Iconic Movie Costumes of the 20th Century
At the beginning of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, we see the hat before our hero. One of the Soviet goons who have captured him throws a dusty brown fedora on the ground before dragging Indy out of the boot of a car. We only see his shadow as he puts on the hat, completing the famous profile that we’ve known and loved since Dr. Jones was first introduced back in 1981. Now we know those sinister Russians are in trouble!
Over the years, Indiana Jones has acquired the nickname “The Man in the Hat” with good reason: watching him swing into action without his fedora would be like watching Superman flying around without his cape. With that hat playing a key supporting role in this year's Dial of Destiny, let’s take a look at some more of the most iconic costume items of clothing in 20th Century cinema history.
Buster Keaton’s Pork Pie Hat
The great comedy stars of the silent era often adopted a signature prop to enhance their persona, and Buster Keaton was rarely seen on screen without his pork pie hat.
Nicknamed “The Great Stone Face” because he never smiled on camera, his custom-made head-wear suited his look perfectly. At a time when most other film stars were wearing derbies, Keaton fashioned his own head-wear by cutting down a stetson and adapting it to his tastes. The result was a rather forlorn looking thing that was as short and broad as his face was long and thin. He estimated that he got through thousands over the course of his career, largely because his hair-raising stunts were pretty hard on his hats.
The pork pie was integral to his image. In this poster for The Navigator, Keaton is even shown wearing it on top of his diving helmet…
Harold Lloyd’s Glasses
Maybe no other actor has contributed more to a nation’s eye care than Harold Lloyd. His career was doing fine with his earlier “Lonesome Luke” character, who didn’t really have much to distinguish him from the rest. Then things changed when he slipped on a pair of horn-rimmed spectacles and debuted his new “Glasses” persona in Over the Fence.
The decision made Lloyd a superstar of the silent era to rival Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Pairing the glasses with his classic straw boater hat, Lloyd’s character became a chipper everyday guy who faced misfortune with a determined can-do attitude. His popularity soared in the ‘20s, and even encouraged people in the audience to get their eyes checked. Optometrist Byron Y. Newman credited Lloyd with an eyewear boom:
“For optometrists in the 1920's, he was the man who popularised the use of glasses, especially horn-rimmed glasses, to a population who resisted the use of spectacles. Suddenly, there he was on the silent screen demonstrating for all to see that the wearing of eyeglasses added to one's personality.”
Bela Lugosi’s Cape
Although Max Schreck and Nosferatu unofficially beat him to the punch, Bela Lugosi was the silver screen’s original Count Dracula. Released in 1931, Dracula came out the same year that Boris Karloff portrayed the Monster in Frankenstein. The movies shot both actors to stardom and kicked off a phase retrospectively as the Universal Classic Monsters.
While Christopher Lee’s version of the Count introduced the fangs, Lugosi’s defining look was set off by his stately cape. Bram Stoker never mentioned his vampire wearing one, but the item became synonymous with the regal bloodsucker after Lugosi’s captivating performance.
Lugosi found himself typecast and his fame and career was superseded by Karloff. Towards the end of his life, a frail and drug-addicted Lugosi teamed up with Z-movie maestro Edward D. Wood Jr for one last shot at glory.
It only worked out that way posthumously when Wood’s films became cult favourites. After roles in Glen or Glenda and Bride of the Monster, Lugosi donned his cape once again to shoot a few improvised scenes for projects that never went into production. After Lugosi’s death, Wood worked the footage into his magnum opus Plan 9 From Outer Space and billed Bela as the star. In one barely connected scene, he is skulking around in his famous cape.
Lugosi was buried in his Dracula costume, but there was a final twist. The late actor had wanted the original cape to go to his son, so he was laid to rest in a replica. The real thing went up for auction in 2011 with a reserve of $1.2 million, but when it failed to sell his family donated it to the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles.
