Top 50 movies with ingenious costume design

Odd List Rebecca Clough
24 Jan 2014 - 06:05

Page 1 of 2Top 50 movies with ingenious costume design

How much can you tell about a character from their clothes? Quite a lot, it turns out. Rebecca counts down 50 amazing costume designs...

In the days when CGI rules and there is very little you can't do with the transformative properties of makeup, what makes the wardrobe department special?

Some films have costumes which become famous purely because they're so beautiful. Some are memorable for other reasons – a perfectly ordinary white halterneck became the most famous dress in history when Marilyn stood over a subway vent, proving that it really is the way you wear it that counts. (Although it boasts the most enduring cinematic image EVER, The Seven Year Itch got squeezed out of this list, because really, the guy who turned on the fan did the most important work.)

The wardrobe choices of a character can tell you who they are without a word of dialogue, an instantly recognisable outfit can make dressing for Halloween easy, and film can not only reflect the fashions of a decade, but dictate them. Here are 50 films with costume design which is positively ingenious...

50. The Matrix (1999)

Designer: Kym Barrett

From Bogart as a private dick to the glamour of Dietrich or Garbo, the trench coat has long been a movie staple, adding an alluring air of mystery to any character (with the possible exception of Columbo). For actors suspended in mid-air, the wing-like folds of the trench were the perfect harness-obscuring choice, and stylish enough to spawn copycat couture. But prepare to be shocked: Keanu Reeves never wears a black leather coat – it was in fact a wool blend (for a thrifty $3 a yard).

Costume designer Kym Barrett worked with minimal instructions; the brief for Carrie-Ann Moss's costume was simply "like an oil slick" (cheap PVC provided the requisite shiny, mercury-like quality). Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus wore tough (faux) alligator skin, while his trademark sunglasses added to his inscrutable quality. Finally, the sinister black-suited agents were designed to remind us of "sixties Kennedy Secret Service guys". Scary stuff.

49. A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

Designer: Lucinda Ballard

There has long been a story (unsubstantiated by any cold hard evidence) that Clark Gable sent sales of undershirts plummeting by 75% when he appeared bare-chested in It Happened One Night in 1934. The t-shirt popularity torch was subsequently passed on to Marlon Brando, who made them the must-have fashion item for men in 1951.

After Marlon had menaced poor Blanche DuBois with his sexy smouldering act, everybody wanted to steal his style: a tight, sweaty, grubby t-shirt equalled instant ruffian chic. It's not that it was the first time t-shirts had been used as outerwear – they'd been casually worn by manual workers for years – but it was only Brando's muscular torso that really illustrated the benefits of wearing them freely in public.

48. Factory Girl (2006)

Designer: John Dunn

Movies made years later often do a better job of depicting fashions than films made at the time because period costume is exaggerated: we're shown a general population who ALL dressed in whatever was in vogue, when in reality there were probably loads of nerds still hanging out in last decade's twinsets and poodle skirts.

Of course, you could always make a movie about the kind of crowd who actually would have been wearing the very latest trends (and creating them). Sienna Miller gives a stellar performance as Edie Sedgwick, "It" girl and muse of Andy Warhol (played here by Guy Pearce in all his be-wigged, black-polo-neck-wearing glory). Like 2010's Made In Dagenham, Factory Girl does a great job of summing up the chaotic atmosphere of the 1960s along with the clashing patterns, sooty eyes, and bohemian attitude of the pop art socialite.

47. Memoirs Of A Geisha (2005)

Designer: Colleen Atwood

These Oscar-winning geisha costumes were shrewdly designed to appear genuine while still appealing to today's Western audiences. (You'll notice that the hair and makeup is also tailored to Hollywood's idea of attractiveness, skipping the authentic white foundation and carefully painted lipstick.) This modern interpretation of traditional costume involved more shaping around the waist and cleavage to "glam up" the look and make it just contemporary enough to add a little sex appeal. Designer Colleen Atwood admitted "It's a very made-up costume – a real geisha would never wear anything that flashy. But it's good fun."

Each character was given her own colour palette; vivid bright shades for bad girl Hatsumomo, peaceful and calm colours for the kindly big sister who takes Sayuri under her wing. As Sayuri (Ziyi Zhang) develops into Kyoto's most sought-after geisha, she also progresses from subdued dark cotton kimonos to rich silk.

