When you think about your favorite iconic films, chances are you think about the characters that made them memorable. While actors and actresses deserve a lot of the credit for making performances stand out, they’re only one piece of the puzzle.

Imagine Black Panther without the Wakanda gear, or pretty much any Wes Anderson film without quirky costumes and wardrobes. The plots would still be the same, but the films would be completely different. Actors might even have a more difficult time getting into the role if they aren’t wearing the right things

After all, it’d be pretty hard to feel like Iron Man without the suit, right?

So, while costume design can often get overlooked by moviegoers, it’s important to recognize how much it can impact the look, feel, and even the story of a film. Let’s take a closer look at that concept and focus on a few movies that went above and beyond with costume design.

First Impressions

When a character first shows up on the screen, viewers have to believe that they have been living a life before that first appearance. What they’re wearing and how they look is one of the best ways to portray that. Just by looking at a character, you should be able to get a first impression of them. Their costume should immediately portray things like:

  • Their background/history
  • Their current lifestyle
  • Status
  • Whether they are good/evil

How a character looks immediately gives away details of their personality. Good costume design also makes it easier for an audience to forget they’re watching an actor and a performance. That becomes extremely important when you have heavy-hitters on screen. It would be hard to see Meryl Streep as anything but Meryl Streep without the right wardrobe for each film.

The Colors Behind the Characters

Costume designers make conscious choices with each character. Many utilize concepts like color psychology to help characters stand out in certain ways or blend in when necessary. Think the iconic red dress in Pretty Woman wasn’t a conscious choice? Red is often associated with passion and love. In that moment of the film, it’s used to portray the love that Vivian and Edward are starting to feel for each other, but also the love that Vivian feels for herself – perhaps for the first time.

What about the bright yellow jumpsuit Uma Thurman wears in Kill Bill? Not only does it look cool, but it means something. While yellow is often associated with bright, cheery feelings, it can also be linked to single-mindedness. In this case, Thurman’s character becomes obsessed with “killing Bill”. It’s no coincidence that as the film goes on, the clean yellow jumpsuit becomes more stained with blood.

Some costume color choices aren’t as subtle. Characters that are often portrayed as evil or sinister usually wear black, while heroes often wear brighter, more vibrant shades.

Costume and lighting also go hand-in-hand when it comes to color psychology. Look at the apocalyptic setting of Mad Max Fury Road. Some would argue that the wardrobe absolutely made that film what it was. While costumes were incredibly important, the use of color and lighting set the entire tone for the film. Take away the mood lighting and color grading, and those characters would look more like cosplayers. Simply put? Color makes a huge difference in how we see our favorite people on screen.

Design Detail

Speaking of Pretty Woman, the red dress isn’t the only thing that comes to mind in that iconic scene. The beautiful diamond necklace feels like its own character.

While we’re on the subject of diamonds, what about the ‘heart of the ocean’ from Titanic? Or, maybe the multi-million dollar jewelry Sandra Bullock’s gang was trying to steal in Ocean’s 8?

Jewelry might seem like a small piece of custom design, but it can make a big difference in a film – even becoming a focal point. Not only can jewelry and accessories help to improve plot points, but they can tell a lot about a character with a single glance, including things like:

  • How powerful they are
  • Whether they’re greedy or giving
  • Their financial status
  • Confidence levels

Some accessories can even give you a background into a character’s lifestyle. For example, if they’re wearing activewear jewelry like a waterproof watch, you can infer that they like to work out, or they’re used to seeing a lot of action. We’re willing to bet James Bond probably invests in waterproofing his belongings.

As you can see, everything from materials to color to accessories can make a difference in telling a character’s story. There’s a reason why there is an Academy Award category for “Best Costume Design”. The wardrobe department is just as crucial in bringing a character to life as a director, screenwriter, or actor. The next time you watch a new movie or an old favorite, pay more attention to the way a character’s wardrobe represents who they are, and how different the movie would be without the right costumes.