With the second season of Outlander less than two weeks away, the Starz hit continues to release tantalizing bits of episode clips and publicity stills of its characters clad in the most sumptuous of 18th century Parisian wardrobes. Thanks to costume designer Terry Dresbach and her team, the stylishly cutthroat world of courtly and aristocratic politics as seen in Diana Gabaldon’s novel Dragonfly in Amber will come to vibrantly colorful life beginning on April 9th.
One of the most anticipated costumes, which has been revealed from the upcoming season of Outlander and is currently on display at Saks Fifth Avenue's New York store until March 11, is the famous red dress (Sang-du-Christ red, to be specific) which Claire Fraser wears in Chapter 9 of Dragonfly. She and Jamie are preparing to attend a ball at Versailles by invitation of King Louis XV, and the Frasers need to be noticed among the courtly power set. The brilliancy of color combined with the figure-flattering cut and liberal display of décolletage is enough to set men’s hearts aflutter, to the consternation of her protective husband.
It isn’t difficult to recall memorable scenes in film where a character wears red to make a statement. I chose seven examples that connected either to the scene at Versailles or Claire herself in some way, such as through a character's power over her audience, a reference to sexual politics or gender structures, or the fight for one's voice to be heard. Whether it be a debutante’s ball gown, a haute-couture delight gliding towards a photographer’s lens, or a knockout body-hugger perfect for seduction atop a grand piano, these are some of my favorites:
Costume Designer: Ruth Morley (The Miracle Worker, Annie Hall, Kramer vs. Kramer, Ghost)
One of my favorite films across genres, it is difficult to pigeonhole as a straight comedy, romance, or drama. Neither is Dorothy Michaels as broadly drawn as to fit into any preconception of what a woman of her age, occupation, and background should look or act like. Played brilliantly by Dustin Hoffman, Michael Dorsey is a struggling New York actor who dresses in drag to earn a plum role on a “daytime drama” (don’t call it a soap!), only to realize how complicated life really is for the opposite sex in life and love. The process of creating Dorothy is at first superficial: makeup, hair, nails, and outfits. As Dorothy the character begins to emerge from Dorothy the caricature, however, her appearance becomes more intricate as Michael tries to balance natural and professional, both on the show and in Dorothy’s personal life. For example, the scene in which Dorothy scrambles to find an outfit for a last-minute dinner at coworker/crush Julie’s apartment is an absolute hoot: horizontal stripes cut across the bust! White is too dressy! She’s SEEN me in all of these!
The costumes are fantastic revelations of each character’s style and personality, and if this were a Tootsie-specific article I could go on and on (note to self: write article solely about the costumes on this film after Outlander premieres), but one of the most iconic images from the film is when Dorothy’s fame from the show has catapulted her as a bright new star in daytime programming and among her female fans, who regard her as an assertive yet endearing feminist voice amidst all the maudlin melodramas her show churns out. Set to the cheeky titular pop tune sung by Stephen Bishop, Dorothy poses for several photo sessions - including one with Andy Warhol - culminating in a shoot for New York magazine where she wears a long gown, candy apple red, high-necked and long-sleeved but form-fitting and absolutely covered with glittering sequins. With the cameras rolling, Dorothy marches in place and smiles widely at the camera, one hand on her hip and the other giving a patriotic salute. This is the shot that adorns the cover behind the title “The Real Dorothy Michaels Story.” Every time I watch that scene, I want to read her profile.
Gone With the Wind (1939)
Costume Designer: Walter Plunkett (An American in Paris, Singing in the Rain, How the West Was Won)
So, there’s this Georgia peach named Scarlett, and she is a pistol among scrappy, entitled period heroines. Born and raised to act coquettish but never anyone’s fool (except in love), Scarlett is as salt of the earth as she is a privileged Southern belle, and as Rhett Butler tells her when they first met, she’s no lady. That description belongs to her long-suffering sister-in-law, Melanie Wilkes. Scarlett is all woman: demanding propriety and chivalry even when she skirts around the rules and lusts furiously for the dashing Butler, though she loves Melanie’s husband, Ashley. All of Walter Plunkett’s designs are legendary, from the voluminous white dress Scarlett wears to a barbecue to the emerald-green velvet riding gown she fashions from the drawing-room curtains, but there is one dress that stands out as drawing the curtain from Scarlett’s carefully crafted air of Southern charm: the deep burgundy, fitted ball gown Rhett makes her wear to Ashley’s birthday party after word gets around town that Scarlett and Ashley were canoodling at the mill.
Rather befitting a New Orleans showgirl than proper society wife, the silk velvet gown is corseted, showing off her tiny waist, with dyed ostrich feathers adorning each shoulder and wrapping around the back towards the floor. The beaded sweetheart neckline displays enough décolletage to make even Scarlett blush, but Rhett insists she wear it as an act of contrition to Melanie and one of humiliation to her family for acting in such a disreputable way, though she insists it was blown out of proportion. When she arrives at the party, not only does the dress look magnificent against her alabaster skin and dark hair, but amidst the more demure society matrons, she might have well had a giant “A” across her chest. Never to be outshone or belittled, as well as retaining one of the most iconic Resting Bitch Faces (RBFs) in all of cinema, Scarlett’s face only shows embarrassment while Rhett escorts her to the door and leaves her to the wolves. Once that door opens and the crowd visibly gasps, that RBF goes ice-cold and as Melanie approaches, the only thing that moves is one eyebrow into a steely arch, her dress becoming as much armor as shaming robe.
