Fashion in Film: 5 Favorite Period Pieces

Monday, August 26, 2019

Some of the most memorable scenes in film feature breath-taking clothing that speak to different time periods, class system, life experiences, and more. As well as introducing me to worlds outside of my limited scope, movies also taught me about fashion - how to identify fabrics, sewing techniques - not to mention reading a character based on their wardrobe. Things like scuff marks, specific kinds of fabric, color stories, and garment structure all give us clues to the characters on screen.

I started a Twitter thread on some of my favorite films based on their costume design, but wanted to explore the topic without a word count, and I felt like a series here on Mermaidens would be the perfect way to explore costume design in film! I would love to hear your favorites as well, so please leave them in the comments!
Let's discuss one of my very favorite genres of film: The Period Piece.

Atonement (2007): An Unexpected Accessory
Atonement's emerald green dress was a technical marvel: the combination of delicate silk used in a bias cut fashion looked almost liquid while in motion. The garment alone sparked almost instantaneous icon status in the film and fashion community alike - sealing the film’s fate in "Best of Film Fashion" lists since its inception.

And don’t forget the rest of the costumes: gauzy floral fabrics, a lacy slip, slick swimwear, and prim nurse uniforms parade one after another on-screen. But perhaps the most underrated, and important, garment isn’t even shown worn physically on screen: the dreamy, soft focus glow is courtesy of an unlikely filter. Director Joe Wright stretched Christian Dior stockings over the camera and credited them for the film’s dream-like soft focus for the more idyllic scenes.

In the Mood for Love (2000): Wearing a Mood
Director Wong Kar Wai worked closely with costume designer, set designer, and long time collaborator William Chang for In the Mood for Love, saying: "The dress is not just a dress. It’s Maggie’s character’s mood. It’s as if she’s wearing this mood that day."

Cheung's dresses were custom made, elongating the skirt and high neck which restricted movement and mirrored the way her character feels trapped. Bathed in florid reds and greens (a signature in Kar Wai films), Cheung’s dresses also serve as clues: helping us track time in this film's non-linear timeline.

If Beale Street Could Talk (2018): Dressing in Sync
At the core of the devastating If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) is the stunning depth to couple Fonny and Tish's connection - and their coordinating wardrobe visually communicates it.
Costume designer Caroline Eselin outfitted the couple in hopeful primary colors that show how "in sync" they are, saying "[The colors are meant to] be optimistic, innocent and completely all about love.”

Warm yellows, sky blues, and pops of deep reds, all in early 1970s silhouettes, give the film a very distinct and elegant color story. A standout piece is Tish's buttermint yellow knit cape that she wears twice in the film, and it’s particularly noteworthy when paired with an all-yellow look that harmonizes perfectly with Fonny's red plaid jacket - they even walk down the street synchronized.
Further Reading: An Interview with Caroline Eselin

Marie Antoinette (2006): Wearing Desserts
I watched Marie Antoinette (2006) for the first time at age 12, and was transfixed watching the cake walk of frothy pastel gowns, floral prints, and Rococo sets unfolding in front of me. It has been one of the most formative influences on me - down to the powered pink hair Kristen Dunst sports as the ill-fated queen. With unprecedented access to the Palace of Versailles during filming, the end result is a feast for the eyes. The film boasts 100s of custom-made shoes designed by Manolo Blahnik (and, infamously, a hidden pair of pastel blue Converse), a count modeled on 80s pop icon Adam Ant, and an entire scene dedicated to the film’s decadent big gowns and even bigger hair. Winkingly set to I Want Candy by Bow Wow Wow, Dunst quips "I love the pink [fabric] - it looks like candy!"

Director Sofia Coppola was said to give costume designer Milena Canonero a set of Laduree macarons as inspiration for the color scheme - and the inspiration is clear in the end result: each dress looks like a pastel confection dreamed up in a bakery. Milena Canonero also looked to actual paintings from the era - with some gowns almost identical to those the real Marie Antoinette immortalized in portraiture.
Further Reading: Costumer's Guide: Marie Antoinette, Marie Antoinette: Working with an historical basis

Moulin Rouge! (2001): Spectacular, Spectacular
A technicolor explosion set in 1899 Paris, Moulin Rouge!’s (2001) had a cast of can-can dancers, actresses, poets, and artists - all needing costumes as ornate and personal as the character wearing them. Costume designers Catherine Martin and Angus Strathie ended up creating 450 costumes and outsourcing an additional 350 just to get everybody outfitted. With tiered ruffle petticoats, stockings, and corsets for the can-can dancers alone - some having specific themes for specific dancers.

For me, Nicole Kidman's Satine has the stand out wardrobe: a voluminous, corseted red gown with a full bustle, a fish scale patterned sequin corselet (inspired by a Marilyn Monroe costume in the film Bus Stop [1956]), a sober black velvet gown, and a pink bodysuit with heart motifs on the bust.


  1. I love all of these designs!!
    Would love to read more of these posts mixed in with you own outfits!<3


    1. I'm so, so glad you liked this post! I had such a great time writing and researching for this, and it was so fun to try something different on this blog. I will definitely be doing more, and thank you so much for the encouragement 💓

  2. loved reading this! your passion for film fashion make me appreciate the costume designers' work more. i think it's about time that i rewatch some of these films!

    1. This really means a lot to me, thank you so much! I really hope you were able to rewatch a few of these and drink in how gorgeous the designs truly are! Thank you again 💘

  3. I love costume design! As far a period pieces go one of my favorites is The Mummy ('99). I love how Evie's style changes throughout the film and into the second one as well.

    1. Ooh ooh ooh I LOVE The Mummy! The clothing are so good, the locations, the humor...! Also, I feel like Rachel Weisz has got to be one of the most gorgeous women on the planet, to this day she's a dream! Thanks for reading Jasmine 💓!


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