Logan Lerman as Charlie Kelmeckis, anxious high school freshman
Pittsburgh, Christmas 1991 through Spring 1992
Film: The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Release Date: September 21, 2012
Director: Stephen Chbosky
Costume Designer: David C. Robinson
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
If you read my last post about Jonah Hill’s party gear in Superbad, you know I’ve been on a bit of a high school nostalgia kick lately. And I’m keeping that going with a look at the very significant suit gifted to our sensitive narrator in the book and movie adaptation of Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
Chbosky based much of his epistolary debut novel on his own high school experiences in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, thus The Perks of Being a Wallflower became especially impactful among my groups of friends. (Like my wife, Chbosky graduated from Upper St. Clair High School in Pittsburgh’s southern suburbs, while I received my diploma on the other side of the Three Rivers at North Allegheny Senior High School.)
The novel was published in 1999, and its realistic and sympathetic depictions of angst and isolation made it a fast-growing favorite among many of my fellow millennials—I could relate to Charlie’s anxieties and sensitivities, and reading about them helped me feel both seen and appreciative for the groups of friends who befriended me despite (or possibly even because of) them. Chbosky refused to sell the rights to a cinematic adaptation unless he could write and direct it himself, a decision which I appreciate as it makes the small changes from page-to-screen intentional and true to the spirit of the original story.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower centers around Charlie, a shy, gifted, and introverted yet observant teen beginning his first year of high school in the fall of 1991. Saddled with considerable trauma like his best friend’s suicide and the circumstances surrounding the death of his beloved aunt, Charlie deals with his depression and isolation through a series of letters to an unidentified recipient, though he finds additional forms of therapy through his helpful English teacher Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd) and acceptance among a group of senior students, particularly the self-described “misfit toys” Patrick (Ezra Miller) and Sam (Emma Watson).
My “wallflowers” were the lifelong friends I made through student council, an organization I almost hadn’t joined at all due to my very Charlie-esque anxiety about running for a position against a popular cheerleader when I was just an oddball eighth grader who often tried to dress like Robert Redford in The Sting—to the surprise of absolutely no BAMF Style readers, I’m sure. After I shocked myself by winning the election, I was introduced to a subset of peers I never knew existed—groups of welcoming, nonjudgmental people who didn’t take out their own angst and trauma on others but were accepting, curious, and open-minded, inspiring me to adopt the same attitudes.
What’d He Wear?
Charlie’s first Christmas with his fellow “wallflowers” includes their annual tradition of Secret Santa, in which each member of the group secretly gives a series of gifts to another. “I have received socks, pants, a shirt, and a belt,” Charlie announces at the final party. “I was ordered to wear them all tonight, so… guessing my Secret Santa is Mary Elizabeth.”
After clearing up that Charlie’s Secret Santa was actually Patrick and not Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman), despite her penchant for bossiness, Patrick explains the rationale behind the gift for his new friend:
All the great writers used to wear great suits. So, your last present is on a towel rack in the bathroom. Delve into our facilities, emerge a star!
The scene plays out almost exactly as in the novel, with Charlie initially mystified by having “received thrift store ‘slacks’… a tie, a white shirt, shoes, and an old belt. I’m guessing that my last gift at the party will be a suit coat because it’s the only thing left.”
Explaining that the suit is secondhand explains both the style, which has some 1960s British Mod inspiration, as well as its missing jacket button (more on both of those later). Though not too offbeat, the suit is a departure from Charlie’s “safe” trad-informed formula for occasions requiring a tie, such as school dances and his sister’s graduation, where he wears a navy blazer, blue OCBD, and repp striped ties. The suit from Patrick signifies his association with the group of friends that has accepted him, even when wearing it the school deepens the gulf between him and his fellow classmates.
At the time of the movie’s release, Jenni Miller reported for Fandango that “costume designer David C. Robinson and his team scoured Pittsburgh’s secondhand stores for the perfect Perks clothes,” though “Charlie was a ‘classic preppy’ whose suit they snagged on eBay.” I can’t tell if this is a specific reference to Charlie’s actual suit or the preppier blazer-and-khakis combo he wears elsewhere, and I haven’t been able to find any more primary sources to elaborate on this.
