In the words of Dianne Weist, there’s a little witch in all of us.
Well, duh. But when I first saw Practical Magic at a grade eight sleepover, it scared the shit out of me. First, I grew up Catholic so I assumed witchcraft was devil worship (which is why I ratted out several classmates in grade seven for bringing a Wiccan book to school), and second, we all know that witches are powerful, and being a preteen isn’t always conducive to that feeling.
Actually, being a human isn’t always conducive to that feeling, which is why it was important that at the tender age of bucket hat-ridden 13, Practical Magic punched me in the heart with a mandate that’s spanned decades: be yourself.
15 years later, and anyone paying attention to fashion now knows that mantra still stands. Currently, New York Fashion Week is all over the place, merging the worlds of theatre and style (Spike Jonze’s work for Opening Ceremony flipped the traditional runway method on its head with a stage production starring Jonah Hill), while Altuzarra took a page from the spell book of Practical Magic itself with long, flowing dresses in neutral, so-nineties-they-almost-seem-thrifted tones. At long last priority has been placed on personal style in lieu of “hot and/or not,” meaning the only real fashion “don’t” seems to be abiding by anyone’s rules but your own.
Enter: Practical Magic and its 98 motto: be who you are. Be—in the words of Gap this season—normal. (Even if “normal” for you means casting out the spirits of deceased men who abused your sister. And hey, if that’s your definition, please let’s be friends.)
But let’s start at the top. Let’s meet the woman responsible for the deaths of all men who dared love an Owens woman. Let’s meet the woman who dared be sexually active and unmarried during the 1600s which led her to being nearly hung by her lovers’ wives. Let’s meet the woman whom I guess delivered a baby on her own, since she was banished to an island with nothing but a nightgown.
Hard. As. Fuck.
So first, we meet Maria abiding by two very important Practical Magic rules: 1) she is accompanied by Alan Silvestri’s score (no character is ever introduced without the score minus one but we will get to that, please stop nagging me), and 2) she’s wearing white. White—if worn by Sally, Gillian, or anyone struggling with their identity—represents good and the embracement of magic. Black, on the other hand, represents oppression and evil.
See? That shit is literal, I am telling you.
Anyway, after saving her own life, Maria is banished to an island and has a full-on breakdown (understandably), which effectively leads her to cursing her blood line: any man who dares love an Owens woman is doomed to die. Which leads us to our next color and/or cast of characters.
Color! Obviously, Mama Owens has embraced her very happy life, and why wouldn’t she: look at what’s going on behind her. But sadly, the curse takes over, her husband dies, and then she dies from a broken heart. HOT TIP: “Normalcy” and the embracement of one’s self is always indicated by bright colors or light tones, unless we’re talking about the aunts, and in that case, these bitches don’t give a fuck about your rules.
If you don’t want to be Stockard Channing or Dianne Weist (whose characters names don’t matter because this is just who they are as people), you are incorrect. Also, they are the only exception to the colour rule because they’ve reached the upper echelons of freedom. They’ve embraced witchcraft, their familial legacy, and the power that magic brings, so they absolutely do not need to abide by a dress or color code enforced by you, me, or any costume designer. This explains why after appearing in all black, they can wear this:
And then this:
It’s also why they can remain so calm around a woman who has obviously given up on putting any effort into building cool outfits. (And who is so willing to stab a bird over a man in a trucker hat. But those are not my problems.)
Before trucker-hat-loving woman bursts in (and when I say “bursts” I do mean “paws and scratches at the window like a deranged predator”), Sally and Gillian are practicing magic. And what do they wear when practicing magic?
White! WHITE: because magic is good. Being one’s self is good. Even when Sally casts an anti-love spell on herself, she’s wearing white. (While Gillian wears navy blue because she’s already over this one-horse town.)
And then our flash-forward brings us to this moment which sees a repetition of the previous colors—dark blue for the character drawn to dark things (Gillian), light blue for the woman who longs to be beige (Sally). In this movie, blue acts as a neutral. Brown is another one. Denim is an absolute neutral, but bathrobes? They evoke only the expression seen on Sally’s face.
