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)
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)
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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25. The Devil Wears Prada (2006)
Designer: Patricia Field
Andy (Anne Hathaway) is the “fat girl” who discovers that clothes really do maketh the man; she is hopeless in her new job at a fashion magazine until Stanley Tucci takes her under his wing and gives her access to the kind of closet most of us can only dream about.
Patricia Field (a fan favourite from her work on Sex And The City) worked with a budget of “just” $100,000, so she called in favours from over a hundred designers and used about a million dollars’ worth of clothing and accessories. Shallow? Meryl offers the perfect riposte for those who think shopping isn’t a totally valid pastime: “It’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you’re wearing a sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room”.
24. Morocco (1930)
Designers: Travis Banton & Eugene Joseff
Dietrich’s masculine swagger in tuxedo, top hat and white bow tie seems shocking even today. Always the ground-breaking actress, it was Marlene’s idea for her character to act like a predatory man and kiss an unsuspecting but amused woman in the film’s most famous scene. The suited-up look was echoed by Julie Andrews in 1982’s Victor Victoria, and will no doubt be trotted out every time a fashion magazine does its semi-annual feature on androgyny.
Dietrich was well-known for taking an active interest in costume; she even created her own version of body-sculpting underwear to get her figure looking just the way she wanted it. Oh, and she always made sure the lighting was tailored to her specifications, too. Gotta love a diva!
23. The Wild One (1953)
Designer: Apparently… Brando himself
Further to his t-shirt renaissance, Brando’s role as Johnny in The Wild One has been influencing angry young men ever since. With his Perfecto leather motorcycle jacket, blue jeans and cap at a jaunty angle, he was the very picture of cool – even his sideburns were fashion dynamite, allegedly inspiring Elvis Presley’s look in Jailhouse Rock.
No designer is credited, and stuntman Whitey Hughes remembers “Marlon always wore jeans, t-shirt and a leather jacket. People in Hollywood back then called him ‘The Slob'”. Slob or not, James Dean capitalised on the minimalist jeans, t-shirt and (red) jacket look two years later in Rebel Without A Cause, and the icon of “motorbike rebel” has been widely used in commercials and even films – notably as Shia LaBeouf makes an entrance in Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull.
22. The Silence Of The Lambs (1991)
Designer: Colleen Atwood
Throughout The Silence Of The Lambs, Anthony Hopkins imbues Hannibal Lecter with such a palpable sense of menace that we can never shake off the impression that he is as dangerous and volatile as a wild animal. In his cell he is separated from other humans by glass and Clarice (Jodie Foster) is reminded to never get too close. The infamous Hannibal mask has less than five minutes of screen time yet it comes to represent the uncontrollable nature of Lecter and is an instantly recognisable symbol of the character.
Anthony Hopkins suggested the all-white outfit Hannibal wears when plotting his escape; apparently his own fear of dentists inspired the idea that white would look more clinical and disconcerting than a standard orange jumpsuit. Meanwhile Clarice is a woman desperate to be taken seriously, dressing like the boys in shapeless sweats or in tweeds that are too old for her.
21. West Side Story (1961)
Designer: Irene Sharaff
While I generally prefer my musicals without stabbings, I have to admit that the costumes (and the song-and-dance routines) in this updated tale of Romeo And Juliet have been skilfully designed. The rival gangs are colour-coded: the Jets in shades of blue, yellow and orange and the Sharks in red, pink and purple. Only Natalie Wood is neutral in white; she later wraps herself in lilac netting, hinting at her plans to hook up with a Shark.
Apparently costume designer Irene Sharaff referenced the play’s Shakespearean roots by researching silhouettes from the Italian renaissance and using them in the costumes of the gang members (although I’ll be darned if I can see any evidence of this). However, the movie does serve as an illustration of early 1960s fashion; the puffy prom dresses of the 50s were still popular, but the odd figure-hugging shift also makes it into the mix.
20. Funny Face (1957)
Designer: Edith Head
Suspend your disbelief: Audrey Hepburn is a frumpy bookseller who agrees to take on a modelling job so she can visit Paris and meet her favourite philosopher. (It’s pretty similar to Sabrina where she’s a nerd who ends up in Givenchy. Oh and My Fair Lady, where she starts out as a street urchin.)
