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There are many differences between the CW teen drama Riverdale and the Archie Comics series it’s based on. Gone is clumsy Archie the second-rate athlete, replaced by an Archie who makes captain of the varsity football team his sophomore year (but lets Reggie take the title). Jughead’s defining features are no longer his voracious appetite and aversion to dating girls but rather his writerly aspirations and outsider status. Plus there’s all the murder, drug trafficking, and teacher-on-student sexual predation — it is an edgy teen drama, after all.
But Betty Cooper, BFF/romantic rival of Veronica Lodge, remains what she’s always been: a bright, beautiful, wholesome young woman, the literal and figurative girl next door. Or does she? The new Betty is still an all-American girl, but the way Riverdale uses that archetype demonstrates how our idea of the girl next door has changed over time — and how that shows up in the character’s style, which has morphed from brash tomboy chic to subdued prep.
Of course, there’s no single canonical style for Betty or any other Riverdale resident. The comics have been in publication since 1942, and over the decades, the characters’ clothes, hairstyles, and even faces have changed. (Jughead has had his trademark “whoopee cap” since day one, though, tragically, his single-strapped overalls with a patch on the butt didn’t last.) Until the 1960s, before the tomboy elements of Betty’s style started showing up, both Betty and Veronica tended to wear pinup-fantasy versions of schoolgirl outfits — dresses cinched around waists the size of tobacco tins and sweaters straining over ample breasts. Saddle shoes abounded.
Once they got past the bobby socks, though, Betty and Veronica solidified into the fashion-focused duo you probably remember from your childhood. “Their fashion was always changing and always on trend, if not incredibly ahead of its time,” says Katie Jensen, a podcast producer who grew up devouring Archie Comics for the girls’ style.
Though their personalities differed (Veronica was endearingly spoiled and sometimes manipulative, while Betty was earnest and hard-working), “Betty and Veronica usually dressed pretty similarly,” says sometimes fashion blogger Amanda Bowen, who has a collection of Archie Comics and its various spinoffs spanning decades. Veronica might accessorize with some signifier of wealth, like a fur stole or impractical stilettos, but Betty was never held back by her smaller allowance. She was always “recreating these designs herself via sewing machine,” says Bowen. They usually involved, in Jensen’s words, “clashing primary colors, insane patterns, and excessive layering” — but in a good way. (Everyone in the Archie universe adores bright colors. In a 1979 issue of Life with Archie, a farmer wears magenta overalls.)
There were a couple things that distinguished Betty’s style from Veronica’s. First: the ponytail. According to Jensen, her “staple is a healthy, full-bodied pony,” which is always, always, “fringed by deliciously fluffy bangs.” Second: She was kind of a tomboy. “I know Betty could throw down with style when she had to,” says Mercedes Marks, a lifelong Archie fan who works in TV production, “but when I picture her ‘look,’ it’s casual-meets-cute tomboy, rugby shirts and cutoffs and that sort of thing.”
It wasn’t so much that Betty dressed in boyish clothes. It was more that she did a lot of male-coded activities Veronica would never be caught dead doing. Betty “wasn’t afraid to get her hands dirty, whether it was volunteering as a candy striper, competing in school sports, doing yard work, or fixing up cars,” says Jensen. And her style reflected that variety. “In general, Betty wears outfits with a playful spin: colorful overalls with ring-tee crop tops and kerchiefs... loose white oxfords with hot pants and pan boots, slim-fitting crewnecks tucked into high-waisted jeans,” says Jensen. “Her outfits function as wild play clothes that allow for movement, fluidity, and physical activity.”
Now consider Riverdale’s Betty, who is, in Jensen’s description, “defined by lukewarm pastel sweater sets, forgettable Peter Pan collars, and severe ponytails reminiscent of the glued-down hairspray techniques of stage moms.” Even Lili Reinhart, the (very talented) actress who plays Betty, has joked on Twitter that she gets excited when her character is “allowed to wear something other than jeans and a pink/blue sweater.”
