Clothes Make Characters: The 10 Best Fashion Looks from The Movies of 2015

By  · Published on December 23rd, 2015

Best of 2015: Movie Fashion

It’s been a great year in film for fashion enthusiasts. With fashion-focused documentaries like Frédéric’s Tscheng’s Dior & I, late Albert Maysles’ Iris, Sacha Jenkins’ Fresh Dressed and Bertrand Bonello’s unconventional biopic feature Saint Laurent, 2015 gifted us plenty of artful beauty to be in awe of. But the real bonus was what was hidden beneath these films’ gorgeous and dazzling surfaces: stories of artists, rebels and radicals that disrupted the status quo by producing and/or living in clothes that either expressed personal identity or challenged cultural norms at large. Cinematically speaking, this was a year to recognize fashion’s subjective role in society and that it needn’t just be about the devils who wear Prada.

But there is, as per usual, a lot more to consider in costume design; not only with this crop of fashion-focused films, but also with others outside of the fashion world that incisively used clothing items –in period and contemporary stories- as key parts of the narrative and character development. Indeed, costume design is/can be as crucial for a film’s overall attributes as its musical score or visual effects. I have read at least two reviews of Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight that wisely mentioned the accuracy and the function of the reporters’ khaki trousers; a seemingly insignificant detail that was noticed and welcome by those who lead a similar life to the characters’ in the film.

In the below list, I picked my personal most memorable fashion and costume moments and/or clothing items of 2015 and what I think they mean for their respective films and characters. I tried to reach for reasons beyond just beauty and personal taste, but I admit those played a significant role too. I regret I haven’t been able to check out Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq yet (I suspect my list would have gone up to 11 if I had.) And I considered/decided against many other films and moments –including Clouds of Sils Maria, Crimson Peak, Maps to the Stars and Youth– to keep the below as focused as possible. I know it is mostly lacking men’s fashion/costumes, so feel free to add your comments below with your personal picks, for men or women.

Without further ado:

10. Duff

Costume Designer: Eric Daman

Memorable Fashion: Bianca’s homemade prom dress.

After finding out she is deemed as the DUFF (designated ugly fat friend) of her two good-looking best friends, Bianca teams up with one of the school’s most popular guys to turn the tables on her tormentors. But her self-discovery doesn’t happen in a chic, form-fitting, black sweater dress that she excitedly puts on for a doomed date. She learns to accept and love herself exactly the way she is, and lets her freak flag fly in a custom-made dress with a halter top and mini ballerina-esque skirt made by her loving girlfriends, using nothing but her favorite clothing items. This sweet yet clear-eyed film champions an anti-bullying message by encouraging kids to grow comfortable in their own skin. And Bianca’s final prom look –a cinematic Project Runway moment- serves as the perfect middle finger to all the clique-driven, unified norms.

9. Focus

Costume Designer: Dayna Pink

Memorable Fashion: Jess’ red dress in Buenos Aires.

One can’t dispute any of the ultra sophisticated costumes Will Smith and Margo Robbie put on in Focus as two resourceful con artists. But if I had to pick a favorite, I’d go with the red dress Robbie wears as she descends a staircase in one of the early Buenos Aires scenes. The dress turns her character’s reappearance with a new identity into an event and loudly announces Jess (Robbie) as a femme fatale in a hot instant. With its sharp, geometric lines around the bust and shoulders (that Robbie’s hairdo also symmetrically imitates,) the red sheath not only sizzles the screen but also loudly pronounces the arrival of a renewed person ready to twist the plot as well as her old flame’s arm.

8. Dope

Costume Designer: Patrik Milani

Memorable Fashion: Malcolm’s entire wardrobe.

It’s tough to single out a specific moment in Dope that makes a lone fashion statement. The entire film is founded on a loving nostalgia of the 90s that not only manifests itself visually and through its electrifying soundtrack, but also in the clothes of its lead character Malcolm (and even of his sidekicks Diggy and Jib.) There are plenty of high-waist pants, plaid shirts and flat tops to go around, complete with Nike Airs and Jordans. In one interview, costume designer Milani said some of the vintage items were so tough to source that he found himself bidding on eBay. That said, Malcolm’s dope look might not be completely out of reach.

7. Far From the Madding Crowd

Costume Designer: Janet Patterson

Memorable Fashion: Bathsheba Everdeen’s peplum leather jacket.

Wearing the jacket in the picture in the very first scene of the film, the Victorian farmer Bathsheba Everdeen (Carey Mulligan) introduces herself as an independent woman right at the start, knowing she is perhaps a bit too independent for her own era in 1870s England. Throughout Far From the Madding Crowd, Mulligan’s costumes –ranging from simple to glamorous- carry a hint of practical sensibility. In other words, she is rarely (if ever) over the top feminine, clearly going against the norms of the time. To me, no clothing item defines her free spirit as much as this peplum leather jacket, which she puts back on in the end while closing her story’s circle. It looks to be a commanding clothing item then. But more amazingly, it would be a commanding item even today.

6. Brooklyn

Costume Designer: Odile Dicks-Mireaux

Memorable Fashion: Eilis’ blue dress and sunglasses combo in Ireland.

As a 1950s Irish immigrant in New York, Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) has a tough time adjusting to her new home, friends and work routine. It is when she meets a love interest that her attachment to Brooklyn deepens and her clothes (along with her hair and make up) receive a noticeable update. There are many garments I could have picked from Brooklyn –such as the green bathing suit she wears in Coney Island- but this blue dress paired with her stylish sunglasses stands out for me. In this scene, she is back in Ireland, and stepping into her home after running errands and shopping. While she slowly seems to be settling back into the routine of being at home, her glamorous dress hints a different story to the audience. Eilis doesn’t live here anymore.

