You can’t just pop over to the mall to order a 17th-century ballgown or uniforms for a futuristic space army. Those costumes are dreamed up by visionary designers and created by skilled artisans. These are some of the most breathtaking movie styles ever captured on film–and the inspiration for countless Halloween costumes and cosplays!
Considering that Cleopatra, starring the tempestuous duo of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, was the most expensive film ever made at the time, the costumes should look good! Taylor wore an incredible variety of costumes, changing outfits 65 times. Irene Sharaff, Vittorio Nino Novarese, and Renié earned an Oscar for their work. At the time, costuming awards were divided into two categories: color and black and white. Even though the costumes were inspired by Ancient Egypt and Greece, Taylor’s gowns still have a distinctively 60s flair in the color palette and silhouettes.
The Fall (2006)
When you see Tarsem Singh’s name on a picture, you know the costume and production design is going to be next level. Lee Pace stars as both Roy, an injured stuntman laid up in a hospital in 1915, and The Bandit, the hero of a fantastical tale he spins for a little girl. Sadly, Singh’s passion project was a bomb at the box office, and it remains criminally underrated. The Fall is a slow-moving meditation on storytelling, and as such, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Lee Pace—who is finally getting the recognition he deserves as a star—is at his most gorgeous in this film.
Eiko Ishioka created the breathtaking costumes for this film, which function as almost live-action paintings against the backdrop of the desert.
Star Wars (1977)
The iconography of Star Wars is so ingrained into our culture that it’s sometimes difficult to remember that it was created by real people. We don’t often talk about John Mollo, the British costume designer who created the iconic looks in A New Hope. His father was fascinated with military uniforms, which influenced Mollo’s own interest in military regalia. He wrote several books on the subject and served as a historical advisor on several films before landing the gig with George Lucas. Although he worked from sketches by Ralph McQuarrie, Mollo also pulled from his extensive knowledge of martial history from around the world. During his acceptance speech for his Oscar, Mollo quipped that the costumes were “really not so much costumes as a bit of plumbing and general automobile engineering.”
Read More: Every Upcoming Star Wars Series
Crimson Peak (2015)
Plenty of films have indulged in the more gothic side of the Victorian aesthetic, but few have ever taken it as far as Guillermo Del Toro in Crimson Peak. New Zealand designer Kate Hawley had a background in stage productions, including opera, before working with Peter Jackson on The Lovely Bones. She really stretched her creative wings in Crimson Peak, however, earning her a nomination for a Saturn Award. The following year, she worked on Suicide Squad, creating Harley Quinn’s instant classic costume… but also whatever what going on with Jared Leto in that movie.
Let’s take a stroll back to pre-Code Hollywood, in which a top hat-wearing Marlene Dietrich captivated both men and women in Morocco. The film starred Gary Cooper as a Legionnaire who falls for a cabaret performer (Dietrich). It’s best remembered for the scene above, which pushed the envelope with both Dietrich’s costume and the moment when she kisses a woman in the audience. Dietrich worked closely with costume designer Travis Banton and director Josef von Sternberg to create the look. (Note that the audio for the video above is not original.)
She’s quoted as saying, “I’m sincere in my preference for men’s clothes – I do not wear them to be sensational. I think I am much more alluring in these clothes.” I like to think that Dietrich would be pleased with the continuing erosion of gender norms in Hollywood. I mean, Brad Pitt wore a skirt on the red carpet for Bullet Train this August!
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)
Marilyn Monroe wore several iconic dresses during her career, including the white one from The Seven Year Itch and the nude crystal number that Kim Kardashian dared to wear at the Met Gala this year. For my money, though, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is the best. Monroe and Jane Russell play showgirls in this lavish Howard Hawks musical, which is one of my favorite films of the era. Both their stage costumes and their daytime wear are incredible; I really want Russell’s black jumpsuit from the “Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love” number.
The most famous costume from the film is Monroe’s pink satin gown during “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.” Designer William Travilla dressed Monroe in several of her films—including The Seven Year Itch.