The tedium of Betty’s wardrobe is especially disappointing because it’s so different from the source material. “What strikes me is how hyperfeminine it is,” says Marks. You can’t imagine this version of Betty playing baseball or changing a tire. Instead, she takes Adderall to enhance her grades at the behest of her overbearing mother. She doesn’t play sports, but she is a cheerleader.
The Betty in the comics “was always down to take a risk,” says Bowen, but on the show, she’s made out to be more “uptight, which is why her ponytail is so tightly pulled back. So literal.” When Betty does take risks, with her style or her actions, it’s as part of a good-girl-gone-bad narrative in which she gets in touch with what she calls “the darkness within me” (and not like in issue 80 of Betty and Me, when she was possessed by the spirit of Felicity Goodbody and began to sow chaos and speak in misconjugated Shakespearean English). If she’s torturing a douchebag jock to get revenge for his mistreatment of her sister, she’ll don a black bob wig and lacy bra top. Otherwise: powder-blue cardigans.
But Riverdale Betty is still “the perfect girl next door” — those are Jughead’s exact words in “The Lost Weekend,” the 10th episode of the first season. The question is: Why did the image of the girl next door change from a bouncy, unpretentious everygirl to a repressed overachiever?
The question is more complicated than it might seem. It’s not like the Betty in the comics wasn’t ambitious or skilled — in fact, she was superhumanly competent. “She was good at stereotypically male and female things,” Bowen points out. She could cook, sew, get under the hood of a car, play sports, get good grades, babysit, tutor, and support her friends, and she had infinite outfits to reflect her infinite talents.
On Riverdale, Betty’s roles are much more circumscribed and almost all stereotypically feminine. She’s good at school and decent at cheerleading (the support-the-football-team kind, not the Bring It On kind). She works hard to be a good friend, girlfriend, sister, and daughter.
But you’ll never see her with motor oil on her hands, and if you didn’t grow up with the comic books, you won’t notice it’s missing. That’s not what we expect from a girl next door in 2017.
Maybe teens and 20-somethings are so spooked by the financial precarity defining their young adulthood that the idea of a girl next door who works tirelessly and never takes risks is comforting. Maybe the hyperfemininity of the millennial girl next door is a weird side effect of the conservative backlash that elected Trump. In any case, when Betty jumped from page to screen, she — and her closet — shrank.
It’s ironic that in an era when women have more freedom than ever, when we’re supposed to be able to “have it all,” Betty has far less choice than she used to have, even when it comes to her fashion. Her clothes are not the creative outlet they were when she designed and sewed them in the comics. Instead, she wears exactly the same things her mother and sister Polly wear — quite literally, in the scene where Polly borrows Betty’s sweater during the baby shower Betty throws for her. “Betty doesn't look so much like the girl next door as she does the helpless girl pinned under her mother's thumb, forced to wear clothing so baggy and shapeless that it fits her pregnant sister,” Jensen says.
Though I hate to say it, the CW’s version of Betty resonates with me more than the Betty in the comics ever did. In high school, I was an overachiever, unflattering gelled-back ponytail and all. I didn’t have time to figure out fashion or learn the rainbow of skills Betty had in the comics; my whole life was school, schoolwork, and extracurriculars that would look good on my college applications. I succeeded in attending my dream college, but you can’t go through all that — the sleep deprivation, the fear of failure, the crushing pressure to be perfect — without feeling some of that “darkness within you.” I wish my good-girlness, and the good-girlness of any teens watching the CW right now, were less Riverdale Betty and more comic-book Betty: eager to learn, unafraid to take risks, not constricted by a subconscious understanding that girls don’t do certain things. I identify more with TV Betty, but I wish I didn’t.
She’s not a lost cause, though. As Jensen points out, TV Betty has her share of badass moments trying to solve Jason Blossom’s murder as a journalist for the school newspaper. Now if only they’d ditch the pastels and dress her in “desert boots, trenches, and no-fuss high-waisted jeans with interesting washes,” or “at least toss her a distressed brown leather jacket once in awhile.”