From period films with lavish wardrobes to cult classics full of subtle style, Irish designers and costume watchers share their favourite movies featuring classic style moments
This year marks 60 years since Holly Golightly stepped on to Fifth Avenue in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) in her iconic LBD with its pearl back. It’s a two-hour treat and I always pull my chair closer to the screen for a better view of Hubert de Givenchy’s costumes, especially those awesome funnel-neck coats.
I don’t even notice Grace Kelly’s voice anymore when watching High Society (1956). All I see are those achingly gorgeous costumes designed by MGM’s Helen Rose, who went on to design Kelly’s wedding dress. Favourite fashion moments are when Kelly slips out of a Grecian robe to reveal a white halterneck bathing suit and, later, when she dances with Frank Sinatra in swirling layers of embellished grey and pink chiffon, a dress which now lives in the Museum of Style Icons in Newbridge, Co Kildare.
My guilty pleasure is watching Chinatown (1974), the detective noir set in 1930s LA, just to ogle Faye Dunaway’s lean silhouettes and fabulous accessories, designed by Anthea Sylbert. If you like tailoring, fedoras, veiled hats, finger-wave hair and barely-there eyebrows, you’ll be in seventh heaven. F
Faye also pops up in The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), worth watching for her 60s chic and Steve McQueen’s slick three-piece suits and his blue-lens Persol sunnies. The incredibly talented ostume designer, Theodora Van Runkle, was also responsible for Fay’s 1930s, gun moll outfits in Bonnie and Clyde (1967), starring a very debonair Warren Beatty.
I love My Fair Lady (1964) for its spectacular monochrome, Belle de Jour (1967) for Catherine Deneuve’s chic Yves Saint Laurent wardrobe, and A Single Man (2009) for Colin Firth’s 1960s brown suits and Julianne Moore’s fab monochrone dress with the Watteau back.
I asked a few well-known fashion aficionados to share their own film favourites...
1. Robert O’Byrne
Author and fashion historian
During the Depression years of the 1930s, fashion became an important part of film, as it offered a means of escape for audiences. You can really see this in one of my favourites from the period, The Women (1939), directed by George Cukor.
This has an all-female cast, with all of them dressed by perhaps Hollywood’s greatest costume designer of the time, Adrian. The line-up is incredible — Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, Paulette Goddard, Joan Fontaine, Rosalind Russell — but so are the clothes and the terrific hats. Best of all, in the middle of this black and white film, there’s a full six-minute colour fashion show.
Also, long before Pippa Middleton was declared Rear of the Year for the McQueen dress she wore at her sister Kate’s wedding to Prince William 10 years ago, another woman caused an equal sensation in a similarly seductive number: look out for Jean Harlow in Dinner at Eight (1933), also designed by Adrian and directed by Cukor.
2. Lorna Mugan
Costume Designer (Normal People, Peaky Blinders)
I love the slow cascade of Grace Kelly on to the screen in Rear Window (1954), from close-up to full reveal, in the magnificent monochromatic, ballerina-style dress.
It’s straight off the Paris plane and she tantalises us. I read that Hitchcock had wanted her to look untouchable, like a piece of Dresden china. Each of the striking ensembles that follow have exquisite fold-and-stitch details. Even the risqué négligée is an evening gown. So many chic silhouettes evolved in the 1950s that constantly inspire me, with Kelly being the epitome of elegance.
Another fashion favourite is In the Mood for Love (2000), set in 1960s Hong Kong. It’s intoxicatingly poetic, in a series of mesmerising, sculpted floral cheongsams worn by Maggie Cheung. Each dress is a reflection of shifting moods, with colours and patterns echoed in the set. Even the haunting score is delicious.
3. Eimer Ní Mhaoldomhnaigh
Costume Designer (Brideshead Revisited, The Wind That Shakes the Barley, Breakfast on Pluto)
The first film that made me sit up in my seat was Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) by Pedro Almodóvar. His female characters, both young and old, are vibrant and feminine, yet boldly liberated, and their exuberance is mirrored in how they dress. I love everything he does.
I have watched Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959) a million times and I will never tire of it. Everyone, including the costume designer, is at the top of their game. Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemon just bounce off each other. The costumes are breathtaking but fun, and the cross-dressing is something to behold.
I will also sit down and watch any film designed by costume designer Sandy Powell. She works with many great independent filmmakers and chooses projects based on the merit of the script and the people involved, and not the budget.
4. Richard Malone
Award-winning fashion designer
I absolutely adore Funny Girl (1968), starring Barbra Streisand. It was her first movie role, and for which she won an Oscar (her first of four). Look out for the big-budget costumes by Irene Sharaff, especially the changes as Fanny Brice moves from being a shopworker’s daughter in Brooklyn to Ziegfeld Follies megastar. The closing scene is one of the best of all time.
