Tuesday 16 January 2018

Frock stars

Sometimes the most enduring star of a movie isn’t a member of the cast or crew. Lise Hand remembers some of the costumes that have crossed over from cinema history to high fashion

Dress to kill: Keira Knightley’s green gown in Atonement
Dress to kill: Keira Knightley’s green gown in Atonement
Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch
One of Vivien Leigh’s 40 costume changes in Gone With The Wind
Olivia Newton-John and friends in Grease
Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge
Liza Minnelli in Cabaret
Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s
Diane Keaton with Woody Allen in Annie Hall
Lise Hand

Lise Hand

The graceful sepia-toned epic film Atonement may have scooped a major gong in the shape of winning a Golden Globe for Best Picture last week, but the most enduring star of the production may not be a member of the cast or crew, but a frock.

The fragile, luminous emerald gown as worn by Keira Knightly has had fashion-minded film-goers in a tizzy. Although the dress is only on the screen for a fraction of the film's running-time, it features in crucial scenes such as when the privileged Cecilia Tallis teases her lower-class beau, realises she's in love with him and has bodice-ripping sex with him in a dimly-lit library.

The green dress was created by the film's costume designer Jacqueline Durran after thorough research into 1930s high fashion. But when she was unable to find the exact shade of green as envisaged by director Joe Wright, she took three different fabrics -- a lime-green silk, a black and green organza and a green chiffon to a master dyer who created a composite of the trio. "It also had to be a dress that she looked almost naked in, as fine a fabric as possible and loose-bodied," said Durran.

As a result of such lavish attention to detail, a survey conducted by In Style magazine and Sky Movies this month named the backless green gown as the number one film costume of all time. "There's no doubt that Keira Knightley's dress created a massive stir this year, so it will be interesting to see whether it attains this stand-alone iconic status in years to come," said Sky Movies director Ian Lewis.

And he's right -- only time will tell if it has the staying power of other movie costumes which continued to dazzle long after the final credits rolled. Until the emerald number stole the show, two dresses in particular have long been regarded as the most iconic frocks in film.

The first is the white halter-necked, full-skirted dress worn by Marilyn Monroe in the 1955 film, The Seven Year Itch, which had male eyes out on stalks when it billowed around her thighs as she straddled a subway grille. It was created for Marilyn by her favourite costumier William Travilla, who also designed both the pink satin gown, in which she vamped her way through Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend, and the red sequin dress from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. After the film star died in 1962, Travilla became notoriously protective of the dresses, keeping them hidden away so that they became known as 'The Lost Collection'.

However, Travilla died in 1990, and last year the collection came out of hiding and went on tour to raise money for Alzheimer's charities.

The most famous -- and most expensive -- little black dress ever to appear in film was the elegant Hubert de Givenchy-designed number worn by Audrey Hepburn in the unforgettable opening scene of Breakfast at Tiffany's as she wandered down Fifth Avenue eating a croissant. The sleeveless dress, with a tiny 24-inch waist, slit to the thigh and slightly gathered at the waist, made a world record when it sold at auction for £467,200 at Christies in London in 2006 -- more than six times the estimate. The proceeds of the sale went to a Calcutta-based foundation to help Indian children. At the time, the identity of the buyer, a telephone bidder, was a mystery, but it was later revealed that it was the house of Givenchy, buying back its own dress.

Then, on the other end of the scale, there were the frothy frocks of Scarlett O'Hara. Prior to the release of Gone With The Wind, women spent the 1930s in long, slinky goddess dresses. But that all changed with costumier Walter Plunkett's nipped waist, bouffant skirts and petticoats designed for Vivien Leigh's southern belle.

Velvet, corsets, hats and scarves were suddenly in, and women watched the film over and over again for Leigh's 40 costume changes. So influential was her wardrobe that when World War II broke out, the US brought in the L-85 Rule to put an end to the personal use of luxury fabrics, which were needed for the war effort.

More recently, adventurous fashionistas were galvanised by the eye-popping courtesan chic of 2001's Moulin Rouge, especially the 18 costumes created for Nicole Kidman's character, which were inspired by the classic diva glamour of Garbo and Dietrich and designed by Oscar de la Renta and Donatella Versace. The following fashion season, the high street was a-bustle with bustles, corsets and sumptuous gowns showing off a precarious decolletage -- even Chanel got in on the act with a collection of black patent leather corsets.

Even more iconic -- but even less wearable when popping out to Tescos -- was the most unladylike costume sported by Liza Minnelli as club entertainer Sally Bowles in 1972's Cabaret. Her fishnet tights, bowler hat and smouldering charcoal eyes added up to one of cinema's sexiest images. According to Liza, her look was the brainchild of her father, Vincente Minnelli. "He showed me some pictures of [silent movie star] Louise Brooks and the dark-haired ladies of that time -- how extraordinary they looked. He said, 'You have to be strange and extraordinary,' and of course, we put that line in the movie".

On the opposite end of the fashion scale, Diane Keaton's mannish-boy style in 1977's Annie Hall sparked a stampede of women into menswear shops looking for skinny ties, baggy chinos and waistcoats. Designed by Ralph Lauren, this wholesome, quirky look crops up in fashion collections every few years.

But there have been iconic moments for the younger fashionistas too; cinemas-full of teenagers gasped (for very different reasons) at the final scene in Grease when goody two-shoes Sandy strode out in killer heels, black leather jacket and skin-tight jeans. Olivia Newton-John, who played the babe-turned-temptress recalled shooting the memorable scene in 1978. "I had to be stitched into those famous tight trousers at the end of the film. When I first walked out on the set all the crew turned and started wolf-whistling. I was like 'Wow, what have I been doing wrong?'"

Likewise, Madonna brought underwear blinking into the light by creating one of the most iconic 1980s looks in Desperately Seeking Susan. In 1985, when she played the sassy strumpet with a unique wardrobe of lacy gloves, cropped tops, cross necklaces, leggings under dresses and black bra under a see-through shirt, she sparked several styles which are still around today -- including the leggings look, tragically. This goes to show that some iconic fashions should never be allowed escape from the silver screen.

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