The Comical 1990 Film Sofia Coppola Turned Costume Designer For

The Spirit of ’76, 1990(Film still)

With its flamboyant fashion, The Spirit of ’76 makes a case for a Coppola-curated wardrobe

Nine years before her ethereal first feature-length The Virgin Suicides would be released, Sofia Coppola forayed into the world of filmmaking as a costume designer, persuaded by her brother Roman Coppola to work on a new project he was producing: the peculiar The Spirit of ’76. Tasked with providing the costumes for a thrilling time travel story – the film was set in 1976 and 2176 – Sofia Coppola gave a striking first example of the distinct exploration of period-related clothing that would come to mark her own work as a director. Although the film’s wardrobe is quite contrary to the ravishingly romantic dresses of The Virigin Suicides or the elaborate costumes of Marie Antoinette, it still provides a first glimpse into Coppola’s unique understanding of fashion as a prime tool for telling a story.

Which, in the case of The Spirit of ’76, sees the trio Adam-11 (David Cassidy), Chanel-6 (Olivia d’Abo), and Heinz-57 (Geoff Hoyle) embark on a comical adventure to save a dystopian America from extinction. Boarding a self-built time machine with the goal to retrieve lost artefacts and documents like the American Constitution and thus reinvigorate society, the group sets course for the 4th of July 1776 – unintentionally missing it by 200 years and promptly finding themselves in the midst of the 1970s disco movement and American suburbia.

With the trio’s first stop being a clothing shop to swap their futuristic silver uniforms for the vibrant fashion of the era, Coppola’s costume design quickly takes centre stage. As Adam-11, Chanel-6, and Heinz-57 navigate a tight 12-hour timeframe, CIA agents that assume they are aliens, and friendly but fuzzy-headed high school students, the only feature that never feels out of place is their wardrobe. Despite being only 17 during the production of The Spirit of ’76, Coppola immersed herself in the visual world of the 70s, creating costumes that were as eccentric yet enchanting as the film itself – and a prime example of the lessons that can be learned from a Coppola-curated wardrobe.

1. Make a case for transparent accessories

In line with the gloomy grey corridors of the dystopian capital, the uniform worn in the future the film imagines exclusively consists of silver pieces – the most striking being an entirely see-through briefcase. Long before contemporary fashion houses like Céline would offer highly coveted transparent bags, Sofia Coppola seems to have already foreseen the appeal of a monochromatic look – and the sense of composition that minimalistic, albeit empty, accessories can offer.

2. Dress for the occasion (or era)

With a visit to the shop Planet Earth as their utmost priority when landing in 1976, Adam-11, Chanel-6, and Heinz-57 immediately recognise the importance of adjusting a wardrobe to its surroundings. And with a film as visually charged as The Spirit of ’76, this approach fittingly entails an assortment of bright colours, ruffles, vivid patterns, and plenty of stripes. As much as the outcome may clash with any pinterest-ready colour plaettes, it made the trio fit right into the 70s.

3. Focus on the footwear

“I have found a very interesting artefact,” Chanel-6 whispers while showing Heinz-57 a wedged snakeskin heel she’s discovered in the clothing shop. “It appears to be footwear,” she concludes. Whether it’s this mesmerising piece or a pair of glitter-coated plateau boots with the words ‘Rock’ and ‘Roll’ emblazoned on them, flashy footwear is right at the centre of The Spirit of ’76. Despite being something of a hindrance to the wild chases the trio has to undertake, these fashionable ‘artefacts’ are more than suitable for their outfits.

4. Embrace the statement shirt

While on a desperate hunt for a copy of the American Constitution, Heinz-57 comes across a number of white shirts covered in precisely the text he is longing for. Swiftly buying up the stock, he proudly takes them back to 2176 – where they are used to teach school children about the past. Although the text is nearly indecipherable due to its size and spread over almost every part of the shirts, the pieces still perfectly fulfil their purpose – their white colour and wide sleeves almost a spitting image of what would later become known as the statement shirt.

5. Don’t take yourself too seriously

Underlying the plot as much as the fashion itself is a tireless exploration of distinct comicality, naturally leading to humour being woven through almost every garment and scene. Whether this dosage of irony shows itself in the deliberately exaggerated characters, the clustered set design, or through a cameo of Sofia Coppola herself – who appears as a hostess snowball girl at the welcome-back-parade for the adventurous trio – The Spirit of ’76 wouldn’t be nearly as captivating without these curious details, and neither would its clothes be.

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