Film and fashion are ingrained in the American subconscious. Together they’re a powerful force that can influence our personal style choices more than we realize. Out of Africa inspired safari clothing and mosquito-netted beds; the original Breathless was the muse for the many chic young women of 1960 in search of an individual look, taking their cue from the leading lady’s (Jean Seberg) striped dress, Capri pants, and cat-eye sunglasses. In the 1941 film noir classic, The Maltese Falcon, the tailored suits and fedoras of the film are in neat and ordered contrast to the less stylish costumes of the more nefarious characters, and men loved to emulate the style of the good guys, such as Humphrey Bogart.
More recently, the Oscar-nominated costume designer of the film Dream Girls brought back the glamour of the 1960s girl groups when dressing actresses Jennifer Hudson and Beyoncé. Most noticeable, last year’s The Great Gatsby remake has influenced the gowns worn at many of the opening night galas throughout our city, as well as the big jewelry houses that are now resurrecting long strings of pearls, Roaring Twenties-style.
Film’s fashion power can bring us back, decades later, to a scene at Twelve Oaks in Gone With the Wind, when Scarlett, rather than take an afternoon nap, defiantly scurries down a semi-circular staircase wearing a majestic emerald green floral-print organza ball gown. It’s her dress that everybody remembers: the bodice perfectly cinches her corseted waistline; a low-cut neckline curves gracefully toward her shoulders.
According to Edward Maeder, former curator of textiles and costumes at the Los Angeles Museum of Art, “The ‘barbecue dress’ from that movie is perhaps one of the most familiar costumes in the film world. Its designer, Walter Plunkett, spent months in the South, visiting historical societies and private collections, where he sketched original costumes from the Civil War period. The green color used for the fabric’s printed sprigs was chosen to enhance Vivian Leigh’s eyes.” Maeder adds, “Of the nearly 40,000 pieces in our collection, that dress is our ‘most visited’ item.”
Says San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater general manager Don-Scott Cooper, “If I had to pick a style icon from the movies, it would be James Bond. Throughout the ages, James Bond has always been known for his suave, sophisticated, and elegant style. Regardless of the leading man portraying James Bond, he is always dressed in a sharp, yet timeless look that is still fashion-forward.”
Another famous dress that has become part of America’s collective memory appears in the film, The Seven Year Itch, and is worn by Marilyn Monroe. You know—the ivory, pleated, halter-neckline number that is forever floating upwards over the subway grate. In 2011, the dress sold for more than $5.6 million at a Beverly Hills auction. Collector Keya Morgan, who was present, recalls the experience as “totally crazy, especially in a recession.” Actress Debbie Reynolds, who had acquired the dress for her personal collection of rare Hollywood memorabilia, which was being auctioned off, “was in tears when, after 20 minutes of drama, the gavel sounded an end to bidding with the price at $4.6 million.” Adding the auction house’s $1 million commission, the new buyer paid a lot of money to own a piece of American film and fashion history. After that movie came out, certainly almost every woman of the 1950s owned such a dress. Ditto Audrey Hepburn’s little black dress and sunglasses, worn in Breakfast At Tiffany’s. It is said that this particular dress put the LBD on the map in America.
When Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris came out a couple of years ago, women everywhere were desperately seeking the wardrobe details and accessories worn by all the actresses in the movie. The shoulder bag (Chanel) worn by Rachel McAdams, in particular, was much sought after.
George Maguire, director at the New Conservatory Theatre Center in San Francisco, thinks that film inspires art as well as life. He says the recent play, The Paris Letter, “is about exclusive restaurants, high art, and high style in 1960s New York.” He adds that the costumes were directly inspired by Woody Allen’s Manhattan and Annie Hall.
T.J. Rudy is a San Francisco-based fashion editor, costume designer, stylist, and journalist. Born in Indiana, he started his career in fashion in New York City, working with Emmy Award-winning Sex and the City costume designer Rebecca Weinberg. Since 2006, T.J. has been the style editor of the internationally distributed print periodical, Hip Hop Weekly.