The dark olive suit has a silky sheen, possibly a synthetic tonic designed to resemble the shiny Tonik mohair/wool blend developed by Dormeuil in 1957 and popular on suits favored by mod subculture through the swinging ’60s, illustrated on screen by Michael Caine in Alfie (1966) and Get Carter (1971). Patrick’s choice to buy Charlie a suit echoing his era shows a respect for Charlie retro-minded sensibility consistent with his music taste and reading assignments.
The suit’s single-breasted jacket follows the profile of a ’60s mod suit, with a high-fastening three-button front and very narrow notch lapels. The straight shoulders are roped at the sleeveheads, and the jacket is shaped with front darts and squared skirt. The back has a short single vent. The jacket also has a welted breast pocket, straight flapped hip pockets, and three recessed buttons on each cuff that match the front buttons.
Indicative of the suit’s thrifted origins, the jacket is already missing its center button when Charlie first tries it on, thus he always wears it unbuttoned. (Many classic mod jackets had buttons covered in the same cloth as the suit, but Charlie should evidently consider himself lucky to have buttons at all!)
The straight, narrow tie coordinates with the width of the lapels. The tie is entirely black, save for two orange horizontal lines about midway between the tie knot and blade and two small orange “boxes” near the left edge, each actually comprised of two small horizontal lines. There is a similar orange double-lined pattern on the back end of the tie as well.
Charlie always wears the suit with an off-the-rack shirt made of white cotton (or a cotton/polyester blend), with a semi-spread collar, front placket, breast pocket, and rounded barrel cuffs that close through one of two buttons to adjust the fit around the wrist.
The suit’s matching trousers have double forward-facing pleats, slanted side pockets, and tapered legs down to the short-break bottoms finished with turn-ups (cuffs). Charlie cycles through two different black leather belts: his belt at the party has a thin gold-toned squared single-prong buckle, while he later wears a belt with a more rectangular silver-toned buckle.
Charlie’s black shoes appear to be simple slip-ons. While saying farewell to Sam at the end of the school year, he wears them with somewhat incongruous white socks that sharply contrast with the dark trouser cloth and shoe uppers.
What to Listen to
Both the book and movie zero in on Charlie’s fondness for the Smiths’ haunting 1985 single “Asleep”, which he discovers early in his freshman year after his sister passed down a mixtape from her pitiful boyfriend. (Unnamed in the novel, her abusive suitor was dubbed “Ponytail Derek” for the film, portrayed by a pre-Succession Nicholas Braun!)
Though the introspective and melancholic “Asleep” becomes Charlie’s signature song throughout The Perks of Being a Wallflower, to the extent that he puts it at the beginning and end of a mixtape he makes for Patrick’s Christmas present, both the book and movie focus on the emotional power of music—specifically the right song at the right time.
In the moment where Charlie relates feeling that he and his friends are “infinite” while driving Sam’s pickup truck inbound through the Fort Pitt tunnels at night (a quintessential Pittsburgh experience), Chbosky’s novel recalls that the group heard “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac playing from the tape in her radio. The cinematic adaptation took some flak for its use of David Bowie’s 1977 hit “Heroes” for the scene—not because of the song itself, but because many believed it stretched the bounds of reality that such music-obsessed teens wouldn’t be aware of such a song. However, Stephen Chbosky defended the decision in an October 2012 interview with Bruce Handy for Vanity Fair, explaining that he wasn’t aware of the artist’s earlier work as “in the early ’90s, David Bowie was ‘Let’s Dance’ to me. He was that guy.”
I can relate to this, as I’ve had my own share of “how do you not know that song?” moments. I graduated from high school in 2007 and had spent many of my formative years leading up to that point listening to and appreciating much of my dad’s favorite music, lots of classic rock (specifically the Rolling Stones, Allman Brothers, and Led Zeppelin) and Motown and—because I’m me—a lot of jazz dating back to the 1920s and ’30s. I had some well-intended friends who would give me CDs of more contemporary artists, but they went under-appreciated as I was more inclined to listen to Dean Martin or The Doors than Dashboard Confessional.
One of my first weeks in college, I was riding around with a group of new friends when “Hypnotize” by The Notorious B.I.G. came on. “Wow, this is great! What is this? Is it new?” I asked… about a 10-year-old hip-hop song that was already considered one of the best (and best-known) of all-time. They looked at me like I was from another planet, and the most sympathetic in the group explained “no… it’s Biggie.”
But back to The Perks of Being a Wallflower… which presents the power of music to connect people. (And not to make fun of them, Guy In The Car With Me In 2007!)
