Naturally, fashion has always, somehow, been a part of cinema history. Every film has in its own way been a commentary on, or portrait of, the clothes that were worn in the specific era which the film depicts. Many filmmakers have not focused on the clothes in particular, but others definitely have, whether it’s in an innovative and provocative way, or more as a tribute to the classics of fashion.
This list will introduce films where clothes aren’t just something characters wear, but where it’s also a big part of the film’s aesthetics, the characters’ personalities, as well as fashion in itself. It’s a list of films that try to emphasize the importance and beauty of clothes. It’s going to be a mix between film classics that always end up on these kinds of lists, as well as films you maybe haven’t even heard of, but are really worth watching, especially if you love the combination of the world of cinema and fashion.
This is not a list of films that deal with plots concerning the fashion industry, but rather films you should watch if you’re interested in fashion, whether it’s because you want to look at the development in fashion from era to era, or whether you just want inspiration for your own clothes and/or films.
1. Gone With the Wind (1939), USA
This classic epic takes place during the American Civil War and tells the story of the young and beautiful, but in some ways anti-heroic, Scarlett O’Hara, played by Vivien Leigh. It’s especially her turbulent relationship with Rhett Butler, played by Clark Gable, that left, and still leaves, audiences amazed at this spectacular picture.
It’s not only a film classic; it’s certainly also a classic example of fashion in cinema. Showcasing the lifestyle of the rich white southern folk, it displays one gorgeous outfit after another. From ball gowns that fill the whole room with their enormous skirts, corsets, and boisterous colors, to flirty ruffles and huge straw hats, it’s all very pretty, and you cannot help but to get a tiny bit jealous at it all.
What’s especially fascinating about the fashion in the film is of course Scarlett’s sense of style. She’s never one to shy away from making an entrance, and she’s daring. When Rhett forces her to wear a tight-fitted red dress, looking the part of an adulteress, for the birthday party of Ashley, the man she always wanted, Scarlett might be bewildered and unsure as the door is swung open, but as soon as she enters the party and people start staring, the confidence and pride is back – and she looks gorgeous.
Remarkable outfit: Scarlett’s emerald green velvet dress made out of drapes.
2. Nights of Cabiria (1957), Italy/France
The film follows the prostitute Cabiria, wonderfully portrayed by actress Giulietta Masina, in the streets of Rome, where she tries to find happiness and a man to love. Cabiria is inhibited by her deeply romantic and naïve heart, which is set in contrast to her cutthroat personality and ruthless profession, and throughout her life she’s let down by one man after another, all wanting sex and money rather than her true affection.
Federico Fellini is known for his stylish films, and the clothes chosen for his characters are an essential part of a certain Italian elegance. Take, for example, a film such as “8½”, where every suit fits Marcello Mastroianni and all the women look like high fashion models in exquisite dresses.
“Nights of Cabiria” is different in the way it instead shows the unapologetic fashion of the Italian slums. It’s a dreadful life in many ways, but style, that they do have. From the makeup with sharp eyebrows and cat-eye eyeliner, to pencil skirts and a rain hood, you cannot help but admire the clothes that fit the feisty personality of Cabiria, who isn’t afraid to show off her voluptuous curves.
However, there are also fashion statements to look at when Cabiria is her more vulnerable self. For example, the scene when Cabiria unwillingly is put up on a stage in front of a crowd of rude people, and she’s wearing a simple light coat, a small black purse, and a flower crown in her hair, she’s elegant and precious as she closes her eyes, and the outfit exudes grace. And so the film shows its versatility, also when it comes to the clothes.
Remarkable outfit: The faithfully worn cropped fur jacket, striped shirt and the tight black pencil skirt.
3. Purple Noon (1960), France/Italy
“Purple Noon” is loosely based on the book “The Talented Mr. Ripley”, and introduces the audience to the character Tom Ripley, who goes to Europe to convince his spoiled friend Philippe to travel back to the States with him. Ripley has been sent by Philippe’s father, but when Philippe discovers this, he reveals to Ripley that he never planned on going back to the States. The whole situation and sense of failure causes Ripley to murder Philippe and impersonate him in order to take over his luxurious life without being exposed.
Ripley is played by the handsome Alain Delon, who perfectly embodies a fashionable anti-hero, and you cannot help but get enchanted by his charm, regardless of his fraud and murderous tendencies.
You can tell just from watching him stride around Rome that he’s suave and persuasive, without him even having to say anything, which is a big kudos to the importance of the clothes. He’s effortlessly good looking as he goes around in light button-down shirts, grey fitted cigarette pants, and white Gucci loafers, and just as his personality is, he looks masculine, relaxed and sexy.