46. And God Created Woman (1956)

Designer: Pierre Balmain

Is nudity a costume choice? Sometimes – where would Sharon Stone be without her knickerlessness in Basic Instinct? Brigitte Bardot spends quite a lot of time with her kit off in this tale of a surprisingly morose femme fatale.

While she also wears some classic 1950s outfits (wiggle dresses and frothy prom-style skirts) she personifies the dawning of a new era. Instead of the neat pin curls and modest cardigans worn by respectable young ladies, she has wild hair, wears her dresses unbuttoned, and singlehandedly kicked off the trend for lounging around in nothing but a man's shirt. The writing was on the wall: the 60s would be a decade of free love and overt sensuality, and Brigitte Bardot was the trail blazer for sex kittens everywhere.

45. Tootsie (1982)

Designer: Ruth Morley

Dustin Hoffman caused worldwide heart melting when he recounted his "epiphany" at taking on the cross-dressing role: "I think I am an interesting woman when I look at myself on screen. And I know that if I met myself at a party, I would never talk to that character." While he had hoped to be a more attractive woman, it was apparent that his "Tootsie" was better off as a middle-aged lady who dressed in prim, high-necked blouses and sensible skirts. (Robin Williams went for broader comedy in Mrs Doubtfire as he set fire to prosthetic breasts, dropped his stubble-covering mask out of the window and revealed a hairy knee when his stocking rolled down.) Dustin plays it straight, and his impeccable manicure, pearls and skirt suits are part of a impressively detailed performance.

44. Cleopatra (1963)

Designer: Renié

Before this famously overblown production, Cleopatra had been made several times, always with eye-popping costumes. It just brings out the crazy in directors – and I think I speak for us all when I say that I cannot wait to see Angelina take on the role.

The fantastic thing about this movie is that it doesn't even pretend to create historically accurate costumes, it just has a good time. (It was also a game-changer when it came to 1960s eyeliner.) Elizabeth Taylor went through a record-breaking 65 costume changes, ranging from phoenix wings to ridiculously modern dresses (at times she looks as if she came straight from the set of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof to an Egyptian fancy dress party).

It's also worth digging out camp classic Boom, which features another pairing with Richard Burton, and Liz's most audacious headgear yet.

43. Edward Scissorhands (1990)

Designer: Colleen Atwood

Now known for a series of vastly diverse characters with outlandish costumes and crazed hair, Johnny Depp's screen debut was a teen heart throb role opposite Freddy Krueger. Yet his career really took off when he too became a figure of hate with hands full of dangerous blades. Ironic, eh?

The Frankenstein-esque tale was the first of many collaborations with Tim Burton, and the first foray into "weird" for the now multi-award-winning designer Colleen Atwood. She assembled Edward's suit from vinyl, leather, and latex, and added accessories such as buckles, screws, and bits of machinery.

The resulting buttoned-up and restrictive suit separates Edward from the light-hearted pastels worn by the ordinary residents of the town. Even his attempts to look "normal" in loose shirt and trousers with braces recreate an uncanny Buster Keaton impression.

42. Anna Karenina (2012)

Designer: Jacqueline Durran

Jacqueline Durran (who was also responsible for dressing Keira Knightley in that green bias-cut gown in Atonement) won an Oscar with her interpretation of 1870s fashion, which she based on the exaggerated silhouette of 1950s dress. Keira glitters with Chanel jewellery (which didn't exist at the time) and Durran explained that her emphasis on the 50s styling was a way of making it clear that "we weren’t necessarily doing an authentic period piece.” Historical accuracy is far less important than creating the kind of sumptuous, rustling, fur-lined attire that the audience believes a Russian aristocrat would wear.

The dresses also hint at Anna Karenina's potential to be a hussy, as she rebels against the pastel crowd in scarlet and black. In contrast, Kitty is a vision in white, with her dresses trimmed a little shorter than Anna's to emphasize her childlike innocence.

41. Gilda (1946)

Designer: Jean Louis

In her most famous film, Rita Hayworth holds men enthralled with her saucy dances and various midriff-exposing outfits. While she makes shimmying around in heels look easy, the work involved in creating her costumes was a feat of engineering from designer Jean Louis, whose training was in Parisian couture.