Charlie especially recognizes this value of music, creating mixtapes for his friends and even his deceased aunt to leave at her grave. In the book, his mixtapes blend music from over three decades prior to the setting, including one mixtape with two tracks from the Beatles (“Dear Prudence” and “Blackbird”), though he leaves off their 1969 ballad “Something”—the single that his aunt had been planning to give him for a birthday gift on the night she died and which Charlie in turn gifted to Sam.
Mary Elizabeth also embraces the impact of “giving” music, though it’s possible she hinges so much on Billie Holiday to seem as complicated and mysterious as the troubled singer had been.
The group also unites around their shared love for The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the 1975 musical comedy horror that quickly gained a cult following for its audience participation, as represented on screen when the group of friends perform during screenings of the movie at the Hollywood Theater in Dormont (less than a 10-minute walk from where I currently live!)
Go Big or Go Home
…or come to Pittsburgh!
Having been brown raised in the northern suburbs, I never anticipated that I would actually cross the river to live in the southern suburbs (if you know, you know), but I’ve been delighted to call the Dormont neighborhood my home for more than two years. Stephen Chbosky had also hailed from the South Hills, graduating from Upper St. Clair High School which my wife confirmed does call its cafeteria the “Nutrition Center” just as Charlie bemoans early in both the book and movie.
The movie was filmed on location in much of Chbosky’s old stomping grounds, though the high school that appeared on screen was actually Peters Township High School, about ten minutes south (and across the county line) from USC. The Big Boy mentioned in the book was also represented on screen by Kings Family Restaurant, a local chain that operated 34 restaurants at its peak but is now down to just four locations.
As mentioned above, The Perks of Being a Wallflower also features the Hollywood Theater on Potomac Avenue in Dormont, specifically chosen by Chbosky as that was exactly where he and his friends attended screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show in the late 1980s. The theater has closed and reopened and changed management many times in its nearly century-long history, having first functioned as a theater in 1926 when it showed silent films.
If you want to feel infinite like Charlie, Patrick, and Sam, you can start driving from anywhere here in the South Hills, get on I-376 eastbound heading into the city, and have the perfect song queued up just as you’re going through the Fort Pitt tunnels. (As cool as Emma Watson may have made it look, do not stand on the bed of a pickup truck while doing so.)
When you emerge from the tunnel safely seated and belted, your view of the illuminated downtown Pittsburgh will show the city at its finest…
There’s something about that tunnel that leads to downtown. It’s glorious at night. Just glorious. You start on one side of the mountain, and it’s dark, and the radio is loud. As you enter the tunnel, the wind gets sucked away, and you squint from the lights overhead. When you adjust to the lights, you can see the other side in the distance just as the sound of the radio fades to nothing because the waves just can’t reach. Then, you’re in the middle of the tunnel, and everything becomes a calm dream. As you see the opening get closer, you just can’t get there fast enough. And finally, just when you think you’ll never get there, you see the opening right in front of you. And the radio comes back even louder than you remember it. And the wind is waiting. And you fly out of the tunnel onto the bridge. And there it is. The city. A million lights and buildings and everything seems as exciting as teh first time you saw it. It really is a grand entrance.
— Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Part 4
…okay, but now let’s talk logistics. If it’s your first time through the tunnel, just keep going straight over the bridge and follow the traffic. Whoever designed that whole experience had a great eye for aesthetics, but they give you approximately fifty feet to merge across three or four lanes if you’re trying to head to the North Shore—an easy enough maneuver for experienced yinzers, but it can be daunting for anyone not used to it.
How to Get the Look
The secondhand suit that Charlie receives as a gift has some evident mid-century style inspiration—specifically from the ’60s mod subculture—that befits his retro-minded sensibilities from bands to books, though he doesn’t do himself any favors by wearing it to school.
- Dark olive tonic mod-inspired suit:
- Single-breasted 3-button jacket with narrow notch lapels, welted breast pocket, straight flapped hip pockets, 3-button cuffs, single vent
- Double forward-pleated tapered-leg trousers with belt loops, slanted side pockets, and turn-ups (cuffs)
- White cotton or cotton-blend shirt with semi-spread collar, front placket, breast pocket, and adjustable rounded cuffs
- Black straight tie with two orange horizontal lines and two-line box design
- Black leather belt with silver-toned rectangular single-prong buckle
- Black slip-on shoes
- White socks
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie.
We accept the love we think we deserve.