Nobody wants to be “normal” like Sally—even though Stockard Channing reminds her that “normal” connotes a lack of courage (which: a-fucking-men). So notice that when Sally and her Aunts go out, Sally looks like she’s hiding compared to their brilliant threads.
See? Normcore. The normest of cores. Even the lowly townsperson (likely a pilgrim descendent) on the left looks more alive than the woman who’s a goddamn witch. Just be a witch, Sally! It’s your destiny! Like, after everything else.
Well, hello. Ultimately, the men of Sally’s life are neutral. They dress in neutrals, their politics are neutral, their stance on witchcraft is likely neutral, so when Sally meets and falls in love with Michael (courtesy of her aunts’ love spell) her wardrobe reflects them: neutral jeans (him) with a white top (magic).
This embracement of magic by Sally—despite her obsession with not being a witch—also delivers the movie’s first song: Faith Hill’s “This Kiss.” BLESS. Even the soundtrack is made up of outsider artists.
I mean, Faith Hill merged the worlds of country and mainstream pop in the 90s, and even though it’s the perfect accompaniment for a Sally-and-Michael-are in-love montage, it’s even more perfect because of who sings it: a female artist who broke pop music barriers when her music became accessible to top 40 audiences. That shit is important. Because in 1998, we were still one year away from Shania Twain’s Come on Over—as well another year away from Dixie Chicks’ Fly, which maintained the country-turned-pop music momentum. Hill, regardless of your personal feelings for her, was a maverick in her industry. And if she’d deigned to society’s conception of “normal” instead of her own, the nineties and 2000s would’ve sounded much different.
Also, hello neutrals and white.
Unlike in opposite land:
Here, Gillian represents the alternative to Sally’s suburban narrative. While Sally’s in light tones, Gillian’s in dark. While Sally has kids, Gillian has sexy parties. While Sally’s soundtrack is Faith Hill, Gillian greets us with Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give it Up.” (Another artist and rebel who changed the course of his genre.) And while Sally kisses handsome, bearded Michael, Gillian meets this guy:
Let’s talk about our crushes Goran Visnjic even though in this capacity, he is the actual fucking worst. After we catch him watching Gillian dance to Marvin Gaye, she introduces him via voiceover and sexed-up song, Lisa Hall's “Is This Real?”—a song that at 13 years of age seems like one that’s played anytime two people have sex. (Which is probably the case Jimmy and Gillian.)
Jimmy is dark and he is terrifying. Almost as terrifying as the Owens family curse that leads to Michael’s death via transport truck on a very quiet street. And also almost as terrifying as Sally Owens having to put those floorboards back after she unsuccessfully tried to catch the deathwatch beetle that indicated her husband’s eventual demise.
God help us all.
But what makes this scene even more heartbreaking is the accompaniment of Nick Drake’s “Black Eyed Dog,” which only adds to the soundtrack’s “brilliant outsider” count. I mean, of course Nick Drake would go hand in hand with the untimely death scene of a wonderful character. Of course the guitar would match Sally’s frantic quest for the beetle that notoriously signals a partner’s end. Of course I’m crying. You’re not crying? The fuck is wrong with you? No more colour for anyone, thanks.
Not that we have to worry: this is where oppression, sadness, and evil set in. Kind of like here, when Gillian drugs Jimmy so she can leave and see her sister (whom she didn’t see at Michael’s funeral I guess).
But as Gillian sings along to “A Case of You” by Joni Mitchell (a sorceress in her own right), Gillian’s color scheme goes from dark to light as though “home” is more than just the house she grew up in. It certainly isn’t with Jimmy, oppression king. I still blame him for making a bad boy persona seem interesting to a shapeable 13-year-old girl who had to wait years to see him as a good guy in E.R. Goran, if you can read this, I forgive you, but I’ll never forget.
