Costume Design: An Overlooked Aspect of Film

A great director, brilliant actors, expensive equipment, and an experienced crew. Together, these elements could easily create a beautiful film, shining in all areas of technical brilliance. For me, an overlooked component that doesn’t get the shine it deserves is costume design.

Considering that we are witnessing the most productive era for comic book movies in cinematic history, when the audiences hear the word costume, they often think of superheroes; of web-swings between New York skyscrapers, bright red and blue suits. The sheer visual impact of superhero costumes is undeniable, but not every character has to look like a spider, or a bat to establish their influence on pop culture.

Think of the main character of your favorite movie for a second. Now imagine them in a plain white t-shirt and a basic jean. (If the character you were thinking of was already wearing a white t-shirt then imagine them in “Chucky” overalls!)

Thanks to our photographic memories, characters comes to our minds with the looks that are associated with them. What is essential to the the story of your favorite character is often “just a piece of fabric”, yet  it can change your whole perspective for a character when you think of them in any different attire. Luckily, movie makers are in the realization of the importance of fashion, costume design and style, as they have been benefiting from the power of costumes for decades to create iconic characters or to tell a powerful story.

Costumes not only help movies have influence on pop culture, but they also have the ability to tell a story without a script. Most of the time, using clothes to show the development of a character is easier and more influential than conveying the same through words or exposition. The biggest example of this method comes from my all-time favorite movie series, Harry Potter.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007) Students are taking classes from Harry in the Room of Requirement

In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007), after realizing that the new Hogwarts administration doesn’t want students to learn any useful spells, Harry decides to teach other students offensive and defensive spells which aims to prepare them for any possible future dark side attack. Multiple award winning costume designer, Jany Temime, emphasizes Harry’s new leader role by making him wear a cardigan as opposed to jumpers the other students were wearing. The cardigan recalls the scene where Professor Lupin wore a cardigan as he was teaching Harry how to cast a “Patronus Charm” in the Prisoner of Azkaban.

Lupin in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

Similarly, in Deathly Hallows Part 2, Neville Longbottom, who has been bullied for years in Hogwarts becomes sort of a resistance leader during the Battle of Hogwarts and destroys Nagini with the Sword of Gryffindor. Who could have guessed a simple piece of clothing can be mightier than the Elder Wand?

Neville Longbottom in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

As expected, the costumes that helped create remarkable and memorable films have affected the fashion industry as well. Statement pieces which made their greatest debuts on the big screen are now unequivocally linked with those films. Below are some examples of fashion statements in film.

Bickle “washing all this scum off the streets” in his Vietnam-era M-65 field jacket

Whether the character is rich or not, Taxi Driver director Martin Scorsese has always reflected the status of the male characters with unforgettable wardrobe choices. In 2006, unexpected fashion icon Travis Bickle, became an inspiration for designer, Junya Watanabe. Watanabe created various look that are known as the iconic Travis’ look.

Junya Watanabe 2006 Fall/Winter

We all can’t argue how a pair of sunglasses is effective to state your style. No matter how good you are when it comes to your sunglasses, no look will be better than the black suited crew of Tarantino as seen in 1999’s Reservoir Dogs. Thanks to Mr. Orange and Mr White, Ray-Ban Clubmasters and Wayfarers became a thing again in late 90’s.


On the topic of sunglasses, let’s not forget the coolest aviator, who made the Aviators cool in 80’s. Simply put, if aviators don’t come to your mind when you think of Top Gun, you should watch the film again.


Jay Gatsby’s lavish life style is not only told by the enormous parties, brilliant set design, and great acting, but also with an added emphasis on the fashion and costume design. Each character in the film shows off with luxurious costumes and lavish jewelries. 2013’s The Great Gatsby won the Best Costume Design in that year’s Oscars and BAFTA.


Honorable Mention

Brad Pitt’s red leather jacket look in Fight Club will never be forgotten.

As a both fashion and movie enthusiast. I could go on and on with the strong connection between these two industries. Fashion is integral to the making of films. The films you love and admire, whether they be featuring superheroes saving the day, an Italian mob family, or a young wizard who is on the path to greatness, costume design is crucial to the making of those films and those memories. There are countless examples of films where the costume design is even a part of the story plot, costume design that would make the film half of what it is. The importance of the fashion industry to film is close to what the music industry is to film. Both amplify, immerse and create an illusion of belief in the films you watch. Hopefully as time goes on, fashion and costume design continue to have the recognition they deserve in regards to film.