Twenty years ago, Fox’s teen drama, The O.C. premiered. Feel old yet? The premise now feels familiar: A down-on-his-luck teenager, Ryan Atwood (Ben McKenzie), attempts to assimilate into the rich Orange County, California lifestyle after he is taken in by the wealthy Cohen family. In 2003, The O.C. was a complete phenomenon—the cast became stars, California culture became cool, and Death Cab for Cutie became a fixture on emo playlists.
It also had a huge impact on fashion at the time. Watching it as a teenager, I desperately wanted Marissa Cooper’s (Mischa Barton) low-slung Marc Jacobs skirts and to have a Seth Cohen–esque (Adam Brody) boyfriend who wore Paul Frank tees. It impacted my personal style so greatly at the time, I tested out velvet blazers, skinny scarves, and even a truly dreadful newsboy cap. But tendrils of The O.C.’s style still linger in my wardrobe today—mostly as a penchant for flats and Converse as an alternative to the heels that I still can’t maneuver in.
Through Marissa’s effortless cool-girl style, Summer Roberts’s (Rachel Bilson’s) California boho chic, Ryan’s utilitarian uniform, and Seth’s indie dream-boy quirkiness, The O.C. helped make high/low outfits, the aforementioned flats, and Marc Jacobs trendy. Now, with early aughts fashion coming back in fashion, Gen Z and TikTok creators are discovering the aesthetic anew. Below, the three women behind the costumes of The O.C. discuss its impact on fashion, their experiences on the show, and what trends should stay in 2003.
Season 1: Alexandra Welker
While Welker had worked on many films before The O.C., she had never done costumes for television. She got the chance to create the blueprint of Ryan, Marissa, Seth, and Summer’s style, and she was heavily influenced by California—obviously. “It’s funny to think about now, but at the time, California culture had not created popular culture. And I think The O.C. really had a lot to do with that certainly with music and clothes and so forth,” Welker says.
When beginning to think about what Ryan and Seth would wear, Welker was inspired by skate and surf culture. She was not interested in having them wear the baggy styles of the time, so she tailored all their clothes for a slimmer silhouette and bought quite a bit of vintage. She saw Ryan’s now-infamous white tank top and leather jacket combo as his “armor”—something that would give him the illusion of a cool bad boy and show that he is not to be messed with.
As for his choker, that was all Welker. “I had dated a lot of musicians and I had a couple of boyfriends who would do a guitar string and a piece of rawhide and something else around the wrist, and boom, they suddenly had some cool-looking bracelet. I had been wearing that rawhide around for a few days to soften it up. It was going to be a bracelet, and then at the last moment I decided he needed a necklace.”