Films, whether on the big screen or small, have always been a vehicle for escapism. And let’s face it, today, more than ever, we all need an escape. Whether we are binge-watching the next highly rated Rotten Tomatoes series while quarantining, or dipping back into movie history to watch Casablanca, Pretty Woman, or Sunset Boulevard, we thought it would be a hoot to focus on some of the most iconic film frocks (and their designers), some actually more popular than the films themselves!
Here now are our top 13 iconic dresses of all time, either in film, television, worn by our favorite royal, or, that hold a special place in history.
Let’s begin with Judy Garland’s dress in the Wizard of Oz. Designer: Adrian
To this day, Marilyn Monroe is still considered one of the sexiest starlets of all time. Who can ever forget the iconic image of her standing over a NYC subway grate in a white pleated halter-dress blowing in the wind created by William Travilla for the 1955 film The Seven Year Itch?
However, according to according to the 1976 book entitled, Hollywood Costume: Glamour! Glitter! Romance! by Dale McConathy and Diana Vreeland, it was reported that Travilla did not actually design the dress but bought it off the rack (though Travilla denied this).
After the tragic death of Marilyn Monroe in 1962, Travilla kept the iconic dress locked away along with many other costumes he created for the late actress. Upon Travilla’s death in 1990, all of his creations were put on display by Bill Sarris, a colleague of Travilla. Shortly thereafter, the dress joined the private collection owned by Debbie Reynolds at the Hollywood Motion Picture Museum. In 2011, Reynolds put the dress up for auction where it sold for more than $5.6 million.
Thanks to Coco Chanel, just about every woman has a little black dress hanging in their closet. However, the most iconic ‘little black dress’ of all time was worn by Audrey Hepburn in the opening screen of the 1961 romantic comedy film, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and designed by Hubert de Givenchy.
Rumor has it that Givenchy first designed a shorter version of the dress, but Paramount Pictures thought that it revealed too much of the actresses’s legs and therefore called upon costume designer Edith Head to redesign the lower half of the dress; hence the floor length version that appears in the movie. In 2006, the dress was given by Givenchy to French author Dominic Lapierre, who had it auctioned at Christie’s where it sold for a whopping $920, 909. Dominic Lapierre, who was selling the dress on behalf of his charity City of Joy Aid, said: “There are tears in my eyes. I am absolutely dumbfounded to believe that a piece of cloth which belonged to such a magical actress will now enable me to buy bricks and cement to put the most destitute children in the world into schools.” Sarah Hodgson, a film specialist at Christie’s said, “This is one of the most famous black dresses in the world—an iconic piece of cinematic history—and we are glad it fetched a historic price.”
Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s film Cleopatra made its debut in 1963 and The New York Times called it, “one of the great epic films of our day.” It is the tragic triangular love story between the ancient Egyptian Queen (Elizabeth Taylor) and Roman generals Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) and Mark Antony (Richard Burton).
Elizabeth Taylor’s costumes were spectacular and held a record-breaking costume budget of $194,800 (about $1.4 million today). American costume designer Renié Conley won the 1963 Academy Award for Best Costume Design (along with Irene Sharaff and Vittorio Nino Novarese), for her creation of Taylor’s stunning gowns, which placed emphasis on the actress’ beauty and sexuality over historical accuracy.
Taylor wore four costumes that were ceremonial, but the most iconic was the golden “Phoenix” ensemble worn for Cleopatra’s triumphal procession into Rome atop a huge black sphinx. It consisted of a cape made of gold-painted strips of leather embroidered with gold bugle and seed beads over a gold fitted embroidered dress and a crown, making Cleopatra look like a golden bird-goddess. It is the only costume that appeared twice in the film, the second time at the very end.
As we all know, First Lady Jackie Kennedy was a true style icon. Her impeccable taste never disappointed. When the Kennedys moved into the White House in 1961, Jackie appointed Oleg Cassini as her exclusive couturier. Cassini immediately went to work, creating her inaugural dress and many of the iconic looks that would make her the most fashionable First Lady in the history of the White House.
The clean lines, beautiful fabrics, and timeless silhouettes of Oleg Cassini’ created the “Jackie Look,” that still transcends fashion trends today. One of the most iconic dresses that Jacqueline Kennedy wore was an apricot silk zibeline dress with a simple bow at the waist; she wore this dress to tour the Palace of the Maharajah in Udaipur, during a state visit to India in 1962.
