10 of the best movie outfits of all time
The fashions and costumes worn in film are more than just clothes. They are a key part of the storytelling narrative for the audience. Costume designers intricately use the fashions worn in films to depict the personality of the characters, the era in which they live and even the characters’ state of mind and stage of life. Here are some of the most iconic fashions worn in films over the past century – and a few of my personal favourites.
Seven Year Itch
In the 1955 American romantic comedy, Seven Year Itch, Marilyn Monroe wears arguably one of the most iconic dresses of the 20th century. In one scene in the film, co-written and directed by Billy Wilder, Marilyn walks with co-star Tom Ewell over a subway grate in New York, causing her white halter-neck and pleated skirt dress to fly upwards. The ‘subway dress’ is widely known around the world, including by many who have never seen the film.
The filming of the subway scene caused quite the stir as large crowds gathered on location – forcing Twentieth Century Fox to complete filming of the scene on its studio lot. The dress was designed by William Travilla, who also designed her famous pink strapless dress that she wore while singing ‘Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend’ in the 1953 film, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. I personally also have to give a shout-out to her fabulous pink silk shirt and pants worn in another scene of the Seven Year Itch – totally fabulous fifties chic. In 2011, the white ‘subway’ dress sold at auction for $4.6 million.
To Catch a Thief
In the 1955 Alfred Hitchcock film, To Catch a Thief, Grace Kelly wears so many show-stopping outfits designed by Edith Head that it’s hard to pick a favourite. This was to be the last film Grace Kelly ever made before marrying Price Rainier of Monaco and leaving her Hollywood life behind. The movie, also starring Cary Grant, was shot in Cannes and Nice in the south of France. I love the entire wardrobe of ‘Frances Stevens’, played by Kelly – her chiffon evening gowns are elegance personified; her blush pink and white ensemble worn while driving the winding streets of Cannes is divine; and her fancy-dress gold ballgown near the end of the film proved to be a fitting farewell to Kelly’s on-screen life as an actress. Then, there’s this black and white casual beach outfit that Frances wears to the beach, casually strolling through the lobby of the InterContinental Carlton Cannes – other men watch on, their wives elbowing them and propping up their jaws as Grace Kelly/ Frances strolls effortlessly past the foyer’s marble columns – in a black halter-neck swimsuit; capri pants covered by a drawstring edged white sheer skirt open at front; a wide brimmed hat; and a black turban.
Breakfast at Tiffany's
In the opening of the 1961 romantic comedy Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Audrey Hepburn wears one of the most recognised film dresses of the 20th century – a black full-length gown designed by Hubert de Givenchy. Three copies of the dress were made and Hepburn returned to Paramount Studios with two of the copies. The original dress had a split which was deemed to reveal too much leg, so the costume designer Edith Head redesigned the lower half of the dress to make it ‘screen-suitable’. One of the three original dresses is on display at the Museum of Costume in Madrid, Spain; one copy is held at Maison Givenchy and the third was auctioned by Christie’s in 2006, fetching $923,187.
The Sound of Music
In the 1965 film The Sound of Music, we all love Fraulein Maria (played by Julie Andrews): for her spirited nature, her nurturing ways and refusal to answer to Captain von Trapp’s whistle. She may have won her man’s heart in the end but let’s face it, Baroness Elsa Schraeder’s wardrobe really did reveal the ‘problem of Maria’s’ basic attire! Growing up, I absolutely loved the pale pink dress worn by Liesl as she danced around the gazebo singing, ‘I am Sixteen’. The arrival of the Baroness however seriously upped the fashion stakes in Von Trapp’s grand Austrian home.
When the Baroness (played by Eleanor Parker) is first seen at the house, she walks around the garden with Von Trapp, played by Christopher Plummer. “I am amusing, I suppose, and I do have the finest couturier in Vienna,” says the Baroness. The film’s costume designer Dorothy Jeakins has the Baroness dressed in a gorgeous coral suit with white polka dot blouse and enormous bow that ties on her hip, beneath the mid-crop jacket. It’s arguably one of the best outfits of the five-time Oscar-winning film.
The blockbuster 1998 film Titanic, starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo di Caprio, features a number of intricate Edwardian gowns worn by Winslet in her lead role as Rose. The film’s costume designer Deborah Lynn Scott won an Academy Award for her costume direction, recreating the fashions of 1912 worn by all classes on the ship. Deborah worked painstakingly with the film’s director James Cameron to thoroughly research the fashions of the era and her personal favourite of the whole film (and mine too) is the white and purple ‘boarding outfit’ in which we meet Rose for the first time as she arrives at the dock to board Titanic.
Deborah has said that James Cameron was adamant that the hat must be as big as possible, which was reflective of the era when hats were a symbol of wealth. On the day of shooting, Deborah was on location and saw the vintage car for the first time, creating some anxiety over the small size of its doorway, worried that the hat would not fit through the door as Winslet emerged – but the hat just made it through the slim gap.
