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Showgirls 1995 cult classic costumes Ellen Mirojnick
Still from Showgirls (1995)

Unpicking the barely-there, stripper style of cult 90s movie Showgirls

Costume designer Ellen Mirojnick discusses conveying Las Vegas’s seedy underbelly, an iconic Versace moment, and how the once-panned film seemingly found a fan in Miuccia Prada

Considering it’s famed for full-on, full-frontal nudity, Showgirls has a lot of incredible costumes. Landing in cinemas way back in 1995, Paul Verhoeven’s explosive, occasionally absurd erotic drama tells the story of wannabe Las Vegas showgirl Nomi (Elizabeth Berkley), who, in a tale as old as time itself, lands in the city ready to chase her dream at basically any cost – and turns a whole lot of looks while she’s doing it. 

From the fringed leather jacket and high-waisted stonewashed jeans she wears when we first meet her hitch-hiking on the freeway, to the jersey body-con dresses she opts for between shifts at IRL Vegas strip club Cheetah’s, via skimpy crystal-dripping stage looks and one iconic moment involving a black ‘Ver-sayce’ mini, the movie plays out like a ‘90s fashion’ Depop search struck gold. 

It’s not just Nomi that’s dressed for the gods throughout Showgirls, though. Costumed by Ellen Mirojnick, who’s also behind the clothes in Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct, and Speed, the film sees arch-nemesis Cristal (Gina Gershon) sashay across the scene in marabou-trimmed chiffon gowns, chainmail co-ords, and rhinestone cowboy hats, best friend Molly bring girl-next-door vibes through cute flippy sun-dresses and denim dungarees, and love interest Zack (Kyle MacLachlan) rocking a series of minimal black suits and tiny sunglasses as he tends to his increasingly shady business.

“Since it’s gotten this cult following people are a bit more excited (when I tell them I worked on Showgirls) but at a certain point they would usually laugh and say ‘Well, there’s not many clothes in that!’” – Ellen Mirojnick

While there’s no denying that Showgirls’ glittering, overtly-glamorous costumes were a total success, the film itself crashed and burned at the box office. Racking up 14 Razzie nominations and seven physical awards for worst picture, worst director, and worst couple (to name but a few), critics called it out for being ‘garish and misogynistic’, with one scene depicting a brutal rape particularly problematic. 

In the 25 years since its release, however, it’s become a true cult classic. Amassing a new generation of fans not old enough to have seen it the first time around, Showgirls is shown at raucous midnight screenings and even made it on to Prada’s ‘perfect failures’ playlist on movie streaming site Mubi. Where some call it a so-bad-it’s-good guilty pleasure, others have reevaluated Showgirls and its themes, with the comedic timing, radical feminism, and sharp satire that was potentially missed back in 1995 all pivotal in its rehabilitation.

With Showgirls’ aesthetic influence currently felt across fashion (no, we’re still not over the 90s), ahead of the release of You Don’t Nomi – a new documentary which further explores the film’s complexities and cult appeal – we caught up with costume designer Ellen Mirojnick to hear how Nomi, Crystal, and co. got their legendary looks.

Hey Ellen! How did you go about researching and putting plans together for the costumes in Showgirls?  

Ellen Mirojnick: It’s hard to remember now because it’s been 25 years and there are so many films in-between! But what I do remember is that we took a trip to Las Vegas, and it wasn’t the Las Vegas we know today – it was much seedier and hadn’t gone through its resurgence. There was this very thinly-veiled underbelly to it, which is really the essence of Showgirls – it wasn’t this glamorous, perfectly packaged place, it felt gritty and kind of dangerous even. Paul (Verhoeven) has this very visceral way of connecting to certain realities and going from there.

The movie was judged pretty harshly by critics. What kind of reaction do you get when you tell people you worked on Showgirls and how did you feel about it when you saw the final cut?

Ellen Mirojnick: Since it’s gotten this cult following people are a bit more excited, but at a certain point they would usually laugh and say ‘Well, there’s not many clothes in that!’ (laughs). But actually, there were plenty: there were about four big dance productions, lots of scenes involving lots of girls in the strip clubs, plus all the individual character work. Whatever people thought, I had my work cut out! 

