Films Every Costume Designer (or Costume Fan) Should Watch

Earlier this summer I ran a couple of workshops for PVCC students and community members on the subjects of costume design and costume production. I was thrilled to meet some wonderful students who will hopefully be joining PVCC and work on the shows with us.

Not long after I received an email from one of the attendees with a question:

"As far as other questions go, I was wondering what movies I should watch that have been influential in the costuming world?"

Boy did THAT get me thinking! Goodness knows I've talked about this subject plenty of times, but as I thought about it again and prepared to write her back I realized that this might be more fun to write about on here. 

For me this subject breaks down into a few different categories: Classic Cinema, Period/Historical, and Contemporary. So, and this list is by no means exhaustive, here are my selections and thoughts on these three areas of Film Costume Design.

Classic Cinema 

(Films from before the 1970s but set in a variety of different time periods. Historical accuracy in film costuming didn't become a trend until the 1970s/80s so films from before then had a very interesting historical feel.)

Singin' in the Rain (1952) Costume Design by Walter Plunkett - I have always loved this movie. I watch it at least once a year and Donald O'Connor's "Make Em Laugh" number can always make me smile, no matter how bad my day has been. From a costume perspective it's brilliant. Debbie Reynolds is stunning in that blue number that she's wearing for the "Beautiful Girl" number and then dances with Gene Kelly in the abandoned soundstage (*sigh*). It's so light and airy and just moves so fluidly with her as she dances.

I love that scene. I also love the number that comes right before it (which I just mentioned briefly) "Beautiful Girl". This is the epitome of the "fashion show" on film that was a classic staple in films of the 1920s and 30s. All the costumes in this number are stunning! If you haven't seen it, check it out:


And let's not forget the green dress that Cyd Charisse wears in the "Broadway Melody" dream sequence. Seriously, can I have her legs?

Gone with the Wind (1939) Costume Design by Walter Plunkett - A costume epic if ever there was one. Between the white/green Scarlett wears to the barbeque and the green "curtain" dress she wears to try to fake the appearance of still having wealth and then the red velvet and feather stunner she wears nearer the end of the film, it's all just perfection. While the "curtain" dress tends to get the most attention, I always preferred the gowns she wears after her marriage to Rhett and I die for the green and gold dressing gown she wears in this picture.

One of these days I'll get around to making a replica of this piece. And I will wear it around the house and it will be amazing. 

To Catch a Thief (1955) Costume Design by Edith Head - Cary Grant and Grace Kelly. Need I say more? Oh yes, the amazing talent of Edith Head. Just watch it. Everything Grace Kelly wears is divine. I especially love this blue number. 

It Happened One Night (1934) Costume Design by Robert Kalloch - Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert are fabulous in this delicious romantic comedy. 1930s fashion was amazing and you'll probably find yourself wanting some of Ellie Andrews' (Colbert) costumes for your own closet. I especially love what she's wearing in this classic scene from the movie.

Anne of the Thousand Days (1969) Costume Design by Margaret Furse - If you're a fan of The Tudors you should check out this film. Richard Burton and Genevieve Bujold tell the story of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn and the Tudor/Renaissance period costumes are amazing. The lavish detail of the costumes and accessories is just breathtaking.

Also worth mentioning: Roman Holiday (1953), Sabrina (1954), Rebecca (1940), White Christmas (1954) and so many others! These are just some of my favorites.

(Films from after the 1970s that take historical accuracy, or intentional anachronisms, to an extreme)

Disclaimer: This list could go on forever so I'm just going to give the ones that spring to my mind first.

The Duchess (2008) Costume Design by Michael O'Conner - Storywise this isn't my favorite film. But anyone interested in costumes should watch it at least once.

Cracks (2009) Costume Design by Alison Byrne - Anyone who's a fan of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie or The Children's Hour should check out this film. And it's 1930s fashion is sublime. And Eva Green is mesmerizing. Enough said.

The Young Victoria (2009) Costume Design by Sandy Powell - I'm biased because the Victorian Era is one of my favorites. But this film shows how beautifully stylish the woman who defined an era was during the early part of her reign.

