The Most Iconic Movie Costumes In Cinematic History

Movies characters wouldn’t be able to reach their full potential if it weren’t for their costumes. An incredible wardrobe brings originality, personality, and depth to any character if they are done right. Audiences can be brought back to any time period or they can travel to a fantasy land just by how the characters are dressed.

It can be challenging to get the outfits to match the story accordingly, but when it’s done correctly, it can make all the difference in the world. Here are some of cinema’s most famous costumes.

How Costumes Contributed to Star Wars‘ Success

harrison ford, mark hamill, and peter mayhew in costume on set of star wars
Lucasfilm
Lucasfilm

When George Lucas released the first Star Wars film in the 1970s it shot the franchise into extreme popularity. Audiences were moved by the captivating plot, strong characters, and especially the unique outer space costumes worn by the cast. There was a lot of thought and preparation that went into the costume design.

They were able to make Darth Vader look menacing and a symbol for evil. Harrison Ford as Han Solo had a simple, yet adventurous costume that still doesn’t seem outdated over 40 years later. Even Chewbacca’s hairy suit must’ve taken ages to construct. Toward the end of filming the cast started to complain of its smell.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas Was Torture for Jim Carrey

taylor momsen and jim carrey in costume for how the grinch stole christmas
Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures

One of the best parts of Dr. Seuss’ classic tale of How the Grinch Stole Christmas is the beautiful illustrations that were in the original book and cartoon movie. In 2000 it was finally made into a live-action film with an extravagant set and imaginative costumes.

Jim Carrey’s Grinch outfit and make-up were by far the most intense. He spent lots of long hours before and after shooting getting in and out of the costume. It was so time-intensive and uncomfortable that he threatened to quit the film and had to be coached by a torture expert from the CIA to stay.

Moulin Rouge! Costumes Are Oscar-Worthy

 nicole kidman and ewan mcgregor with the cast of moulin rouge on a colorful stage
Twentieth Century Fox
Twentieth Century Fox

During the turn of the 21st century, production companies had their sights set on making showstopping movie musicals. One of the first to lead the way was Moulin Rouge! starring Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor. The film takes places in 1899 Paris as two lovers meet in secret at the vibrant Moulin Rouge night club.

Not only were the singing and dancing numbers captivating, but the costumes were full of originality and matched the festive nature of the film. Costume Designers Catherine Martin and Angus Strathie took home an Oscar for their work.

What A Change Of Clothes Did For Grease

olivia newton-john and john travolta in costume for grease
Paramount Pictures/Fotos International/Getty Images
Paramount Pictures/Fotos International/Getty Images

Even though Grease was filmed in the late 1970s, it takes place during the 1950s. For the most part, each of the costumes resembles a stereotypical 1950s high school. Men wear Converse shoes, cuffed jeans, and black leather jackets, while women wear poodle skirts, Mary-Jane shoes, and pink vinyl jackets.

The film ends with Sandy changing her look to a skin-tight black outfit to win over Danny as they ride off in a car together over a carnival. It may not be the best message to send to young women, but it proves that one costume can change the whole tone of a film.

How Outfits Play a Major Role in Back to the Future

michael j. fox and christopher lloyd in a delorean in back to the future
Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures

One of the unique plot points in Back to the Future is that the main character appears in two different decades. The film starts out with Marty McFly in his signature red puffy vest, acid wash jeans, and Nike tennis shoes and quickly shifts to life in the 1950s.

Marty soon realizes that he stands out when he travels back in time, mostly due to people staring at his 1980s clothes. Another great costume moment is Doc Brown’s iconic white scientist outfit when he appears with the DeLorean.

What Colors Represent in Black Swan

natalie portman dressed as a ballerina in black swan
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Fox Searchlight Pictures

Many famous ballets aren’t just known for the swift choreography, but also the light and fitted costumes. When the characters in Black Swan are tasked with performing in the famous ballet, Swan Lake, each costume needed to fit their interpretation.

The costume designers took an original approach to Natalie Portman’s outfits. They start out very light in white and pink to represent her innocence and purity and get darker as the film goes on. Toward the end, as her hallucinations get worse she mixes in white, gray, and black pieces to symbolize her confusion and loss of reality.

Africa is Infused All Over Black Panther

cast of black panther in costume
Marvel Studios
Marvel Studios

Black Panther made history after its release by becoming the first superhero film to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. It tells the story of a man who is about to rule the fictional kingdom of Wakanda but must face a villain from the past.

