I love watching horror movies with visual style, particularly when it comes to the costuming. There’s something magical about a horrible, scary film where the characters are immaculately dressed in Yves St. Laurent or impeccable Victorian fashions. Of course, smart costuming isn’t just for show, as it’s another way for the film to communicate the themes of the film and give depth to the narrative.
Fashion and horror influence each other–as fashion draws inspiration from stories and film and as horror uses fashion and style to deliver its message. Designers such as Alexander McQueen, Jason Wu, and the Blondes have all been inspired by the macabre and the horrific. Tom Ford and Lanvin designs recently showed up in wonderful horror-inspired fashion film Tokyo Lost & Found starring model Jun. The Mulleavy sisters, working under their label Rodarte, contributed to the costume design in the film Black Swan.
I’ve never studied costuming and would count myself as a fashion novice, but I love to pay attention to particularly stylish movies and try to unpack the costume choices. Below I’ve picked some of my favorite “fashionable horror” movies and explained what I have taken away from each. Enjoy!
Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
I just love the shape of this dress. Her body is swallowed up by the fabric, but there is a definite shape. And the fabric itself is free-flowing, but not without structure. The way the fabric is gathered and the way it falls creates striking visual lines. In this dress, she is both feminine and imposing, a terrific way of creating a sense of unease and confusion for the audience.
Psycho was shocking for many reasons, not least of which was what Director Alfred Hitchcock chose to show on camera. By choosing to show Janet Leigh in her undergarments on camera (in a brand of popular undergarments no less), he forced the audience to grapple with viewing underwear, something so familiar yet intensely private, on the silver screen. He forced the viewer to identify with the character but in a deeply uncomfortable way. And Vera Miles, while not portrayed as the quite the same bombshell as Janet Leigh, is dressed in the same manner that many women dressed at the time, further underscoring the link between the audience and the characters. This movie went out of its way to ground the story in realism, and in doing soon was more effective at terrifying its audience.
The Birds (1963)
We all know Hitchcock loved nothing more than taking a stunning blonde, dressing her up in impeccable fashions, and then subjecting her to the most demented on-screen terrors. Tippi Hedren in The Birds has come to epitomize this concept, not just because of the mazing green suit she wears for most of the movie, but for the actual mistreatment she suffered on set from Hitchcock himself. In the film, the green suit is at classic, timeless, and sophisticated. She’s a fashionable, beautiful lady–not who audiences would have expected to be the heroine in a horror film. Bad things can happen to you even when you are dressed to the nines. Also, that lovely green hue of the suit carries loads of symbolism, especially when you take into account how much Hitchcock loved to play with the meaning of color.
When Repulsion starts out, Carol, played by Catherine Deneuve, is a shy and timid girl who is barely holding herself together. She is forever rebuffing the advances of the men who find her beautiful, who are unaware of what such attention does to her precarious psyche. In the beginning of the film, her costumes reflect her attempts to act normally but also protect herself. As the film goes on and her sanity corrodes, her body becomes more and more exposed. In the final scene, she wears only a nightgown, which is thin, delicate, not only mirroring her sanity but sexualizing her too. This accomplishes an incredibly unsettling effect, given the themes of the movie and the implied cause for Carol’s breakdown.
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Mia Farrow’s wardrobe in Rosemary’s Baby is classic 60s mod style–lots of baby doll dress, Peter Pan collars, bold patterns, bright colors, flats, puffy sleeves, and of course, that iconic Vidal Sassoon pixie style haircut. Much of the styling serves to infantilize Rosemary and creates a sense in the audience that she must be protected. Unfortunately, the audience is forced to watch, helpless, as Rosemary’s innocence is steadily corrupted. Also, I cannot help but associate her blue housecoat in the final scene with the Virgin Mary, as Mary is often depicted as wearing blue robes.
The Shining (1980)
More than many other films, I watch The Shining and I feel cold. The characters wear layers and layers of thick, warm clothing, and I can’t help but feel cold for them. I love this because it really puts me in the mindset of the Torrence family and I better understand the meaning of being trapped at a snowed-in hotel. Also, I am always struck by Wendy Torrence’s wardrobe, as her layers of bulky clothes seem to overwhelm her slight frame, reflecting how her poor character is completely overwhelmed by her crazy bully of a husband.
