Is there anything classier than black and white? Sure, all black and all white outfits can be pretty, but pair one of those with the other, and suddenly WOW. In my own historical costuming, I have to force myself not to make 90% of my projects in black and white (or ivory). It doesn’t help when I’m reminded of how fabulous the two are when I see these stunners on screen. We probably won’t all agree on my order, but hopefully we can all agree that these five historical film costumes are amaze-balls, in large part due to their color schemes:
#5: Sleepy Hollow: Katrina’s Black & White Stripes
This one is a “duh,” and you probably think it should be higher on the list. It would be if it hadn’t been THE iconic black and white outfit since the film came out in 1999, so for me it suffers a teensy bit from overexposure.
But check it out: not only is it black and white, but it’s STRIPES. It’s SO hard to go wrong with stripes, and so easy to go fabulous. You can play with direction, and it’s visually bold.
This costume is such a tour-de-force — it’s probably designer Colleen Atwood‘s most recognizable costume. Her designs for Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow are the epitome of 18th-century goth. What I can’t tell for certain is whether it’s a robe à l’anglaise with a cutaway (
zone) front and skirt worn retroussée (pulled up) or an actual robe à la polonaise which features the same cut. The difference would be in whether or not the front/sides has a waist seam (the anglaise does, the polonaise doesn’t), which is hard to tell. (Sorry, 18th-century fashion historian nerd moment is now over).
But who cares, because you’ve got:
The dress would be a stunner in any stripe, but black and white? Come on, it’s perfection.
#4: My Fair Lady: Eliza’s Ascot Dress
Probably most people’s #1 in this category, but again it is a little further down my list due to my own overexposure. It’s pretty damn iconic — ask someone to name a famous black and white film costume, modern or historical, and they’ll probably say this one. It’s impressive how much costume designer Cecil Beaton makes Eliza stand out at the Ascot races, given that EVERYONE is wearing black and white.
What’s genius about the costume is that it’s actually an all-white lace dress, and the black and white comes in via the ribbon, which is placed unexpectedly around the bust, on the hips, and at the knees. The non-continous placement is also genius — if the stripes went all the way around, they’d widen her (although honestly, Audrey Hepburn is thin enough that she could pull it off).
And then you’ve got that hat, which is a HAT — it’s HA-UGE. Also, the black with the white lining? The black and the white ostrich feather? The GIANT black and whit striped bow? GEN-IUS! And finally, you’ve got those two touches of red, one on the hat, the other on the parasol, which give it a little unexpected pop of color.
#3: Howards End: Margaret’s Engagement Dress
This ensemble isn’t as showy as the two above, but I think it’s the subtleness and tastefulness that push designers Jenny Beavan and John Bright‘s costume high up my list. I also have a soft spot for 1909-14ish, and the costumes from Howards End capture just what I love: the high but fitted waist and the layered fabrics over a firm foundation.
This is another costume that would be lovely in any color combination, but the black and white makes it SO elly-gant. I love how the white up top draws the eye to actress Emma Thompson‘s face, as does the black and white hat. I think the most genius element is the front lace placement, where the lace motifs hang over the black skirt at the center front, which is then echoed in how the lace overlaps the black cuffs at the elbow. You also can’t go wrong with a V neck and three-quarter sleeves in my world.
#2: Out of Africa: Karen’s Wedding Ensemble
I almost made this my number one because it’s so damn elegant, but reconsidered. Out of Africa is best remembered for its beige and brown safari wear that, in fact, spawned a huge fashion trend when it was released in 1985. But I’m always shocked that the historical costume community doesn’t seem to remember Karen’s wedding dress, which is such a stunning example of mid-teens fashion. We’ve already established that I love this era — it’s just so damn sophisticated.
You also may have forgotten that this film was designed by Milena Canonero (Marie Antoinette, Barry Lyndon), but that also may help to explain why this costume is such a stunner. I’m not positive if it’s white or off-white, but it’s the small amount of black in the ensemble that elevates it from “beautiful” to “OH-MY-GOD-I-JUST-FELL-OVER.”
First of all, you’ve got that standing collar and the tulip shape on the skirt front. But add the black waistcoat inset, the black under the pleats on the collar, the black piping, those beautiful buttons, and THAT HAT and you’ve just killed me. Put it on gorgeous Meryl Streep, with a face veil? Yeah.
#1: Anna Karenina: Anna’s Racing Dress
Let’s just get it out of the way: Sophie Marceau looks amazing in these colors due to her very dark hair and eyes. And natural form (1879-81ish) is such a gorgeously sexy era in fashion.
But far more importantly … first, you’ve got this AMAZING bodice. Not only do we have stripes, but the combination of narrow and wide stripe makes things more sophisticated than if the two stripes were of equivalent widths. Next, you’ve got that stripe placed in about a million amazing directions: diagonal on the bodice and sleeves, horizontal on the cuffs, and those chevrons in back! I could probably come up with that on my own, but the solid white waistcoat, solid black lapels, and the solid black turnbacks on the cuffs and skirting-in-back? G.E.N.I.U.S.
Taking the genius to astronomical levels is the skirt. I could imagine pairing this with a skirt in the same stripe. I could also see putting it with a skirt in a solid white or black in a similar weight fabric. But the genius (sorry, I can’t stop!) of the sheer ruffled skirt, with all those teeny tiny black edgings? And the black sash tying the train back? That clunk you heard is every right-thinking person in the world falling over dead from fabulosity.
Okay, have at me. Did you agree with my rankings? Which other black-and-white historical film costumes merit inclusion on this list?