Since Wakanda is supposed to be located in Africa, the costume designer made sure to include elements of well-known African designs. She also wanted the female warriors to look like they were very protected, so she made sure to give them lost of armor and flat boots. Ruth E. Carter took home the Best Achievement in Costume Design Academy Award for her original costumes.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s Owes it All to a Little Black Dress

audrey hepburn in costume in breakfast at tiffany's
Jurow-Shepherd
Jurow-Shepherd

Breakfast at Tiffany’s is one of Audrey Hepburn’s fan-favorite films that blends New York City, chic fashion, and romance. As Holly Golightly, Hepburn dons some of the best costumes in movie history with a sleek black dress, matching black gloves, oversized sunglasses, a bold pearl necklace, and a unique up-do.

Her character wears the same few dresses throughout the entire movie and only changes the accessories. The black dress in the photo was sold at an auction for $807,000, which made it the second most expensive piece of movie memorabilia in history.

One Dress Caused a Lot of Drama in The Seven Year Itch

marilyn monroe and tom ewell on set of the seven year itch
Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images
Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

Marilyn Monroe was one of Hollywood’s most-watched actresses of the 20th century due to her style, personality, and charm. Fans of hers will always remember the iconic moment of her white dress billowing over a grate in The Seven Year Itch.

This scene was originally shot in Manhattan with about 5,000 onlookers. They all whistled and cheered for her when her dress lifted up, which caused her husband Joe DiMaggio a lot of anger and embarrassment. Since the scene was so noisy they had to re-shoot on a sound stage and even that took 40 takes.

The Wizard of Oz Makes Costume History

the lion, tin man, scarecrow, dorothy, a monkey, and the wicked witch in the wizard of oz
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

During the Golden Age of Hollywood, there were many classic films that included some of the most iconic costumes in history. One of those was 1939’s The Wizard of Oz. In the film, Dorothy and her dog Toto travel to the fictional land of Oz where she meets a Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion who help her defeat a wicked witch in order to go home.

Every one of the characters in the film dresses in elaborate costumes. Some of the most memorable ones are Dorothy’s ruby slippers, Glinda’s pink sparkly dress, and the Wicked Witch’s black pointy hat.

The Intelligent Costume Preparation for The Breakfast Club

the cast of the the breakfast club sitting on a ledge in the library
Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures

The costumes in The Breakfast Club may look plain and uninteresting at first glance, but each one of them plays a huge part in each character’s development throughout the film. Within the first five minutes, audiences are able to get a sense of who each character is just by the way they are dressed.

The athlete dresses in Nike and a Letterman jacket, the popular girl dresses in pink and more feminine clothing, and the trouble-maker is dressed in old, tattered clothing with fingerless gloves. Similar to Grease one of the main characters transform her dark look to match the popular girl and ends up getting her crush’s attention.

The Symbolism Behind Beetlejuice’s Suit

michael keaton and winona ryder in beetlejuice
Tribeca Film Festival
Tribeca Film Festival

After knowing that Beetlejuice is from the mind of Tim Burton it’s understandable why the costumes are extravagant. The film follows a family that moves into a haunted house and ends up attracting a rambunctious spirit named Beetlejuice.

For a large part of the film, he is wearing a vertically striped black and white suit, which is made to represent him being a prisoner to a curse. Since the costumes are very meticulous, the film was able to score an Oscar for makeup.

How World War II Disrupted Casablanca

humphrey bogart and ingrid bergman on set of casablanca
Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images
Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

One of Hollywood’s most prolific commentaries on World War II was in the 1942 film Casablanca. The movie starred Humphrey Bogart as a nightclub owner who tries to help his ex-girlfriend and her husband escape Germany. Since the country was gearing up to fight in the war many of the materials that costume designers used in previous decades weren’t available.

Even with that setback, the costume designer for Casablanca was able to add a touch of 1940s glitz and glamour to the dark and gloomy film. The film’s last scene has both Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in subtle looks, but they end up fitting the scene perfectly.

How Clueless Got Its Fashion Inspiration

Stacey Dash and Alicia Silverstone walking and talking on their mobile phones in a scene from the film 'Clueless'
Paramount Pictures/Getty Images
Paramount Pictures/Getty Images

Writer and director Amy Heckerling believed that the costumes used in Clueless were some of the most influential pieces she’d ever seen. Almost 25 years later the clothes that the protagonist Cher and her friends wore are celebrated by new generations. In order to figure out the costume design, Heckerling visited Los Angeles high schools and took note of what the students wore.