Sense & Sensibility (1995) Costume Design by Jenny Beavan and John Bright - Personally I love all the various Jane Austen adaptations but this is one of the first ones I ever watched so it sticks out. Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, and Gemma Jones are riveting and so are the costumes.

Little Women (1994) Costume Design by Colleen Atwood - Atwood really can do no wrong. She's just one of those designers who I always admire, even when the film is crap. But Little Women is wonderful and so are Atwood's designs.

Atonement (2007) Costume Design by Jacqueline Durran - Watch it for the green dress alone.

Also worth watching: Elizabeth (1998), Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007), Jane Eyre (2006), Jane Eyre (2011), Kingdom of Heaven (2005), Schindler's List (1993), Braveheart (1995), An Education (2009)

Sidenote: Before I get to the last category here's a mini-list for a sub-category to Period/Historical, we'll just call it "Fun Costumes". Here goes ---- Moulin Rouge! (2001), Phantom of the Opera (2004), Franklyn (2008), The Golden Compass (2007), and all 8 Harry Potter films (2001-2011, just trust me).

Contemporary Films 
(These are films made in the last 10-20 years and are set in the time that they were filmed in. These films are often overlooked during awards season, typically being overshadowed by some of the films listed above because they don't "look" complicated. But as anyone who's ever tried to do contemporary designs it's actually much harder to create the character through clothing when you don't have historical research to back you up. This is definitely NOT an exhaustive list and I should probably do a separate post later on to elaborate and add to it. But for now here are the ones that I watch again and again.)

Casino Royale (2006) - I love this one so much I wrote my Masters Thesis on it. Lindy Hemming is a genius and the costumes in this film are flawless. Whether you're a James Bond fan or not, you need to watch this film if you have any interest in costume design.

The Holiday (2006) - Marlene Stewart is amazing, and anyone interested in costume design would do well to examine her films. Kate Winslet is charming and while I'm not typically a Cameron Diaz fan, she wins me over big time in this film.

St. Trinian's (2007) - Rebecca Hale and Penny Rose create an incredible landscape of characters in this fun, fun, FUN, wild and quirky British film about a bunch of anarchist misfits at an all girls boarding school run by Rupert Everett in drag. Trust me, you want to watch this movie. And the brilliant character development enhanced by the costumes will always land it firmly on any of my lists of "influential" costume films.

Sabrina (1995) - Ann Roth, co-designed by Gary Jones, proves why she's such a genius with this remake of the classic 1950s film that starred Audrey Hepburn. The classic version is worth watching too but what I love about the '95 version is how un-dated it is. I would still wear much of Julia Ormond's wardrobe for this film. I watch this film every year or so and I'm always amazed at how well it has held up. Most contemporary films from the '80s and '90s are so stuck in the decades they were filmed in but Sabrina somehow manages to stay fresh, much like the original 1950s version.

Forget Me Not (2010) - Matthew Price does something amazing in this breathtaking little film. The film is set over the course of 24 hours in the life of Will (Tobias Menzies) and Eve (Genevieve O'Reilly) and features London as a stunning backdrop. Romance, drama, realistic dialogue, and brilliant chemistry between its leads, this film is definitely worth watching. But what puts it on this list is the clever and precise job Price does with the costumes. Set over only 24 hours the characters don't really change costumes. But Price shows how with clever layering and use of accessories the costumes can be used to back up the characters, their emotional state, and their overall character arcs throughout the film. I've watched this film at least a couple dozen times and I always manage to catch something new about the costumes. Such an incredible film!

One final note: If you're truly interested in seeing good costume design here are some designers to keep your eye out for --- Colleen Atwood, Lindy Hemming, Marlene Stewart, Edith Head, Walter Plunkett, Adrian, Sandy Powell, and Jenny Beavan. There are others but that will give you a good start. For students who are interested in this subject, I would suggest picking a designer and watching at least 3 of their films and taking note of similarities or characteristics/design signatures that you notice. How does the designer use design to tell the story and tell you about the characters?

I hope you enjoyed this, I had fun putting it together. But I'm also interested in films that you think should be included in this list. If you have an idea let me know in the comments. :)


  1. i like what u written here, it help me a lot since im studying in costume now , thanks for putting this up!

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed it! Thanks for reading. :)


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