetics) feed off.
As for the team look. The uniform. Check how comfy those jumpsuits look, man! And those adjustable necklines? Is that like a silk blend? Nice thick twill? What? Elasticated at the front and back to keep the b/w/h draped, loose at the sides so’s not to rub, pockets, pockets, airy but clearly also able to be warm? You could live in a jumpsuit like that. They’re gonna make official replicas, right? Of decent quality? You can see they wrinkle with movement but there are no ironing/fold lines. Get me one of those, stat.