Celebrities today are always trying to “be different” and “shock” their fans. However, we really owe “shock & awe” to women like Cher and Madonna both of who paved the way!
In 1984, Madonna had her first award show performance at the MTV VMA’s, and left a lasting impression with her white sheer “Like a Virgin” look. Complete with the now iconic “Boy Toy” belt, lace gloves, and cross necklaces, it kicked off her knack for creating buzzy looks.
For children of the ’80s, Madonna’s racy, underwear-flashing, floor-rolling “Like a Virgin” performance was their defining televised music moment, and so a rebellious fashion icon was born. So, who was responsible for this groundbreaking look? Madonna’s stylist Maripol, who is credited for creating the early Madonna look.
Maripol told Yahoo Entertainment, “Madonna had to break through; I knew she was going to make it big, because I could see how ambitious she was, in a very genuine and sweet way. The wedding outfit did help. I knew that [VMAs] day that she had made it,” adds Maripol. “Every journalist was rushing, running, going, ‘Oh my God, who is this girl with the white outfit rolling and crawling on the floor, with crosses in her ears and her name is Madonna?
Can you believe it’s already been 30 years since Julia Roberts became America’s sweetheart when she starred as Vivian in Pretty Woman ? In the era of #MeToo, the plot of Pretty Woman might be problematic—but you just can’t deny the clothes. Watching a West Hollywood sex worker find love with the dapper businessman who hired her off a street corner, I mean really? But we all forgave the plot because the fashion was spectacular. Even the Armani suits worn by Richard Gere were great eye candy!
Through the film Vivian is transformed from a prostitute to an elegant woman (Cinderella redux?) with an array of sophisticated and fashionable clothes. Costume designer Marilyn Vance-Straker and her team created an array of stylish and contemporary outfits, but the most famous costume of all? Her floor-sweeping red ball gown worn for the opera sequence. The gown was inspired by Valentino’s romantic gowns in his signature red.
But did you know that this iconic red dress was almost not red? There ended up being a dispute between the studio, the producers and the costume designer as they wanted Julia Roberts’ character to wear a black dress. Luckily costume designer Marilyn Vance-Straker won the argument after plenty of screen testing and the red dress became an iconic moment not only in the film but also in fashion.
Fast forward to 1992. Forget the little black or red dress. Sharon Stone wore a simple white turtleneck dress as she stared in the erotic thriller Basic Instinct. The ‘interrogation scene’ is one of the sexiest moments in film history. A turtleneck may not be traditionally thought of as sexy, but this one lends polish. It’s a look of absolute control. Plus there is far more going on here than the absence of underwear.
So who was responsible for this contemporary yet timeless look? Costume designer Ellen Mirojnick. “I thought the costumes and the look of the film were extremely classic” insists Mirojnick talking exclusively to Clothes on Film. “The contemporary feel of the film is even more contemporary today. It is a timeless piece.”
Princess Diana, like Jackie, is another true fashion icon. Diana’s style became so emulated and loved around the world that we’re still celebrating her outfits two decades after her death.
On June 29, 1994, Princess Dianna shocked the world when she attended Vanity Fair’s annual fundraising event for the Serpentine Gallery in London’s Hyde Park, wearing a look that was anything but ‘princess-y.’ A rather short, off-the-shoulder, tight-fitting black silk dress designed by Christina Stambolian.
It also happened to be the night that an ITV ‘tell-all’ documentary featuring Prince Charles aired. In the interview, Prince Charles said he had tried to be “faithful and honorable” when marrying Diana. The interviewer asked if he had been, and Prince Charles answered, “Yes… Until it became irretrievably broken down, us both having tried.” This clearly became Prince Charles’ confession of his infidelity with Camilla Parker Bowles, and suddenly, Princess Diana’s dress took on a whole new meaning. It was known thereafter as the “Revenge Dress.”
It’s 25 years ago that the film Clueless hit the big screen. The film’s starlet, Cher Horowitz (played by Alicia Silverstone) is still a fashion icon and defined a generation. Who can ever forget the iconic scene of Cher’s first date with the new guy from school. Cher selected a second-skin white mini dress, which elicited the question from her dad: “What the hell is that?” Cher: “A dress.” Dad: “Says who?” Cher: “Calvin Klein.”