So after Gillian swoops in for a 24-hour pep talk, Sally finally pushes her grief far down enough to open the bath product store she and Michael dreamed of. Because this is the nineties, this is viable for somebody in a very small town filled with people who hate you. Also because it’s the nineties, we hear Bran Van 3000’s “Everywhere” to signify positivity and change—right before we hear Michelle Lewis’ “Nowhere and Everywhere,” which leads us not only to Sally’s “there is no man, only the moon” letter to Gillian, and the aunts looking hella fierce:
Better. Than. You.
Fortunately, before any of us can bask in the glory of a strong female dynamic too long, Jimmy ruins everything: not only does he sing a song from the soundtrack (“Always On My Mind”—and louder than Elvis’ version), he wears black and white, officially cementing his mix of evil and catalyst. (Since if it weren’t for him, Sally probably wouldn’t have done real magic again.)
But then, ch-ch-ch-changes. The first: we hear only one more song for the next hour. (“Coconut” by Harry Nilsson, and as part of what should be every woman’s right of passage.) The second: the aunts abandon their nieces following the intense smell of bullshit, instructing them to clean up their own mess. The third: we resign ourselves to the fact our families are serious garbage compared to ones helmed by Weist and Channing.
So, with Jimmy’s spirit lurking, his body kind-of decomposing, and Sally and Gillian’s forced involvement with magic once more, there’s only one choice: to embrace the color green, which – if you don’t think about it too much – is the perfect mix between white and black, and in this case screams “normal!”
Purple! Just kidding.
But green isn’t “normal” in the “be your definition of it” sense of the word; it’s “normal” as in “pod person.” Wear green and earn a place on the phone tree. Wear green and try and convince the nice detective that you didn’t really poison and kill the man who was trying to strangle you. Wear green all the time, goddamn it, and wear green.
Or wear white and green, since Sally’s stir stick is stirring its motherfucking self despite her desperately bathing in the colour of civilians.
Bathed again—but this time accompanied by black, which makes sense since this is the very outfit she’ll confront Jimmy’s spirit in. White for magic, black for evil (and/or oppression), and green for “I just want to be like everyone else why can’t I be like everyone else please, please, please let me be like everybody else.” Howlett, on the other hand, looks hip as shit.
What can I tell you, the man’s a babe. He could be wearing Michael’s clothes, for all we know. We don’t know, it doesn’t matter, he can flip pancakes in the air, and that’s how we know he and Sally are meant to be. (Also: he loves her for her. He fucking loves that she practices magic—and we learn that later, but I love it so much.)
AND SPEAKING OF WHICH, once Gillian’s possessed by Jimmy, Sally comes out. As in, a character actually refers to her announcement that she’s a witch that Sally “came out.” Girlfriend isn’t hiding anymore. And what happens? The townspeople fucking gather to banish Jimmy the piece of shit motherfucker, finally. You hear me? Sally finally accepts who she is, and she’s met with unyielding support. She’s respected, and she’s understood, and colour! Holy shit, so much colour.
(FYI that’s also Miss Quick from "Sabrina the Teenage Witch" so please let us recognize.)
And that’s when we finally get our last actual song. A song by Stevie Nicks who of course leant a cover of “Crystal” to the scene when Sally calls for Howlett because now that she’s Sally: Witch Superstar, she can finally be in real, actual, wear-whatever-colours-I-want love. Not love that comes with a disclaimer or a cruse or an, “I’m normal!” declaration: like, actual, we’re-all-crying-at-the-end-of-this love.
Like, look at this:
See? This is why I still love Practical Magic. Only a movie like this this would use witchcraft to teach everyone from grown-ass women to 13-year-old sleepover attendees to be yourself. I mean, be a fucking witch. Drink Midnight Margarias. Wikipedia Goran Visnjic in the middle of the day, and in the words of Sally Owens herself, fall in love whenever you can. Or more importantly, fall in love with the knowing that everyone’s rules can get fucked. Because once you abandon the norms of others, you can abandon their dress and colour codes too and relate to a soundtrack made up of brilliant outsiders.
Or at the very least, strive to be a person Dianne Weist and Stockard Channing would wear oversized hats with. Because in that’s not conformity. That’s real magic.
Anne T. Donahue is an expert on normcore movies. She's on Twitter - @annetdonahue.