There are some interesting contrasts in the film when looking at the use of light colors in the clothes, such as white, blue, pink and grey, and tan summer skin, as opposed to the cinema noir plot. The bronzed torso, often showed off by the loose button down shirts and general titivation, also gives Ripley a certain ambiguous sexuality, which only supports his mysterious demeanor.
Remarkable outfit: The navy/red striped regatta blazer in one of the last scenes.
4. Breathless (1960), France
The young and handsome Michel Poiccard, played by Jean-Paul Belmondo, steals a car out of recklessness and ends up murdering a policeman. Poiccard runs from the crime scene and turns to his old friend Patricia Franchini, a modern and chic American who studies journalism. As Poiccard is wanted by the authorities for the murder, he tries to convince Patricia to go with him out of the country.
In this Jean-Luc Godard French New Wave film, especially known for its experimental use of the jump-cut edit, fashion also plays an essential part. The character of Patricia, played by Jean Seberg, is hip in every way. From her short blonde hair, the cigarette pants, sailor stripes and cat-eye sunglasses, Patricia was everything fresh and fashionable about the 1960s. Her personality is charming and her happiness for life matches her confident blend of masculine and feminine.
Both lead characters seem simple and almost effortless in their style, in the best way possible, and there was never any official costume designer credited on the film. Instead, the actors showed up and small changes were made here and there, but mostly it was effortless, whether it’s Poiccard throwing his hat around or Patricia mixing classical feminine items with something typically masculine. Just as the way of filming in the real streets of Paris seems cool and creative, so do the clothes.
Remarkable outfit: Patricia’s combination of a pleated midi-skirt and a French sailor shirt.
5. Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), USA
The quirky and seemingly confident socialite and call girl Holly Golightly, famously portrayed by Audrey Hepburn, becomes the subject of fascination for a struggling writer, Paul Varjak, who has just moved into the apartment downstairs from her. Holly is as confusing as a person can be, switching from unapologetically flirty to vulnerable and naïve. As Paul is persistent, Holly slowly opens up to the interesting man he is.
This film is inevitable for a list such as this, so even though it’s always exciting to find less expected and more unknown films, you still cannot deny the importance of the simple black dress perfectly fitted around Hepburn’s slim figure. But it’s not just the beauty and elegance of every outfit she wears, it’s also her heartwarming and humorous character that makes the sophisticated looks seem almost within reach of the audience.
More often than not, Holly looks jazzy and elegant in black dresses, jewelry, large sunglasses and varied statement hats and scarves, but she also makes her comfortable clothes for when relaxing at home inspiring. For instance, when she’s sleeping in a man’s white oversized shirt with a turquoise and gold sleeping mask or playing a guitar dressed in blue jeans, a grey sweater and a cloth still wrapped around her hair, it’s effortless, elegant and timeless, just like her character.
Remarkable outfit: The long black Givenchy dress, satin gloves, extravagant jewelry and breakfast in hand.
6. Doctor Zhivago (1965), USA/Italy
Set in Russia, before and during the Bolshevik revolution, Yury Zhivago (Omar Sharif), a medical student with the heart of a poet, marries and starts a family with a woman he doesn’t truly desire. Instead, Zhivago is completely struck by Lara, and she becomes his poetic muse, and he’s hereby set in the dilemma of choosing his desires versus fidelity. Meanwhile, the world around Zhivago is changing with the revolution and the World War I, and he struggles to retain his own self amidst all the adversity.
David Lean’s epic won for Best Costume Design (by Phyllis Dalton) at the Academy Awards in 1966, and designers seem to have been inspired by the film and its clothes ever since its release. Clothing line after clothing line of winter wear have caught on to the simple clothes of the film: fur hats, maxi coats and fur trimmed cuffs.
It shows a feminine side to warmer and bigger clothes, and even though Russia in the 1920’s was a place of ideological change, poverty and hardship, it especially doesn’t prevent Lara’s outfits from looking astounding in the film. The clothes indicate romance and simplicity, even as life gets more and more difficult and chaotic.
Lara’s many different items have truly made an impact on fashion today, seeing how many of them are currently fashion stables: the long oversized maxi coat, clean and crisp white shirts, hair ribbons, belted cardigans and oversized sweaters. They’re all essentials, and “Doctor Zhivago” really showed the appeal of it.
Remarkable outfit: When Lara and Pasha both wear matching layered black ensembles and Lara is giving a slight hint of a white collar.