Laurel and Hardy’s Hats
Although they weren’t always as revered as silent comedy stars Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy survived the transition to talkies better than many of their contemporaries. Adding their distinctive accents and goofy wordplay to the mix brought another dimension to their movies, and they had a fruitful ‘30s period with classics like Sons of the Desert, Way Out West, and Block-Heads.
One thing remained a constant from the silent era onwards in over 100 shorts and full-length features: their trademark derby hats. Although they also wore other styles of headwear, the iconic bowlers were integral to their comedy routine. It’s a delight to watch a typical bit of business where the boys are constantly fighting to keep their hats in place, whether they are dragging a heavy piano up a long flight of steps or perilously climbing a 15-foot ladder.
Contrary to his childlike screen persona, Stan Laurel was the brains of the outfit and adopted a derby that was a few sizes too small to emphasise his tall and thin appearance, while Ollie wore a regular sized bowler. This always meant comedy gold when the fat guy/skinny guy duo frequently got their headwear mixed up.
Like Buster Keaton, Stan and Ollie got through hundreds of hats over the course of their career. Not only did many get busted up during filming, the boys were also very generous with them, handing out many dozens to their fans.
Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers
In L. Frank Baum’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Dorothy’s magical shoes were sparkly silver, but that all changed when Judy Garland stepped onto the Yellow Brick Road in Victor Fleming’s spectacular film version in 1939.
Reasoning that silver wouldn’t really pop against the vivid yellow brickwork that would lead her to the Emerald CIty, the colour of the shoes was switched to ruby instead. This choice really made the most of the movie’s vibrant Technicolor, although the famous footwear was actually a darker burgundy. It turned out that ruby red sequins showed up as orange on film.
The enduring popularity of The Wizard of Oz has made the ruby slippers one of the most instantly recognisable and coveted pieces of movie memorabilia in cinema history. Only four pairs are thought to remain in existence, and one set proved too much of a temptation for one man in 2005.
While a pair belonging to a private collector was on display in the Judy Garland Museum in her hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan, Terry Martin allegedly broke in, smashed the glass case, and made off with the priceless shoes.
A $1 million reward was offered, but they remained missing for 13 years until the FBI received a tip-off and recovered the slippers in a sting operation The case has only recently gone to trial, with Martin pleading not guilty in the Federal Court.
Which dress could that be? After all, Marilyn Monroe was one of the most iconic movie stars and sex symbols of the 20th century and wore quite a few stunning dresses over her tragically short career. It could be the eye-popping pink number from the “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” sequence in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes…
Or could it be the risque sheer backless dress she wears while purring “I Wanna Be Loved By You” in Some Like it Hot, a scene that Roger Ebert described as “a striptease in which nudity would have been superfluous…”
But no, we’re talking about that dress, the flowing white summer number from The Seven Year Itch. The scene where Marilyn stands over a subway grate on a sultry evening to cool off, causing the dress to billow up around her, is so iconic that it far transcends the film itself.
While the designer William Travilla (who also created the costumes for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) wrote it off as “that silly little dress,” it certainly made a huge contribution to one of the most famous images of the 20th century. Its value to cinema lore is reflected by the price tag. At the same auction in 2011 where Bela Lugosi’s cape went under the hammer, Marilyn’s dress sold for $4.6 million.
Clint Eastwood’s Poncho
Clint Eastwood became an international superstar when Sergio Leone cast him in his trilogy of spaghetti westerns, and the actor himself decided that a poncho was just the kind of thing “The Man With No Name” would wear. He bought one especially for A Fistful of Dollars, and, while Leone liked the idea, the director switched it for a distinctive green one he picked up in Spain.
Eastwood wore the item in all three movies of the Dollars Trilogy, which added to his sense of mystery. He has said that he never washed the poncho or wore it again in another film, although he did put it on to celebrate the centennial of Carmel in 2016, the town where he was formerly mayor.
The poncho’s iconic status is reflected by references in several other movies. In Back to the Future Part III, Marty McFly wears one that seems a bit big for him, while in Groundhog Day, Phil Connors adopts a hat, cheroot, and poncho for his cinema date with a young woman dressed in a French maid’s outfit.