Although she wears some stunning 1950s gowns, the film is best remembered for Audrey’s crazy-Parisian-underground-club dance sequence (used in a 2006 Gap commercial as well as inspiring Beyoncé’s Countdown video). At the time, Audrey wasn’t happy about teaming white socks with an all-black outfit, telling director Stanley Donen that it would ruin the simplicity of the silhouette. He insisted that he needed the white to make her movements pop on screen. When she saw the finished sequence, she agreed that white socks à la Fred Astaire were indeed the right way to go. Phew!
19. Working Girl (1988)
Designer: Ann Roth
Barring Wall Street’s slick hair and yuppie suits, you won’t find a more vivid illustration of 1980s New York office culture. Clothing tells you a person’s status; Tess (Melanie Griffith) wears trainers into work to make the walk easier, but her boss Sigourney Weaver wear heels – what are cabs for?
Across the hierarchy, makeup is lurid and hair enormous. Tess attends a party wearing black velvet with diamante sparkles; apparently this passed for elegant eveningwear at the time. Harrison Ford admires her for dressing like a woman, “not like a woman thinks a man would dress if he was a woman.” Praise indeed. By the end of the movie, Tess has ditched the patterned tights, sorted out her hair, and is wearing a tasteful grey trench coat (still with giant shoulderpads, but we can’t have everything). Character development and style; it’s the same thing, really.
18. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Designer: Anthea Sylbert
Films often use clothing to create distinctive characters or motifs which then pass into popular culture; black and white stripes à la Beetlejuice, the red mac of Don’t Look Now, any number of villainous masks. The costumes in Roman Polanski’s chiller are subtle rather than conspicuous, but they add to the atmosphere all the same.
Mia Farrow as Rosemary is almost unbearably vulnerable; thin, fragile, childlike. Her gamine new haircut (Vidal Sassoon!) must have seemed shockingly modern to moviegoers who were used to coiffeured curls; the loose cotton babydoll dresses and Peter Pan collars perfectly highlight her little sparrow legs and gaunt frame. Not only are the outfits bang on trend for the late 1960s, but they emphasise Rosemary’s innocence in a way that few other styles before or since could have achieved.
17. Pretty Woman (1990)
Designer: Marilyn Vance
In every great chick flick, two things are essential: 1) a fabulous makeover, and 2) bitches getting payback. Who could forget those snooty shop assistants and their “big mistake” when appraising a lowly hooker? Julia Roberts shone in early movies like Mystic Pizza and Steel Magnolias, but in Pretty Woman her charisma exploded like a fireball on screen – and not just because her costumes covered approximately 6 inches of her 5’8″ frame.
Surprisingly, cut-out dresses have never caught on in a big way, although that could change any day now that “sideboob” and “sidebum” are a thing. The thigh-high PVC boots and red jacket (allegedly bought from a movie usher for $30) made her hooker outfit unforgettable, but she scrubs up pretty nicely in the brown polka-dot dress and the formal gowns – just to make sure we realise that she was never truly trashy.
16. Grease (1978)
Designer: Albert Wolsky
Barring perhaps the skintight spandex of Sandy’s triumphant reinvention, this is a pretty spot-on depiction of the way teens looked in 1950s America (even if some of the teens here appear to have been in school for several decades). It was a time when Elvis’s swivelling hips were a cause for censorship; a mix of innocence and sauciness which the film encapsulates with its wardrobe of pedal pushers, gingham shorts, and cheerleader skirts which reach mid-calf.
The boys emulate their heroes with slicked-back hair and blue jeans, and while those naughty Pink ladies are all about tight pencil skirts, bustier tops and the classic scarf-tied-at-the-neck look, Sandy is demure in pastels and full swing skirts. Until, of course, the movie makes use of the universal rule that black leather equals BAD girl…
15. Gone With The Wind (1939)
Designer: Walter Plunkett
Scarlett O’Hara’s story is told through her clothes; she begins in a frothy, virginal white dress, rapidly graduates to an iridescent wedding gown and then head-to-toe black when she is widowed. Although she comes from respectable stock, she is still considered something of a town trollop, her dresses always cut to show off more cleavage than is strictly acceptable (while sweet innocent Melanie is drab in contrast).