5. The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Costume Designer: Joanna Johnston

Memorable Fashion: Everything, but mostly Victoria’s black & white dress.

This otherwise forgettable, somewhat fun espionage film will forever be ingrained in my brain thanks to Joanna Johnston’s magnificent Mod costumes. Every ensemble –worn by both male and female cast members- is borderline gorgeous, including the colorful mini dresses, big/wide-brimmed hats and (reportedly) Marni earrings Alicia Vikander rocks plenty of as 60s staples. In an interview with Vogue, Johnston says she was inspired by a range of sources, including the late-60s issues of the magazine as well as certain films of the era. It is very hard to narrow it down to one look only, but a true scene-stealer is the exquisite black and white column gown the villain Victoria (Elizabeth Debicki) wears in this fiendishly seductive scene. Talk about being dressed to kill- not entirely unfitting for a character whose nuclear plans could potentially bring the world to its end.

4. Carol

Costume Designer: Sandy Powell

Memorable Fashion: Therese’s outfit in the key restaurant scene.

One can easily pick any of Carol’s (Cate Blanchett) luxurious garments to speak for the style of the film (ingeniously brought to life by Sandy Powell) and that wouldn’t miss the mark by any means. But I find Therese’s wardrobe –which signifies a multi-faceted character journey- a lot more interesting as a whole. Just like Brooklyn’s Eilis, Carol’s Therese (Rooney Mara) reflects her visceral transformation on to her clothes and style. A young, inexperienced shop girl mesmerized by an older woman at first, Therese’s initial wardrobe is bare and plain in comparison to the later moments of their relationship. As a poised and emotionally grown woman who holds more cards than she realizes, Therese’s outfit in this crucial restaurant scene (re-shown with context in the end) is quietly confident, elegant and effortless. It also carries subtle traces of personality, with a keyhole blouse peeking underneath the structured jacket.

3. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

Costume Designer: Joanna Johnston

Memorable Fashion: Ilsa Faust’s Opera Dress.

Redefining, or rather, reaffirming what a female action hero should be like (hint: equal to her male counterpart as opposed to his vulnerable romantic interest,) Rogue Nation’s Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) no doubt became one of the most memorable characters of this year’s blockbusters. With killer moves and equally killer heels she was sensible enough to remove pre-action (twice, actually) Ilsa Faust truly gave Ethan Hunt a run for his money in the latest installment of the Mission: Impossible franchise. Her wardrobe –full of classic staples like lean black trousers, silk shirts, a trench and numerous stilettos- was thoroughly impeccable for sure; but the breathtaking yellow gown with black/navy accents she wore in the fantastic opera sequence was the real winner. The beautiful one-shoulder structure and a glamorously, non-restrictively flowing, high-slit skirt was very much a crucial part of the action, allowing her to move freely and assertively. In one interview, Oscar nominated costume designer Johnston said they made various versions of the same dress with small tweaks to accommodate different action needs of the sequence. But ultimately, the idea and the basic structure of the dress remained the same.

2. Cinderella

Costume Designer: Sandy Powell

Memorable Fashion: Lady Tremaine’s Ball Gown.

That’s right, I didn’t pick Cinderella’s dreamy ball gown (although that is undoubtedly gorgeous too.) In fact, it is a nearly unfeasible task to pick just one outfit as the standout of this end-to-end gorgeous production. I just knew it had to be one of the impossibly well-fitted ensembles Cate Blanchett’s Lady Tremaine wears throughout. Exquisitely dressed by Sandy Powell once again (in addition to Carol,) Blanchett adds a touch of old Hollywood glamour to the mannerisms of Lady Tremaine, instantly transforming her into a fairytale femme fatale in enticingly sculpted, jewel-toned costumes that play the part. The color palette is heavy on bright greens which complements her reddish hair in the film, hiding and at times, accentuating her character’s dark tendencies stemming from a troubled past. I can see much debate happening among fashion and costume enthusiasts over: “which film does Powell deliver her best work with this year; Carol or Cinderella?” In my book, there isn’t even a contest. The craftsmanship of this one wins by a long mile.

1. Saint Laurent

Costume Designer: Anaïs Romand

Memorable Fashion: The suit Madame Duzer wears during her fitting.

You might consider placing a fashion biopic at the top of this list as cheating. But the reason for the placement isn’t only the parade of splendid Yves Saint Laurent collections, staggeringly re-created by costume designer Anaïs Romand. The moment in the still –while Saint Laurent (Gaspard Ulliel) and his muse Loulou de La Falaise (Lea Seydoux) fit and style an initially reluctant woman- earns my top spot for two specific reasons. First is obvious; this look pretty much captures the essence of Yves Saint Laurent who put the modern woman in menswear-inspired clothing with unapologetic coolness and unexpected glamour. But the second is how the duo transforms the look, and consequently, the character in it, reaffirming my personal beliefs around the timelessness of style vs. the contrasting transiency of fashion. At first, Madame Duzer (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) seems unsure with the way she looks and feels. She says she liked the suit when she first saw it, but on her, it’s a different story. Perhaps a bit masculine, she likely worries. Then she is advised to open up her neck slightly, adjust the jacket collar a tad and put her hands in her pockets after she is accessorized with a statement-making necklace and a metal belt. This still is right before she lets her hair down and starts walking with authority and confidence, living “it’s style, not fashion” right then and there; words that are muttered to her mere moments ago. Imagine seeing her walking down the street or down your office hallway. Go ahead, you dare mess with this woman.

Click here for more of our Best of 2015 recap.

Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.