Talk about a product-placement wet dream: The official soundtrack to Fast Times at Ridgemont High, a So-Cal teen movie released on this day in 1982, featured on its cover not Sean Penn’s beloved surfer bum character Jeff Spicoli, as the movie poster did, but a close-up of Spicoli’s shoes, the black-and-white checkered Vans that appear off his feet more than on.
This was before the days of excessive product placement. Vans, at the time a small, 15-year-old California shoe company, did not land their $35 skate shoes a starring role in a hit film seen by bajillions of teens through a hefty payout to a production studio. It happened, as it was, by dumb luck.
According to Fast Times director Amy Heckerling, as told in the book, Vans: Off the Wall, it was a then-21-year-old Penn who brought the shoes in. “In those days, a lot of actors could decide what they wanted as their costume,” Heckerling says. “I grew up in Bronx, New York, and when I came on to direct the movie, I wasn’t really familiar with Southern California culture. …When Sean showed me the shoes for his costume, I trusted his judgment. The assistant cameraman, who was the son of our director of photography and a cool southern California kid, also wore blue Vans with a black palm tree pattern…so I knew the brand was cool.”
The first time we get a good view of the now-iconic shoes is when Spicoli strolls into class well past the bell. His unbuttoned shirt is falling off, a bagel is tucked into the waistband of his jeans and he holds the checkered Vans in his hand.
It was skater kids who first started drawing checkerboard patterns onto their shoes in the late 1970s; Vans merely picked up on the trend and started making the shoes that way in the early ‘80s to save the kids the trouble. Steve Van Doren, the son of Vans co-founder Paul Van Doren, said that after the movie came out and the shoes caught on fire, he started sending pairs to radio DJs all over the country to give away to listeners when the stations played songs from the soundtrack. Vans even produced a limited-edition run of 1,000 pairs with “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” printed on the bottom. The Van Dorens had never intended to sell their shoes outside of California, but suddenly kids all over the country wanted them. “Everyone thought, ‘Hey, Spicoli is a cool dude, I want to be a Southern Californian cool dude, and I want to wear Vans.’ So that’s why people started calling up,” the younger Van Doren remembers.
Spicoli’s style may be what most people remember, but he was only the movie’s resident goofball; his role in the actual plot was nil. When we’re not cracking up at his antics (having pizza delivered to history class, getting stoned out of his gourd and smacking himself on the head with his Vans), we’re following all the other characters who are dealing with the very realistic teen-romance dramas of crushes, sex and unintended consequences.
The clean-cut, put-together look of the other kids (the ones who didn’t live in board shorts, because, dude, you never know when a really boss wave might come along) was the doing of 1980s costuming queen Marilyn Vance (Weird Science, Pretty in Pink, The Breakfast Club, Ferris Beuller’s Day Off, to name just a few). She styled starlets Jennifer Jason Leigh and Phoebe Cates in adorable cotton minis, sweaters and sweatshirts that captured the enviable preppy style—a major perk of having your social life play out in an L.A. mall. And thank god for Cali’s other ubiquitous hangout spot: the backyard swimming pool. Without it, Fast Times wouldn’t have given us one of the hottest moments in movie history: Phoebe tantalizingly emerging from the water in that now-iconic red Norma Kamali bikini.
For a fleeting lunchroom moment, the girls do ponder the fashion of the other coast when Leigh, marveling at the super New York ‘80s outfit worn by a spiky-haired girl across the cafeteria says, “Linda, that girl looks like Pat Benatar!” To which Linda replies, “I know. There are three girls here at Ridgemont who have cultivated the Pat Benatar look.”
In a very happy “where are they now” moment, it turns out that Cates, after deciding she’d taken her clothes off too much, after marrying Kevin Kline and after dropping off the face of planet Hollywood, now spends her time on that other coast styling out Upper East Side ladies in her adorable boutique, Blue Tree. The short video skit on the store’s website featuring Cates and Klein is the most delightful thing you’ll watch all day—unless you decide to go home and watch Fast Times for the first, or 100th, time. —Cody Bay
Photos: Top: The original movie poster featured the breakout star with some babes. Middle montage, clockwise from left: Spicoli and his bagel, the soundtrack album featuring checkerboard slip-on Vans, Courtesy of Vans Inc.; Spicoli uses a Van and his skull to demonstrate how fried he is. Bottom montage, clockwise from top left: Cates in her unforgetable Kamali bikini and Leigh in a more modest and boyish one; the girls at their locker with Rick Springfield and Timothy Hutton; and one of three cultivated Pat Benatars at Ridgemont High. All movies stills courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Cinemode is OTDIF’s ongoing compilation of the world’s most stylish films, a must-see list for fans of fashion. From Klute to Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Shaft, some of the greatest style inspiration comes from the characters and costumes in film. Bookmark Cinemode and check back often to read the growing list. The reviews, written with an eye specifically toward fashion, are added to On This Day In Fashion on the anniversary of the film’s release date.