The Hunger (1983)
One of my favorite vampire flicks ever, due in no small part to the incomparable Catherine Deneuve (who has is very skilled at picking stylish film projects). I love how many different looks Deneuve sports in this film–Über 80s fashion when she hunts with David Bowie, to more timeless looks when plans her next seduction, and the best 18th century garb in certain flashbacks. She constantly sports Yves St. Laurent in the film, for crying out loud! All of this elegance and extravagance is contrasted with Susan Sarandon’s far more simple, practical clothing, reflecting a new world and a new time that Catherine Deneuve will never belong to.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
No black capes and medallions for this Dracula! Eiko Ishioka successfully created imaginative and striking costumes for this big-budget remaining of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, winning an Oscar for her efforts. She incorporated elements of Kabuki Theater and exaggerated elements of Victorian fashion to stress the beauty, otherworldliness, and danger of Dracula and his vampire brides. She breathed life into what might have been a boring retread of one of the most popular horror stories ever.
Interview With The Vampire (1993)
When speaking about how she envisioned her vampires, Anne Rice said, “I was more interested in a powerful, Old World figure that had a lot of knowledge, experience, and was surrounded by a lot of glamour and mystery. I wanted to keep the romance.” Suffice it to say, Neil Jordan’s Interview With a Vampire did not disappoint! These vampires are ruthless, calculating, passionate, and the epitome of glamorous. It helps that the movie took full advantage of its 19th century period piece setting, but still, the costuming perfectly conveys that these creatures are beautiful, brutal, and utterly compelling. No wishy washy jeans and hoodies here–these vampires possess style, and they have it in spades.
The Craft (1996)
Three words: iconic 90s style! Seriously, how cool was it to watch these girls completely reject the stuffy uniforms they had to wear to their private school and don the very best in black knits dresses, black stockings, black boots, and dark lipstick? As far as transformations go, it’s fairly straightforward, but it doesn’t lessen the impact or make it any less cool to see. For my pre-teen self, who had to wear a uniform to school, The Craft seemed like the epitome of stylish rebellion.
American Psycho (2000)
For anyone who has read the novel, you know that the protagonist of American Psycho is obsessed with his image. Patrick Bateman is particularly preoccupied with whether or not he is wearing the right designers, listening to the right music, living in the right apartment, and eating at the right restaurants. But this lifestyle is vapid and soul-crushing–his sanity is slowly crumbling. We can read his fixation on murder as his way of feeling alive in the nightmarish society in which he exists, or we can see it as a deeply disturbing way he tries to maintain control. Whatever the case, his clothing, straight out of a 1980s Wall Street firm in all of its corporate glory, is not just a reflection of the character but a uniform, a reminder in the end that he is in no way unique.
The Cell (2000)
Eiko Ishioka’s second entry on this list. This underrated movie is a visual feast. Each frame is laden with surreal images running the gamut from archetypes, religious iconography, art history, and pop culture references. Ishioka is completely successful at creating costumes with familiar elements that are subverted, with new and interesting components that give the characters dreamlike appearances. The conflict between the characters reverberates in their clothing, echoing the progression of the narrative.
The Others (2001)
I really loved the way that the clothing mirrors Nicole Kidman’s state of mind. When she feels most in control, her collars are high, her dresses are tailored, the color of her clothes are a solid shade of oxblood or violet, and her hair is perfectly coiffed. When she feels the opposite, her neck is exposed, the color white begins to creep into her costuming, and her hair is messy. I particularly love the scenes when her husband returns home.
Black Swan (2010)
Throughout the film, Natalie Portman’s character is dressed in delicate fabrics in pale pinks and ghostly whites. On the other end of the spectrum (literally and figuratively), Mila Kunis is dressed in a darker palate, mostly black and gray with thick, coarser cloth. These costuming choices not only underscore the differences between the characters, but add an interesting dimension to Natalie Portman’s character as the story progresses and she begins to experience a total psychological breakdown.
AHS: Coven (2014)
While AHS: Coven wasn’t my favorite season from a story-telling perspective, it was definitely my favorite in the costuming department. In fact, the whole “look” of Coven was perfection. I loved how the clothing not only provided interesting characterization for each of the witches, but also cast them as powerful, thoughtful, self-possessed women. Sarah Paulson’s character in particular undergoes some interesting costuming changes as her story evolves. Jessica Lange is a force to be reckoned with in intimidating Chanel and fierce Louboutin pumps. And who could forget Myrtle Snow? BALENCIAGA!
What do you guys think? Any particular fashion/costume design from a horror film that I missed? Leave it in the comments!