Fashion is an often-overlooked aspect of film, often being dismissed as simply costumes or clothes. Yet, fashion and styling play a vital role in storytelling, establishing context and, of course, characterization. Here are a few films that I consider to be masterpieces in film fashion:
Not only is this period drama an enchanting visual spectacle, Emma manages to make the Regency era appear fresh and stylish, despite its fashions being dismissed entirely by other adaptations of Austen’s work. For once, the fashion is historically accurate without suffering any aesthetic consequences.
Costumes in this film convey a narrative on their own. Firstly, they communicate power and status, shown in Harriet’s costumes becoming increasingly elaborate the more her friendship with Emma blossoms (and her status in society increases). Yet, this can also be a signifier of ridicule, as Mr. and Mrs. Elton’s over-ornamented costuming illustrates their superficiality and how Emma perceives both them and their marriage as a joke.
This film incorporates modern trends effortlessly, demonstrated when Emma wears a waistcoat; yet this is never at the expense of the historical accuracy of the costumes, underlined in the empire waist, pastel color palette and bonnets accompanying Regency era hairstyles.
Regarding men’s fashion, Emma draws upon the dandy: breeches, clawhammer coats and cravats. The latter is also utilized to highlight characterization, as they are all tied differently depending on the role. Furthermore, Robert Martin’s dark tweed and flatter hat emphasize his lower-class humility, especially in comparison with Frank Churchill’s ostentatious waistcoats.
Period films should aspire to emulate the beautiful details and historical closeness of the fashion in Emma.
Taxi Driver (1976)
It is an understatement to say that Scorsese’s early masterpiece has been influential in the fashion industry. Not only are Travis Bickle and Iris cult Halloween costumes (look no further than Euphoria), but their style has also been emulated by high fashion, acting as a source of inspiration for the runway.
Even before Bickle’s iconic punk look, his neo-cowboy aesthetic of blue jeans and cowboy boots establishes him as an outsider in urban New York from the start of the film. His increased alienation manifests stylistically through his mowhawk, the epitome of punk independence and rejection of conformity.
Iris’s seductive costume, most notably tight ringlets, cropped halters, high heels and booty shorts, is to demonstrate her job as a prostitute. Yet, her age (12 years old) almost comically contrasts the look, giving the impression that she is playing dress up.
Her wide brimmed hats and oversized sunglasses serve as a defense mechanism when she is on the streets, hiding her true childish innocence behind the physical bravado. There are clear references to Lolita through her stylizing, as they are both unwitting victims of pedophilia.
When she meets Bickle in the café, her hair is natural, making her look her youthful age whilst also showing how her guard is down, as this is when Bickle persuades her to let him save her from Sport.
In Taxi Driver, costumes are used to reveal both character as well as the vulnerability and interiority of these characters later in the plot, allowing fashion to be a tool for character development and moving the plot forward.
The Holiday (2006)
For Christmas fashion, there is no better film than The Holiday, specifically Cameron Diaz as Amanda.
When she arrives in the snowy British countryside donning stilettos and dark sunglasses, she is immediately established as an outsider and a tourist.
However, as she adjusts to this new way of life, and as her relationship with Graham grows, her style adapts to her surroundings, demonstrated in knitted jumpers, scarves and beanies; yet she never sacrifices her chic taste for baggy or tattered clothing. This emphasizes how she has not changed but simply adapted to country life, perhaps fitting in better than she ever did in LA.
Jude Law’s fashion is quintessential of the British countryside, shown in long overcoats and cashmere jumpers, to reflect how he is an integral aspect of this village, having grown up there and even raising his own family too.
Finally, Iris (Kate Winslet) infuses her subtle, cozy style into LA, even so her beige palette complements Amanda’s swanky, modern pad.
Fashion in The Holiday helps construct its warm, snug atmosphere that makes it the festive film that we all know and love.