The golden age of Hollywood produced many things, but one of the most enduring relics is arguably the best outfits from movies. For all who love vintage ensembles, old films provide endless inspiration: Dark, red lips, glamorous evening wear, trench coats, strings of pearls. The litany of beautiful looks from classical cinema goes on and on.
As a medium, I love film because it freezes time, allowing audiences to forever return to different eras and literally see what was once fashionable. There are many memorable outfits throughout movie history, and, of course, costume designers deserve a tremendous amount of credit for creating such signature looks. Still, the actresses behind the clothes really bring the characters to life.
Famous looks seem to gain icon status from the soul the actress brings to her role, and costumes help to support and define the character. In Casablanca, for instance, Ingrid Bergman fled the Nazis in her enviable trench coat and hat, a most fabulous and hugely functional travel outfit. His Girl Friday’s Rosalind Russell had to navigate the masculine world of newspapers in her fabulous working girl striped suit. These 10 outfits from classic black and white movies are truly some of the best old Hollywood has to offer.
1. Marilyn Monroe, Some Like It Hot
No list of memorable looks can be complete without Marilyn Monroe. Sure, her flowing dress in The Seven Year Itch is the stuff of legend. But before that scene cemented her into icon status, Monroe played Sugar in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot.
At the climax of the film, Sugar (Monroe) thinks she has been left by a millionaire, so she sings her heart out. Sitting on a piano crooning “I’m Through With Love” in a practically see-through but sparkly black number, Monroe showcases jazz-era flapper style and heartbreak in a film that famously had Tony Curtis and Jack Lemon cross-dressing as women. Monroe’s LBD also echoes her birthday song to JFK.
2. Marlene Dietrich, Morocco
For the era she lived in, Marlene Dietrich truly pushed boundaries for being a sexually liberated, working woman. Her work with director Joseph Von Sternberg is remarkable, especially since she often plays a femme fatale.
Morocco makes this list because it perfectly exemplifies Dietrich’s role in cultivating androgynous style, and it got Dietrich nominated for her only Oscar. The film is most famous for the scene in which Dietrich performs a song in a man’s waistcoat and then kisses another woman. That’s a pretty racy image for 1930s cinema, but since Dietrich is said to have secretly dated women, it's not so surprising.
3. Katharine Hepburn, Bringing Up Baby
Even if she is best known for her work in The Philadelphia Story, Katharine Hepburn is also notorious for stubbornly wearing trousers in an age when ladies were expected to don more ladylike apparel. Hence, Bringing Up Baby is the ideal movie to showcase Hepburn’s signature trousers. They perfectly fit the role since her character Susan spends half her time chasing after the stuck-up paleontologist David (Cary Grant), and the other half chasing after a leopard.
4. Rosalind Russell, His Girl Friday
In terms of professional outfits, Rosalind Russell’s pinstripe separates are ideal in terms of femininity and function, which fittingly is what Russell’s character struggles with throughout His Girl Friday. For coming out in 1940, the film has some impressively feminist moments.
Hildy (Rosalind Russell), a ball-busting, journalist, intends to leave her job to get married, but keeps getting suckered into a story she can’t pass up. She loves her job and is the only lady in her office, but feels pressure to leave for a life of domesticity. Her feminine take on a masculine outfit reflects her predicament. Wearing an amazing pinstripe ladies suit and matching hat, Hildy manages to save the day, keep her job, and snatch her real love Walter (Cary Grant), all while wearing long gloves.
5. Ingrid Bergman, Casablanca
Ingrid Bergman’s iconic trench coat and hat are inextricably linked to one of the most famous and heartbreaking scenes in cinema history. Since her character Elsa is both fleeing the Nazis and leaving behind her true love Rick (Humphrey Bogart), her outfit reflects her need for secrecy — there’s a reason private eyes are associated with trench coats, right? — and function. Furthermore, her outfit mirrors that of Rick's in the final scene. They dress the same because they belong together, obviously.
6. Elizabeth Taylor, A Place In the Sun
Looking for an outfit that encapsulates both the heightened awareness of purity and fashion in the 1950s? Elizabeth Taylor’s gorgeous strapless white gown is it. Playing socialite Angela Vickers engaging in an ill-fated romance with George Eastman (Montgomery Clift), Taylor’s debutante dress went on to influence prom dresses for decades, thanks to the brilliance of costume designer Edith Head, who worked on famous films including Rear Window, Sabrina, and several others.
7. Audrey Hepburn, Roman Holiday
You can blame your shirtdress obsession on the flirty outfit from Roman Holiday. Famed costume designer Edith Head came up with this outfit for Princess Ann (Audrey Hepburn), a runaway princess who meets journalist Joe (Gregory Peck) trying to cover the story of her flight. In the iconic scene where they share a vespa ride, Hepburn sports a classic white colored shirt, simple neck scarf, skirt, fun shoes, and sunglasses. You know, the outfit one wears when trying to escape the monarchy. This ensemble perfectly sums up the ideal travel outfit in the 1950s and still holds up as a classy vintage look today.
8. Greta Garbo, Ninotchka
Although the plot of Ninotchka explores the comedic differences between communist Russia and the capitalist west, the clothing provides a brilliant way to manifest the opposing philosophies. “How can such a civilization survive which permits their women to put such silly things on their heads?" This is what Communist envoy Ninotchka (Greta Garbo) wonders as she stares at the plunger-esque hat in Paris. The very silly hat becomes a set piece with which to show the changing attitude of Ninotchka's character. At first, she’s disgusted by the frivolous millinery. But then she secretly purchases it.
9. Joan Fontaine, Rebecca
Hitchcock's Rebecca provides another example in which the wardrobe is hugely significant to the character. The unnamed protagonist (Joan Fontaine) falls in love with and marries a mysterious, wealthy man, but she finds herself overwhelmed by the ubiquitous presence of his dead wife inside her husband's mansion.
Thanks to the bad advice of a maid who has it in for her, Fontaine wears an incredible dress of the former wife's to a huge party. In doing so, she greatly distresses her husband. This is a pivotal scene in the movie and the dress looks as though it were made for the the most innocent of ladies, even if the original wearer wasn't.
10. Jean Harlow, Dinner At Eight
Jean Harlow was essentially the OG "blonde bombshell" thanks in large part to her racy role in Hell's Angels. Her platinum locks and sensual look definitely helped cement this title. Still, it's her barely-there white, satin gown featured at the dinner party scene in Dinner At Eight that was such a hit that the "Jean Harlow dress" would become a fashion craze.
If you ask me, there truly was no fashion like that of old Hollywood. Swoon.
Images: MGM (3); Paramount Pictures (3); RKO; Columbia Pictures; Warner Brothers; United Artists