16 Secret Messages Hidden in Movie Costumes That We All Missed
A great movie is dependent on many different elements to build a new and unique world. However, one of the most important ones is costume design, and it’s still often disregarded as something secondary.
But a skillfully designed wardrobe can communicate much more than you think. For example, the essence of the characters, their intentions, their emotional state, and even their future are often already expressed through their clothes way before they ever utter a single word.
Bright Side wanted to pay tribute to the costumes whose subtlety and innovation brought their characters a depth and intensity like no other.
1. Pride & Prejudice
A historical drama often requires more subtle details to hint at what cannot be said outright, but this is especially true for the movie Pride and Prejudice, based on the famous book by Jane Austen. This is because, back in the day, social restrictions and class differences wouldn’t allow people to simply go and declare bold love statements or demonstrate passionate acts of love that would give away the true feelings of the characters.
Costume designer Jacquelina Durran, in fact, managed to find a way to slowly reveal Mr. Darcy’s transformation. It’s such a subtle trick that it might have gone unnoticed and yet, it was very effective: Mr. Darcy loses layers of his clothing as the movie progresses! Durran explained how Mr. Darcy’s layers of clothing diminish as the movie goes on and the fact that the materials of his clothing become softer are also part of the very transformation of the character. Mr. Darcy leaves behind the rigidity and inflexibility of his character and learns to adopt a more open and humble attitude.
2. The Matrix
The futuristic costumes that we all identify with The Matrix would definitely not be the same if its reality-savvy characters were wearing your typical go-to-the-beach sunglasses. Producers were aware of that, which is why, according to costume designer Kym Barrett, they paid extra attention to making all the sunglasses unique and custom-made, as they were meant to reflect not only the individuality of each character but also that of the actors. As you can imagine, this was why they very quickly discarded the idea of buying them at a regular store like Sunglasses Hut, which was the original idea producers had in mind.
3. Legally Blonde
When you think of Elle Woods, you probably think of her as the energetic, vibrant, and determined lawyer-to-be that dazzled us all with her striking outfits and positive personality. Well, costume designer Sophie de Rakoff played a big part in that. She used carefully designed color palettes and subtle hair changes to reveal the depths and contradictions in Elle’s character.
For example, Elle’s outfits change during the movie. You probably noticed that they go from bold colored shirts and skirts made of extravagant fabrics to things that are somewhat more sober in color, and that are made of warmer textiles. Her hair also changes from those abundant curls to a straight and pulled-back ponytail. The movie ends with an iconic final outfit that reflects her emotional state. These also show her changing mindset regarding her place in school and in her future law career, and eventually show her self-confidence and her ability to achieve her goals while still being herself.
4. The Devil Wears Prada
Costume designer Patricia Field is known to be a pro in her field, especially for her work on Sex and the City. There she did an excellent job at highlighting the personalities of each of the characters through their unique styles and she did the same in The Devil Wears Prada. Each of the protagonists of the movie wears designer pieces that match their character. For example, Andy wears mostly Chanel, Emily, Vivienne Westwood, and, of course, Miranda wears Prada as a reference to the title of the movie.
But there’s more to it than that. Fans have noticed that Andy and Miranda’s silhouettes are pretty similar in some specific scenes that show their approach to the fashion world. In a way, these are critical because they seem to indicate that Andy is headed for the kind of life that Miranda’s workaholic mindset has led her to have.
5. Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen
The movie Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen takes us back to a nostalgic world where we meet Lola, a teenage girl that’s anything but typical. She has just arrived from New York City to a laid-back school in the suburbs. There she befriends a shy and quiet girl named Ella who has a strong effect on her. As the movie progresses, so does Lola’s wardrobe, which shows how her character also changes after meeting Ella. She goes from wearing those generic, childishly colorful clothes to pulling off an outfit that is much more suitable for her age and her figure.
There is still one more thing to add. You might have noticed a small detail if you’ve watched the movie more than once. In the scene where Lola rummages through her closet looking for the perfect outfit, you can actually see the dress Ella will wear to the concert and Stu Wolf’s exclusive party.
6. Birds of Prey
Costume designer Erin Benach took into account the actual needs of the female anti-heroine as well as what she would prefer to wear over what a man would like Harley Quinn to wear. That’s why you’ll often see her in less constricting shorts, jackets, and accessories.
In Birds of Prey, Harley Quinn wears outfits that represent her personality instead of the Joker’s, as we’re used to seeing in classic versions. She even had her hairstyle (the pigtails) tailored for comfort rather than to look provocative or charming. These are just some of the elements that were used to express that Harley had broken free from her relationship with the Joker and will focus more on herself.
7. Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
This 1971 classic has left us with so many memories it’s hard to choose which ones we like best: from the beautiful songs sung by Charlie and his mother to the interesting and sometimes disconcerting moments when Willy Wonka hesitates between the friendly and the terrifying during the factory tour, everything is amazing.
However, it’s precisely because of that that we might have missed one of the most amazing details of the movie. Wonka’s costumes had the personal intervention of the actor, Gene Wilder, who sought to distance himself from the character in the book. He asked for some changes to be made to the original sketch that would define Wonka’s eccentricity as a gentleman with so much style that his, almost vulgar, preferences would be in good taste.
8. Gone with the Wind
Gone with the Wind, is a classic of storytelling, with striking and varied period costumes, and many elements that highlight Scarlett’s emotional state, determination, and intentions in general. In a review of the film, ModernGurlz explains the importance of Scarlett’s wardrobe. First of all, you have the colors of her clothing, which are meant to exhibit her essence and feelings. For example, think of that green dress that makes a reference to the expression “green with envy,” to show, indeed, that she feels envious. There’s also the red dress that she wears in the moments where she longs for affection.
