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Still from "Rebel without a cause"

The complexity of costume

What’s in a red jacket? A white dress? We explore the hidden meanings in fashion on film

Dorothy’s ruby slippers? Superman’s cape? Marty McFly’s vest? If cinephilia begins with a childhood longing to be the people we see onscreen, costume may be the first aspect we truly obsess over, and the act of dress-up a way to direct our fantasies into reality. But the characters we love have the same instincts, wearing clothes as an expression of love and dependence (the siamese twins who wear identical suits in Twin Falls Idaho), and colours to suggest deeper, unspoken feelings (Richie and Margot’s brown jackets in The Royal Tenenbaums). Costume designers create complex interior worlds through their selection of colours and textures. Below, we explore our favourite examples.


The outfit?: In Kubrick’s ominous hotel horror, Wendy and Danny repeat a minor colour combination.

Costume designer Milena Canonero (who also worked on A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon) locates an emotional ripple in the perfect symmetry of Stanley Kubrick’s cerebral King adaptation, as Wendy’s early red-and-blue combo (worn as she’s nursing Danny) later finds an echo in the boy’s outfit, subtly reinforcing the bond between mother and son. Room 237 crackpots might want to make note of the fact that red and blue are also meaningful colours for Native American face and warpaint; oh, and bear them in mind when mapping out your deconstruction-of-the-American family theories!


The outfit?: A vulgarist melodrama that watches the changing colours of a love affair between a mobster’s wife and a meek bookseller.

Remembered as a bloody-fanged satire of Thatcherism, Peter Greenaway’s most controversial film is also his most romantic; an almost Shakespearean tragedy whose signature motif is the (physically impossible) changing of costume between rooms. The wife and her lover acknowledge their attraction in fiery shades, but consummate it (an awkward bonk in a cubicle soon interrupted by the thief) in softer tones, as Mirren’s abused intellectual changes into a gorgeous white dress. The film is crude and brutal, but this scene ranks among the most passionate in cinema.


The outfit?: Psychotic gangster Chas assumes the identity and wardrobe of a reclusive rock star.

Nic Roeg and Donald Cammell’s baffling gangland arabesque has been throwing film students for a loop for over forty years, inventing the modern music video in the process. But its costumes hold one key to understanding its shuffled-deck of personalities. Chas (James Fox) slowly assimilates Turner’s (Mick Jagger) hedonistic world, first succumbing to sexual temptation by sharing lovers, then physical, swapping clothes, before their human forms finally transpose. In this case, the clothes quite literally make the man!


The outfit?: A disaffected teenager, rebelling against his parents and local bullies, shares colours with the people he loves.

Godard declared that “the cinema is Nicholas Ray”, and Rebel Without A Cause is tantalising evidence. The auteur’s colour-coded canon uses costume to express themes and desires which the Hays Code ensured he couldn’t make explicit (including the not-so-subtle lesbian lust of Mercedes McCambridge in Johnny Guitar), and his controversial 1955 classic is no exception. From Natalie Wood’s scarlet lipstick to Plato’s (Sal Mineo) socks, this is a film whose characters bury their emotions deep inside, even as they wear them with pride. Fashion est mort.