Top 5 Black & White Costumes in Historical Films


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:

Sleepy Hollow (1999)

vertical stripes and diagonal stripes…

1999 Sleepy Hollow

continuous stripes and ploufed up stripes…

1999 Sleepy Hollow

ruffled stripes and ruched stripes!

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.

1964 My Fair Lady 1964 My Fair Lady1964 My Fair Lady

#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.

Howards End (1992) 1992 Howards End 1992 Howards End

#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 AntoinetteBarry 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.

1985 Out of Africa1985 Out of Africa1985 Out of Africa

#1: Anna Karenina: Anna’s Racing Dress

Costume designer Maurizio Millenotti is a genius, and this costume is the one that clinches it for me. Don’t show me any other version of Anna Karenina because I’m not interested after this stunner.

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.

Anna Karenina (1997) Anna Karenina (1997) Anna Karenina (1997)


Okay, have at me. Did you agree with my rankings? Which other black-and-white historical film costumes merit inclusion on this list?

30 Responses

  1. Daniel Milford-Cottam

    I have a VERY soft spot for Madeline Kahn’s 1950s little black dress and coat ensemble in “Clue” – just for the AMAZING, old-school diva entrance she makes when she arrives at the mansion and proceeds to take off her coat, and suddenly there’s this POW of gorgeous white satin lining all sweeping out.

    Okay, so she’s in all-black for the rest of the film, but it’s such a Moment and such an Entrance.

    • Dawn

      “Mrs White looking all pale and tragic…” Absolutely for the her entry! As for the rest of the movie, she is wearing white pearl jewelry, and she’s got the red pops from her make-up, too.

  2. michnellelurv

    My favorite the Edith Head dress that Grace Kelly wears in Rear Window. That dress started my life long love of movie costumes and historical costuming.

  3. Karen

    The black and white gown, slim with full overskirt, in Sabrina.

  4. amyaosterholm

    I’ve just been listening to your Downton recaps, so I have to add that, while not interesting from a costuming perspective, Lady Mary looked devastatingly chic in her black and white riding habit.

    And of course there’s Cruella DeVille.

  5. cozydell

    Has “The Draughtsman’s Contract” gotten on your radar? This frontage-laden film had me riveted back in 1982. Little did I dream I’d wind up with people who could dress like this in real life! From the stills, the costumes were more all-white juxtaposed with all-black.

  6. Lady Hermina De Pagan

    I’m shocked that you did not include the travel dress that Rose wears during the boarding scene of Titanic. The movie is schlocky but the costumes are a visual feast.

  7. Niniane

    So Tristan doesn’t like it, but the Cecil Beaton white evening gown with black birds on the shoulders that Leslie Caron wears in Gigi. Swoony.

  8. Anniebee

    There was a fabulous version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, filmed in 1987 and starring Eric Idle, which was entirely costumed in monochrome, and set in the 1920s. The costuming has always stuck with me as an example of how much impact a black and white palette can have!

    • MoHub

      Love that production! And Katisha arrives wearing a leather flight helmet having evidently flown in to Titipu.

  9. Pina

    To be honest I was actually rather disappointed with Eliza’s Ascot dress, because I thought the dresses on some of the extras looked so much better. That might be because I’m kind of allergic to the mermaid cut (that’s what it’s called, right?) especially on a white dress, because it reminds me of a mermaid wedding dress, of which there are far too many in the world, I think (sorry if you like that cut).

    Also, isn’t that Ascot scene just an ah-mazing scene? So much fabulous detail on all the extras, I love it!

    • Woodstockgurl

      I agree. Especially this one at 3:27. Even Prof Higgins, “confirmed bachelor,” can’t resist a second look!

      • Ms. Heather Ripley

        I simply love that scene, I have trouble deciding what my favorite dress is. And the clip is fun since a young Jeremy Brent is in it (aka Sherlock Holmes), and Audrey is simply charming. But the best is a bit later when she is cheering her horse to cross the finish line first!

  10. Charity

    Gorgeous. My personal fav is Katrina’s — I gasped when I saw it on screen, and was annoyed that it only turned up right at the end. Still. DROOL.

    Anna Karenina had gorgeous costumes, that’s for sure…

  11. Becca

    I am so glad that you gave a nod to _Out of Africa_ and Karen’s suit. While it isn’t quite right for 1913 (the ‘Russian note’ in the hat is right, but I can’t find any documentation for the standing collar before 1914), I love the outfit so much that I can overlook a slightly anachronistic element.

    (I also have a soft spot for the whole movie. Yes, it spawned the beige, brown, and — don’t forget — olive green safari-wear look, but it was also the first time in my life that there were entire lines of clothing on the market that wouldn’t clash with my red hair. I was in heaven!)

    • Barbarama

      Karen does snarl, “It’s ivory” when her husband to be questions whether she would wear white to her wedding. Remember he’s her friend, not her lover.

  12. lesartsdecoratifs

    Judging by the way the bodice overlay bunches around Katrina’s upper body and the pattern of stripes in the back continue uninterrupted for a way too wide stretch for an anglaise en fourreau, I would actually put money on the Sleepy Hollow gown being a polonaise.

    (Or at least polonaise-inspired – you never know what non-period trick costumers pull that end up making an 18th century gown a 20th century film costume.)

  13. Maggie

    I’m intrigued by the idea of the Sleepy Hollow gown being polonaise – it’s not something I was as familiar with when I first put together a study page on the costume. And now that I’m familiar, I’m sort of fascinated by them.

    I do think I see a waist seam though – and the skirts pleated into it. They did a good job with the stripe matching – which is possible (I did mine that way).

    See this one: (you may have to copy/paste the link into a browser because of the hot-linking disabling on my site, but copy/paste works).


    I wish I had higher res of the back. Also, where did you find that image of it on the dress form – that one is new to me! :D Love this gown, one of my favs to be sure.

    The Out of Africa gown is off-white – I saw it at exhibit and it was fabulous. The detail on the hat is amazing. One of my friends got high res pics of it here:

    • Kendra

      Hmmm! They COULD be hiding pleats under the stripes, however! That new photo of the SH gown on the dressform was posted on FB — it’s what inspired me to write this post!

  14. Sarah Baker

    Lizzy’s black and white striped bustle gown in “The Buccaneers.” Maybe it can’t make the cut because that was a mini-series and not a film?

  15. Ms. Heather Ripley

    Dearest Kendra, I am glad you like black and white costumes like me. Another film that should be included is The Cat’s Meow with Kristen Dunst. It’s chock full of simply gorgeous and smart uses of black and white costuming from the 1920s. Joanna Lumley’s ensemble as the guest gather aboard the yacht is to die for!

    In fact, when searching the interweb for photos, I ran across this little tid bit on the IMDbTV site “The costuming and sets were designed with as little color as possible to give the illusion of a black and white film. This was to make up for the fact that the film wasn’t allowed to be filmed in black and white as originally planned.”