Courtesy Netflix
Gaten Matarazzo, Finn Wolfhard, Caleb McLaughlin and Noah Schnapp, Stranger Things

Best Dressed: How Stranger Things' Costume Designers Took the Show's Generation Z Stars Back to the '80s

Behind the scenes of Season 2's sartorial evolution

Clothes may make the man, but on Netflix's sci-fi/horror series Stranger Things, ill-fitting Lee jeans make the kid.

Stranger Things introduces us to Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), a trio of kids in 1983 Indiana who are investigating the disappearance of their best friend, Will Byers (Noah Schnapp). The show relies on a number of supernatural elements to propel its plot and maintain suspense, but creators Matt and Ross Duffer insisted on a completely grounded '80s setting, driven primarily by the music and fashion favored by the young protagonists.

For Season 1, costume designer Kimberly Adams-Galligan, the primary objective in bringing the characters to life was authenticity.

"The Duffer Brothers' biggest focus was that they wanted the characters to be real and not kitschy versions of what people remember of the '80s, which happens a lot," says Adams-Galligan, who also worked on another '80s-set series, AMC's Halt and Catch Fire.

Ahead of Season 1, Adams-Galligan created meticulously detailed sketches and tear sheets -- which are essentially "mood boards" -- for each character, bringing the fictional adolescents to life and imparting individual characteristics through their wardrobe choices.

Stranger Things character sketches by Oksana Nedavnya
Courtesy Kimberly Adams-Galligan

"I had to figure out who could handle which type of patterns and colors and combinations, so that they could each have their own looks," she explains. "Just trying to really feed into the reality of these kids' characters and have that reflect through their closets was really important."

Onscreen, that approach meant the costumes not only signified the quirks of individual characters (like the athletic, upbeat Lucas' penchant for bandannas), but also made larger, albeit more subtle, statements about the differences among this particular group of friends and their families. Take, for instance, the characters of Will, the boy who goes missing, and his best friend Mike, who spearheads the search party.

"[Will] is the youngest in the family. His mom doesn't have a lot of money. He would have had hand-me-downs... I really tried to get, same with his brother as well, just that kind of that odd, ill-fitting, not trendy-of-the-time kind of fit," Adams-Galligan notes. "Different than somebody like Mike, whose family was upper-middle class [and] conservative. He would have had newer things for the school year."

Translation: L.L. Bean basics for the wealthier Mike, Lee jeans that were intentionally distressed by the costume department for Will, and clothes from the late '70s for Will's struggling single mother Joyce (Winona Ryder). Even Will's shoes were intentionally broken-in so that they would have the appearance of being previously worn by his older brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton). In contrast, the other children's shoes were aged only minimally to make it appear like they had gotten them new at the start of the school year, just a few months before the events that occur in the show (which takes place around Christmas).

When Kim Wilcox joined Stranger Things as the costume designer in Season 2, she knew she faced some of the same challenges as Adams-Galligan as far as authenticity goes. "When you start looking back at these real pictures, [the clothing] is not loud. The '80s can be very, 'Oh, let's concentrate on the neon' or 'Oh, let's concentrate on all of the fads that were so outrageous,'" Wilcox points out. "But in everyday life, and especially in a small town in the middle of the country like Hawkins, Ind., it's a lot quieter. That's what [the Duffers] are interested in portraying, and that's what I think they did very well in Season 1 and I think we tried to continue in Season 2."

A major struggle for Wilcox was having to adjust to the growth spurts the child stars underwent during the shoots, not to mention in between seasons, in terms of both clothing and shoe size. When they couldn't find multiple sizes of the same items -- Adams-Galligan notes that the time period was very difficult to source for in pre-teen sizes likely due to surplus stock being shipped abroad like most "ugly decades" of fashion -- Adams-Galligan and Wilcox both resorted to making the clothes themselves.

During Season 2, Wilcox even bought an old-fashioned height-measuring chart to track the young stars' growth. "Then it became a contest for whoever was coming in for fittings, to see who was the person that they had just outpaced on the wall," she recalls, noting that some of the actors grew nearly four inches during filming.

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But for Wilcox, an even bigger challenge for Season 2 was incorporating the young characters' emotional growth along with the physical, while still adhering to the aesthetic that had been laid out for them in Season 1. "It was more about, how are they reacting to what they've just been through? How many of them are just trying to move on and go about their lives, and how many of them are sort of stuck in the past?" Wilcox says.

To that end, the fashion choices for Lucas, the most upbeat of the bunch, remain basically the same (down to his favorite camouflage bandanna). Dustin got some upgrades also: "He's our science expert, and his knowledge comes in very handy in Season 2," Wilcox says. "There's a periodic table T-shirt that we thought was fun for him in Episode 1. And then there's a dinosaur exhibit that he might have gone to see. We sort of played with, what are his interests, in how the graphics in his wardrobe evolve."

Mike, however, is a little more subdued in Season 2, in mourning after the disappearance of his friend/crush Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown). And his clothing reflects that. "Mike is probably a little bit quieter, color-wise, a little bit darker than he was in Season 1," Wilcox explains. "We wanted to reflect his mood a little bit. He's not the same kid in some ways, emotionally, that we met in Season 1."

Eleven underwent the biggest sartorial change of the Season 1 cast, however, as she seeks out new family and figures out who she is as a person with a name instead of a number. Gone was the iconic dress she wears in Season 1 -- paired with Mike's jacket, tube socks and sneakers -- that Adams-Galligan modeled on a Polly Flinders dress, a style popularized in the '60s and '70s. "It took a little discovery to try to figure out, what was that right dress that would be dug out of the attic that would have been Nancy's?" Adams-Galligan explains. "


Millie Bobby Brown, Stranger Things


In Season 2, Eleven's sartorial choices are driven by the new friends that she makes -- a "tribe that is distinguished in some ways by how they look," Wilcox teases -- as well as her own adjustment to life outside both Hawkins Lab and the Upside Down.

"Her clothes for Season 2 are really a reflection of this new person that's taking care of her and where that person would be finding clothes. So, they're not necessarily things that would reflect her personal taste, but they are put together in ways that she finds fun," Wilcox notes. "She's a young woman who grew up in a very unusual situation... so for her, having different clothes to choose from is kind of fun. Like, how do you put them together and how many layers you put together. It doesn't always make sense the way she wears them, but it's a lot of fun for her."

But Wilcox was most excited about the new Season 2 character Billy (Dacre Montgomery), whom she says she gleefully modeled after '80s bad boys in films like The Outsiders. "We haven't really seen this kind of character come to Hawkins before...We started looking back at old pictures of, like, Rob Lowe and Johnny Depp," she says. "A little bit of Bruce Springsteen. We were looking for, who is this very masculine presence that seems a bit more dangerous than we've seen before, and how is that represented in clothing? I like the old-school denim-on-denim '80s look for that. I think it's very sexy...and we were really excited about having this guy have an earring."

The only thing Wilcox didn't touch from Season 1? The signature hat Adams-Galligan landed on for Matarazzo as Dustin. Despite the many duplicates of costumes on set, the hat, predictably, was a one-off. So it was treated like the Holy Grail and kept in a special box on the set. "I said [to Gaten], 'Every time you work, the set person is going to give you your hat on set and they're going to take the hat off of you on set,'" Adams-Galligan recalls. "Because if we lost it, we're screwed."

Both Wilcox and Matarazzo made it through, but who knows if the hat will reappear for a star turn in Season 3. After all, now that Dustin's discovered the four-puff Farrah Fawcett formula -- Steve's secret sauce, so to speak -- he's man transformed.

Season 2 of Stranger Things is streaming now on Netflix.