Last month reports surfaced about the poll that asked folks to rate the top 10 iconic dresses of the past 50 years, and only two in the selection were from classic cinema. Not to sound like an old crank, but does either Geri Halliwell’s Union Jack or Liz Hurley’s Versace safety pin dress really carry any aesthetic influence or longevity beyond the moments they captured in pop culture? C’mon, those garments consisted of a tea towel and tacky gold pins for pity’s sake. No one will emulate the look or turn to it in a few decades and agree that either dress was of singular style importance. Kylie Minogue makes the list at number 7 for gold shorts, which do not even fit the criteria of the list, because hey Ms. Obvious, shorts are not a dress.
By contrast, there is a wealth of timeless, iconic style in classic cinema. You could walk out of the house in any one of these ensembles with the smug satisfaction that you are the bee’s knees. My list is highly subjective, based upon repeated viewings and informed by an aversion to all things Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn, save for the former in “How to Marry a Millionaire” (where Monroe perfected the one ditzy character she had in her repertoire) and the latter in “Wait Until Dark” (the one time Hepburn stopped posing and started acting). Both “The Seven Year Itch” and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” are altogether wretched, unwatchable films harbouring seedy messages about women’s status as always available fem-bot sex toys.
I’ll truncate my list to five to underscore the appeal of the celluloid wardrobes on offer.
“Barefoot in the Park” (1967) is saddled with a wooden, affectless Robert Redford, but Jane Fonda sports the most amazing bouncy, shiny hair imaginable matched with an urban, modish wardrobe that suits a new bride. This film gave me my first glimpse of how fabulous mustard yellow could be when Fonda’s character Corrie be-bops around the NYC love nest trying to set up house. The swingy coat and boots are also stylish pieces. It’s not a great film save for the fashion.
Last week’s Style insert in the Sunday Times magazine included a feature on the upcoming hounds tooth trend for Fall. You need not look any further than Lauren Bacall in “To Have and Have Not” (1944) to see what Christopher Kane aspires to in his own collection. Bacall’s suit-heavy wardrobe matched the moxie she mustered onscreen when she was only 19 and squared off against Humphrey Bogart. She was so foxy, she’d melt your eyelashes. Bacall was also one of the few women who could wear a beret without looking like a pretentious jackass.
The signature dresses worn by Rita Hayworth in “Gilda” and Ava Gardner in “The Killers,” released the same year in 1946, were similar in design, both strapless column dresses, and were accessorized with long gloves onscreen. Points have to go to Gardner because her dress magnified a countenance which declared she was no doormat. Gardner’s steely gaze told you no one would be slut-shaming her as they did with Hayworth’s Gilda. The centre strap has been replicated a million times.
Marilyn’s pleated white dress from the scene where she flashes the crowd receives too much praise since every woman knows that a pleated skirt adds bulk to your ass and hips. I haven’t worn pleats since the hideous and mandatory Catholic school uniform. If we’re casting about for a great white dress, look no further than Elizabeth Taylor in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (1958). The Grecian goddess draping is universally flattering. Liz takes this white dress as anything but a symbol for virginity. Instead, it telegraphs the barely contained lust she has for her husband. She’s a fashion icon in just the slip she prowls around in, not to mention the white dress.
In “All About Eve” (1950), the first film about a woman’s mid-life crisis, Bette Davis rages onscreen in a design by Edith Head which shows how chic women can be at this age. The neckline is sublime off the shoulders, as are the careful slits under the arms. Davis boasted a tiny little waist in the dress and next to the fortified shoulders, it was clear she was going out fighting. Aside from the brilliantly acid dialogue, all of the women’s costumes are covetable. Marilyn Monroe’s hip flower appliqué was plagiarized outright by Patricia Fields for Carrie Bradshaw’s closet
Any of these ensembles beats the tea towel and hoochie mama getups folks voted for in the poll.