In 2010, Ilaria Urbinati, the co-owner of L.A. boutique Confederacy, met with Calvin Klein creative director Francisco Costa about stocking the Calvin Klein Collection. The stylist-turned-shopkeeper had one very specific request: Remake the little white dress from Clueless! Costa obliged and dug out the famous slim-fitting slipdress from the archives and recreated it for the Confederacy boutique for $915.00
Who can ever forget the 2000 Grammy Awards when Jennifer Lopez, accompanied by P. Diddy, showed up in a plunging, jungle green Versace dress, causing so many searches on Google that the company was inspired to create Google Image search. The dress went viral before viral was a thing.
Almost 20 years later, for her spring 2020 show, Donatella Versace re-created the iconic dress and had no other than Jennifer Lopez close out her show. The entertainer looked just as stunning today as she did when she originally wore the dress in 2000.
The new version is similar in style with its dramatic neckline, but has a few updates. Its sleeveless, has cutouts at the waist and also embellishments.
The original dress will always be remembered as one of Donatella Versace’s most iconic dresses. In an interview with Vogue, to mark the 20th anniversary of “The Dress,” Lopez recalled walking onto the stage at the Grammys and hearing murmurs in the crowd, followed by enthusiastic clapping. Lopez told Vogue, “It was one of those perfect moments. I walked out on stage and it kind of blew open and the dress was just provocative enough I guess to make people really interested.”
SARAH JESSICA PARKER
Carrie Bradshaw, played by Sarah Jessica Parker, became a fashion icon on the hit series and movie Sex and the City. Carrie’s costume designer/stylist, Patricia Field, pushed the boundaries when it came to fashion on television. She effortlessly mixed high end designers with vintage finds.
One of Bradshaw’s signatures was the flower. In an interview with New York Post’s Page Six, Field points to the oversize flower from the first film as her private wink to the franchise’s biggest fans: ”In the series, the flower became a trend. Then, when I did the first movie, we first see Carrie outside of Tiffany and she’s wearing that dress with that huge flower. That was like saying to my audience, Hi! We’re back! It’s good to see you! This is my greeting to you: a flower, bigger than anything. I can make little jokes. I know how to speak to them in the language of the wardrobe.”
The iconic ‘white flower-adorned dress’ Parker wears in the 2008 movie’s opening scene was originally designed by Eugene Alexander for Whitney Houston. The late music sensation wore it in a 1987 promotional photoshoot that later wound up on the cover of Life Magazine.
Patricia Field tweaked the dress for the Sex and the City film, by chopping the gown into a mini and subtracting one of the super-size hibiscus blossoms, while Houston’s original had two.
Lady Gaga is known not only for her musical genius, but also for her avant-garde fashion choices. At the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards, she wore the infamous raw beef dress, which was designed by Franc Fernandez and styled by Nicola Formichetti. Naturally the dress was condemned by animal rights groups, but it was also named by Time magazine as the top fashion statement of 2010.
On September 13, 2010, Lady Gaga appeared on the Ellen DeGeneres show and explained why she chose to wear a dress made out of raw meat. The singer used the platform to respond to the controversy surrounding the dress saying, “… it has many interpretations. For me this evening, if we don’t stand up for what we believe in and if we don’t fight for our rights pretty soon, we’re going to have as much rights as the meat on our own bones. And, I am not a piece of meat.” She explained further that she was also using the dress to highlight her distaste for the U.S. military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
In 2011, the meat dress was put on display at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame after being preserved by taxidermists as a type of jerky for the price of $6,000.
A HISTORY LESSON
If you guessed Ruby Bridges, then you are correct! Ruby Bridges was the first African-American child to attend an all-white school and wore this dress as she walked to her first day of school.
This history-changing walk, which integrated the William Frantz Public School in New Orleans on November 14, 1960, later inspired Norman Rockwell to create a bold illustration for the January 14, 1964 issue of Look magazine. Rockwell was a longtime supporter of the goals of equality and tolerance.
Rockwell’s 1964 painting entitled, The Problem We All Live With
Ruby Bridges’ historic walk took place six years after the 1954 United States Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education ruling declared that state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students were unconstitutional, and represented a definite victory for the American Civil Rights Movement.
Ruby’s white dress and Rockwell’s painting entitled “The Problem We All Live With” was on display in 2019 at the New York Historical Society along with this quote:
“The ‘problem’ Rockwell alludes to has been a part of our history since the first enslaved people were brought to the Americas over 400 years ago, and it is one that each of us must still confront today. For me, the painting…serves as an ever-present reminder of my purpose.” – Ruby Bridges 2010
Do you have a favorite dress to share with us?