Ursula Andress’s Bikini
When Dr. No first arrived in theatres back in 1962 it gave us two famous entrances. While Sean Connery’s introduction at a baccarat table wearing a tuxedo is justifiably iconic, it was upstaged in terms of cultural significance by Ursula Andress wearing something far more revealing. The moment comes when Honey Ryder, collecting conch shells and sweetly singing “Under the Mango Tree,” emerges from the ocean wearing an ivory bikini and disturbing Bond’s nap.
The moment wasn’t just important because Andress was the first of many Bond girls. It popularised the two-piece swimsuit around the world and, according to Vogue, was a “call to discover the female” body at the beginning of the sexual revolution in the early ‘60s. It sold for a relative snip at $150,000 at an auction at Christie’s in 2001.
Raquel Welch’s Fur Bikini
Despite featuring some great stop-motion monsters from Ray Harryhausen, One Million Years B.C. is mostly remembered for one thing: the fur bikini that made Raquel Welch an international superstar and pin-up.
Welch had mixed feelings about the item that propelled her to fame, telling the Los Angeles Times in 2010 that it was uncomfortable and “kind of humiliating.” She also claimed that she almost died in it while suffering from illness during the Canary Islands shoot. In later life, she reconciled her feelings with the bikini, and it also became a key plot point in The Shawshank Redemption along with posters of Welch’s fellow sex symbols Rita Hayworth and Marilyn Monroe.
Roger Moore’s Safari Suit
Back to Bond, and I’m afraid the tuxedo misses out again on this list. While every actor who has played 007 has worn the dapper formal wear at some point, no other choice of threads is more synonymous with a particular Bond era than Roger Moore’s safari suit.
As this helpful infographic reveals, they weren’t all the same, but one thing is consistent. While the tailoring was fashionable in the ‘70s it looks gloriously uncool to the modern eye, contributing to the endearing naffness of Moore’s tenure as the not-so-secret agent. All that said, the actor certainly rocked it, with the help of a trademark smirk and saucy raised eyebrow.
Although the safari suit was Moore’s signature outfit over seven films, he is still depicted wearing a tux on most of the movie posters.
Freddy Krueger’s Killer Combo
Indiana Jones wasn’t the only movie icon sporting a fedora in the ‘80s. The notorious supernatural serial killer Freddy Krueger burst into our dreams with a three-piece combo to rival Indy’s hat, leather jacket and whip in Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street.
Beneath the fedora and hideously burnt face, Krueger wore a horizontally striped red and green sweater. Wes Craven was very deliberate in the choice of costume. He had read an article stating that red and green are the trickiest combination for the human eye to register side by side, so employed the clash of colours to create a further sense of unease in the viewer.
Craven completed Krueger’s terrifying look with his horrific claw glove. Reasoning that previous slasher icons all used a distinctive weapon, he decided to go back to prehistoric times and evoke our primal fear of clawed animals after learning that bears and other predators used them to pry the earliest humans from their hiding places. With that idea in mind, Lou Carlucci constructed the weapon by adapting a regular work glove with a metal plate and attaching cruel blades to each finger.
Ferris Bueller’s Jacket and Vest
Almost 40 years after Ferris Bueller’s Day Off hit theatres, fashion writers are still penning articles celebrating Matthew Broderick’s smart-assed character as a style icon. Ferris has such a carefree attitude that he could probably pull off any wardrobe combo, and his outfit choice for one very hectic day in Chicago reflects his rebelliousness and happy-go-lucky determination to live life in the moment.
Two items especially stand out. There is the most excellent black-and-cream leather jacket…
Then beneath that we have the fan favourite, a sleeveless leopard print vest that he wears while getting the whole city dancing in the movie’s celebrated parade scene…
As much as I’d like to emulate Ferris’s attitude sometimes, I’m not sure if I could pull off this look, despite what the style experts say!
