The 10 Most Iconic Dresses in Cinema

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One of cinema’s most enduring images, a voluptuous Anita Ekberg wades in Rome’s Trevi Fountain wearing a sexy black dress in Federico Fellini’s La dolce vita. The screen siren died this week, leaving behind a fashion legacy as one of international cinema’s sex symbols. “Her role in Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita — where she played a movie star — shot her to stardom. The movie was a colossal success and came to define the wild and carefree days of the early 1960s,” writes the L.A. Times. In honor of the style icon’s fashion-savvy roles, we’re looking back at some of cinema’s most iconic dresses ever captured on film. Add your favorites, below.

Jean Harlow, Dinner at Eight

A satin white gown cut on the bias and bleached white hair transformed Jean Harlow into the lonely and spoiled Kitty Packard in 1933’s Dinner at Eight. The dress proved so popular, imitators were simply called “Jean Harlow dresses.” Harlow was sewn into the fitted gown and required a leaning board to rest between takes. Sitting was impossible.

Rita Hayworth, Gilda

Jessica Rabbit stole her look from Rita Hayworth’s strapless nightclub number in Gilda. Designer Jean Louis played a key role in shaping the starlet’s fashionable image from screen to screen. John Singer Sargent’s painting of socialite Madame Pierre Gautreau inspired the design of Hayworth’s black satin sheath gown with opera-length gloves. In Gilda’s most memorable scene, a vampy Hayworth sings “Put the Blame on Mame” while stripping off her gloves and slinking about the crowd.

Vivian Leigh, Gone with the Wind

It’s hard to choose a favorite dress between the stunning burgundy velvet number that Vivian Leigh wears in Gone with the Wind and the green curtain dress, but we went with the drapes. The Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin explains what makes the emerald beauty so special:

The Curtain Dress, a symbol of Scarlett’s will to survive, was worn in three scenes: the jail scene in which Scarlett asks Rhett for financial assistance, the scene in which Scarlett walks through the Atlanta streets with Mammy, and the scene in which Scarlett meets Frank Kennedy.

The color of the dress presented [costumer designer Walter] Plunkett with several challenges. It had to suit the color of Vivien Leigh’s eyes, and it had to conform to Technicolor specifications. Furthermore, the dress had to look as though it were made from the draperies at Tara. It is believed that Plunkett deliberately treated or exposed the fabric to sunlight to achieve a faded appearance. However, the fading is not apparent onscreen through the vibrant green of the Technicolor process, and the fading and discoloration present on the fabric today is likely not what Plunkett may have attempted in 1939.

Also known as the Drapery Dress and the Portieres dress, the curtain dress is comprised of two separate garments. The green velvet skirt parts in the front to reveal a chartreuse velvet underskirt and is attached to a sleeveless cotton under bodice. The separate green velvet bodice has long fitted sleeves and a capelet on the left shoulder. The final piece in the ensemble is the distinctive drapery cord belt with two tassels at each end.

Marilyn Monroe, The Seven Year Itch

The iconic film dress to end all dresses was featured in Billy Wilder’s 1955 film The Seven Year Itch, designed by William Travilla for the curvaceous Marilyn Monroe. The image of Marilyn perched over a subway grate in an ivory halter cocktail dress with her skirt billowing around her is one of cinema’s defining moments. Wilder originally shot the scene on Lexington Avenue at 52nd in Manhattan while hundreds of onlookers cheered the actress on. That noisy footage never made its screen debut, but 40 takes later on the 20th Century Fox film lot, the magical moment was preserved for the screen.

Elizabeth Taylor, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

A variation on the Marilyn dress, Elizabeth Taylor’s white chiffon cocktail dress worn in Cat on a Hit Tin Roof was so loved by the actress, she had a copy made for herself to wear when filming was over. The cinched waist and plunging neckline was the perfect attention-getter for a determined Maggie the Cat.

Judy Garland, The Wizard of Oz

The famous gingham dress from Technicolor wonder The Wizard of Oz is the most innocent of our dresses and went through several changes before creators settled on the screen-worthy version. See pictures of the variants over here.

Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s

The greatest little black dress of all time, Audrey Hepburn looked like royalty in an Italian satin Givenchy gown, topped off with a tiara. Featured in the opening scene of 1961’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the dress had to be altered by famed costume designer Edith Head since it showed too much leg for producers.

Divine, Pink Flamingos

“All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl,” said Godard — or in the case of John Waters’ Pink Flamingos, a fabulous drag queen holding a gun. Sky-high eyebrows and a red fishtail dress made movie history in this scene from Waters’ 1972 film.

Michelle Pfeiffer, Scarface

An update on the classic gangster moll, Michelle Pfeiffer’s spaghetti-strap cami dresses in Scarface left little to the imagination. Clothes on Film has a great essay on the movie’s fashion ethos: dress like the world is yours.

Sharon Stone, Basic Instinct

Sharon Stone played a pervy game of peekaboo during the interrogation scene in Basic Instinct, wearing an amazing white dress that oozed sex appeal and was a twist on the power suit. “I thought the costumes and the look of the film were extremely classic” costumer designer Ellen Mirojnick told Clothes on Film. “The contemporary feel of the film is even more contemporary today. It is a timeless piece.”