Secondly, and more recent, I’d have to direct you to Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) from director Céline Sciamma. It’s set on an isolated island in France with an all-female cast. The costumes (by Dorothée Guiraud) are incredible against the stark backdrop of the empty house and surroundings, and there’s none of the faff we come to expect from period dramas. An incredibly modern queer romance that is uplifting and bold.
Also watch And Then We Danced (2019) by Levan Akin for the beautiful, traditional Georgian costumes and especially the dance scene by Levan Gelbakhiani. The iconic feather hat and dance to Robyn’s Honey is astounding and uplifting.
5. Peter O’Brien
Couturier, theatre and film costume designer, lecturer and movie buff
Auntie Mame (1958) is a perfect lockdown movie: funny, glamorous and boasting terrific performances from Rosalind Russell as Mame and the glorious Coral Browne as her best pal, Vera Charles. Directed by Morton DaCosta, with costumes by Orry-Kelly, it’s an utter joy of a movie with tons of frocks.
The sexual politics in The Women (1939) are definitely of the period. The film is a hoot and the costumes by Adrian are wonderful and witty. He almost broke the studio with his extravagant costuming for Marie Antoinette (1938). Directed by George Cukor, this movie is really fabulous.
In my opinion, Piero Tosi was the greatest costume designer in the last 60 years. Death in Venice (1971), directed by Luchino Visconti, is an exquisite film and Tosi’s costumes, particularly those of Silvana Mangano, are breathtaking.
Gigi (1958) was directed by Vincente Minnelli, with costumes by Cecil Beaton. I think Beaton’s work in Gigi is gorgeous to look at and almost more interesting than his legendary work on My Fair Lady.
8. James Seaver
Head of Costume, Gate Theatre, Dublin
I love Nocturnal Animals (2016), Tom Ford’s unrivalled masterpiece. The beautiful Amy Adams obtained the status of sex symbol while wearing a crisp white blouse, black leather pencil skirt, three-tone fur coat and skin-tight leather knee-high boots, all of which ooze Ford’s militant glamour. Costume designer Arianne Phillips’s use of fashion and colour to dictate the mood of the scene is pure art.
Needless to say, because of my job, when I watch a film, I’m really watching the fashion, which means I can go to see a movie a few times.
Another film I adored for the fashion is Mary Queen of Scots (2018), which has so many beautiful moments of historic fashion being interpreted through the modern eye of the costume designer, Oscar-winning Alexandra Byrne. Her obvious knowledge of the Elizabethan period is made highly contemporary by her use of modern fabrics like denim. This, to me, would in any other world be blasphemous, yet the cut of the garments, especially on Saoirse Ronan, is just wonderfully sumptuous.
6. Catherine Condell
Diane Keaton’s androgynous outfit of bowler hat, waistcoat, shirt, tie and slouchy khaki trousers in Annie Hall (1977; costume design by Ruth Morley) had such an impact on me. I adored it, and I had to get myself an oversized straw bag just like hers!
I have a real love of movies and many of them have hugely influenced my styling work. The costume designers I’ve chosen are such masters in their field, with their immeasurable knowledge and perfect attention to detail across all eras.
I saw Out of Africa (1985; costume design by Milena Canonero) three times in a few weeks and even took notes! Meryl Streep’s linen safari outfits, more formal suits and bucket hats were memorising.
I think Sandy Powell is an utter genius. The muted Victorian colours and fabrics in Gangs of New York (2002) are completely in line with the amazing sets. Cameron Diaz’s vaguely Oriental kimono with corset and bustled skirt is a favourite of mine, and Daniel Day-Lewis’s exaggerated stovepipe hat is rather fab.
7. Victoria Smurfit
Actress and fashion lover
When it comes to memorable fashion in film, I nominate Patricia Norris for Scarface (1983).
The elegance, sex appeal and sheer gangster of all the costumes told us everything about their world. Michelle Pfeiffer’s innocence and captive sexuality and Al Pacino’s wide lapels and cut suits while deeply embedded in the mob world were a great juxtaposition. Crisp, white suits that contrasted the bloody mess of the environment were powerful. And who can forget the Hawaiian shirts? To be clad in jaunty colours, open to the navel, while swinging a gun keeps your eye confused.
The costumes brought a lightness and incongruous levity to the seriousness of the world they were living in, which made the level of violence you were witnessing almost palatable. Such an odd thought that we can justify the actions of a beautifully dressed person more than one in a grubby hoodie. What does that say about us? Nothing good! But Patricia made it possible.