Heroes: Troop Beverly Hills

An ’80s classic’s 30th anniversary coincides with the glorious excess of the spring 2019 collections.

On March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker careened into an Alaskan reef and leaked 11 million gallons of crude oil into pristine coastal waters, serving as a handy metaphor for the end of the ’80s: the toxic excesses of the “greed-is-good” years spilling over and suffocating everything in its path. That same day, on movie screens across an anxious nation, another emblem of the era would make her auspicious debut: Phyllis Nefler, the plucky housewife-cum-troop-leader at the center of Troop Beverly Hills. Inhabited perfectly by actress Shelley Long, Nefler goes from compulsive shopper to hyper-competent heroine, which appealed to audiences hungry for stability with a dash of ’80s sheen. The gilded glories of the decade were already in the rear view, thanks to the crash of ’87 and subsequent recession, which made the escapist delights of Troop—sprees on Rodeo Drive, Rolls Royce kiddie carpools, and above all, the affirming, couture-caped swagger of Long’s Nefler—so consumable. Thirty years on we celebrate the film and fashion that still gives us khaki wishes and cookie dreams.

Most of the credit for the endurance of Troop is due to the costume designer Theodora Van Runkle’s dazzling wardrobe. As Van Runkle knew, women like Nefler would be fluent in the language of Saint Laurent couture, Lacroix poufs, and Bob Mackie bugle beads. These exaggerated silhouettes of the moment—cinched waists, pastel panniers, bustled trains—do much to convey her story (an out-of-touch, Melrose Marie Antoinette with a heart, and AmEx, of gold). But it is Nefler’s modified troop-leader costume that is the film’s most memorable coup de mode. For her first Wilderness Girls convocation, Nefler opts for a khaki and green-piped confection with a swirling cape affixed to Joan Crawford– grade shoulders. The look is as much ’80s as it is Hollywood Regency grand dame. There is as much of Bette and Joan’s willful independence in her as there is Wilshire Boulevard tart; her antic cigarette holder and soigne nightgowns are more Letty Lynton than Less Than Zero.


It is this mash-up of eras: ’30s glamour and the more-is-more baroque of ’80s high fashion, that make the clothes so compelling to this day. Designers like Balmain’s Olivier Rousteing and recent Marc Jacobs mine the archness of the Nefler decade with towering shoulder pads, brocades, and over-the-top ruffles that recall the great designers of the period. Their’s is not so much a direct Troop influence, but to a certain millennial audience, these haute ’80s notions of dressing have one undeniable touchstone: the den mother of Troop Beverly Hills.

Had it not spilled into the ocean, the oil onboard the Exxon Valdez would have gone to its destination of Long Beach, California, about a half tank’s worth of gas away from Beverly Hills. Which is to say, the consumerism of the rich so drolly depicted in the movie was on a collision course with reality. But Phyllis Nefler’s determination to get her troop to the finish line while looking fabulous at all costs has inspired us for decades. While everything seemed to crash and burn around her, Nefler’s style, and spirit, was unsinkable.

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