There has never been a thorough way of stamping down individuality and strength. Even during society’s most oppressive states, humans have found ways of expressing themselves through one way or another, even if not always in the most obvious form. Sometimes, though, these assertions of self are so incredibly in plain view that they become easy to entirely overlook, as is the case with the role fashion has played in solidifying female identity in film. Long dismissed as mere cosmetics and playing dress-up, women’s cinematic fashions have nevertheless inspired far-reaching cultural trends by reflecting or encouraging resilience.
The noirs of the ‘40s and ‘50s certainly did their part in elevating womanhood. Though a symbol of immoral anti-motherhood back then, the femmes fatale that provide the genre with their signature wit and decadence now stand as icons of sexual independence. A highly visual genre, the deadly women at the center of these tales of macho incompetence utilize fashion as glamorous armor, an optic reminder of the more elevated roles they play in the underbellies of society. Clad in silk robes, reappropriated men’s dress shirts and square-shouldered suits, they knew how to work an outfit – and a room – to their advantage.
At the intersection of deadly womanhood and devil-may-care flamboyance stands Gilda (1946), titularly embodied as the definitive femme fatale by Rita Hayworth. With just a black satin dress and shoulder-length gloves, she redirects all focus at the nightclub she frequents to herself, performing an immortal striptease to annoy her abusive ex and the new man foolish enough to believe he owns her. Inspired by Sargent’s Portrait of Madame X (another society woman known for her bold sexuality), the dress cemented Hayworth’s status as a transgressively sexual actress in full command of her screen persona.
However remarkable as it might be, Hayworth’s sheath can’t compare to cinema’s other iconic strapless satin creation: the Givenchy “little black dress” worn by Audrey Hepburn in 1962’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Designed to accentuate Hepburn’s waifish aloofness, the dress became synonymous with carefree elegance while remaining inherently accessible. This marriage of haute couture and broad availability perfectly expressed the heroine’s modern café society surroundings and made Hollywood refinement a thing of the people.
As proven by Hepburn, fashion in film is at its most intriguing when belonging to average people in exceptional situations. Nearly a decade before Tiffany’s yet light years removed from its cosmopolitan chic stands Jane Wyman, the star Douglas Sirk’s technicolor masterpiece, All That Heaven Allows (1955). Wyman, whose short, professional hair distances her from contemporaries, perfectly embodies the ‘50s woman trapped in suburban hell – forced to choose between a dull, comfortable life as a widow and marrying her much younger gardener, to the neighbors’ dismay. Seen in both a sumptuous, low-cut red dress (for which she is berated by her society-minded son) and wrapped, nun-like, in scarves and furs, her wardrobe signifies her disenchantment with her supposed status as a housewive. The rich colors of her intense passion betray her neutral, middle class outerwear – a sartorial choice later recreated in films like Far From Heaven and Carol, which also deal with repressed suburban sexuality.
Across the pond, Catherine Deneuve brought her own interpretation of inhibited lust to Buñuel’s Belle de Jour (1967), albeit in a style more fitting to her Parisian surroundings. Decked out in jaw-dropping Yves Saint Laurent throughout, Deneuve’s young housewife is introduced through a sadomasochistic dream sequence, her first of many, which counters the composed doctor’s-wife demeanor with which she comports herself. As she tires of her mundane existence and experiments with high-class prostitution, her outfits comment on the ways in which women are expected to “dress the part” – to be a simple, unimodal character rather than a complex being. Deneuve ditches the conservative sweaters her husband admires for black leather and a revolving clientele, indulging her perception of herself as a sexual creature against her conservative lifestyle. For her, the clothes are means to a self-pleasing end; a way to satiate her carnal escapism on her own terms in designer trench coats, stilettos and lingerie that have more to do with her own fantasies than with the disposable men with whom she conducts business.
Personal fantasies feature prominently in fashionable films, given their characters tendencies to inhabit realities often found exclusively in their minds. Faye Dunaway’s costumes as the legendary outlaw in 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde owe more to the French New Wave and Beat movements than to the historical figure. Pairing her machine gun with berets and black eyeliner, hers was a Bonnie for the emancipated feminist – one that was as comfortable making a living on the lam as she was demanding satisfaction from her purported lover. Given the character’s disdain for mainstream culture and passion for the open road, her flowy garments mirrored the growing notion of women’s liberation and helped established a comfortable, stylish fashion that the film’s Oscar-nominated costume designer, Theadora Van Runkle, praised as being “clothes that people could wear to work and wear in their real lives.”
The fashion renegade’s impact continued throughout the ‘70s and is most explicitly felt in Diane Keaton’s performance as the titular Annie Hall (1977). Like Bonnie, Annie is a product of her surroundings. This time, however, the bohemian singer who proved too confident and independent for Woody Allen’s terminally neurotic lead, was a product of the thrifty Soho culture. Given Keaton’s background in experimental theatre (she was an ensemble member in the original production of Hair) and laissez-faire ethos, it makes sense she would find inspiration for Annie’s look on the streets of Manhattan, claiming, “I stole what I wanted to wear from the cool-looking women on the streets of SoHo. Annie’s khaki pants, vest, and tie came from them.”
Aside from paying respect to the women among whom she worked and lived, Keaton’s choice to immortalize this distinct type of “working girl” is notable in that it perfectly matches her character’s unique creativity and wit – her clothes a visualization of her own agency. In the same vein as Keaton’s DIY fashion is what New York Magazine calls Madonna’s “DGAF style” in 1985’s Desperately Seeking Susan. A pop-obsessed icon from the youthful downtown scene, Madonna left an indelible mark on cinematic fashion by sticking to the culture she knew. Sporting bedazzled jackets, fishnets, ridiculously ‘80s hoops and flashy jewelry, her Susan never made any attempts at elegance (or taste), instead accentuating her individuality by wearing clashing accessories that can only be pulled off if worn authentically. What stands out most from this otherwise forgettable film is how inextricable Madonna is from her character and their shared culture. Needless to say, her look would come to define an era of neon, bangles and big hair.
Attempting to pinpoint iconic women’s fashions from later years of film proves harder, especially as the ‘90s provided a breakthrough in women filmmaking and movies did not need to relegate their female characters’ identities to what they wore. Still, the rich history of female identity and fashion in film is one that continues to influence runways and the collective consciousness; had it not been for Kubrick’s Lolita (1962) adaptation, we would not associate the term with retro bikinis heart-shaped sunglasses. It is through instances like these that women, and the designers who dress them, have established such a potent mix of visual symbolism and real-world apparel in cinema.