Fashion in Film: The Red Dress

So I was watching Requiem for a Dream for the first time back around Christmas, and was really fascinated by the use of the symbolic red dress, both for Sara Goldfarb and Marion. I set aside a frame from the film for a future post, and since then, have been slowly squirreling away red dresses to utilize. From the woman in the red dress in The Matrix to an entire wardrobe dedication in Bedazzled, red dresses have often functioned as symbolic articles of clothing. I’m super excited to share what I’ve found, and am really looking forward to touching on all the ways the color red is utilized to drive a certain message or mood home. Enjoy!

Defiance — The Dressmaker

I watched this movie in January and was absolutely over the moon for the costume design. Every single dress, glove, throw, and shoe is magnificent in its usage and presentation. Kate Winslet plays Myrtle, an estranged young woman from a small and secluded town in Australia. Her presence is unexpected and borders on unwelcome, and her every decision is an act of defiance against the traditional roles that the town still relies upon. She goes against the grain in just about every way, and her choice of outfits for a rugby  match is an exquisite example of that. In this context, the red dress symbolizes an outlier and even a bit of a rebel by highlighting the person who isn’t afraid to make a scene. (If you like fashion in film and haven’t watched The Dressmaker yet, you’re really missing out.)

the dressmaker
The Dressmaker (2015) || Costume Design: Marion Boyce & Margot Wilson

Power — Black Panther

First of all, the wardrobe for Black Panther was utterly impeccable. Ruth Carter paid so much attention to every detail, from historic accuracy to color themes for certain characters (i.e. Nakia always wearing green). The choice to garb the guards (especially Okoye) in all red was an excellent decision. As I’ve discussed before, the color red instantly alerts viewers to the importance of something happening on screen. It is a color that can elicit strong emotional responses, and even heighten heart rate and breathing. To garb a fierce warrior in red serves to emphasize that power and the strength that she has. I’m specifically choosing the red dress from the Busan casino scene for this post because it strikes me as so empowering that dolled up or not, Okoye was a force of nature. In this context, the red dress functions as a symbol of raw power and sheer skill.

Black Panther (2018) || Costume Design: Ruth Carter

Passion — The Rum Diary

In terms of wardrobe, The Rum Diary is one of my favorite films of all time. As much as I love decadence, there is so much to be said for the sleek and subtle costuming of this film. Everything Chenault wears is so strikingly simple that it’s impossible to pretend like the clothes aren’t extravagantly expensive. Crisp diamond earrings, neutral dresses that look as if they were made for her, and red lipstick that goes on so smoothly it can only be Chanel– these are the trademarks of Chenault’s wardrobe. There is a scene where Chenault cuts loose and dances with a stranger at a jazz club, and the chemistry between them is electric. You can feel the tension while watching the scene, and I owe a large portion of that to the power of the red dress. In this context, the red dress serves as a vehicle of heightened sensuality and chemistry.

rum diary
The Rum Diary (2011) || Costume Design: Colleen Atwood

Longing — Requiem for a Dream

This is the frame that sparked this blog post. Although the red dress is an important plot point much earlier on, this feverish scene takes place toward the end of the film, after viewers have been taken through the emotional and mental ringer. We have seen our characters fall into such darkness and instability, and there is something utterly heartbreaking about the immense longing that Harry conveys as he moves towards Marion at the end of the pier. Her simple red dress is rustling the breeze, she is centered in perfect symmetry, her surroundings a blank canvas that make her stand out all the more. Harry has a razor sharp focus, perhaps for the first time in the entire film, and all that matters in that moment is moving towards her. In this context, the red dress heightens the focus and longing of the moment, and functions as a focal point to pour all that yearning into.

requiem for a dream
Requiem for a Dream (2000) || Costume Design: Laura Jean Shannon

Seduction — Who Framed Roger Rabbit

Would any list about red dresses be complete without the iconic Jessica Rabbit number? Jessica Rabbit is a vastly underappreciated character, and is one who is often reduced to little more than a sex symbol. Her famous line “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way” hints at the depths that lie beneath her surface. I’ve seen so many great posts about her and her characterization (one of my favorites: a theory that she’s asexual despite being boxed into her sex symbol status) and her outfit is a popular choice among fan art and cosplayers alike. She’s devoted and loyal, and is willing to put herself in unsavory situations for the sake of her husband. She makes it clear that she puts value in things other than physical appearances, which hints at her desire for others to value those same things in her as well. She’s clever when it comes to solving mysteries, sensual within the scope of her job, and doesn’t put up with anyone’s BS (bear trap hidden in her cleavage, anyone?) I get the impression that she resigned herself to always being judged at face value, and for that reason played up the sexuality she was “drawn” with. In this context, the red dress functions as a symbol of sex appeal and sensuality, able to be utilized as a tool of the trade.

who framed roger rabbit
Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) || Costume Design: Joanna Johnston

Lust — The Great Gatsby

Baz Luhrmann is my favorite director for one big reason: decadence. From Strictly Ballroom to Australia, Luhrmann’s films make my heart sing– and The Great Gatsby is no exception. There’s hundreds of posts and articles about the wardrobe in this movie, largely thanks to Daisy’s costume design. And while those gauzy gowns are nothing short of ethereal, I’ll actually be focusing on someone else today: Isla Fisher as Myrtle Wilson. Because virtually everyone has read the book at some point, I don’t think Myrtle counts as a spoiler, but consider yourself warned. Daisy’s husband, Tom, is having an affair with the wife of his mechanic. She is a dewy and bright woman, and her husband is a worn down man who struggles to give her all that she wants. Tom comes along, all shiny cars and crisp suits and the rest is history. There’s this moment in Luhrmann’s movie where Tom and Nick are at the mechanic’s shop getting gas, and Myrtle floats down the stairs wearing a dress with red ruffling along the neckline, and there’s a flurry of stolen glances and touches. Later, the two are in an apartment together and Myrtle is wearing head to toe red. Tom can’t keep his hands off her. In this context, the red dress seems sensual and full of lust, acting as a magnet or a homing beacon to the object of Myrtle’s desire.

great gatsby
The Great Gatsby (2013) || Costume Design: Catherine Martin

Love — Pretty Woman

Like Jessica Rabbit’s ensemble, this gown is pretty much as iconic as it gets. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t seen the movie, or isn’t at least familiar with it, so it probably comes as no surprise that it is on this list. Vivian wears this stunning floor-length red opera gown at a point in the movie where it’s clear both of our leads are catching the feels. In this context, the red dress seems decadent and romantic, and catches the attention of the viewer to show them that something has changed.

pretty woman
Pretty Woman (1990) || Costume Design: Marilyn Vance

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