The Great Gatsby
In the 2013 film adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic American novel, The Great Gatsby, costume designer Catherine Martin was tasked with creating 1700 vintage Art Deco style dresses for the cast. Catherine sought the help of designer Miuccia Prada who reinterpreted 40 classic styles to depict the wealthy East Coast characters. Lead actress Carey Mulligan, playing Daisy Buchanan, wore the divine crystal champagne-coloured party dress designed by Prada in one of the movie’s key scenes. The dress was adapted from a spring/summer 2010 Prada dress, seen on the catwalk. Catherine Martin, wife of director Baz Luhrmann, won the Academy Award for costume design in the film.
The Notebook is a 2004 romantic drama starring Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling. The beginning of the film is set in 1940, Seabrook Island, North Carolina. Rachel McAdam’s character Ally wears some notable 1940s outfits throughout the film, taking her from girlhood through to womanhood. Perhaps the most memorable dress however is the blue frock she wears when she returns to Seabrook Island to visit her sweetheart from years earlier, Noah Calhoun (played by Ryan Gosling). The tension builds throughout the day as he takes her in a row boat along a lake to feed a group of white swans. The dress even looks good when the heavens open drenching Ally and Noah in rain and the two unite in a long-overdue, passionate embrace.
The film’s costume designer was Karyn Wagner, who was touched in 2020 to learn where the famous ‘blue dress’ had found a home. In early 2020 at the funeral of high profile basketball-player Kobe Bryant, his wife Vanessa Bryant revealed in her eulogy that Kobe had gifted her the blue dress worn in the film, the shoes and the notebook as a Valentine’s Day present. “When I asked him why he chose the blue dress, he said it was because it’s the scene when Ali comes back to Noah,” Vanessa explained, referencing the film’s plot. On learning this, Karyn Wagner admitted to bawling her eyes out.
Gone with the Wind
The epic 1939 film Gone with the Wind starring Vivien Leigh and Clarke Gable may contain one of the most famous lines in movie history, but Leigh’s incredible outfits as leading lady Scarlett O’Hara are equally memorable. Costume designer Walter Plunkett conducted meticulous research into the fashions worn during the time of the American civil war in the 1860s. While there are many stunning gowns worn by Leigh throughout the long film, perhaps one of the most ingenious and famous is the green ‘curtain dress’ that Scarlett wears to visit Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) in jail.
The desperate Scarlett is in dire need of money to pay the high taxes on her family’s plantation, Tara. She cannot tempt Rhett wearing the rags she’s been wearing in the cotton fields, so she makes a hoop-skirted dress out of the O’Hara family curtains. Author of Gone with the Wind Margaret Mitchell based Scarlett’s curtain dress on a pair of drapes from her own mother’s family – passed down from generation to generation as the only surviving treasure after their North Georgia plantation was gutted during the Union Army’s invasion. Designer Walter Plunkett used moss-green and chartreuse velvet to make the ‘curtain dress’ that he deliberately exposed to sunlight to achieve a faded appearance that would resemble the same aesthetic of much-used curtain fabric.
In the 1990 hit film Pretty Woman, starring Julia Roberts and Richard Gere, lead character Vivien Ward transforms from a street worker into a ‘society lady’. I adore Vivien’s moment of vengeance when she returns to a Rodeo Drive boutique where the staff would not serve her the previous day in her street-girl clothes. She’s now dressed in an elegant button-up dress with 1980s shoulder pads. “I was in here yesterday, you wouldn’t wait on me. You work on commission, right? Big mistake – HUGE – I have to go shopping now!”
The red full-length dress and white gloves she wears to the opera is another fashion highlight of the movie. But one of the most iconic and recognised dresses of the movie, selected by costume designer Marilyn Vance, is the sleeveless brown dress that Vivien wears to a polo match – belted at the waist and paired with a wide-brim white straw boater hat. The outfit is only topped off by Vivien’s loud and enthusiastic ‘woot, woot, woot’ cheer.
Yes, an outfit worn by Grace Kelly has ranked twice on my list. In another Alfred Hitchcock classic, Rear Window, Grace plays wealthy New Yorker Lisa Fremont. In the 1954 film, Kelly’s character pays a visit to her boyfriend Jeff, played by James Stewart. She wears a striking mint-green skirt and jacket with stand-up collar and rounded shoulders, with a white silk halterneck blouse nipped in at the waist. Costume designer Edith Head completes Lisa’s outfit with a white pillbox hat with half veil, a single strand of pearls and a gold statement silver and pearl bracelet.
Interestingly the scene may contain one of the earliest examples of product placements, when Lisa mentions by brand name the ‘Mark Cross’ overnight case that she’s carrying. Hitchcock reached out to the luxury leather goods manufacturer to specifically request a compact and feminine overnight attache case that would be appropriate for Lisa’s character. In 2002 the original Mark Cross overnight case carried by Grace sold at auction at Christie’s for $5,019.