During the war Scarlett is forced into plain workaday outfits (the horror!) and has to show some backbone in order to survive. Realising that she’s the strongest of all her remaining family and friends, she makes a classic Scarlett move and tears down the old velvet curtains to make a new outfit; she’s going to find a man to pay her bills and she’d rather live in a hovel than appear underdressed when she meets him.
14. Scream (1996)
Designer: Cynthia Bergstrom
Tons of movies have been based around a psychopath with a distinctive mask: Michael Myers in Halloween, Jason in Friday The 13th, Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It’s a great device: a mask eliminates eye contact and strips the killer of any recognisable humanity. An unknown assailant dressed like the grim reaper is a million times scarier than your run-of-the-mill stalker.
The “Ghostface” costume was designed on the hoof, using a random mask the production team found while scouting locations. Happily, it resembled Edvard Munch’s famous painting, The Scream. Less happily, it’s now an incredibly popular choice at Halloween, which makes living in the suburbs somewhat terrifying.
The Scream franchise combines post-modern playfulness with a good old-fashioned whodunit; the anonymity of the mask means that there can be multiple killers even within one film, and sequels stretching out to infinity.
13. Marie Antoinette (2006)
Designer: Milena Canonero
Sofia Coppola’s lavishly costumed Marie Antoinette is a must-see for anyone who enjoy clothes as an art form: Kirsten Dunst and her ladies-in-waiting provide a mouthwatering array of dresses in sorbet shades. Although the entire film has been given an ultra-modern flavour to humanise the historical figures, the elaborate gowns, wigs and regalia are all reasonably accurate 18th century garb (Amadeus is another movie which hits the spot for historically minded fashionistas).
To drive home the point that Marie Antoinette was a simple-minded bimbette of a teenager, Sofia Coppola even threw some converse trainers into a shoe montage. (Yes, it’s the kind of movie that has a shoe montage.) This has sometimes been cited as a blooper because of course crew members often take off their stinky shoes and chuck them into shot without anyone noticing. Duh.
12. Breakfast At Tiffany’s (1961)
Designers: Hubert de Givenchy & Edith Head
The little black dress. The tiara. The cigarette holder. The trench coat. So many iconic images in one film. (Not forgetting the swinging 60s orange coat or the pink rhinestone-studded cocktail dress.) It’s generally agreed that Audrey Hepburn could make a hessian sack look like couture, but Givenchy’s designs left nothing to chance, hiding secrets such as horsehair stuffing and lead weights to make fabric fall a certain way. He and Edith Head formed an uneasy alliance; generally he supplied the clothes and she took the credit (and altered the signature full-length black gown to reveal less leg).
Holly Golightly also socialises at her cocktail party in what appears to be a cream Grecian style dress. An earlier scene establishing that she was actually fresh out of the bath was cut – however, we’re left with definitive proof that Audrey would look good wrapped in a sheet.
11. The Stepford Wives (1975)
Designer: Anna Hill Johnstone
Readers of a certain age may remember Nanette Newman’s ecstasy at washing up with Fairy Liquid; perhaps a result of her role in this sci-fi thriller based on Ira Levin’s creepy-but-satirical novel. As newcomers to the town full of strangely docile women, Katharine Ross and Paula Prentiss stand out in their flares and cropped tops (bra-less, of course. They were feminists, after all).
Co-star Peter Masterson rather ungallantly revealed that the costumes were originally more Playboy bunny-esque, but when director Bryan Forbes cast his wife the design was changed “because Nanette wouldn’t have looked good” dressed that way. It was actually the best thing that could have happened; instead of blending in with the overtly sexual movie fashions of hotpants and go-go boots, Stepford’s maxi dresses, frills and parasols hinted at the Victorian mindset. The 2004 remake continued to keep the ladies demure in 1950s sundresses rather than turning them into sexbots.
10. Top Hat (1935)
Designer: Bernard Newman
Being the classiest dancing couple ever to grace the screen (they make Strictly Come Dancing look like a display of entertainingly clumsy gorillas in tutus) Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’ costumes are just the icing on the cake.
