5 Important Red Dresses

In case it missed anyone’s attention, I love red. Particularly red lipstick, red nail varnish and red dresses. I’m not the only one. Red is a colour used in film for important reasons – not just for blood. Think about The Red Shoes (1948); the little girl in the red coat in Schindler’s List (1993); Dorothy’s ruby slippers in The Wizard of Oz (1939); Robert de Niro’s red suit in The King of Comedy (1983); the “child” in the red patent duffel coat in Don’t Look Now (1973). The use of red has even entered the zeitgeist – think of the ‘red shirt’ characters taken from Star Trek. This term has been used for years now and will remain in pop culture. Red somehow becomes more iconic when used for a dress. In the best instance, these dresses are worn at a vital moment in the plot and character arc to make a specific point. Here are five of the best examples of a red dress used for a specific purpose. They have been arranged in chronological order of the film’s release date. Funny Face (1953) Director: Stanley Donen Costume Designer: Edith Head with Audrey Hepburn’s costumes designed by Hubert de Givenchy Time Period: 1950s Audrey Hepburn in 'Funny Face' Audrey Hepburn in 'Funny Face' The first red dress I want to mention is the Givenchy gown Audrey Hepburn (as Jo Stockton) wears for one of her photoshoots with Fred Astaire (as Dick Avery). It is one of Hepburn’s most famous costumes – after the Givenchy black dress in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) of course. By this point in the plot the two characters have spent a lot of time together and developed feelings for each other. The photoshoots work up to this red dress and the next location shoot has Hepburn wearing a wedding dress – just as they do in a fashion show. Stockton’s journey to the red dress has taken her far away from her original costume of black, which she returns to later before ending the film in another wedding dress. As the photoshoots develop, Stockton becomes more and more confident and comfortable with herself. The photo taken expresses her enthusiasm and inner strength. West Side Story (1961) Director: Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins Costume Designer: Irene Sharaff Time Period: 1950s Natalie Wood in 'West Side Story' Through my super brief research into red dresses worn in films I didn’t come across Natalie Wood’s dress at the end of West Side Story. I always think of the dress because it shows the extent of Maria’s character arc. When Maria and Tony (Richard Beymer) first meet she is wearing a white dress with a red belt at the waist. In Maria’s first scene with Anita (Rita Moreno) she begs for the dress to be lowered at the neckline or dyed red. The final scene with Maria, and Maria’s final moment with Tony, has her in a red dress. The dress itself is very simple and has the same general shape as that of the white dress. A lot of the costumes worn by the female Jets have more of a fitted 50s silhouette, whereas the Sharks have wider skirts. This is a generalisation but helps to quickly differentiate between the two gangs and this style is particularly relevant to Maria. The growing tensions between the two gangs has been leading up to the final moment and Maria has strength from her dress. The first shot of it can reference the love between her and Tony and even foreshadow Tony’s death (about a minute later) but the dress really gains importance following Tony’s death. Maria (unlike Juliet in ‘Romeo and Juliet’) survives and uses her survival and Tony’s death to bring about a truce between the gangs. Maria is no longer the same girl who wore a white dress to a dance. Pretty Woman (1990) Director: Garry Marshall Costume Designer: Marilyn Vance Time Period: 1990s Richard Gere and Julia Roberts in 'Pretty Woman' Richard Gere and Julia Roberts in 'Pretty Woman' I’m not a huge fan of Pretty Woman but it has another example of the red dress – in one of the most famous scenes from the film. The ‘hooker with a heart of gold’ storyline may not be highly original (a better version of that is Irma La Douce (1963) if you ask me, but I’m a sucker for Billy Wilder and Jack Lemmon) but you can’t argue with some great costumes in the film. The most recognized of Julia Robert’s costumes as Vivian range from her first costume when…soliciting, the keyhole dress with the thigh-high patent boots; the brown polka dot dress at the races, when she is propositioned by one of Edward’s (Richard Gere) friends; and the red dress worn at the opera. The changes that Vivian’s been making since meeting Edward culminate in this. A full-on ladylike appearance for an opera. Is there another more drastic change from Vivian’s introduction. She may never be dressed as elegantly as this again but she feels happy, confident and loved in that dress. Moulin Rouge! (2001) Director: Baz Luhrmann Costume Designers: Catherine Martin and Angus Strathie Time Period: 1900s Nicole Kidman in 'Moulin Rouge!' Nicole Kidman in 'Moulin Rouge!' Nicole Kidman in 'Moulin Rouge!' The red dress worn by Nicole Kidman (as Satine) is interesting as it makes its appearance early on but in two different scenes. The first time we see it, Satine is being severely laced into it ready to seduce the Duke as the “smouldering temptress” – a perfect use of a red dress. Red dresses are said to imply sexual desire and this is definitely the impression Satine wants to give off. Although, as a courtesan it isn’t really necessary. The next we see of the dress it is being flung off for her to “change” into her black corset, stockings and lace negligee. But before we lose the dress completely she dresses back into it to sing ‘One Day I’ll Fly Away’. After meeting Christian (Ewan McGregor) she wants to change her life. Her dream of being the next Sarah Bernhardt isn’t good enough anymore; she wants love. The dress has altered from being a dress for sexual allure to a dress symbolising love. This is what she wears when she and Christian kiss for the first time and begin their affair. Although Satine is seen wearing extravagant costumes throughout the film (who in the Moulin Rouge isn’t), she never again wears red. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) Director: Joe Johnston Costume Designer: Anna B. Sheppard Time Period: 1940s Hayley Atwell in 'Captain America: The First Avenger' Hayley Atwell in 'Captain America: The First Avenger' Hayley Atwell in 'Captain America: The First Avenger' So, yes, this is one of my favourite costumes anyway but it’s also a good example of the red dress importance. This is the only costume that Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) wears that isn’t for the military. We see her in varying suits for training, for meetings, for combat but never when she’s ‘off-duty’. This is it. This the dress she wears to walk through an English pub filled with soldiers to speak to Steve Rogers (Chris Evans). Confidence is needed for a woman to walk solo through those surroundings, let alone wearing a red dress. We know that Peggy is a strong woman from the fact that she is a high-ranking Agent and had responsibility for training some of the new soldiers but this appearance is a risk. She has risen through the ranks of a very masculine world and the danger of being seen as a mere sex object is ever present. Peggy doesn’t care. She has enough strength to pull it off and still be respected – this is about getting Rogers’ attention after all. She wants him to see her in a different light. But what’s wrong with that? It doesn’t make her any less of a powerful capable woman. So those are five important red dresses. I may have left out some of the more famous dresses and maybe I’ll look at those another time but for the moment I wanted to look at those specific five. None of the dresses are the same. They encapsulate different time periods, different styles, different characters, different costume designers, different films and different purposes. Perfectly constructed costume design. And perfect for the character arc of their wearer. S x


2 thoughts on “5 Important Red Dresses

  1. Pingback: The Costumes of ‘Agent Carter’ that Already Make it Great | Damn, That's Some Fine Tailoring

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