Her best-known ensemble of a slinky split dress and elbow length gloves has become iconic (and provided inspiration for everyone's favourite toon, Jessica Rabbit). Asked what held up the vampy satin dress, Hayworth quipped "two things". In fact, the dress (which looked tantalisingly insecure) was fitted with a heavy-duty corset (as Rita had given birth to her daughter just months earlier) and designed with custom-moulded plastic so that the bodice would stay with her cleavage no matter how she moved.

40. The Great Gatsby (2013)

Designer: Catherine Martin

Baz Luhrman's vision of 1920s New York piles on the glitz and uses styles from the entire decade, creating a hyper-real fantasy of high-end couture and runway fashions which look like an Erté card brought to life. Each character has a personalised wardrobe: Myrtle is always flashy, Jordan prefers sporty, elegant daywear, and Daisy reeks of money in tasteful-but-insipidly-pale outfits.

You may also have noticed that far from the flat-chested athleticism that was de rigueur in the roaring twenties, Luhrman's ladies all have Kardashian-worthy curves. Designer Catherine Martin explained that the era was "all about sex" – women had been liberated from corsetry, giving them the intoxicating feeling of being naked under their clothes, as it were. 21st century moviegoers have become so desensitised by thongs, nudity, twerking etc that a simple backless dress no longer does it for us, hence the little twist in authenticity.

39. Flashdance (1983)

Designer: Michael Kaplan

Gosh, haven’t we all walked down a corridor full of ballet dancers and felt so out of place in our anoraks and baggy jeans and hobnailed boots? Far from being a classic movie, in retrospect Flashdance resembles an extended music video with a surreal subplot about welding, but don't let that put you off.

Along with the preppy, punky and New Wave fads in Brat Pack and early Madonna movies, dancewear became a must-have craze of the 80s. The trademark sloppy sweatshirts were allegedly born of an accident with the laundry – Jennifer Beals shrank a top and cut out the neck so she could still wear it. With aerobics in its infancy and spandex being the go-to fabric for the fashionable exercise fiend, Flashdance made dance attire a comfortable yet attractive form of casual wear – which it remains to this day. (Legwarmers optional.)

38. Kill Bill (2003)

Designers: Kumiko Ogawa & Catherine Thomas

Quentin Tarantino has a talent for creating memorable images; post-Reservoir Dogs, men can look cool simply by donning black suits and swaggering down the street with their similarly dressed friends. Uma Thurman's dark nail polish in Pulp Fiction sparked an international trend, and her Kill Bill costume made the yellow tracksuit iconic to a whole new generation. Of course, the movie geeks who appreciated every reference in Tarantino's homage-heavy revenge flick would have recognised the suit worn by Bruce Lee in 1978's Game Of Death. (The original suit recently sold for $100,590 in auction.)

The rest of the costumes are visually striking, from masked sword fighters and a giggling Japanese schoolgirl in mini-kilt and blazer to Lucy Liu's kimono-wearing fight scene in ethereal snowfall. Darryl Hannah's Elle Driver pays tribute to Thriller – A Cruel Picture and she wears a trench coat with lines that make it look distinctly cartoonish. Genius!

37. Annie Hall (1977)

Designer: Ruth Morley

There's some dispute over who should take credit for the movie's subtle characterisation through costume – the general consensus is that Ralph Lauren threw a few items their way, Ruth Morley did most of the work and Diane Keaton created the Annie Hall look from her own closet.

Her trademark khaki trousers, white shirt, black waistcoat and tie have influenced androgynous style ever since (echoing earlier screwball movies in which Katharine Hepburn made men's trousers fashionable). It can be difficult for women to wear outfits like this without looking as if they've raided the wardrobe of an elderly man, but Keaton makes it seem fresh. Woody Allen would look silly chasing after a Charlie's Angels type with flicky hair and lipgloss; Annie Hall, with her reluctance to even expose her figure, is just quirky enough to look like a match for Woody's neurotic but articulate New Yorker.

36. Moulin Rouge (2001)

Designers: Catherine Martin & Angus Strathie

Although many musicals have become cult classics (Cabaret and The Rocky Horror Show, for instance) there was a time when they'd become a bit uncool – kiddy films to be shown on bank holidays. Baz Luhrmann reminded us how much we used to enjoy those old-school MGM musicals; the rows of chorus girls, the spectacle.

Nicole Kidman's show-stopping top hat and marabou-feather ensembles are the tip of the iceberg: the movie required three hundred costumes and, at one point, eighty people working the wardrobe department.

