The Best Costume Dramas on Film

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Barbed wit, saucy humor, mindf*ckery galore, and ravishing costuming and production design — we can only be talking about one film: Dangerous Liaisons . James Acheson’s elegantly crafted ensembles won the Best Costume Oscar and were a perfect complement to the film’s seductive games and drawing-room antics.

The 1988 movie hits Blu-ray today, and considering everyone’s revived obsession with all things lavishly costumed — Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, and Downton Abbey to name a few — the timing couldn’t be more perfect. We wanted to focus our lens on the movie world, and highlight other dramas that wrap us up in their elaborate attire and swirling emotions. Head past the break to check out our picks for some of the best costume dramas on film, and share yours below.

Amadeus

Miloš Forman’s anarchic tale of obsession and vengeance, Amadeus, revolves around Viennese court composer Antonio Salieri and his young rival, Mozart. Theodor Pištěk’s costume design won an Oscar, playing to Forman’s Hollywood spectacle meets 18th century sublime aesthetic. The exaggerated costume style suited Tom Hulce’s version of the music maestro, whose childlike demeanor and playful rebellion feels more punk — thanks to Pištěk’s addition of pink hair powder and wildly teased locks — than classical genius. Salieri’s sinister masked costume is a visually dynamic contrast to Mozart’s whimsy.

Cleopatra

It’s impossible to tear your eyes away from Elizabeth Taylor as Egyptian queen Cleopata in the 1963 historical epic. The actress had a record-setting 65 costume changes in the film, which won the Oscar for best design that year. Although it’s clear that Taylor’s cinched waist, geometric fringe, and mod eyeliner played more to the styles of the ’60s than historical accuracy (designer Renié even used several contemporary dresses in place of actual period costume, as seen above), her outfits successfully convey a magnetic sexuality and power interpreted through a modern lens. The eye-popping Technicolor helps, too.

Gone with the Wind

No film defines melodrama more than a willful and vain Scarlett O’Hara in a hoop skirt and a coolly challenging Rhett Butler in the American south during the Civil War. Walter Plunkett designed the costumes for the film (at the time one of Hollywood’s most expensive undertakings), which would have won the Oscar in 1939 had such a category existed back then. The lavish production’s expressionistic style was a complement to the transformation Scarlett undergoes, mirroring the changes happening in the South.

The Artist

The Artist is a nearly silent film shot entirely in black and white, but its colorful depiction of old Hollywood doesn’t require any chroma to captivate. Costume Designer Mark Bridges — whose work was a knockout in films like There Will Be Blood — brings the drama of its screen stars to the forefront with his expert recreation of cinema’s bygone era.

Orlando

Sally Potters adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s novel spans four centuries and many breathtaking costume changes — no small feat for a designer. The film’s visual depth and bountiful wit is key in relinquishing the logic of a gender-bending, ageless figure who lives for 400 years.

Curse of the Golden Flower

Yimou Zhang’s Chinese historical drama Curse of the Golden Flower is a sumptuous production that for many audiences felt too overdone, stifling, or melodramatic. Whatever your view, the extravagant imagery and costume design suited Zhang’s depiction of the intense relationships amongst the royal family members. The Tang Dynasty epic’s lavishly rich costumes also mirror the cool, ceremonial airs of its players throughout.

Dracula

Francis Ford Coppola has said that he wanted the costumes in his version of Dracula to be the jewel of the set design — and indeed they are. Designer Eiko Ishioka was inspired by Kabuki theater, the shape of actual red blood cells, Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss, and various other surreal and symbolic creations for her gorgeous costumes. The amalgamation fits well with the high drama tale and Dracula’s endlessly shifting visual appearance as a blood-thirsty warrior, to a beast, a wolf, a handsome prince, and so on.

Gangs of New York

Gangs of New York isn’t on the same level as Scorsese’s Taxi Driver or Raging Bull, but with a mesmerizing psychopath in Daniel Day Lewis’ Bill “The Butcher,” several violent showdowns that rival Braveheart in terms of bloodshed, and garish, sensational costumes, the movie still manages to hold its own. Production designer Dante Ferretti focused on the absence of color when designing the look of the film, taking into account the way the upper and lower classes dressed:

“Their world is [depicted in] red, ochre and yellow, all blended together in a very vulgar way. They dress very colorfully but in very bad taste. The upper classes in The Age of Innocence were more elegant, whereas these people are more nouveau riche. The colors are a little stronger, and everything is a bit overdressed. But for the poor, life is very monochromatic, like tintypes. I didn’t use any color in their world except for some in their costumes — no color, no hope.”

Marie Antoinette

A pop-impressionist portrait of France’s ill-fated teenage queen, Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette uses an operatic and eccentric style palette to help build the film’s characters through its costumes. The overall approach is a contemporary take on the whimsical Austrian Archduchess, referencing the richness of the time period and sensitively stylizing the beauty and tragedy of womanhood.

La belle et la bête (Beauty and the Beast)

Jean Cocteau’s gorgeous French fairy tale La belle et la bête is a never-ending visual and emotional tableaux of romantic and fantastical wonder. Elegantly draped and supple, the work of costume designers Marcel Escoffier and Antonio Castillo (with help from Pierre Cardin) and most famously, the attractive designs of Christian Bérard (whose touches also extended to the décor) enhance the film’s mythical beauty and dreamlike wonder.