A nifty feature in Cher’s closet was a computerized program that would put together an outfit for her on a screen. When she finally puts on the yellow and plaid Dolce & Gabbana suit, it instantly became one of cinema’s favorite looks.

The Grueling Work That Went Into Titanic’s Costumes

kate winslet and leonardo dicaprio on the set of titanic
Twentieth Century Fox
Twentieth Century Fox

Based on the true story of the R.M.S. Titanic, the film version stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet as a young couple who fall in love aboard the ship. This Blockbuster was able to transport viewers back to 1912 even though it was filmed in the 1990s. A large component of the film’s authenticity was the elaborate and grand costumes.

Costume designers took on the challenge of not just dressing the cast in period clothes, but also designing lavish outfits for over 100 extras. The success of the movie worldwide earned them a total of 11 Academy Awards, including Best Costume Design by Deborah Lynn Scott.

How a Last Minute Costume Change Fixed Everything in The Matrix

carrie-anne moss and keanu reeves wearing all black in the matrix
Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

As the world was starting to enter the 21st century Hollywood began making more films to fit. The Matrix was released in 1999 at the start of the digital age and starred Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburne. Throughout the movie, Reeves’ character Neo tries to understand what the Matrix entails.

There was a lot of thought that went into the costume design. Each of the agents was made to look undercover and part of the secret service with dark sunglasses and all-black clothing. Also, Neo’s coat was changed at the last minute because the script called for it to look like “liquid sky” and it needed to billow and float in the wind.

The Devil Wears Prada Holds a Costuming Record

meryl streep handing a jacket to anne hathaway in the devil wears prada
Twentieth Century Fox
Twentieth Century Fox

If an entire movie is based around fashion then there’s no question that the costumes need to be impressive. The Devil Wears Prada follows a young college graduate (Anne Hathaway) who lands an exclusive job working as an assistant to the larger-than-life editor-in-chief of a coveted fashion magazine (Meryl Streep).

Many real-life fashion designers lent their clothes and accessories to the film, which caused it to have the most expensive costume budget in cinematic history. After filming, each of the costumes was sold in an auction to benefit breast cancer.

Find Groovy Garb in the Austin Powers Films

beyonce and austin mike myers in 70s clothing on set of austin powers in goldmember
Melinda Sue Gordon/SMPSP/New Line Productions
Melinda Sue Gordon/SMPSP/New Line Productions

Austin Powers’ entire persona is feeling groovy, so he needs clothes to match. In the Austin Powers franchise, he and the rest of the cast are dressed in head to toe retro garb. His iconic look includes bright, velvet suits, thick-rimmed glasses, and false teeth.

Along with playing Austin Powers, Mike Myers steps into some other peculiar roles including Dr. Evil and an overweight Scottish man. The most watchable parts of Austin Powers in Goldmember were Beyoncé’s colorful 1970s wardrobe with unique patterns, textures, and colors.

The Dramatic Fashion Statements Made in American Hustle

bradley cooper and amy adams walking on the street in 70s clothes in american hustle
Columbia Pictures
Columbia Pictures

When contemporary films are set in the past they either will go over-the-top with the vintage wardrobe, or costume designers will study the looks and put their own spin on it. The latter was done in American Hustle. Each of the leads was stylishly dressed in some of the best 1970s fashion pieces.

Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence donned plunging necklines on glamorous dresses and jumpsuits. Bradley Cooper and Christian Bale’s wardrobe was color-blocked earth-toned velvet and polyester suits. The photo with Adams in the oversized fur coat isn’t just for style, it’s also made to represent how powerful she feels inside.

How Australia Became 1920’s New York in The Great Gatsby

leonardo dicaprio, carey mulligan, and joel edgerton in 1920s outfits in the great gatsby
Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

The Great Gatsby is one piece of literature that could easily define the 1920s. Many of its themes of love, longing, and social status still ring true today. In 2013 it was remade into a film by the same writer and director of Moulin Rouge! and Romeo and Juliet, Baz Luhrmann.

Each of the costumes in the film is directly inspired by the roaring ’20s. The entire movie was filmed in Australia, so Catherine Martin was tasked with turning the scenery into 1920s New York. The party scene alone included over 300 extras that all needed to have their own unique costume to match the time period.