Fred’s always dapper in a suit, and Ginger’s costumes appear to be designed primarily for movement, every dance step resulting in an elegant swish of silky fabric. Her most famous look was the ostrich feather dress she wears in Top Hat – the floatiness matched her graceful movements perfectly. The feathers famously caused Fred some consternation as they floated loose (“It was like a chicken attacked by a coyote!”); he parodied the sequence in Easter Parade (1948) and was still asking for “no feathers please” in costumes twenty years later. Bless.
9. Batman Begins (2005)
Designer: Lindy Hemming
To show us what you can really do with a few million and a social conscience, Bruce Wayne (with help from Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox) produces the best ever batsuit – and lets the audience into the secrets of the process. Featuring temperature regulators, weapon-deflecting armour, and a memory cloth cape, Bruce keeps multiple versions of the suit in stock (talk about a capsule wardrobe) and it later evolves to become more flexible.
Christian Bale wasn’t the only one in the trilogy with an impressive costume; who could forget Cillian Murphy’s terrifying Scarecrow mask, Heath Ledger’s shambolic Joker or Bane’s alien-esque mask? (Although I have to question the wisdom of casting Tom Hardy and then covering his face…) Anne Hathway’s Catwoman costume may be stunning and pseudo-realistic but lovers of fancy dress will always have a soft spot for the whimsical hand-stitched version worn by Michelle Pfieffer in Batman Returns.
8. Bringing Up Baby (1938)
Designer: Howard Greer
As well as being a glorious example of the kind of streamlined silhouettes of women’s gowns in the 1930s, this movie boasts a historical first; an ad lib from Cary Grant is thought to be the earliest documented use of the word “gay” to mean anything but “happy”. His character isn’t too pleased when he misplaces his clothes and is forced to wear a flimsy, marabou- trimmed negligee. (It’s a screwball comedy. Don’t ask.)
The accident-prone couple also have a wardrobe malfunction in their swanky eveningwear; Katharine Hepburn manages to rip Grant’s tails just before her own dress suffers an unfortunate split, making a dignified exit impossible. The resulting scene was apparently inspired by a real-life event which Cary Grant recounted to director Howard Hawks; his trouser zipper caught on a woman’s dress and he made a split-second decision to follow her. That’s his story, anyway…
7. Star Wars (1977)
Designer: John Mollo
Now that we’re accustomed to films being made strictly to cash in on popular books, comics or TV shows, the idea of an epic franchise coming out of nowhere seems, well, alien. Although Star Wars took elements from various comic books and science fiction artwork, it brought them into the mainstream and made them seem fresh and visionary.
Influences were wide-ranging: Han Solo’s costume reflected his “cowboy in a starship” persona, and the C-3PO design took inspiration from Maria, the Maschinenmensch in sci-fi classic Metropolis.
The pièce de résistance is Darth Vader: his faceless helmet (along with some heavy breathing) made the character unknowable and terrifying. The original concept was that his suit provided a mobile life-support system (including respirator for cross-space travel) but some details were dropped; Vader may not need to wear his helmet all the time, but George Lucas knew that mystique is everything.
6. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)
I confess: the incredibly famous sequence in which Marilyn sings Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend annoys me. Pink dress. Red background. Why? Maybe clashing colours seem fabulous to some, but wouldn’t a black backdrop have been so much cooler? Even so, the routine is classic Marilyn, and has been endlessly imitated (usually by Madonna).
Marilyn and Jane Russell are poured into various glittering skintight gowns in their roles as showgirls; there’s also an entertaining gender-role reversal as a fully-clothed Jane Russell hangs out to watch a male Olympic team train in their underpants. The power of a flattering outfit is highlighted when the ladies create an awed hush simply by walking through a crowded dining room; their fitted dresses grab everyone’s attention in a way that a naked Miley Cyrus could only dream about.
5. Blade Runner (1982)
Designers: Michael Kapla & Charles Knode
Ridley Scott’s dystopian vision is considered a classic for its dark comic-book style, with costumes mixing the recognisably retro with futuristic weirdness and everyday clothes. (Contrary to most sci-fi movies, we’re never really going to adopt a uniform, are we?) While Rutger Hauer looks mildly threatening in leather and Harrison Ford channels Sam Spade in a brown overcoat, the costume designers really go to town on the ladies.
