Circling Back is where GQ revisits the little things about the big things in pop culture.
Seth Cohen, the neurotic emo heart of The OC, didn’t teach me that it was okay to be weird, but he did impart on a younger, more impressionable version of myself two crucial life lessons:
1. That liking Death Cab could in fact be an adequate substitute for a personality, and
2. When it comes to wearing clothes, fit is king.
To my mind, the first two seasons of The OC are as close as we’ve ever gotten to TV perfection. When I spent the first two months of the pandemic last year re-binging the show, I was half expecting it to have aged poorly, as most things do. But like a Von Dutch hat going for $60 on eBay, The OC has proved remarkably unkillable, and has maybe even gotten better with the passing of time. Part of that is certainly due to the strength of the core cast, all of whom are likable, from Melinda Clarke’s diabolical Julie Cooper to Rachel Bilson’s charming Summer Roberts to Peter Gallagher as Sandy Cohen, an all-time TV dad.
I happened to be going to college in Orange County when the show was at its most popular, and the existence of Seth Cohen, played by Adam Brody, was a revelation. His character was a weirdo whose defining characteristic was “liking stuff,” and yet he provided a sort of framework—an antidote, really—to all the scummy yuppiness endemic to the region. He was closer to a Stroke in a town where amber was the color of the energy.
While everyone else in actual Orange County was wearing South Coast Plaza staples like Diesel and Abercrombie & Fitch, Seth’s uniform was specific: ratty Chuck Taylors, skinny-ish Levis, a perfectly form fitting Penguin polo shirt, and maybe a Members Only jacket that he could have gotten from Goodwill. His style was easily imitable and even easier to thrift, a godsend given that I spent 15 percent of my time every week on the phone with Bank of America, begging to have the overdraft fees dropped. Most of all Seth Cohen made wearing clothes look fun—like an outfit could say something meaningful about who you wanted to be.
“In the early 2000s, we were coming off the nineties and it was still like giant baggy clothes,” says Alexandra Welker, a writer and The OC’s costume designer. (She’s the genius who made the brave decision to give Ryan a choker, which, in her telling, was actually a bracelet moved to the neck.) “And I would be like, ‘I’ll make it fit.’ So we’re cutting everything down and buying tiny T-shirts.”
Seth wore a lot of Paul Frank, a quirky local Huntington Beach brand with a monkey for a mascot that ended up going global and doing $100 million in sales before crashing back down to earth. (Costa Mesa was lousy with Paul Frank sample sales at the time.) Eventually, his tees would inspire a whole generation of pun-saturated T-shirts available at Threadless.com and the Urban Outfitters sale corner. (The semi-ironic ugly Christmas sweater thing he kicked off with Chrismukkah is worth its own blog post, truthfully.)
But his pants really changed the game, at least for me: slim brown corduroys with itty-bitty wales; proto-skinny jeans, back when the only slim option available for men were Andrew Reynolds’ calf-hugging signatures from the skate brand KR3W. (Which I would eventually own three pairs of, all with huge tears in the crotch.) And then Levi’s joined the party. “Levi’s was starting to introduce, you know, one or two cuts that were skinny,” says Welker. “There’s a Levi’s cut now that’s called slim straight, which has actually gotten less slim after they introduced the 511 skinnies. But the slim straights, which were 512 when they first came out, those were a little bit slimmer. And I like found those and went, ‘Ah-ha!’” Welker would also sometimes outfit Brody in the 517s, which were a “throwback skinny” with “a little bit of a boot cut. And then we would just take the boot out cause we liked the way they fit on top.”
Costuming means telling a story in miniature—who a character is and what their motivations are, all communicated in a glimpse. Welker (whose other styling credits include American Pie and Joe Dirt) saw Seth Cohen as an opportunity to do some zagging. “Seth’s dad was a middle class lawyer who marries up in terms of the economic social strata,” she says, “[so I imagined Sandy] would be supportive of him being his own man as an only child. I just figured he was the kid that would jump on his skateboard and go to the record store and be searching for obscure vinyl. And then right next to the record store was like the cool thrift store run by the lady from Pretty in Pink.”
I had imagined that most of the shopping for the show took place at real Orange County staples: The Lab Anti-Mall (which had the sole Urban Outfitters, at least at the time), Buffalo Exchange, Salvation Army. Except The OC was mostly shot in a studio closer to Manhattan Beach, so most of the thrifting took place in LA, Beverly Hills, and occasionally my hometown of Long Beach, namely at a “great thrift store” called Meow, on 4th Street.
Currently, we’re in the midst of a great unskinnying in men’s fashion, which is cool. And necessary. But Seth Cohen, for a few brief years, made dressing like a sentient Pitchfork review something to aspire to, especially in the gaping styleless void of mid-2000s Orange County. My favorite Seth outfit is one that I would spend a decade in pursuit of: a blue button up and a tan puffer vest with a contrasting orange yoke, plus skinny jeans. (“Quintessential Seth,” adds Welker.) (I never found the right vest.)
Welker’s favorite look was a simple brown Paul Frank tee with a graphic of three guitar chords— A, D, and G—and the words “now start a band.” She had been living in New York prior to The OC and had a lot of friends in the indie scene. She knew it was a perfect fit for Seth as soon as she laid eyes on it. “Oh God, yeah,” says Welker, laughing. “I grabbed it right away. And honestly, I got one for myself.”