The cringeworthy sartorial nostalgia is heavy in Hulu’s PEN15, which stars Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle (who also create and produce the show, along with Sam Zvibleman, Andy Samberg, and more) as two middle school outcasts in the all-too-memorable year 2000, when gel pens, AIM, and pranks of the male genitalia variety reigned supreme. From ill-fitting polo shirts and little butterfly clips to tattoo chokers and cargo pants (oh, and seriously bulky thongs that leave very little to the imagination—more on that later), the comedy series, which was just renewed for a second season, doesn’t miss a beat in its near-perfect encapsulation of early-aughts awkwardness. It’s so delightfully awkward, in fact, that it caused the show’s costume designer, Melissa Walker, to nearly dry-heave.
“Some of those trends from the late ’90s and early 2000s are coming back, but relating those trends to my awkward years, when I wasn’t able to execute them properly, just gives me goosebumps,” she tells CR. “It reminded me of being uncomfortable in my own skin.” The best word to describe those years? “Gross,” she says.
Costume research for the show wasn’t limited to “just watching movies based on that same time period.” In addition to poring through popular teen magazines (think Seventeen, YM, Teen People, and J-14) and clothing catalogues (Alloy, not Delia’s, was most valuable to her, as it offered a better variety), Walker flipped through yearbooks and photographs that belonged not only to her, but Erskine and Konkle, too. “We worked really hard to keep it as true to the era as possible—and also true to actual middle schoolers,” she explains. “It’s before you get your first job, so you don’t have your own money, and your parents are buying everything.”
E-Bay, naturally, was a godsend, particularly for specific pieces by brands like FUBU, Sketchers, and the like. “I’ve already begun stalking a certain pair of Sketchers on there for season two,” Walker confesses, despite not having seen the script yet. As for the rest, vintage stores—especially ones in Middle America—were veritable platters of inspiration, brimming with sartorial vestiges of yesteryear in the form of Limited Too, Mudd Jeans, and L.E.I., among others.
Interestingly, she notes, finding such clothing that would fit Erskine and Konkle, who, at age 32, play 13-year-old girls, was not nearly as challenging as it was to find clothing for the actual, real middle schoolers who star alongside the duo in the series. “Anna and Maya are both tiny, but there are so many girls at age 13 who aren’t even a size 0 or 1 yet,” she says. “It was hard to fit the rest of the cast because vintage stores aren’t often targeted to children.”
While objectively drab and painfully perplexing, the clothing is deeply symbolic, primarily in terms of the colors, silhouettes, and brands. “Anna understands the trends a little more than Maya,” Walker says. “Maya is a little bit more childish and naive—a lot of times she’s in oversized sweatshirts and T-shirts, while Anna is trying to ‘get with the fashion’ by wearing little babydoll polos. She just gets the ones that fit poorly, and in brands that don’t really get her into the popular circle.” (To wit, Anna wears Old Navy and American Eagle, while the popular girls wear Abercrombie & Fitch and The Gap.) The duo is also differentiated from the in-crowd by sporting colors like blues and yellows rather than pinks and purples.
But there’s one piece of clothing that acts as an almighty uniter: the thong. In episode five, “Community Service,” Anna and Maya steal a classmate’s hot pink G-string, dumbfounded at the instant boost of confidence it lends, as well as the immediate attention the visible garment brings from their male peers. The decision to center an entire episode on a thong—an item that, at the time, doubled as a badge of coolness and maturity—speaks not only to the universal desire as an adolescent to grow up quickly, but also the advancement of fabric technology. “I remember when Limited Too came out with a thong, and there was a huge uproar from parents,” Walker recalls. “I remember going into the store and seeing them and wondering why they were so bulky and not smooth. I was like, Why am I supposed to put all that fabric in my butt? Thongs back then weren’t like they are now—seamless with a commando-like feeling. You always felt and saw the line, and we wanted to make sure we captured the awkwardness of that.”
Though details of the show’s second season remain scarce (for starters, it’s yet to be known whether or not the duo will be “trapped in a vortex of seventh grade” or will graduate to all-important eighth grade), Walker can barely contain her excitement. “I just bought 20 more magazines and catalogues,” she says. “I’m just so giddy. Middle school is such an experimental time of trying to find yourself, and that’s often reflected in clothing.” Roll-y backpacks and flood pants notwithstanding, memories of yesteryear, no matter how embarrassing, can still be thought of fondly—and in the case of PEN15, comically, too.END
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