Old movies and their enduring costumes

With Christmas around the corner, there is a steady stream of old movies which we return to annually without fail.

These movies are traditional and comforting. Before the age of summer blockbusters, Hollywood certainly had a different feel which was steeped in romance, drama and style. The likes of Audrey Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor may have graced our screens decades ago but still hold a sway on us today. Their images are frozen in time, still preserved even though the world has moved on. It is unsurprising that people wish to look back - nostalgia has always been attractive, especially in fashion. In cinema, there have been fashion moments which standout and become defining of that era. Here are some that we consider the most powerful:

Cleopatra (1963)

To talk about the history of costume in cinema without mentioning 'Cleopatra', would be a great error. At the time of its release in 1963, the film’s budget reached epic proportions at $44 million in spite of an original estimate of $2 million. Whilst gaining notoriety for the ongoing affair between the lead actors Burton and Taylor, the film was seared into the imagination of the 1960s. For Taylor, the film required 65 costume changes, a previously unheard of figure. But all this was to pay off when the movie won an Oscar for Best Costume Design. It would be these costumes that would be seen in the media and influence trends such as geometric haircuts, dark eye makeup and one-shouldered Grecian draped gowns. Decadent jewellery designed by Bulgari and metallic gowns decorated the screen. No doubt that the mythology of a powerful female pharaoh bolstered the popularity of this movie and renewed interest in Egyptomania, but much credit should be given to Elizabeth Taylor’s ability to capture the public’s imagination. The fact that Taylor embodies images of Cleopatra to this day is a testament to the grand costumery.

Gone with the Wind (1939)

Another period piece that had previously dominated the zeitgeist was the sweeping saga ‘Gone with the Wind’ which hurtled Vivien Leigh into national fame. With its glorification of slavery and the Antebellum South, it’s apparent that the film does not age well making for a very uncomfortable watch. The release of this movie was in 1939, slavery may have been abolished but widespread racism still prevailed in the US making it much less shocking for contemporary audiences. A memorable part comes when Scarlett is shown to piece together a dress through a pair of curtains when her family falls upon hard times, an image which would resonate with viewers who had been through the greatest economic depression in US history. There were several other beautiful dresses in this movie but the velvet green ensemble and its part in the storyline make it stand out from the more standardised 1860s Antebellum dresses. The trope of the 'Southern Belle' was definitely solidified through the character and costumes of Scarlett O’ Hara whilst the more unsavoury aspects of the South's past and contemporary racism lay forgotten and ignored.

Sabrina (1954)

Although ‘Breakfast at Tiffany's’ is arguably the most lauded and iconic performance by Audrey Hepburn, there is much to be said for ‘Sabrina’ released in 1954. The movie charted the transformation of the titular character from being a shy chauffeur's daughter to becoming a sophisticated and confident woman after a two-year jaunt in Paris. For such change, an extensive and glamorous wardrobe was required so Hepburn herself rang the atelier of Hubert de Givenchy to secure an appointment. In spite of Givenchy’s busy schedule, Hepburn was able to work her charm and persuade him to lend some designs for the movie, beginning a collaboration which would be seen in future costumes in 'Funny Face’ and 'Breakfast at Tiffany's’. The most striking Givenchy piece is the dress worn when Sabrina makes an entrance at the Larabee ball: white, strapless, with a detachable train and floral embroidery, this ensemble served to illustrate Sabrina’s growth and to wow the viewer.

The Godfather (1972)

A perhaps unexpected addition to fashion's legacy in film would be Coppola’s 'Godfather’. It was a gritty and starkly modern look at organised crime through the Corleone family; the movie is consistently regarded as establishing a benchmark in American cinema. Marlon Brando played an ageing mafia boss seeking to pass the mantle to his reluctant son Michael played by Al Pacino. The subtle sartorial shifts mark how Michael’s reluctance eventually gives way as he becomes a powerful criminal in New York; the initial light brown suits and army uniform represent a distaste for his father’s business but later he begins to favour dark, expensive three-piece suits, illustrating his development. There is also a change from the old to the new as Michael’s clothing is more luxe in comparison to his father. But the biggest influence the movie has had on style has been ‘The Godfather Hat’ previously called the ‘homburg hat’. This accessory encapsulates a large part of the film’s decidedly masculine aesthetic whilst reminding us that in spite of 'The Godfather’s' timelessness, the costumery is very much rooted in 20th Century men’s fashion.

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