The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989)
Costume Designer: Lisa Jensen (Mannequin, Grumpy Old Men, In the Valley of Elah)
It only took one scene. A piano, a song, and that dress. Michelle Pfeiffer was no lightweight in the 1980s and had Scarface, Ladyhawke, The Witches of Eastwick, and Dangerous Liaisons under her belt. As Susie Diamond, however, Pfeiffer used the pretty face and flawless figure to portray someone submerged in the disarray of poor life choices and potential self-destruction as an escort, but who is trying hard to reach her dream of being a singer. As the Jack and Frank Baker, played by real-life brothers Jeff and Beau Bridges, try to liven up their dueling-piano lounge act, they decide to hire a singer. What trouble could that cause? Especially if she is a bit mussed, a bit mouthy, and gorgeous.
Naturally, Diamond reinvigorates the brothers’ act and business starts booming again, while the burgeoning chemistry between the singer and Jack, as well as Jack’s disillusionment between the music he is playing and the jazz he longs to play, threatens to shake apart the entire thing. As the rule of threes often goes in film, the one night Frank has to attend to a family emergency, Susie and Jack are left alone to perform at a posh resort on New Year’s Eve. In the instantly iconic scene that has since been recreated in several movies, Diamond stands atop a grand piano and coos out the lyrics to “Makin’ Whoopee” as the camera does a languid, silky pan from her red heels all the way up to her blonde bob. As Jack plays off Susie’s body language and Susie holds him and the audience in the palm of her hand, the real talent and energy underneath his jaded, defeatist demeanor begins to emerge.
Nine to Five (1980)
Costume Designer: Ann Roth (The World According to Garp, Working Girl, The English Patient, The Birdcage, Closer)
OK, this example is not a dress. I’m fudging my own rules, like these characters did! The three coworkers at Consolidated - Violet Newstead, Judy Bernly, and Doralee Rhodes - all have very specific looks pertaining to their positions at the company and their personalities. Violet (Lily Tomlin) is definitely the Alpha female of the three, though all become more empowered as the film, and situation with their boss, progresses. In her first scene, she is wearing bright red lipstick and rotates business blazers and leisure jackets depending on with whom she will be interacting. Her red lips are a direct statement against the situation she finds herself in: a veteran at the company, she has been repeatedly passed over for promotions in favor of people she trains, and her ideas are either treated lightly by her boss, Franklin Hart (Dabney Coleman) or stolen by him outright. By drawing attention to her mouth, people can pay attention to what she has to say, even as her methods to be heard become more ingenious.
As misunderstandings, including an assumed poisoning of Hart and desperate dash to dispose of his body (it turned out to be a random stiff from the hospital, as the boss went home perfectly fine), push Violet and her friends to kidnap and hold him prisoner in his own house until they can collect evidence against him for fraud and turn the company around at the same time, red extends to more pieces of her wardrobe, including vests and skirts. By the film’s final sequence, where the Chairman of Consolidated comes to meet the “man” who increased both productivity and morale, Violet is dressed totally in red, the fruits of her ideas and labors finally recognized.
Pretty Woman (1990)
Costume Designer: Marilyn Vance (Romancing the Stone, Pretty in Pink, Die Hard)
At 5’8” barefoot, Julia Roberts cuts a striking figure no matter what she wears. As Vivian Ward, a prostitute working Hollywood Boulevard, she wears a bright red blazer (bought for $30 from a theater usher right before filming, according to IMDB), thigh-high boots and a turquoise micromini that shows off the eighty-eight inches of therapy she will soon provide to billionaire executive Edward Lewis (Richard Gere). By the end of the picture, she is more groomed and tasteful but acknowledges, “It’s easy to clean up when you got money.” A modern, loose take on Shaw’s Pygmalion, Pretty Woman is about the creation of a dream, whether for the evening, for a week, or for a lifetime. Vivian is experienced enough in her trade to know what her clients want and how to mould herself into their fantasy for as long as they negotiate with her, but she is still young enough to hope for something better to happen. She wants the fantasy that she has constructed, and she is just as willing to rescue someone as she is to be rescued from her circumstances.
Certainly all of her outfits during her week as Edward’s “beck-and-call-girl” reflect the give-and-take of the salesman-client relationship, as in scenes of her in various boutiques whose staff treat her according to their first impression. All of the people Vivian meets that week, both in and out of the Beverly Wilshire either want to sell her something or they want to buy her, with one exception. Barney Thompson (Hector Elizondo), the manager of the hotel, wants to improve her overall carriage as a matter of self-respect and confidence. It is Barney that truly changes Vivian, not Edward. He never treats her as a prostitute, but rather a stubborn, wayward young lady that needs guidance and a tender hand. If this was an update of My Fair Lady, he would be the Colonel Pickering to Edward’s Henry Higgins.
