Shoes, Capes and Slick Sunglasses: The Symbolism of Clothes and Accessories in Hollywood Movies

Posted by on December, 09, 2015 | Inspiration and Advice

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Shoes, Capes and Slick Sunglasses: The Symbolism of Clothes and Accessories in Hollywood Movies

Image by Wendelin Jacober

The silver screen has brought us pleasures and treasures in the form of childhood memories, sentimental moments and a whole flurry of emotions!

Human beings are built to engage with one another’s appearances. It’s no different on screen, which is why it makes sense that wardrobe is an integral part of Hollywood’s glossy image. The right adornments can help to form entire dimensions of subtext and character development; conveying references to their mood, setting or circumstance.

Here are just a few occasions where you may have noticed that the clothes do indeed maketh the leading man.

The Breakfast Club (1985)

Part of the reason the wardrobe choices are so effective in this 80s high school flick could be down to the fact that the director himself took the cast shopping and chose the outfits.

In a move unheard of by modern day standards, John Hughes took the cast into Ralph Lauren, and picked out almost the entire wardrobe in one fell swoop.

It makes sense that since the characters were so clearly defined as high school stereotypes, their outfits follow suit. In particular, Claire, in her girlish pink ensemble, plays every inch the antithesis to John’s brash denim-and-plaid bad boy.

As the token Jock, Andrew is dressed head to toe in sports regalia, whilst the shy and retiring intellectual and reclusive characters remain respectfully sombre in terms of the colour and shape of their clothing.

Claire’s gesture of pressing her diamond earrings into John’s hand as the film moves towards its conclusion is symbolic of the fact that in eight hours of detention, boundaries within the group have broken down. The characters have come to recognise one another as individuals in their own right, rather than as representative stereotypes of their respective cliques.

Inception (2010)

If you’ve seen Inception, you’ll know that costume designer Jeffrey Kurland was faced with an unenviable task. On one hand, he had to create a relatively casual wardrobe to fit what to all intents and purposes is an unremarkable and entirely recognisable setting. On the other, he also needed to reflect the subtleties in the plot which relate to science fiction.

In light of this, the costumes had to mirror the realism of our contemporary world at the same time as distinguishing the characters from their alternate realities. It is also important that their appearance reminds the audience that despite their surroundings, the film’s characters are all ultimately part of the same reality we are. 

And that’s before we get into the intricacies of Cobb’s wedding ring, and how it becomes an integral part of the film’s entire plot.

Tron (2010)

The costume design in this sci-fi remake is undoubtedly one of the reasons why the picture is so visually captivating. The characters interact with their surroundings so fluidly, that it makes everything appear much slicker when their clothing seems to become a reflection of their own surroundings.

Their outfits also afford a great opportunity for the audience to interact with the subtleties of the plot on an additional level. At times the colours of the costumes change as a kind of visual shorthand to establish factions within the black and white ‘grid’.

During one particularly vital turning point, one of the principal characters changes their allegiance to white from red – visually signifying a change not only in the character’s own perception and purpose, but also the storyline. 

The Matrix (1999)

In the Matrix, members of the Resistance and the Agents wear glasses a lot. Sunglasses hide the main characters eyes, frame key scenes in very particular ways, and are almost always used symbolically.

For instance, in the film’s most famous scene, when Morpheus gives Neo the choice between taking the blue pill or the red pill, the blue pill is reflected in one lens of his sunglasses, the red pill in the other. This is deigned to be symbolic of the choice that Neo must take, and the significant effect taking either pill will have on shaping his destiny within Matrix mythology.

Do you have any firm film wardrobe favourites? Comment below!

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