As a millennial, I’ve often wondered where my generation’s ennui and today’s fucked-up political climate will take Gen Z. According to most media, the message is a hopeful one—we paste images of Gen-Z leaders like gun-control activist Emma González onto our social media feeds like deities—but HBO’s new series Euphoria shows us another story: one of a generation stuck between synthesized beauty and unrelenting despair.
Euphoria’s content has been plenty controversial, but its visuals have garnered attention as well. With palettes of lavender and rose undercut with moody, hazy blues and greens, the color scheme rips at the dystopia of Gen Z’s highly curated world. Euphoria’s teen characters wear this dissonance on their sleeves, with fashion choices ranging from early-2000s rave culture (complete with fuzzy pink backpacks) and the lazy sexiness of the ’90s (think Zendaya’s silk maroon two-piece and bejeweled Members Only jacket in Euphoria’s pilot). Their clothes represent Gen Z’s controlled air of nonchalance, under which lies a thick layer of anxiety they treat with the sedatives of sex, drugs, social media, and misogyny—a response to a world that in many ways failed them before they even reached puberty.
It’s hard to judge Gen Z for how they choose to respond to their world; they’re a generation raised in existential threat. As the show’s drug-addicted protagonist Rue (former Disney star Zendaya) tells us in Euphoria’s first episode, she was born three days after 9/11. The planet is suffocating. Mass shootings are an everyday occurrence. As Rue strolls towards a peer’s casket while narrating this landscape to viewers, it’s clear that the story Euphoria aims to tell is one about young people are just trying to live in the shadow of death. “The world’s coming to an end,” says Rue, “and I haven’t even graduated high school yet.”
All generations live through world-changing events in the troubled world they inherit. But Gen Z is unique in its forced exposure to catastrophic harms that have few—or no—consequences. Referencing leaked teen pornography, Rue notes that, “[I]n the same way that mass shootings, sex scandals, and stolen elections do, the whole thing blew over pretty quickly and we all moved on to the next thing.” But where Generation X piled layers of irony on contemporary chaos and inherited and troubled millennials wallowed in it, Gen Z has aestheticized it, amplifying stereotypical parental nightmares with outfits ranging from BDSM-ready corsets to tight-fitting pastel two-pieces that leave nothing to the imagination. Despite its difficult themes, Euphoria is beautiful to watch: Its colors ooze over the screen like a Mars sunset, putting forth a defiant, intentional alien-ness, as if the visuals refuse to take part in the shitstorm of our present.
Euphoria’s fashion flips the trappings of innocence into avant-garde erotica, and falls somewhere between preschool and strip club in a way that is purposefully discomfiting. We see the sexualization of kindergarten overalls and animal backpacks, tie-dye t-shirts paired with caked eyelashes, and eye makeup reminiscent of the glow-in-the-dark stars pasted to the ceiling of a childhood bedroom. Even Rue’s innocent little sister, Gia (Storm Reid), looks like she’s still wearing the same clothes she did when she was 9 years old; her striped elementary-school tees appear to be chopped into crop tops in a symbolic representation of this blending of the ages.
The sexualization of once-youthful clothing makes sense given Euphoria’s complex exploration of how teen girls are hypersexualized—whether by their peers or themselves. “Unless you’re Amish,” Rue informs us, “nudes are the currency of love.” The same boys who shame their female peers for sending naked photos to their boyfriends or crushes create password-protected online photo catalogues of these girls for their own viewing pleasure, reminding us that misogyny is alive and well in this generation, despite their documented progressiveness.
But quick conclusions about Gen Z being hypersexed are undercut by the way the show’s female characters take on their own expressions of sexual identity. Kat (Barbie Ferreira) embraces her dominatrix identity, complete with leather harnesses, chain chokers, and latex skirts. Rue, a sensitive smart-aleck with a penchant for pretty pills (which are often shot in cherry reds and Lisa Frank pinks under velvety lighting), moves through the world in periwinkle sports bras paired with Hawaiian t-shirts and grandpa shorts, her hair in chronically messy buns. Rue’s signature piece is an oversized maroon hoodie, and she reps a look that her new best friend and crush Jules (Hunter Schafer) points out is distinctly Seth Rogen-esque stoner chic.
Rue’s clothes signal both her allegiance to and her negligence of her expected place within her generation, her interest in what she wears dulled by addiction and grief. There is an obvious dichotomy that complicates her relationship with fashion, as her “dad” attire is dotted with a bit of fuchsia eyeshadow here, a gold bra there. Euphoria’s rebellious aesthetic is exemplified in the glamorous new girl in town, Jules, who wields her otherworldly style like armor against the transphobia she faces. Succinctly described by Rue’s drug dealer, Fezco (Angus Cloud), as having “Sailor Moon vibes”—Jules dresses in nostalgic pastiche, pairing cotton candy–colored hair with a circa-Clueless plaid miniskirt (a reference, perhaps, to times when U.S. teens were both more hopeful and less likely to be gunned down at school, cutting through the barren, semi-rural landscape on a vintage turquoise bike. Whether she’s in a royal-purple romper and crushed-velvet creepers or paying homage to Claire Danes in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet, Jules embodies the alternative universe that fashion can create.
This candied dystopia has its cracks. Jules turns to self-mutilation as a result of being discriminated against because of her gender expression. Kat finds her newfound hardness challenged by the possibility of sincere, mutual affection with a classmate. Cheerleader Maddy (Alexa Demie) has fierce confidence and a wardrobe of Selena-worthy spandex but loses all control when faced with the reality of an abusive relationship. In contrast the wardrobes of Euphoria’s male characters, in particular, that of all-American football player Nate (Jacob Elordi), exudes a Taxi Driver-esque, threatening air of calm with its dark neutrals and solids. In the show’s season finale, we discover that the maroon hoodie Rue clings to was retrieved from her beloved father’s deathbed.
We can read Euphoria’s visual aesthetics as a yearning for the comforts of childhood, an aspirational innocence. For Rue, addiction punctures the pearly veneer. “I’m so happy,” whispers a very high Rue as she sits inside a blanket fort with Jules—a symbol of the clash between a digital adolescence and tangible childhood entertainment. Light from their phone screens sparks across the lilac and mauve knit fabric as Rue and Jules “play,” reminding viewers that, for Gen Z, technology isn’t just a tool for the everyday but an essential piece of it, and a phone is as much a fashion accessory as a means of communication.
In the last episode of Euphoria’s first season, Jules sports an intergalactic sheer lime jacket, a starburst of silver and aquamarine crystals around her eyes. It isn’t the first time we see glitter hold a lot of weight for the show’s core characters; as Euphoria’s makeup head Doniella Davy told The Hollywood Reporter, “Glitter visually mimics tears.” The glitter is grounded by the minimalism of the surrounding SoCal suburbs, complete with faded gas stations, orange groves, and palms looming over lonely motels lit by a single street lamp. The characters’ aesthetic perfection masks profound pain. Drawing from the icons of ’90s cinematic innocence, Euphoria brandishes fashion to showcase the ways that Gen Z has been robbed of previous generations’ idealism, and the wistful, youthful innocence that came with it.