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The Weekly Listicle: The Finest Costumes in Film History

Posted By William Bibbiani On May 5, 2010 @ 10:01 pm In Movies,The Fourth Wall | 3 Comments

With this weekend finally bringing the release of Iron Man 2, as anxiously-awaited a film as any this year, Julia Rhodes and I (William Bibbiani!) got to thinking about the best costumes in film history. After all, what is Tony Stark if not a man who exchanged one power suit for another? Excellent costume design is flattering, practical, thematically appropriate and iconic, and our choices for the Best Costumes Ever designed are no exceptions.

William’s Picks:

Dr. Jack Griffin (Claude Raines in The Invisible Man, 1933, Costume Designers Uncredited, Dir. James Whale)

What a tragedy that a man with such incredible fashion sense cannot actually be seen.

God, how I love irony… and it doesn’t get more ironic than this: The Invisible Man has one of the most memorable looks in film history. When Jack Griffin isn’t gallivanting around in his see-through birthday suit and wreaking all manner of havoc, he settles into an outfit that covers his entire body. Any outfit would do, but Dr. Griffin is one stylish bastard. The bandages covering his body are creepy but also signify that his condition is unnatural, a deformity and to the curious onlooker, something it would be polite not to ask about. The dark sunglasses act as windows into his soul, which is black indeed, and the smoking jacket has two important characteristics: First, it implies that he might be naked under there (which he is) adding a sexual edge to the character besides being practical for an invisible gentlemen as himself, and the casual nature of the attire accurately conveys that he just doesn’t give a crap anymore. A classic look still utilized by invisible men to this very day.

Robin Hood (Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood, 1938, Costume Designers Uncredited, but Wardrobe Supervised by Elmer Ellsworth, Ida Greenfield and Rydo Loshak, Dir. Michael Curtiz & William Keighley)

The quintessential Robin hood costume, so well-known that you might forget that he didn’t have to look like this.

Errol Flynn’s costume in The Adventures of Robin Hood is so perfect that, over 70 years later, people still assume that Robin Hood wore it. The ever-dapper Errol Flynn pulled off the iconic look like no other man could, or indeed has since, but although the tights are pretty dated today the overall costume design is bold and well-considered. For one, it makes perfect sense that a man who lives secretly in the woods and embarks in guerilla warfare in the middle of the forest would wear green and brown for camouflage purposes, and that an archer would prefer light attire for expedient movement over more defensive armor. That, and the cockiness of a character who assumes that he will never actually be struck during battle. (The feather in his cap says much of the same.) Even those tights imply a degree of athleticism that over the course of the film cannot be denied. It’s a simple but unforgettable look to which Robin Hood movies and TV shows to this day still owe a major debt of gratitude.

Annie Hall (Diane Keaton in Annie Hall, 1977, Costumes Designed by Ruth Morley, Dir. Woody Allen)

The perfect ensemble for Woody Allen’s perfect woman.

Give Diane Keaton credit for Annie Hall’s iconic look – they were her own clothes. And how fitting was the above look for Woody Allen’s most popular film! A look that inspired nothing short of a fashion craze. Annie Hall’s wardrobe is an instantly recognizable visual cue that she’s the perfect match for Allen’s Alvy Singer. These days, costume design in romantic comedies only seems to focus on what makes actresses look “hot,” not on what actually has personality. The hat, baggy pants, old-timey vest and too-long tie all evoke silent comedians of yore from Charlie Chaplin to Harold Lloyd, and as Singer is a professed film buff he responds with immediate affection. And even after all that psychoanalysis, you know what? She looks really, really cute in this ensemble. An instant classic.

Slave Leia (Carrie Fisher in The Return of the Jedi, 1983, Costumes Designed by Aggie Guerard Rogers & Nilo Rodis-Jamero, Dir. Richard Marquand)

Princess Leia’s gold bikini turned her into a human action figure in Jabba the Hutt’s life-size playset.

Yes, it’s sexually attractive. Get over it you perverts, because it’s also really clever costume design. In Return of the Jedi, Leia is captured rescuing Han Solo from Jabba the Hutt, a dastardly villain who then enslaves her and keeps her chained to his throne in a fetish outfit. So now we really hate his guts, but are also pretty appreciative. The fact that Jabba keeps Leia as property adds a new dimension to the action figure mentality of the series. Think about it: This fat bastard treats all the characters like playthings, throwing Luke into a playset to fight his favorite monster and stripping his Leia Barbie and keeping her next to his bed for his personal amusement. They later rebel against his collector’s mentality by brutally killing him. Richard Marquand & Co. managed to give the fanboys the sexual tease they craved while also criticizing them for treating Leia like a piece of meat. The fact that she was really hot in the gold bikini almost feels incidental.

Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer in Batman Returns, 1992, Costumes Designed by Bob Ringwood & Mary Vogt, Dir. Tim Burton)

Skintight Leather = Pleasure. Obvious Stitching from Pieces Torn Asunder = Pain

From a practical perspective, Catwoman’s costume in Batman Returns falls a little short (it constantly tore throughout the production), but let’s look at what the outfit says about the character. The shiny black full-body cat suit contrasts strikingly with Selina Kyle’s mousey everyday personality, fitting in perfectly with the film’s brilliantly-handled themes of duality. They also equate female liberation with sexual exploration, something Kyle’s behavior throughout the film – like giving herself a spontaneous tongue-bath in front of male admirers – supports. The overt white stitching, however, emphasizes the fact that his character was broken and had to sew herself back together, so to speak, in order to regain her identity. Oh yes, and it’s sexy as hell. As great a costume as there ever was.

Julia’s Picks:

Baby Jane Hudson (Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, 1962, Costumes Designed by Norma Koch, Dir. Robert Aldrich)

Bette Davis as Baby Jane Hudson, terrifying in little girl garb.

Silver screen legends Joan Crawford and Bette Davis collaborated in 1962 in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and it was a wonderful, horrible thing to behold. One imagines the two strong willed, husky voiced, veteran actresses battling it out for screen time and scenery chewing privileges, but the end result is a terribly creepy movie about jealousy, the Peter Pan syndrome, and wishing in vain for the best years of your life. Davis as Baby Jane is eye-popping in the girlish white smock, Mary Janes, and beribboned pigtails she donned as a one-hit-wonder child star. As a sweet voiced (but deplorable) little girl, Baby Jane was adorable—but when Jane wears the same outfit as a delusional, lost seventy-something woman with a thick waist and smoker’s cough, she’s downright frightening.

Brian Slade as Maxwell Demon (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers in Velvet Goldmine, 1998, Costumes Designed by Sandy Powell, Dir. Todd Haynes)

Maxwell Demon (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), a faux Bowie in brilliant feathers and glitter.

Despite its flaws, Velvet Goldmine, which ostensibly tells the real story of David Bowie and Iggy Pop’s volatile relationship in the ‘70s, is a loving tribute to glam rock. Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), whose alter ego Maxwell Demon is a reference to Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, capers about in glittery costumes and brightly hued wigs until he starts to believe he is Maxwell Demon. Rhys-Meyers has aquiline, androgynous features and a thin, graceful body that fits perfectly in the vibrant, shimmery latex costumes and platform boots, and watching him parade about, onstage and off, is an exercise in delusion, the pitfalls of fame, and the bizarre, frivolous sexuality of glam rock.

Jessica Rabbit (voiced by Amy Irving & Kathleen Turner in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, 1988, Costumes Designed by Joanna Johnston, Dir. Robert Zemeckis)

Before Megan Fox, there was Jessica Rabbit (and it was good).

Jessica Rabbit’s entrance in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? left many a preteen boy (and girl) drooling. Her shapely Betty Boop body, enormous breasts, and the sheath of hair revealing half her lovely, wide-eyed and pillow-lipped face left an imprint in the minds of audiences across the globe. The tiny, unfeasibly tight crimson dress she wears is iconic on its own, inspiring Halloween (or Ho-loween) costumes twenty years later. Paired with her slinky red hair, black elbow-length gloves, and the cigarette holder she holds daintily, the costume communicates utter sexuality and impossible beauty. Jessica is the epitome of ‘50s bad girl pinup, all curves and sultry sexiness.

Dr. Frank-N-Furter – A Scientist (Tim Curry in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, 1975, Costumes Designed by Sue Blane, dir. Jim Sharman)

Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry) has one of the most memorable and beloved costumes in history.

If there’s one movie that’s survived with glee and tenderness as a cult classic, that movie is The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Thirty-five years later and there are still midnight showings with audience participation, and if you say “Rocky Horror” to someone, the first thing that comes to mind is Tim Curry as Frank-N-Furter, the transvestite alien doctor whose clothing includes garters, panties, black leather gloves, a black corset coming undone in the front, and a metric ton of cake makeup. Curry may have frightened kids as Pennywise the Clown in “IT,” but in Rocky Horror he frightened (and amused) adults with his leg hair, his bulging panties, and his crazy. The movie lingers in the public mind, and though I’m a Rocky virgin (so to speak—I’ve never done audience participation) the costume screams ridiculousness and makes you want to do the “Time Warp.”

Edward Scissorhands (Johnny Depp in Edward Scissorhands, 1990, Costumes Designed by Colleen Atwood, dir. Tim Burton)

Tim Burton’s creation Edward Scissorhands in bondage gear and ratty hair.

I debated between Edward Scissorhands and Captain Jack Sparrow, or both, for this Listicle (and then there’s Fear & Loathing’s Raoul Duke). I decided to include Depp just once, but one must admit the man has worn some incredible, iconic costumes in his day. Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands is many things, but mostly it’s about the conformity of suburbia and hatred of what’s different. What’s different in the movie is Edward, a Frankenstein’s monster of sorts pieced together by the Inventor (Vincent Price), who died leaving Edward with scissors for fingers. Edward ventures into the uniform, pastel world of suburbia, and his clothing immediately sets him far apart from the seashell pinks, sky blues, and mint greens. Edward’s deathly pallor contrasts with his immense, messy black hair; his garb is bondage-style black leather from head to toe with metal grommets and cris-crossing decorations. Burton’s signature style is largely black and white, and Edward’s costume is one of the most memorable in film history.


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