Sean Young looks like Joan Crawford on steroids, with 1940s rollered hair, shoulderpads and furs taken to extremes. Darryl Hannah’s punky hair, ripped tights and leg warmers were based on a calendar of New Wave fashions which caught Ridley Scott’s eye (it might also be worth mentioning that Cats was the must-see musical of 1982). Zhora the snake dancer (Joanna Cassidy) just wears body glitter, backless boots and a transparent plastic coat, which is why Blade Runner still provides inspiration for both fancy dress costumes and runway fashion.
4. Vertigo (1958)
Designer: Edith Head
Kim Novak as Madeline is the ultimate icy Hitchcock blonde, mysterious and untouchable. Scotty (James Stewart) has no idea what’s going on in her head, and he’s pretty hard-pressed to see beyond her tightly buttoned-up suits and high-necked blouses, either. (Apart from the scene where he kindly liberates her from her wet clothes while she’s unconscious, of course.)
When Scotty is moulding his more wantonly-dressed and economically-challenged girlfriend Judy (also Kim Novak) into a carbon copy of the sophisticated Madeleine, he fixates on her signature light grey suit. The colour was chosen specifically to make the pale, platinum-haired actress look washed out and ghostly while portraying a woman who may be possessed/crazy.
Scotty’s obsession echoes the way Hitchcock played Pygmalion to stars such as Grace Kelly and Tippi Hedren: “He made you over, didn’t he? Just as I’ve done. But better! Not just the hair and the clothes! The look! The manner! The words!”
3. The Gold Rush (1925)
Designer: None listed. (But the famous boot was made by Hillaby’s, a liquorice factory in Yorkshire.)
Charlie Chaplin’s “Tramp” made his debut in 1914 and remains a cultural icon to this day; the little chap in baggy trousers, tight jacket, and bowler hat guaranteed brilliant comedy. One of his most memorable moments was in The Gold Rush; only Chaplin could eat a boot with the air of a gourmet and make a scene full of pathos so hilarious. He later revealed that the story was inspired by real events: pioneers trapped in snow in Sierra Nevada in 1846 had resorted to cannibalism… and eating a moccasin. (“And I thought, stewed boots? There’s something funny there”.)
The boot that Chaplin and his co-star Mack Swain feasted on was made of liquorice, and two or three days of retakes resulted in an unfortunate laxative effect (or caused insulin shock, depending on which source we believe). Yet their suffering paid off, producing one of the funniest scenes – and most innovative uses of costume – in cinematic history.
2. Some Like It Hot (1959)
Designers: Bert Henrikson & Orry-Kelly
It was a stroke of genius to set everyone’s favourite cross-dressing movie in the 1920s, the era of straight-hanging dresses and a slightly more masculine frame; Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis fit right in. They’re on the run from mobsters after witnessing the 1929 St Valentine’s Day Massacre, and where better to hide than an all-girl band heading for Florida?
Of course, their new pal Marilyn Monroe is a whole different story (“Look how she moves! It’s like Jell-O on springs!”). Unless I’m very much mistaken about 1920s fashions, dresses were not often designed to be essentially topless but for a sheer panel adorned with some artfully placed sequins. Still, nobody’s complaining. The boys don more traditional cloche hats, flapper dresses and long beads; Jack Lemmon (dressed in frilly nightgown) enjoys a slumber party with his new bandmates, and Tony Curtis switches between his alter egos of “Josephine” and a yachting millionaire.
1. The Wizard Of Oz (1939)
Dorothy’s ruby slippers are undoubtedly the most iconic shoes ever to grace the screen – yet they would have been silver if it hadn’t been for the whim of Louis B. Mayer, who wanted them to stand out in vivid technicolour.
In the days before CGI, costumes had to work. While Judy Garland only had to put up with corsetry to flatten her chest, it’s hard to say which of her pals had the more uncomfortable costume: the scarecrow’s rubber mask left a woven-cloth pattern on Ray Bolger’s skin which took forever to fade (he didn’t appear in another film for two years), and the Tin Man costume was so rigid that Jack Haley couldn’t sit down. Bert Lahr’s lion costume was as heavy as a small child and soaked in sweat by the end of the day. (It was dried overnight and very occasionally dry-cleaned. Ick.)
The lesson here is that while it’s fun to look at spectacular costumes, it’s probably best if we don’t think too much about the blood, sweat and tears involved.
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