By combining a high-energy MTV soundtrack and style of editing with retro high-kicking, glittery basque-wearing can-can dancers, Luhrman aimed to "decode what the Moulin Rouge was to the audiences of 1899 and express that same thrill and excitement". As veteran director Robert Wise said, "the musical has been re-invented".

35. The Hunger Games (2012)

Designer: Judianna Makovsky

While the downtrodden district folk wear drab clothes which wouldn't have looked out of place during the depression, the frivolous inhabitants of Capitol just love dressing up. With Elizabeth Banks in a puffed-up magenta monstrosity, a sparkly-suited and blue-haired Stanley Tucci, and wildly colourful crowds, it's as if a town full of wealthy Dangerous Liaisons fans are living under the rule of Lady Gaga. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta represent their lowly coal-mining district in flaming black suits, and Katniss twirling in a dress which ripples with fire turns her into a crowd favourite. (The obsession with appearance and eagerness to watch others suffer for entertainment's sake will be familiar to viewers of celebrity reality shows.)

Apparently Capitol fashion is now inspiring real life designers, and as JLaw's Catching Fire wardrobe looks even more spectacular, we can all look forward to flamboyant costumes becoming everyday wear. Yay!

34. Trading Places (1983)

Designer: Deborah Nadoolman

In this Christmas classic, Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy) is a raggedy beggar and Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Ackroyd) a typically preppy rich kid – until their fates are reversed. Ophelia (Jamie Lee Curtis) appears as the obligatory scantily-clad hooker with a heart of gold; under her care Louis is obliged to wear pimp-style furs, while Billy Ray is looking sharp and living the high life.

As well as being shorthand for who's up and who's down, costume is crucial to the plot: Louis crashes a party as Santa and joins forces with Billy Ray; they hatch a plan which involves various disguises, including Dan Ackroyd as a Rastafarian and Jamie Lee Curtis in ridiculous "Swedish" fancy dress. The pièce de résistance is of course a revenge which involves a gorilla suit, plenty of duct tape and a cage.

33. Mirror Mirror (2012)

Designer: Eiko Ishioka

2012 was the year for Snow White adaptations, with Charlize Theron wearing some fantastically feathery dresses and spiked crowns in Snow White And The Huntsman. Mirror Mirror is more playful; like the enormously puffy dresses worn by Amy Adams in Enchanted, the costumes are fantastic in every sense of the word. Julia Roberts' tent-like gowns were wide enough for her children to hide under between scenes (and heavy enough for her to pull a muscle when attempting a fast turn).

Dozens of extras dressed in animal-themed apparel create the Labyrinth-esque masked ball, and the over-the-top ruffles, swan hats and peacock plumage of the leading ladies is matched by the opulent set design and attention to detail in every outfit, from the guards' helmets to the prince's gold brocade suit. Who doesn't love a film which looks like a cartoon brought to life?

32. Clueless (1995)

Designer: Mona May

Alicia Silverstone is Cher, a spoiled Beverley Hills teenager with an automated wardrobe. She provides us with a little time capsule of 90s fashions – because if we didn't have celluloid evidence, nobody would believe us.

While Cher is all about the denim vests, knee socks, platform shoes, and fluffy accessories, her classmates illustrate other key trends of the decade; grunge shirts, baggy jeans, baseball caps. Fashion is used in the film to give each character a clear place in the high school hierarchy (just like Heathers, the 1980s Mean Girls with additional homicides). A miniskirt and cropped vest places you at one end of the scale, while unplucked eyebrows and skater t-shirts firmly mark you an untouchable. But whether it came in the form of a lumberjack shirt or a miniskirt with a fearless colour combination, plaid struck a blow for equality.

31. Dracula (1931)

Designers: Ed Ware & Vera West

Bram Stoker's 1897 novel featured a terrifying being described as a white-moustachioed old man clad in black, who later transformed himself into a young man with what sounds suspiciously like a goatee beard. Early Dracula prototype Nosferatu featured Max Schreck in makeup which surely inspired Peter Jackson's orcs; it wasn't until a 1924 London stage show that the smart tuxedo-and-cape combo was adopted for the man who came so close to being named "Count Wampyr".

