I was never one of those girls who wanted to dress like her dolls, so it’s hard to explain the sudden onset urge I have—fierce as a hunger pang—to match the murderous and titular star of the instant blockbuster M3GAN.
For the uninitiated: M3GAN stands for “Model 3 Generative Android.” Per the movie’s premise, she is a sophisticated doll engineered to function as both a best pal and a kind of parental substitute for screen-addicted kids. She is the literal brainchild of a genius engineer named Gemma (Allison Williams), who creates her in secret at work. When Gemma unveils M3GAN, her stunned boss grasps that this is no Barbie. He has just one question: “More or less than a Tesla?”
What he means is: M3GAN—with her center-parted flaxen hair, oversized satin bow, and double-breasted coat so thick and sumptuous it makes even the finest cashmere look like Uline toilet tissue—is rich. Groomed-brows rich. Vacant-stare rich. In one scene, she wears a pair of rimless, purple-ish sunglasses that are not identified, but could be Celine. I am hoping to approximate them via The RealReal.
M3GAN kills lots of people and at least one animal, but she is otherwise not so different from the kind of girl found in middle schools across America: She is frightening. You want to be her.
In the months since she was unveiled in a viral trailer in October, she has been compared to White Lotus charactersRegina George, and Blair Waldorf. Producer Jason Blum walked the red carpet dressed as M3GAN. M3GAN sat next to Allison Williams while she did press hits, peering over her shoulder. Other M3GANs have appeared in stadiums and done weirdo dances on the field. Last week, a friend whispered to me that she spent 40 minutes in Sephora, determined to shade-match M3GAN’s immaculate nude lip. (Based on her extensive research: Dior Addict in Atelier.)
The individual pieces of M3GAN’s outfit—thick white tights, striped crewneck under a twill minidress—are fine. It’s the look as a whole (posh killer with Isabel Marant overtones) that is so iconic.
All part of the plan, explains Daniel Cruden, who served as the film’s costume designer and thus had a professional interest in the placement of each dart on M3GAN’s swinging A-line dress. Cruden knew from the beginning that M3GAN needed to have a sharp presence. Which meant no cheap fabrics and few references to existent dolls. “That Gucci aesthetic was referenced quite a bit,” he says. “And there needed to be a human element to it from the outset as well. It wasn’t about creating a doll”—à la fellow spine-chilling menaces Chuckie or Annabelle. “It was about creating a high-end product.”
In an academic paper titled “What Robots Need from Clothing,” the researcher and costume designer Kari Love examined the purpose of fashion in the world of AI. Computers don’t need outfits, but we do seem to expect our robots to show up in forms that make sense to us—human-ish, with accessories. Love has watched M3GAN-related mania unfold with interest, since the doll’s clothes seem so much a part of the fixation around her. She points out that there is in fact no reason a humanoid android needs to be dressed. (What does it mean for a robot to be “naked”?)
“But we want to cover them, because we relate to them in a human-like manner, right?” she says. “Clothing allows us to believe the illusion that these robots are having natural, instead of scripted, interactions.” The right outfit helps maintain the fiction. No wonder M3GAN—who so chafes at the bounds of her programming—needs to ooze good taste and subvert our expectations too. Love locates M3GAN’s appeal in the relationship between her “ultra-polished look” and her criminal tendencies. The best fashion is nuanced and textured. M3GAN wears silk and cotton and wool. She dresses like a cutie pie and then tears the ear off one of her enemies.
“Part of what makes her so frightening,” Love points out, “is that she defies our gendered expectation of this female child that is supposed to be sweet.”
Of course, when Gemma picks out her minidress in the universe of the plot, she doesn’t mean to be setting up a juxtaposition between her doll’s cheerful minidress and her command of a machete. She’s focused on creating a persona that children will want to be around and adults will approve. It’s not so simple, as Carol Spencer knows. When I reach her at her home in California, Spencer is preparing to leave for a trip to Las Vegas for a wedding and a little relaxation, but she knows Gemma’s grind.
For over three decades, Spencer was Barbie’s fashion designer. Between 1963 and 1999, she sketched gowns and miniskirts; one-shouldered showpieces and technical-wear. She helped invent outfits that changed color in water. She once gave Barbie “evening pajamas” so chic Olivia von Halle could have them retail for $600. For inspiration, Spencer eschewed other dolls—so juvenile. She and her team at Mattel drew on fashion magazines, the windows on Rodeo Drive, and their observations of how children interacted at the in-house child test room that the brand had built at headquarters, not unlike the one in which Gemma’s niece meets M3GAN in the movie.
Spencer, who is 90, hasn’t seen M3GAN. But she has scrutinized available photos of her outfit, which strike her as the work of an accomplished designer. The cut is childlike, but the colors are neutral and elegant. There’s no pink or flash of glitter. “It reminds me of a private schoolgirl’s uniform—high class,” Spencer observes. She is not so sure if the parents who purchased her Barbies would have liked it. Just the fact that M3GAN speaks might have been cause for concern. Spencer can still remember the absolute uproar over Talk-With-Me Barbie, which Mattel released in 1997. It creeped parents out. It can’t have helped her cause that she was programmed to coo about how math class was tough.
M3GAN kills people, but our gal is not about to dumb herself down for Ken.
There isn’t a girl in the world who doesn’t remember abusing her Barbies—cutting their hair, ripping off their clothes, dressing and undressing them at will. Love points out that M3GAN doesn’t come with a wardrobe and she doesn’t move into Gemma’s house with a suitcase. “This is not a doll that a child gets to dress, and it’s unusual that the user doesn’t have some control over what a doll wears,” Love says.
I suspect that is the draw. The reason I am browsing silk bows and hankering for the silhouettes of the 1960s. M3GAN looks insane and demented and a bit like a Rugrat set loose in Chanel. M3GAN is not to be trifled with.
Mattie Kahn is a writer who lives in New York. She covers politics, style, culture, and dangerous women. As far as she’s concerned, candidates come and go, but the Oxford comma is forever.