In regards to how I felt about the film… I was never embarrassed by it, but I did wonder how and if it would hold up. I actually watched it for the first time in a long time and I think it did, and you can really see how it became this camp classic. People are fascinated by it, I get asked tonnes and tonnes of questions when people find out I worked on it.

Do you have a favourite costume, or one you most enjoyed working on? 

Ellen Mirojnick: The whole thing was great fun because our imaginations could really run wild, but there’s this one scene where Gina (Gershon) rises from out of a volcano in a look that was very Versace-inspired – maybe by the 93 or 94 collection, I forget which – that I love. 

I worked with these amazing artists in New York on these painted, jewelled body stockings at a time when no one was making things like that. They made me these extraordinary garments and I was getting Elizabeth and Gina and the dancers to try them on when Paul walked in. He came over and straight away was just like ‘These are too covered up’ and started tearing bits off until they were smithereens, which was cool, he’s very particular. I think they eventually went from being full body looks to these tiny little panties, that was all that was left! (laughs). 

“The whole thing was great fun because our imaginations could really run wild, but there’s this one scene where Gina (Gershon) rises from out of a volcano in a look that was very Versace-inspired – maybe by the 93 or 94 collection, I forget which – that I love” – Ellen Mirojnick

As a fashion fan, one of the most memorable moments in the movie sees Nomi blow a big paycheck on a little black Versace dress, which spawns her iconic mispronunciation in a later scene. You can also feel the brand’s influence throughout. Did you borrow many clothes from designers or did you face resistance given the film’s X-rated content? 

Ellen Mirojnick: We didn’t really do that in those days – if there was product placement in a movie it was usually paid for and contracted, but that wasn’t the case in Showgirls. We had to get Versace to sign off on the line, actually, but the actual dress they said no when we asked to borrow it, so I went out and bought it out of the budget from the boutique in the Bellagio Hotel. Brands like that are not really interested unless you have a star, and Elizabeth then was still very up-and-coming, very new. 

Speaking of revered Italian designers, Prada included Showgirls in a list of its favourite ‘perfect failure’ movies recently. What do you make of the fact Miuccia is seemingly a fan? 

Ellen Mirojnick: I’m very flattered of course – I mean, I respect her so much, she’s extraordinary! I think she probably appreciates the film as she knows what she’s looking at. I think that Showgirls, as well as being an incredible piece of filmmaking, is a piece of art with a lot of cultural texture. It really embodies that time and place and I think it feels authentic and original. It blows me away that such an innovator would recognise that. I actually think it went over a lot of people’s heads. 

I think it’s interesting you describe it as art – I feel like you could pause the movie at pretty much any point and it would have this extraordinary painting-like quality...

Ellen Mirojnick: Exactly! It feels like a David LaChapelle photograph or something, in the way it has this extremeness others might be afraid to use. So many things were considered when it came to the composition of the film, so much went into it.

There are two definitive opinions on Showgirls, with some labelling it misogynistic and others noting its feminist qualities. Which camp do you fall into? 

Ellen Mirojnick: It’s definitely a very volatile, sexual film, and we knew that Paul would push the envelope as far as he could – he’s a very honest, provocative filmmaker, and definitely pulls no punches. You know, if someone is going to be naked, they’re going to be really naked and if there’s going to be some girl-on-girl, there’s going to be no bringing in of a body double. But with Showgirls, everyone knew this from the very beginning. So the film is a difficult watch, in parts, to convey the seediness underneath the gloss that Vegas really had in those days. Personally I think Paul is a feminist, albeit a subversive one, and to me I feel like the movie at its core is feminist too. 

Last question. If Showgirls were to be remade in 2020, would you want to go back and do it all again? 

Ellen Mirojnick: Of course, that would be fun! I would want to maintain the same essence, but I’d be curious to see what my choices would be and how things would change – I wouldn’t want to do every single thing the way I did before, obviously. 

I feel like you could get some Ludovic de Saint Sernin in there, or maybe Miuccia would be up for collaborating this time around…

Ellen Mirojnick: Oh sure, maybe she would be! Let’s see what happens (laughs). 

You Don’t Nomi is available to watch on streaming services now.