Hannibal Lecter’s Face Mask
Masks have been a staple of horror movies dating at least as far back as The Phantom of the Opera in 1925, but few have crossed over into the mainstream as much as the one worn by Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs.
That might sound like a bold statement, but consider this. On the night when the film picked up the “Big Five” Oscars (Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor, and Actress) the ceremony opened with the evening’s host, Billy Crystal, wheeled onto stage wearing Lecter’s facial restraint. Never before or since has a reference to serial murder and cannibalism been greeted with such rapturous applause.
The mask itself was chosen after several iterations that weren’t quite right, and there are photos of wearing a full cage mask instead. The costume designers eventually opted to have one custom-built, and its final look was perfect. The raw fibreglass mask resembled dried up human skin, so they decided to leave it unpainted.
Ideal for a cannibal, and the crude looking item heightened Lecter’s risk factor and made him look truly dangerous. Up until that point, we’ve heard about his gruesome exploits but he otherwise seemed so urbane and classy. This point was emphasised by his prison wear - the costume designers wanted the clothing to look as if they were tailor made for the doctor, matching his civilised demeanour.
Harry and Lloyd’s Tuxedos
Jim Carrey cornered the market in outrageous style choices when he first burst onto the scene in the mid ‘90s. He followed up Ace Ventura’s Hawaiian shirt, tanktop and Dirty Harry shades combo with The Mask’s oversized zoot suit, and later squeezed into the Riddler’s leotard for his big payday in Batman Forever.
Perhaps Carrey’s most iconic costume of all is his tangerine tux in Dumb and Dumber. It would have been eye-popping enough on its own, but his moronic character’s choice of formal wear is really set off by the powder blue number worn by his partner in crime, played so wonderfully by Jeff Daniels.
Harry and Lloyd look suitably ridiculous, but the tuxedos are also a neat character touch; of course these two idiots would think their new threads are the height of class and sophistication as they attend a fancy charity gala.
The Dumb and Dumber tuxedos have since become a firm favourite at fancy dress parties and weddings with a sense of humour. The Curtis Hotel in Colorado even offers a luxury deluxe ski package package for $10,000 which pays homage to the film, laying on a pair of tuxes just like the ones worn with Carrey and Daniels.
Neo and Trinity’s Coats
Released just nine months before the end of the 20th century, The Matrix bundled up all our millennial angst and fears about malevolent technology into one crowd-pleasing, era-defining package. It is perhaps no mistake that it came out within a few months of Fight Club, another film that addressed the concerns of Generation X shortly before 9/11 changed the playing field altogether. The sequels may have been no great shakes but the original sci-fi adventure is still incredibly relevant today, especially with the rise of AI.
Costume designer Kym Barrett put a lot of thought into the styles of Neo, Trinity, and Morpheus beyond coming up with something that just looked cool. For Trinity’s shiny black PVC outfit in the opening sequence, for instance:
"I wanted her to seem like an oil slick. She's there, but she's not there. She's ever present and she tricks your eye. She's there when you least expect it.”
For the design of the movie’s iconic long coats, she drew on several influences from mythical heroes like Ajax and Agamemnon to a mixture of Japanese warriors, 18th century Chinese warriors, and the cassocks of Western clergy. With those elements combined, the coats were intended to resemble something that “moves like a cape” and make the characters look like modern superheroes. There is also an element of western movies to Neo’s woollen duster and Trinity’s shiny trench, calling to mind the long coats worn by characters in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns and the Earp Brothers in Tombstone.
The futuristic style had an instant impact on the fashion world, with Matrix-influenced haute couture designs hitting the runway at the Christian Dior fashion show shortly after the film’s release. The movie is apparently still inspiring trend-setters today, as fashion-conscious Gen Z’ers “crave everything Y2K inspired,” according to Glamour Magazine. There’s a sentence that makes a Generation X’er like myself feel pretty old!
So there you have it, some of the most iconic movie costumes of the 20th Century. What others would you add to the list? And have you ever tried pulling off any of these styles yourself? Let us know!