How Cruel Summer Totally Nailed Every Major '90s Fashion Trend

Costume designer Taneia Lednicky broke down the fun and challenge of establishing three different time periods through fashion in Freeform's new drama.

By Tierney Bricker Apr 21, 2021 1:00 PMTags
Watch: "Cruel Summer": Olivia Holt & Chiara Aurelia Tease New '90s Series

On Freeform's Cruel Summer, the characters' whole lives are measured in, as you might guess, summers.

The highly anticipated psychological thriller, which is executive produced by Jessica Biel, finally premiered on April 20, delivering a new mystery viewers will have a hard time resisting. 

Set in a three-year span within the '90s, Cruel Summer centers on the impact that the disappearance of Kate (Olivia Holt) has on nerdy wannabe Jeanette (Chiara Aurelia) and the rest of their small-town community. But, as those who tuned into the two-hour premiere know—Spoiler alert!—Kate is found alive and she's publicly claiming that Jeanette knew she was being held captive and did nothing to help her. Cruel, indeed, if it is true.

While all of us armchair detectives will have to wait to see how the she said-she said plays out, there is one mystery we can solve right now: How costume designer Taneia Lednicky was able to effortlessly nail transitioning between 1993, 1994 and 1995 through fashion. 

Your Favorite '90s and '00s Movies Streaming Now on Netflix

"This project had a spark from the first meeting. The script was intriguing, and everyone wanted to know what would happen in the next episode," Lednicky told E! News. "[The] emphasis was on the individual characters and their journeys of self-discovery. This made the choice of the 90s time period perfect for me to work in, since it was a time of self-discovery for fashion as well. Styles were not just being pushed on the public by runways. People were finding fashion for themselves, in thrift stores, import shops, attics, music, and sports. And fashion was discovering the street."

Through the three time periods, each character sports a very different look, which presented "a special challenge" for Lednicky, "since, in reality, the fashions did not change like the flip of a switch."

So how did she pull it off? 

Lednicky broke down how she was able to dig deep into the '90s to style not one, not two, but three different years at once in our latest guilty pleasure...

Color For the Summer

To help differentiate each of Cruel Summer's time periods, "We used color as a primary clue," costume designer Taneia Lednicky explained to E! News.

1993 called for "brighter and bolder prints," she detailed. As for "that fun mid-thigh length of shorts and tucked in shirts and t-shirts all helped" mark that first summer? "Younger things, kids' prints and styles," Lednicky said of her main inspiration points. "Sears and J.C. Penney's catalogues."

She continued, "As the kids age, they look to Seventeen and Tiger Beat. We softened the colors for '94 some and used more color blocking."

Finally, for 1995, Lednicky explained, "Self expression is part of growing up. More adult sources. Identifying the thing that makes each character unique. Our characters all became more adult, and generally more polished. The color palette continued to fade. We used more ripped jeans and flannel."

Doing the Homework

While styling three consecutive years presented a unique task for Lednicky, she was more than ready for the challenge, saying, "Research is so fun!"

In addition to scouring the Internet and reading old magazines—think Tiger Beat, Cosmo, Teen and Seventeen—Lednicky revealed she "hit up everyone I knew for local high school yearbooks. Always fascinating!"

And, given that the series is set in a small Texas town, Lednicky bought old catalogues from that time period "to keep true to the socioeconomic level… J.C. Penney's helped keep us real."

Of course, the costume designer added, "living through this period also helped."

Under the Influence

Before Instagram helped "fashion influencer" become a career opportunity, the major inspirations for young people's fashion were A-list celebrities.

 "Anyone who watches will see shades of icons from the time," Lednicky shared. "Princess Diana, Brad Pitt, Lauryn Hill, Madonna, Keanu Reeves, Lisa Bonet, Winona Ryder, Courtney Love, NirvanaDrew Barrymore went through so many fashion transitions, she can be found to represent almost every group!"

Source Material

"Real is always better," Lednicky said of using as many vintage pieces as possible. "Pre-worn gives an authentic feel that is hard to duplicate."

In addition to going to shops such as Dolly Python, Lulu B's and Vagabond in Dallas, where Cruel Summer was filmed, Lednicky said, "Lots of stock came from Salvation Army, Goodwill and St. Vincent DePaul."

Due to the pandemic, she said, "We also shopped quite a bit online. Killer Dolls, thank you!"

Jeanette's Transition

Over the course of three years, Jeanette Turner (Chiara Aurelia) goes from ugly duckling to most popular girl in school to the most hated person in America, and the emotional transformation is evident in her appearance. 

In the first summer, Jeanette is "innocent, quirky, shy but open to the word," with the 15-year-old sporting bright colors, t-shirts and braces, Lednicky explained.

Then, in '94, "she discovers her power and ability to move in the popular world, and to have a boyfriend. Or is she faking?"

Finally, in '95, after she's been accused of not helping to free the abducted Kate, Jeanette "needs comfort and safety and to figure out who she really is." So darker and baggier clothing provided that armor.

Kate's Sartorial Fate

To say Kate (Olivia Holt) goes through a lot during the three-year time period is a bit of an understatement. 

"Kate in '93 looks like she has it all," Lednicky explained. "Acceptance is based on appearance and she has the resources to get what she (or her mother) wants."

But after her kidnapping and eventual rescue, Kate "has to evaluate her life, her friends and herself," which meant a major wardrobe change for the previously prim and proper character. Sundresses, perfect curls and jazzercise leotards are replaced by grungy flannel, shorter hair and dark eyeliner. 

Working with "great hair and make-up departments," the clothes help orient the viewer in each year immediately, with Lednicky teasing, "This entire show is a series of clues for the observant."

Supporting Senses of Style

For Mallory (Harley Quinn Smith) and Vince (Allius Barnes), Jeanette's BFFs, their outfit choices are about standing out on their own terms.

"Mallory is all about self-creation," Lednicky explained of Jeanette's bestie-turned-frenemy. "With little money to use, she scrounges and thrifts for items to express herself with. She uses her creativity to make what she finds her own."

As for her bespectacled best friend, "Vince is also making his own path," Lednicky said. "He appreciates creativity, but doesn't want to draw too much attention to himself."

Jamie (Froy Gutierrez), meanwhile, goes from Kate's boyfriend to Jeanette's beau to gun-wielding lurker over the three-year span. 

"Jamie is the sexy, straight-forward boy next door. He also has the good looks and charm to move between groups," Lednicky detailed of the characteristics that informed her wardrobe decisions. "His search for identity is complicated by his family history, and some bad choices."

Cruel Summer airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on Freeform. 

For everything you should be watching right now, don't miss BingE! Club hosted by Erin Lim on Snapchat!