Shakespeare in Love (1999)
Plenty of Hollywood films have taken on the Elizabeth era, to varying degrees of success. I think there’s something special about Shakespeare in Love, which featured both 17th-century “casual wear” and stage costumes. It looks exactly the way you’d hope that era would look—romantic and opulent and not nearly as dirty as it actually would have been. Well, the groundlings at the Globe are still pretty dirty.
The inimitable Sandy Powell created the costumes for this picture. She’s been nominated for 15 Oscars and won three, including for Shakespeare in Love. She also designed the costumes for another incredible film set (at least in part) during the same era: Orlando, starring Tilda Swinton. And NBD, but she also did Interview with the Vampire, Velvet Goldmine, Gangs of New York, The Aviator, and one more film that is coming up on this list soon. She’s truly incredible, and the film industry is lucky to have her.
Black Panther (2019)
Ruth E. Carter became the first Black woman to win an Oscar for best costume design, and she absolutely deserved it! While the iconic suit worn by Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther drew on the comics for inspiration, Carter also pulled from real-world African textiles and jewelry from different traditions. Ramonda’s incredible white outfit was made mostly by 3D printing, which is cool as heck. The same traditional-meets-tech balance is on full display with Shuri’s costumes throughout the film as well.
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)
This Aussie comedy starring Terence Stamp, Hugo Weaving, and Guy Pearce became a surprise hit, earning more than 14 times its budget at the box office. The film follows two drag queens and a transgender woman who travel across the Australian desert in a tour bus named Priscilla. The costumes are not only over the top but also immensely creative.
When Lizzy Gardiner accepted her Oscar for best costume design (alongside Tim Chappell), she became an instant icon thanks to her dress. It was made of over 250 American Express gold cards.
The Matrix (1999)
More than any other film on this list, The Matrix made a huge impact on real-world fashion. Costume designer Kym Barrett has worked with the Wachowskis on almost all of their films. She previously designed costumes for Cirque du Soleil, which made her uniquely qualified to create outfits that would look cool and hold up during the movie’s complicated wirework stunts. She also designed the costumes for Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, a film that almost made this list. More recently, she made the leap to the superhero genre with both DC’s Aquaman and Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.
Titanic deserves a place on this list for Kate Winslet’s giant hat alone. And, of course, who could figure the massive (and, to be honest, kind of tacky) Heart of the Ocean necklace? If you were a teen girl in the late 90s and didn’t want a repro of that necklace at least a little bit, then you’re a liar.
Designer Deborah Lynne Scott won an Oscar for this picture, but did you know that she also worked on Back to the Future? You can’t get more different than the Gilded Age glamour of Titanic and Marty McFly’s puffy vest over a jean jacket, yet both are perfect. Scott also worked with James Cameron again on Avatar.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
I’ve written about my love for Bram Stoker’s Dracula before. It’s the most delightfully over-the-top movie, and the costumes are a big part of what makes it so incredible. Eiko Ishioka won an Oscar for the film, and she absolutely deserved it. She also created the uniforms for several countries during the 2002 Olympics and the opening ceremony of the 2008 games, but even that pageantry couldn’t top her work in Dracula.
Ishioko also frequently collaborated with Tarsem Singh, designing the elaborate and dreamlike costumes for The Cell, The Fall, and Mirror Mirror. Despite only working on a handful of films during her career, she influenced both movie costumes and high fashion with her otherworldly designs.
Sandy Powell’s triumphant costumes for Cinderella were the best part of the film, at least for me. She found the perfect balance between honoring the original animated movie and creating live-action magic. Her blue dress is nothing short of a dream, but the tackiness of her stepsisters’ gowns is no less effective.
Powell dressed Cate Blanchett in two films in 2015: Cinderella and the romantic drama Carol. Even though one was a fairy tale and the other was a realistic film set in the 1950s, there’s a similarity between both characters’ costumes, which draw on Dior’s “New Look” of nipped-in waists and structured shoulders.