20 Most Iconic Dresses of All Time
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Dress Rehearsal1 of 21
By Brienne Walsh
Even if you've never seen certain classic movies, you probably recognize the unforgettable dresses that helped make them hits—whether it's Vivien Leigh's green velvet dress in Gone With the Wind or the white halter worn by Marylin Monroe in The Seven Year Itch. With two major costume dramas (Anna Karenina and Les Misérables) hitting theaters this month, we're taking a look back at 20 iconic dresses from 80 years of film.
Gilt Trip2 of 21
Katharine Hepburn was known for her tomboy style, but she also looked beyond glamorous in a dress, like the gold lamé gown her character wore to a dinner club in Bringing Up Baby (1938). In this hilarious screwball scene with Cary Grant, the back of the dress is ripped off up to the waist, revealing Hepburn’s lacy bloomers underneath.
Curtain Call3 of 21
In Gone With the Wind (1939), Scarlett O'Hara (played by Vivien Leigh) stomped, flirted and made unladylike declarations like "Great balls of fire!" However, it was her costumes, designed by Walter Plunkett, that made her character. Most memorable of all is the emerald green gown she made out of curtains from her family's plantation house. She wore it to seduce Rhett Butler into lending her money to save her farm.
Bombshell Sheath4 of 21
Before there was Jessica Rabbit there was Gilda, a bad girl nightclub singer played by Rita Hayworth in the 1946 film of the same name. Wearing a black strapless dress inspired, Gilda ends her marriage with a striptease to the song "Put the Blame on Mame." The scene was so explosively sexual that the name Gilda was written on the first nuclear bomb tested after World War II.
She's a Lady5 of 21
Perhaps the most famous costume designer in Hollywood history, Edith Head dressed many icons, including Audrey Hepburn, Bette Davis, and of course, Elizabeth Taylor. Wearing one of Head’s incredible ball gowns in A Place In the Sun (1951), Taylor bewitches George Eastman, played by Montgomery Clift, who is already promised to another woman. Tragedy ensues.
Belle Curve6 of 21
Head was also the designer for Alfred Hitchcock’s movies, many of which starred Grace Kelly, whom both the designer and the director considered a muse. For Rear Window (1954), Head designed five outfits for Kelly, the most beloved being a frothy dress inspired by the full-skirted silhouettes in Dior's New Look.
White Hot7 of 21
When William Travilla designed the white dress Marilyn Monroe wore over a subway grate in The Seven Year Itch (1955), he probably didn't realize it would become the centerpiece of one of the most reproduced images in film history. Designed to accentuate Monroe's ample bosom, as well as her shapely legs, it fetched a price of $5.6 million at an auction in 2011.
Dancing Queen8 of 21
In And God Created Woman (1956), Brigitte Bardot launched her career as a sex kitten. Her character, Juliet, lets her raw energy loose in the final scene of the movie, when she rips off her green skirt, and starts dancing with abandon to the beat of a mambo band.
Make a Splash9 of 21
There is sexy, and then there is Anita Eckberg, whose voluptuous figure, jumping around the Trevi Fountain in La Dolce Vita, was the ultimate embodiment of male fantasy. The film won an Academy Award in 1960 for Best Costume, thanks in large part to the black sleeveless dress that Eckberg wore in the famous scene.
Glamour Girl10 of 21
There's almost no dress more iconic than the Givenchy sheath that Holly Golightly, played by Audrey Hepburn, wore to go window shopping at her favorite jewelry store in Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961). Paired with a pearl necklace, elbow-length black gloves, a tiara, a pair of dark sunglasses and a cup of deli coffee, Hepburn's look continues to define New York chic.
Muy Bonita11 of 21
West Side Story (1961) boils down to Natalie Wood wearing this party dress when her character, Maria, sings "I Feel Pretty." She meets Tony, a guy from a different ethnic group, at a neighborhood dance party, and their love affair sets in motion the turf wars that ultimately destroy their community.
Soviet Siren12 of 21
To play a Russian seamstress turned nurse in Dr. Zhivago (1965), Julie Christie wore an immaculate wardrobe by costume designer Phyllis Dalton. Known as the "Zhivago look," her early-20th-century Russian outfits inspired designers such as Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Dior, who incorporated furs, silk breading, and boots into their collections.
What Lies Beneath13 of 21
Although Yves Saint Laurent is one of the most iconic designers of the 20th century, he was still relatively unknown when he designed Catherine Deneueve's costumes in Belle de Jour (1967). Using ladylike silhouettes made of surprising materials like patent leather, he perfectly captured the spirit of Deneuve's character, Severine, who was a housewife with a secret fetish for prostitution. Later in life, he designed a small clutch in homage to the movie, which is still available today.
The Good Old Days14 of 21
Although her slinky black pantsuit in the final scene of the film is perhaps more memorable, if only because it is so scandalously seductive, nothing epitomizes classic Americana more than Olivia Newton John’s prom dress in Grease (1978). It still transports us to a time when American girls wore letter sweaters, necked in the back of cars, and married their high school sweethearts.
Take a Shine15 of 21
In her long, silky evening gowns, Michelle Pfeiffer's character in Scarface (1983) defined disco couture. Reminiscent both of sequined costumes from the 1930s, as well as Roy Halston's slinky creations worn by the ladies of Studio 54, the gowns made Elvira completely irresistible to the drug lord Tony Montana, played by Al Pacino.
Think Pink16 of 21
Both reviled and adored by fashion critics, Molly Ringwald's dress in Pretty in Pink (1986) defined the 1980s prom dress. Created by combining a thrift store purchase with a hand-me-hand gown, the handmade dress helped Ringwald's character Andie capture the eye of former beau Blane. (His name is Blane? Oh! That's a major appliance. That's not a name.)
Lady in Red17 of 21
The most romantic scene in Pretty Woman (1990) is not when Julia Roberts' character, Vivian Ward, first kisses the debonair Edward Lewis, played by Richard Gere. Rather, it's when she appears transformed, Cinderella style, in an elegant red dress. The finishing touch? A diamond-and-ruby necklace.
Clothes Control18 of 21
After designing the costumes for Gordon Gecko in Wall Street (1987), Ellen Mirojnick became the go-to person for the "power broker" look. Perhaps the most famous of these outfits was the white wool crepe dress Sharon Stone wore in Basic Instinct (1992), which became iconic not because of its design, but rather because of what Stone failed to wear underneath it.
Barely there19 of 21
In Clueless (1995), Alicia Silverstone’s character Cher wears 50 different outfits, one of which is the tiny white Calvin Klein slip her father declares "looks like underwear." In honor of the movie, Francisco Costa re-issued the dress in 2010.
Emerald City20 of 21
As the swanlike Estella in Great Expectations (1998), Gwyneth Paltrow defined contemporary American beauty. Wearing a wardrobe designed by Donna Karan, entirely in shades of green, Paltrow's natural, sophisticated look was the crowning achievement of an otherwise mediocre film.
Color Chameleon21 of 21
In the novel Atonement, writer Ian McEwan took great care to describe the dress that his character, Cecilia, wore to the dinner where she would finally kiss her true love. In the 2007 film adaptation, Keira Knightley, who plays Cecilia, ended up wearing four different versions of the same gown by Jacqueline Durran, in deepening shades of green, to reflect her emotions as she comes closer and closer to being alone with her lover.