Disrupting Nostalgia with ’90s Fashion in On Becoming a God in Central Florida

90s nostalgia. Kirsten Dunst in a Bongo floral suit
Kirsten Dunst wearing '90s mall staple, Bongo. Showtime, 2019.

There is a piece of costuming that – for almost two years now – I have not been able to get out of my head. It is from Showtime’s On Becoming a God in Central Florida, in which Krystal Stubbs (played by Kirsten Dunst) is a financially struggling widow from Orlando who reluctantly takes over her late husband’s position in a cult-like MLM  called FAM, a pyramid scheme based on selling crappy home products like paper towels. While she knows full well the whole thing is a scam, she realizes she can work the system to her advantage, even if it requires extreme measures. Set in the early ’90s, the dark and surreal comedy grapples with the horrors of capitalism and the American dream, as Krystal tries whatever means necessary to find a stable income to support herself and her baby daughter (Vulture writer Matt Zoller Seitz provides an excellent analysis of the series’ overall harsh criticism of American entrepreneurship). 

In the show’s third episode, “A Positive Spin!,” Krystal, in a momentous scene, wears a Bongo-brand denim, floral print skirt suit. With her blond hair in that intermediate late ’80s/early ’90s teased style, and her confidence visibly beaming, the affordable junior-brand look is nothing short of iconic (the costume designer, Stacey Battat, has also worked with Sofia Coppola on a number of films). I both want that suit and know I could never pull it off – I have searched on Poshmark for it from time to time with no luck. In quarantine, I’ve only bought one new piece of clothing; a washed-out pair of denim overalls, leaning into the fashions of my young childhood that On Becoming a God in Central Florida so wildly features.

The show’s bright ’90s fashions stand out more than any of the other pop culture references, reflecting both the current wave of nostalgia for that time, and juxtaposing the seriousness of Krystal’s plight and her often brutal actions to get what she wants. The pops of color and styles that are embedded in my psyche from being a kid in the ’90s are presented as beautifully grotesque. The nostalgic ephemera depicted throughout On Becoming a God in Central Florida is both familiar and alienating as the show presents an increasingly surreal and ruthless world. The fashion doesn’t distract from the series’ darker themes. In fact, it adds additional layers of complexity to the show’s thematic arguments about the economics of the time. Even as there is comfort in that visual past, the show doesn’t present one that is simple or sentimental, instead using fashion to warp and ultimately critique the very nostalgia being invoked.

Disruptive Denim 

Though obviously right there in the title, it is important to note the central Florida setting. Like Sean Baker’s The Florida Project (2017), the show plays with the transient nature of the Orlando area as a space primarily dedicated to tourism. Thus, the area is also rife with large economic inequalities, something both Baker’s film and the series explores. The clothing and accessories reflect this in the fluorescent Miami-style vacation aesthetic, though Krystal’s status and the Orlando setting plays as absurdist and parodic rather than high fashion. This slightly “off” style is part of On Becoming a God in Central Florida’s success as a show that is not just nostalgic but also critical. 

In the premiere episode, we discover that Krystal bedazzles her own outfits as a hobby, solidifying her connection to fashion. She presents a white bra she has rhinestoned herself to her friend Bets (Beth Ditto) who is thoroughly impressed, observing that she should be selling them. It could be presented as a moment of condescension or caricature, but Bets’ genuine interest and Krystal’s pride makes it sincere. This early scene, while seemingly a throwaway, sets up that the absurdity of the fashions of the time are not just visual jokes but earnest expressions of character. Bets’ remark that she should sell her bedazzled wares is also significant, suggesting both the themes of entrepreneurship and how closely Krystal’s characterization is linked to her fashion sense.

In “A Positive Spin!,” Krystal’s ambition to use the MLM to her advantage becomes solidified, as she steps on stage at a FAM rally, wearing the floral Bongo suit. It’s a loud look: a black denim jacket and a matching skirt, covered in a pattern of large pink flowers. From the moment we see Krystal in the suit as she prepares her speech, the giant Bongo label — with white lettering on a distinct black rectangle — on the bottom of the jacket is subtly visible when the camera is shooting her from behind. When she’s told by her upline, FAM devotee Cody (Théodore Pellerin), that plans have changed and she won’t be allowed to speak at the event, she locks him in a closet, demonstrating her desperation to benefit from this moment in the spotlight. 

From all indications, Krystal is using this opportunity to defame FAM and disillusion those in attendance. However, in a surprising turn of events, she lies and describes how she and her family have benefitted from the MLM, further deluding the audience as she realizes she can use their belief in her to get ahead. Using the moment to advertise the Splashercize classes she’s teaching – on top of her job at a local waterpark to make ends meet – Krystal reaches into both breast-pockets of the jacket and pulls out wads of coupons to give the audience, as they eagerly stand up to grab one; she becomes a pied piper of a system she knows firsthand damages the people involved. At that moment, the suit is not just a fashion choice, but also utilitarian. And it works. In the next scene, set to Cece Peniston’s “Finally”, Krystal is enthusiastically teaching Splashercize to a huge crowd.