In the apex of her physical transformation, as Edward and Vivian prepare to see La Traviata, she emerges from the penthouse bedroom in a structured silk gown with a fitted bodice and sheath silhouette, deeply cut neckline and a long skirt with gathers that just balance the shape and the flow of the material. It fits the formerly fidgety, now statuesque Roberts perfectly, and though the beautiful neckline would have worked without the $250,000 diamond-and-ruby necklace, the piece projects the entire ensemble into the stratosphere. As a costume, it represents Vivian’s worlds of nubile sex worker and sophisticated lady intertwining, as she is still garnering attention on her own terms, still standing out in brilliant red, but as she watches Verdi’s opera - a love story between a prostitute and a wealthy man - her situation and the extrication from it become more clearly dependent on the agency she must choose to take.
Inglourious Basterds (2009)
Costume Designer: Anna Shepard (Schindler’s List, The Insider, Maleficent)
It was hard to choose one red dress from a Tarantino film, but the glamorous 1940s gown worn by a fighter seeking revenge near the end of Inglourious Basterds narrowly trumps the tight, seductive minidress with peekaboo leopard-print bra and matching red gloves worn by Alabama Worley in True Romance.
In 1941, Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent) watched her family get murdered by Colonel Hans Landa on the French dairy farm where they were hiding from the Nazis, and she barely escapes with her life. Three years later, Shosanna is living in Paris under an assumed name and runs a cinema, where she meets a young Nazi sniper-turned-actor named Frederick Zoller who admires the beauty of both the theater and its proprietress, and thus chooses it for the star-studded premiere of his film Nation’s Pride. Shosanna has no choice but to go along with the plan, but she soon realizes the advantage of having all the high-ranking Nazi officials in one closed space and plots her revenge.
The opening scene of “Chapter Five: Revenge of the Giant Face,” begins with a bang as the young woman’s drab attire and work clothes are exchanged for a stylish red layered gown with long sleeves, slightly flared at the wrists, and a squared neckline that both allows for movement (as Shosanna needs to be able to dart around her theater enacting her plan) but still enables her to blend in with the Nazi officers and European glitterati who have gathered for the event. As we first glimpse of Shosanna in the dress, her tiny frame gazing out an alcove window at the red Nazi banners that now festoon her beloved theater, the pulsing bass and mournful lyrics of David Bowie’s “Cat People” plays during her preparation. “An ageless heart that can never mend / Tears can never dry / A judgment made can never bend” he wails as the camera lingers over every detail in her costume, from the rouge and red lipstick which she applies like war paint to the netting she pulls over her face. As she emerges onto the balcony above the crowd, the boldness of her dress against the tuxedos and military uniforms reflects her focus and drive as well as her rage over the fate of her family and fellow Jews.
Funny Face (1957)
Costume Designer: Edith Head (All About Eve, Rear Window, Sabrina, Barefoot in the Park, The Sting); Hubert de Givenchy (Sabrina, Charade)
The pace of this frothy Stanley Donen film is frenetic yet controlled, a sugary ode to the fashion industry and all its serendipitous and calculated fervor. In place of legendary Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar editor Diana Vreeland, we have Quality editor Maggie Prescott (Kay Thompson), while Fred Astaire’s Dick Avery was a thinly veiled homage to famed photographer Richard Avedon.
During a photo shoot at a Greenwich Village bookstore, Avery upsets the stuffy clerk, Jo Stockton (Audrey Hepburn), and later spots her face in some of the photos he processes. Prescott has been searching for the new “Quality Woman” that would represent the magazine and its readers, and while she thinks Jo’s face is “positively funny,” Dick takes that as a positive: there’s just something curious and quirky about her face that embodies the “grace, elegance, and bizzazz” Prescott desires. In a whirlwind Parisian photo shoot around the city, Jo’s fun, joyous, lively sensibilities are captured as she holds dozens of balloons in front of the Arc de Triomphe or glides down the staircase of the Opera National in a billowy jade-green wrap.
There’s one moment in the shoot that stands above the others, as it represents the beautiful statue coming to life and evading the grasp of its creator. Hiding behind the Winged Victory of Samothrace at the Louvre, she instructs Avery, “Never mind what I’m going to do - just say GO!” Then, she emerges atop the Daru staircase, clad in a bright red, strapless Givenchy dress - made even more vibrant against the white marble and low lighting - and holding a matching chiffon scarf high above her head as she gracefully yet quickly descends the steps. Avery begs her to stop so he can set the frame. “I can’t stop - take the picture!” she replies, all confidence and sweetness and light, the perfect cynosure of fashion as exhilaration.
Outlander is set to return to Starz for it's second season on April 9. Do you think that the show's stunning red dress will live up to the expectations of these vivacious red gowns from history? Weigh in below!