Anyone who was around the age of 13 in the year 2000, will have a visceral reaction to Hulu’s latest show PEN15. The show, about two 13-year-old girls surviving seventh grade, is a painfully, earnestly accurate — like, oh my God I could die watching it accurate — portrayal of everything middle school. The show will remind you of choosing your first AIM screen names, first boyfriends you didn’t speak to more than once for the first three weeks of “dating,” platform sandals, discovering masturbation, Wild Things, and Spice Girls. It’s all so detailed and authentic that the nostalgia for cargo skirts it first inspired immediately gave way to the sweaty palms and anxiety stomachaches associated with most middle-school experiences.
PEN15 follows best friends and middle-school rejects, Maya and Anna, who are based on and played by creators Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle. It only made sense that if they were mining their own lives for material, they should just play themselves. (Plus, they definitely couldn’t ask actual teen actors to do half of what the show required. See: episode 3, “Ojichan,” dedicated to masturbation.) But the choice of having two 30-year-old women play 13-year-olds was risky: It might be a distracting running joke à la Wet Hot American Summer, or look as fake as Robert Downy Jr.’s CGI de-aging in Captain America: Civil War. Either way, the gambit could have easily undermined the authenticity that makes the show so great (uncomfortable, but great). Surprisingly though, by the second or third episode, you’ll probably forget they’re not really the same age as their actually 12- and 13-year-old castmates.
A large part of why audiences might have to remind themselves Erskine and Konkle aren’t in their early teens is because of their bravely earnest performances, and of course their own personal relationship to every plotline. But the deception required a fairly convincing physical transformation, without the aid of special effects or soaking in a vat of retinol.
It took a lot more than just strapping down their boobs (though that was required of both of them). Both of Erskine and Konkle asked their makeup team to give them “furry brows” and to avoid using any cover-up in order to let all the pimples and, counterintuitively, wrinkles show. Erskine’s transformation into 13-year-old Maya started with the signature haircut of little kids with no agency: the bowl cut her character gets in the first episode. For Konkle, it was Anna’s orthodontia. She wore a set of prosthetic wire braces that changed the way she moved and held her mouth, mentally transporting her right back to picking out her own braces colors again. “The braces started scraping the inside of my mouth like they used to when I was in sixth grade. And all of a sudden I’m asking the makeup person if they have wax like I used to ask my mom,” Konkle said over the phone.
The next step was enlisting the help of costume designer Melissa Walker, who hit eBay to order every Delia’s catalogue and teen magazine (Teen, YM, Seventeen, CosmoGirl) from 1997–2001 she could find. Walker built mood boards, pulling in images from movies and TV shows like Scream, Teaching Mrs. Tingle, Welcome to the Dollhouse, and Popular, as well as the actresses’ own yearbooks. She listened to every MTV Party to Go compilation CD. She sent Konkle and Erskine quizzes ripped from the pages of teen mags to figure out what their fashion sense was, and more importantly, how their crushes would dress.
Once the vision was set, Walker found most of the clothes on eBay and at Goodwill. She dressed the whole cast like a Delia’s spread: cap-sleeved baby tees, fuzzy sweaters, “those disgustingly low-rise jeans” that were designed for max whale-tailing, and cargo skirts that could hold a ziplock sandwich in one pocket and a Discman in the other. She sourced familiar brands like Limited Too, Steve Madden, American Eagle, and for the wealthier, popular girls, Abercrombie and Fitch. Era-appropriate band tees — Destiny’s Child, Ruff Ryders, and of course, 311 because there was always that kid who loved 311 — were sprinkled throughout. One of the most relatable moments of the show was Anna nervously asking Maya what she thought of her First Day of Middle School and I Want to Look Grown outfit: olive cargo pedal pushers, a baby-blue, spaghetti-strap tank — with bra straps exposed. Find me a woman who was 13 in 2000 who did not strategically show off a training bra.
Fortunately for Walker, even though we’re the midst of a ’90s fashion revival (even low-rise jeans may be coming back) nothing post-1996 is considered stylish (yet). PEN15’s wardrobe choices never read as hip or modern onscreen — instead the fashion chafes the eye. “The late ’90s early 2000’s stuff hasn’t become popular or trendy again. It’s still gross in our eyes,” she said. Not all early-aughts trends were bad though. Both Erskine and Konkle said they’d swiped things from the wardrobe department: Erskine kept a tankini and blue-leopard flared jeans and is bringing tube tops back; Konkle is now wearing the must-have Bat Mitzvah gift of 2000: the silver Tiffany’s chain necklace with the heart charm that she wanted when she was 13.
Even with furry brows and questionable flared jeans, the goal wasn’t really to clone themselves at 13, but to capture the essence of being that age. The outfits just happened to help with that. “It was all made for tiny bodies,” Konkle said. “Our rolls were coming out and it helped a lot. That’s how I felt at that age, like everything was popping out, and nothing felt right or fit right. We were right back into the feeling of feeling not right or not like everybody else or exposed.”
“Anna would cover her stomach all the time,” added Erskine. “And I had to hunch over all the time to hide what boobs I had. My nipples developed before my breasts, so I actually even strapped down my boobs when I was 13. I actually wanted to be flat because I was like mourning the loss of childhood in a way and I wanted my parents to think of me that way.”
And even if they didn’t pull it off — there was still a benefit in looking completely ridiculous, said Konkle. “There was a feeling of, this might be a train wreck. But even if we look like freaks and we don’t fit in and we look like old women, then that only furthers the theme of the show which is like, you feel like an alien.” It turns out the secret to looking half your age is feeling incredibly awkward — and maybe wearing a tube top.