Bela Lugosi played the role when the show came to the USA, and this distinctive costume design was also used when he portrayed the Count in the classic 1931 movie. Although Francis Ford Coppola resisted the traditional costume for his 1992 version of the story, a cape, slicked back hair and medallion are still generally considered integral to Dracula's look.

30. Bonnie And Clyde (1967)

Designer: Theadora Van Runkle

Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty as Bonnie and Clyde are considered one of the most stylish couples ever; Warren's snappy suits and nifty fedoras made dressing like a gangster cool back when the word was spelled correctly and didn't involve your trousers falling down. The film was Dunaway's big break, and her sullen sultriness, long blonde bob and beret have inspired numerous fashion shoots ever since.

It might seem improbable that killers on the run would have a ready collection of glamorous outfits, but the real-life couple were actually known for their "fancy clothes" – many of the film's iconic moments were modelled on photographs they had posed. The initial costume designs were dismissed as being too faithful to the depression era; the final outfits had an added hint of glamour and New Wave style and they in turn influenced the rest of the 1960s.

29. The Fifth Element (1997)

Designer: John Paul Gaultier

Futuristic heroines often wear revealing costumes (check out Jane Fonda's Barbarella – it's all about the thigh-high boots and clear plastic); Milla Jovovich takes it a step further, being dressed in nothing more than some strategically placed bandages. (She later gets some orange rubber braces to colour co-ordinate with Bruce Willis.)

With costume design from John Paul Gaultier, this sci-fi tale looks delightfully weird from the opening sequence (gold-plated aliens) and there is plenty of sly humour as the movie plays with clichés and genres. The space crew's uniform has the slightest hint of Star Trek, Gary Oldman's villain is not far from being a haute couture dandy, and Chris Tucker is a flamboyant celebrity clad in leopard-print. There's even an actual space opera. Look out for the air stewardesses who appear to have inspired Britney's Toxic uniform and the mugger whose camouflage hat blends into any corridor...

28. Singin' In The Rain (1952)

Designer: Walter Plunkett

Gene Kelly is the movie star whose career hits the skids when talkies are introduced, and the vintage fun doesn't stop there. There are three female stars; Jean Hagen as the loudmouthed flapper in gaudy furs and headdresses, Debbie Reynolds as the sweet young singer in a striking blue zig-zag dress, and slinky Cyd Charisse in her famous tasselled green number as she seduces Gene Kelly in his dream dance sequence. This movie loves its 1920s trends so much that we get a fashion show thrown in for good measure. (Turns out monkey fur was just the thing to wear with your pearls.)

For breaking down the fashions at the time it's on par with 1967's Thoroughly Modern Millie (in which Julie Andrews gets a makeover in the opening sequence and emerges with hair and skirt shortened, a flat chest and the all-important cloche hat).

27. Now Voyager (1942)

Designer: Orry-Kelly

James Cameron paid homage to Bette Davis's sea voyage with Kate Winslet's first appearance in Titanic (as well as repeating the "tryst in a car" theme); this too is a romantic coming-of-age tale. Davis plays Charlotte Vale, a frumpy spinster who lives under the control of her cantankerous mother. With the help of a kindly psychiatrist, she has a mental and physical makeover and becomes a glamorous woman who is able to help out the similarly oppressed young daughter of the man she loves.

Davis led the way for actresses who "ugly up" as a fast track to Oscar nomination, starting the film in sensible lace-ups, glasses and beetle-brows. Her transformation resulted in stunning chiffon gowns and glittering capes which prove that nobody needs to show a lot of flesh when a 1940s number with a gathered waist and shoulder pads will do the job.

26. Saturday Night Fever (1977)

Designer: Patrizia Von Brandenstein

If you haven't seen this for a while, it's worth revisiting, if only for your incredulous entertainment at the realisation "these people thought they looked cool". (Not that 21st century clubbers look any less ridiculous, obviously.) It may be horribly dated, but John Travolta is still the tight-trousered, snake-hipped king of the disco.

We all remember the suit, the flares, the wide lapels and the rustle of man-made fibres, but there's also a fair amount of character and story development to be found in the wardrobe department. Tony (Travolta) is surrounded by drab, lifeless beige but spends precious money on eye-catching disco outfits (which his pals copy). He's impressed by Stephanie's professional dance gear and their bold vs delicate styles begin to merge as their friendship develops. By the end of the movie they are both in white: blank canvases ready for a fresh start.

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