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A closer look at Gaultier’s Fifth Element costume design

On its 20th anniversary, we take a look at the designer's work on the cult film

French director Luc Besson’s 1997 sci-fi The Fifth Element was, and still is, pretty polarising. It’s not hard to see why; the film, then the most expensive non-US one ever made, was overly long, full of holes, and in need of, “fierce trimming”, as Roger Ebert noted at the time. However, it was and still is fiercely adored; it's exciting, a lot of fun, and revolutionised a genre that can so often be oppressively dire. What makes The Fifth Element so much fun is not only its fast pace and dialogue, but its visuals. Besson and his team, which included renowned cinematographer Thierry Arbogast and production designer Dan Wiel, worked together with the $90 million budget to bring Besson’s vision to life. While the rest of the visuals are pretty impressive, it's the costumes that tie the whole thing together. 

On board to design them was former enfant terrible of the design world Jean Paul Gaultier, who created over 1000 ostentatious, bright, detailed costumes for the film; even honing in on the details of characters in crowd shots. The film would likely not have had quite the same impact without Gaultier’s obsessive commitment. Speaking at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ Gaultier retrospective, Thierry-Maxime Loriot commented on Gaultier’s attention to detail, saying, “a thousand costumes is like 10 collections but all for one movie. It’s an incredible amount of work people don’t even know about. For a thousand costumes, he may have even done 5,000 sketches before narrowing it down”. The costumes are colourful, exciting, and a world away from the grim rain-soaked worlds of predecessors like Blade Runner (1982). Gaultier’s costumes were bright and fun; they took inspiration from his previous collections while incorporating non-traditional materials and a futuristic vision. 

Even after 20 years, Gaultier’s costumes remain an incredible and necessary feat of design. Here we celebrate just a few of the thousand.


When we meet Leeloo she’s naked, but she soon dons an outfit - if by accident. Her first costume is some strategically placed restraints that form into a bodysuit/dress when she escapes her confinement. The piece takes direct inspiration from Gaultier’s underwear-as-outerwear collections, and has been the Halloween costume of brave souls ever since. Jovovich’s nudity and near-nudity, intended to show her vulnerability and naivety, manages to sit just this side of voyeuristic despite how much some horned-up nerds might enjoy it. The design even took model-actress Jovovich some bravery to step out in, as she told Entertainment Weekly that the costume, “was a bit embarrassing,” adding, “in the fashion world, most of the guys are gay and they have the etiquette not to notice. But those English guys working on the set were whistling and stuff.” The skimpy, iconic get up (and Leeloo's orange hair) had a massive impact on not only the film, but thousands of cosplayers for years to come. 


Ruby Rhod, the larger-than-life, flamboyant radio host, has more than his fair share of great outfits. The wide, reinforced necks are provocative and far beyond even the fashion of now - but they just about manage to not look like couture spacesuits. The all-leopard print costume that Rhod first enters in deserves a mention as every detail, down to the cane and the extravagant bleached super-quiff, sets the tone for his character. His later, smart costume of a black wide-necked satin top full of red flowers is similarly spectacular, but it's really the combination of clothes and performance that made Rhod so memorable. Chris Tucker fully occupied the role - but it almost wasn’t his. As legend tells it, Prince was supposed to take the part, and had a disastrous meeting with Gaultier about his costumes. Later, Besson told Gaultier that the costumes had been, “too effeminate”, even for Prince. Ultimately Prince had scheduling conflicts, but that’s OK - maybe even he couldn’t have done quite the job that Tucker managed to. 


The supermodel-esque McDonald’s workers only appear in the film very briefly, but again that’s just testament to Gaultier’s extreme attention to background detail. They’re a far cry from the plain duds McDonald’s workers don today; the costumes echo Besson’s longterm love affair with red hair, and the McDonald’s colourway teams with the form-outlining shapes of the golden arches to show off the women’s figures. They’re flirty, sweet, and just like the airport attendees, exist only to serve. On the airport workers, Gaultier said, ”it’s a little change from what they are wearing on Air France”. The costumes are extremely cute, despite the underlying sinister tones of women being made to wear uncomfortable clothes to their service jobs as far ahead as the 23rd century.


As Dallas, Bruce Willis’s looks are pretty lowkey, but there’s still a story behind them. Like Leeloo, he starts the movie shirtless, but soon moves on to an orange, rubber vest. Speaking to EW about new film Valerian recently, Besson said, “there’s always a dominant colour in my films. The Professional was brown, The Fifth Element was orange, Valerian is blue ice.” Orange does dominate throughout The Fifth Element, from Leeloo’s hair and braces down to Korben’s vest. The rubber is an effort by Gaultier to incorporate non-traditional materials and make the costumes futuristic. Another playful message is in Willis’s attire through the film - he is pretty much always wearing vests. Even when Dallas wears a tux, it slowly becomes a shredded, bloody pretty-much vest - in a little nod to Willis's Die Hard days, because we have all learned by now that that's his only good look. 


Leeloo’s bandages don’t last forever, because even the shy among us need a cute Halloween costume. The ribbed cream crop top and gold disco pants wouldn’t look entirely out of place now, partly because Gaultier also took inspiration from the then-current-day, and we are currently living in the midst of a 90s revival. On choosing to include those elements, Gaultier said, “I spoke with Luc about what is futuristic, and we decided that there could be elements of today. You could even imagine that there will be only retro clothes in the future. Everything’s possible.” Her rubber braces are a little less of-today, but they do give the whole thing a playful, futuristic feel, and match Leeloo to her hair and to Dallas’s orange rubber vest.