On the other hand, it’s also important to take into consideration the historical context of the attire. For example, Scarlett wears an inappropriate dress for the time of day when she declares her love to Ashley. In the movie, you also see how the silhouettes that models had between the 1860s and 1870s change or how Scarlett’s financial status varies, all of which reflect in the level of the extravagance of her dresses.
9. Mean Girls
A movie that shaped a whole generation, like Mean Girls did, is expected to have an elaborate wardrobe plan, and indeed it does. You probably noticed the subtle details of the character’s attire: ruffles, handbags, and shirts that reveal the complexities of the “teenage girl” world and the impact it has on the protagonist, Cady Heron.
Starting off with practical and generic outfits, Cady runs into “The Plastics” and ends up becoming one of them. The effects of her new social circle can be seen in the way her outfits change as well. Her new wardrobe is a mix of garments and accessories taken from the other 3 girls. For instance, from Karen, Cady took the pink and blue combination. From Gretchen, the curls and eyeliner. And from Regina the sporty outfits, the long necklines, and even the necklaces, especially the one with her initials.
10. Star Wars
To really capture the roles of student and teacher, Star Wars producers made sure the clothing did the job. Luke Skywalker’s clothing is similar to a gi, a style of suit often used to practice martial arts. This is meant to indicate that he is still in a formative period. On the other hand, the costume of Obi-Wan Kenobi, his mentor, is similar to that of a monk, which hints to the viewer at his wisdom and position in Luke’s life as his teacher and guide.
11. Black Panther
The making of Black Panther involved extensive research and hard work. Producers wanted to create a Wakandan culture that reflected the vibrant life of different African tribes and civilizations. They took colors, patterns, and fabrics that would represent each of them as inspiration for the movie’s setting. The costume team also sought to bring African traditions to a futuristic setting and to shine a new light on Africa, a continent that’s rich in technology and development, so all the elements of the costumes have a reason to be there.
During an interview with Vanity Fair, costume designer Ruth Carter revealed the role that some elements in the costumes of Black Panther characters had when integrating them with their environment. For example:
- All of the jewelry was made of vibranium, the fictional material that Captain America’s shield is made of.
- Shuri’s costume, more Western and Americanized, nevertheless integrates cultural elements, such as the logo on her T-shirt, a symbol representing “purpose.”
- The queen’s clothing features traditional woven patterns, but in the context of 21st century Wakanda, they were made using 3D printing.
- Nakia’s necklace reveals that she is part of a river tribe.
- T’Challa’s combat suit features the traditional geometric figures from his culture.
12. Marie Antoinette
Sofia Coppola is a renowned director in the film industry. Her film Marie Antoinette, starring Kirsten Dunst, brought the story of the Queen of France and wife of Louis XVI to the big screen. The originality of the movie comes from the perspective from which it is told: it’s meant to focus and explore what the Queen was really like, from when she was a 14-year-old teenager to her arrival in France, after being raised in a strict way in Austria.
The costumes, designed by Milena Canonero, start by showing Marie Antoinette as a young girl with an innocent and childish style upon her arrival. Then, when she becomes an active member of the French court, her evolution becomes clear with a change of style. Now she wears colorful and fashionable costumes. Finally, she wears more sober outfits, with more subdued colors and less flashy silhouettes. This comes at a moment in which the French royals are losing popularity among their people, and the rest is history. Literally.
Mona May has designed costumes for films like Enchanted, The Cheetah Girls, and Never Been Kissed. For her work on Clueless, May used costuming to showcase the world of affluent California teens, combining designer pieces with second-hand clothing for a touch of authenticity, and using different colors to shade Cher and Dionne’s personalities.
An interesting detail is that you can follow the months of the school year in the girls’ outfits, from start-of-the-year tones to darker, warmer winter attire.
14. Black Swan
Black Swan combines several elements to make sure the audience understands and even lives Nina’s life as close as possible. Clearly, the wardrobe is one of the most important ones. During an interview, costume designer Amy Westcott made it clear that Nina’s evolution can be understood solely by looking at the color palette of her outfits.
For example, at the beginning of the movie, when Nina still behaves innocently and childishly, the colors of her clothes are mostly pale and pink. But then, once she starts losing herself in the new role she lands and her relationships with the other characters become more turbulent, her costumes have darker shades. In the end, her clothes represent what she aspires to be: the black swan.
15. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Grim, gothic, and monochromatic yet colorful in a strange way, Tim Burton’s films have a very particular rhythm and style that make them unique. Part of this style comes from the contribution of costume designer Colleen Atwood, who has worked with Burton on films like Edward Scissorhands, Alice in Wonderland and, let us not forget, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
During an interview, Colleen revealed some of the costume elements that defined the characters of that last movie: Sweeney Todd had the holster rig from his razors and his boots adorned with silver details, the judge’s assistant was given a hat with a very particular top, and Mrs. Lovett was dressed in more exuberant attire. All of this subtly revealed the personalities of each character.
And of course, it had the dark undertones characteristic of a Burton film.
Adorable and idealistic, Giselle, a fairy-tale princess trapped in New York, learns to adapt to the modern world and share her views of the world with the people around her. Designer Mona May shows us the evolution of the character using the costumes she wears. You might have noticed that they start being as fantastic as possible and slowly turn into something more practical and modern. The trick here is that she managed to do that without losing Giselle’s particular touch of sweetness and innocence.
To successfully transform the 2D cartoon into a real-life version, Mona May had to adapt the proportions of the costumes and fabrics. She was constantly looking for the ideal mix between the magical touch of animation and the practicality necessary for the actors to wear their costumes comfortably while they were on set.
Which film do you think had a wardrobe that complemented its world perfectly, and which ones do you think were in dire need of a makeover?