The episode impresses in these little moments how important that suit is to Krystal and her plan – both in its function and in her presentation of complete confidence. It’s not a leap to imagine how carefully thought through the look was for Krystal. Thus, On Becoming a God in Central Florida transforms the Bongo suit from a fun, nostalgic fashion throwback, to a disruptive object that straddles both Krystal’s distinct sense of personal style and her destructive ambition. Tied to the show’s overall criticism of the American dream, the fashions are not just amusing visuals but complex symbols; objects used for expression and as representatives of the consumerism that Krystal is both trapped by and fully participating in to get ahead. It is critical and celebratory of Krystal as a character, just like the Bongo suit is both excessive and exactly right.

Fashion is Tension

This complex use of fashion is seen in other series. Judy Gemstone (Edi Patterson) on HBO’s The Righteous Gemstones whose stiff women’s suits, while initially ostensibly ridiculous, become more and more directly tied to her character than simply a visual joke. The show’s themes of greed and success have also been compared to On Becoming a God in Central Florida, and Judy’s drive to rise in the ranks of her televangelist family, as the middle child and only daughter, is an essential part of that. Similar, too, is Debbie (Betty Gilpin) from GLOW, whose ornate ’80s outfits have become another fashion preoccupation of mine. Like Krystal, both her position as a working single mother and her ambitious behavior to get ahead in her acting career are intrinsically entwined with her fashion choices: everything from oversize mohair sweaters to jewel tone power suits and pristine preppy sportswear reflect her carefully crafted persona. These characters are all stuck in an oppressive system while simultaneously exploiting what power they do have —  especially their privilege as white women. This tension is reflected in their bold style. 

Krystal’s pieced together fashions are a subtle nod to the fallout of the rise of ’80s materialism, something similarly touched on in the third season of Stranger Things. Writers Meredith Blake and Noah Berlatsky both note that the season’s local mall setting and somewhat simplistic take on Cold War ideologies fuse nostalgia with American consumerism, both on and off the show, as seen in its large marketing campaign. However, the less critical “belief in capitalism” that Stranger Things presents is counter to On Becoming a God in Central Florida’s complete disdain for American consumerism and the neolibral trade policies of the ’90s. The show, though perhaps subtly, makes it clear Krystal and her fashions — and the nostalgia for those fashions — are an inescapable part of that system.

What is especially interesting about Krystal’s style is that it is slightly “off,” even for the time. While her demeanor suggests the Bongo suit is high fashion, the brand is junior department affordable denim. Her choice in fashion is not just about nostalgia, but addressing the ways in which consumer practices were changing in the early ’90s. Sara Tatyana Bernstein writes, in an article about Payless, that shopping for necessity and shopping for fun becomes collapsed as bargain and luxury brands alike fall under the same exploitative system; “This blurred reality creates a world where there’s no real distinction between shopping because we have to or because we want to; there is no more leisure — it’s all just work. And the focus stays on shoppers rather than the system that requires them to keep shopping while offering fewer options.” She also notes that these cheaper alternatives, like Krystal’s suit, are multifaceted in how individuals engage with the products, revealing how fashion choices are determined, and ultimately reflecting how individuals are positioned in larger capitalist systems.

The Bongo suit and Krystal, unlike Debbie or Judy’s relationships to their clothing choices, suggests an uncomfortable reality behind the fashion. There is tension in both Krystal’s status as lower class and her position as a white woman at the end of a global economic system that’s increasingly becoming larger, cheaper, and faster. Her ambivalence in this system is important to note; she is limited in her choices and the only ones she has are exploitative. Like the show’s broader arguments about American capitalism, Krystal’s fashions, too, are commentary on the economics of the time. The MLM is an apt metaphor for the kind of cynical individualism these fashions represent. Krystal’s triumphant moment in the Bongo suit is exactly her coming to terms with that idea; she sees her limited options as to either be a victim of the system or to rig it to take advantage where she can. 

It’s easy to dismiss these over-the-top fashions as surface level set-dressing. What On Becoming a God in Central Florida does, however, is use that fashion to perspicaciously criticize current fascinations with nostalgia without belittling it, suggesting, rather, that there are complicating social and political implications in these obsessions. What’s iconic about Krystal’s Bongo suit is not that it recalls a past moment in fashion history that makes the audience excited – like me – or their eyes roll in repulsion at the outdated look – I expect like many others. Rather, it reveals that fashion is escapist while also intrinsically complicated by its larger cultural, political and social context. On Becoming a God in Central Florida wields nostalgia as a way to explore under the surface of consumerist practices, both past and present.

While initially renewed for a second season, On Becoming a God in Central Florida has since been canceled – one of many television shows unable to move forward due to the pandemic. The current cultural obsession with ’80s and ’90s nostalgia, however, continues to be evident, particularly in fashion on shows like Derry Girls, the aforementioned Stranger Things, and fellow Showtime series Black Monday. On Becoming a God in Central Florida in particular, takes a simultaneously more amusing yet shrewd approach to fashion than the historical dramas of the mid-aughts like Mad Men. The series uses fashion to draw on nostalgia only to disrupt it – not dismissing it entirely but recasting it as a critical tool.

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Megan Fariello is a Chicago-based writer with a background in cultural studies. She is currently a contributor with Cine-File, has featured work in Film Cred, and has a forthcoming article with Sounding Out!. Typically writing about sound in media, she is thrilled for the opportunity to explore fashion!