From left to right: The Night Porter, Cry-Baby, Carmen Miranda and The Royal Tenenbaums


How film has taught us how to dress in the most unlikely way

From Little Edie’s roll necks to Max’s wolf suit in Where The Wild Things Are, Amber Butchart looks at the lesser-known film heroes who have influenced fashion

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By Amber Butchart on

Screen chic. Cinema style. Hollywood glamour. These phrases have become bywords in the language of fashion for a particular type of classic style that is referenced ad infinitum. Audrey Hepburn’s LBD, Brigitte Bardot’s bikini and Nouvelle Vague’s waif-like heroines offer a perpetual set of references for fashion, ensuring that the glamour of the movies remains as popular on the catwalk as it is on the red carpet, right down to your local high street. These looks garner so much coverage they have become fashion clichés – La Dolce Vita, anyone? But what if your idea of style is more Jim Henson than Hollywood? Maybe, dear reader, like me, you are suffering from movie-star fatigue. And we are not alone. For every cinephile who has swooned over the icy charm of Grace Kelly, there's one who has drawn inspiration from the ill-fitting suits of Charlie Chaplin or the sado-masochistic undertones of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's art-house demi-mondaines. 

Gwyneth Paltrow as Margot Tenenbaum in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

In many ways, it all comes down to a question of taste. My own style has always bordered on the kitsch, and icons of the big and small screen, from Carmen Miranda to Pat Butcher, often top my own list of “best dressed”. With her predilection for wigs and the occasional beauty disaster, I would much rather be the experimental Frenchy than Sandy either pre- or post-makeover. A childhood obsession with Hollywood glamour saw me store facts about my favourite stars in a box file (what can I say? It was the 80s, so alphabetising and filing were practically mandatory). My favourites often came from the silent screen – the drama of Theda Bara, the Art Deco geometry of Josephine Baker and the turbans of Gloria Swanson. I’ve never been very good at subtlety. 

Carmen Miranda

So, while we can all appreciate the Annie Hall, Margot Tenenbaum and Ali MacGraw effects, it is perhaps time to acknowledge the films from off the beaten track that have had an albeit improbable, but major, impact on the clothes we wear. So, without further ado, I present my guide to the most unlikely style icons that have influenced the way we dress. 

Divine, Female Trouble (1974)

John Waters’ Female Trouble (1974) stars drag queen Divine as the leader of a trio of girl delinquents, a self-titled “crime personified” who ends up in the electric chair. Riffing on the style-centric good-girl/bad-girl divide of teen delinquency films, Divine’s character, Dawn Davenport, leaves home when she doesn’t get the shoes she wanted for Christmas, because, according to her parents, "nice girls don't wear cha-cha heels”. She is later seen mainlining the ultimate bad-girl accessory, liquid eyeliner.

Divine as Dawn Davenport in John Waters’ Female Trouble (1974)

Costume designer Van Smith was the mastermind behind the trash aesthetic of Waters’ films, designing the looks and often the make-up of many of his films, including Divine’s signature look of a shaved hairline (apparently to create more room for her eyebrows). Clothes were sourced from second-hand shops and skips, while Divine’s outfits were sewn by a woman who made costumes for strippers. The John Waters obsession with bad taste has been referenced on the catwalk by Miuccia Prada – a designer who likes to play with concepts of good taste. She used Female Trouble as her inspiration for Miu Miu’s spring/summer 2015 collection, taking costumes assembled from rubbish bins and rendering them in hand-woven silk jacquards. 

Miu Miu spring/summer 2015 collection

I’ve always been partial to a hint of drag queen in my look, a celebration of the hyper-feminine that can easily topple over into the grotesque. But it’s not just me who finds the Divine-as-Dawn look so irresistible. It was the same cartoonish early 1960s aesthetic of pencil skirts, oversized beehive and exaggerated winged eyeliner that Amy Winehouse made her own and, in doing so, made us all long to look like a John Waters heroine, be it Tracy Turnblad or Wanda Woodward. The recent homage to Female Trouble encouraged high-street sales of leather midi skirts and crop tops to rocket, not to mention that Divine’s signature beauty look – the bold eyebrow – truly defines our time.

Traci Lords as Wanda Woodward in John Waters' Cry-Baby (1990)

Amy Winehouse

Charlotte Rampling, The Night Porter (1974)

Women in menswear has sparked a transgressive frisson on screen ever since Marlene Dietrich wore white tie and tails and kissed another woman in Morocco (1930). Diane Keaton’s wardrobe in Annie Hall (1977) is easily one of the most referenced film wardrobes, consistently cited in current trends for androgynous style and “boyfriend” fits. But, at the risk of invoking Godwin’s Law, none has been quite so shocking as Charlotte Rampling wearing black leather gloves, braces and a Nazi officer’s cap in Liliana Cavani’s Il portiere di notte (The Night Porter, 1974). 

Charlotte Rampling in The Night Porter (1974)

The film was costumed by Piero Tosi, a designer with an enormous commitment to historical authenticity. He had visited the Nazi era five years earlier with Visconti’s The Damned (1969), a film which American Vogue claimed, the year after its release, was “influencing women’s fashions throughout the world”.

Louis Vuitton autumn/winter 2011 collection

In 2011, fashion designer Marc Jacobs threw a shockwave through Paris when he managed to turn this film about a relationship between a former SS officer and a concentration-camp survivor into a catwalk collection of leather braces, stark white collars and monogrammed military caps. And, while the daring rubber bondage wear didn’t entirely go mainstream, a fetish element made its way into our wardrobes and has never left, discernible through leather panelled leggings, dresses and lace and sheer inserts. On the high street, & Other Stories has just launched a collection of leather belts, collars and harnesses with New York designer Zana Bayne. 

Zana Bayne for & Other Stories

Little Edie, Grey Gardens (1975)

Albert Maysles and his brother David made Grey Gardens over a six-week period in 1973 at the eponymous East Hampton mansion, which was in a state of severe squalor and decay. It was inhabited by a reclusive mother and daughter, Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale (Big Edie) and Edith Bouvier Beale (Little Edie), who were particularly interesting subjects, as they happened to be related to former First Lady Jackie Onassis. The film makes for uncomfortable viewing at times and was the subject of much criticism on its release. With the loving yet strained mother-daughter relationship at the heart of the film, it paints a portrait of faded upper-class bohemianism and unfulfilled American dreams – not the traditional hallmarks of a style classic.


Edith Bouvier Beale in 1975

Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange as Little Edie and Big Edie in Grey Gardens (2009)

However, Little Edie’s particular way of styling herself has seen her become something of a cult hero. She spends the film parading in outfits consisting of roll necks and swimsuits, with jumpers fashioned as skirts and turbans, offering styling titbits, such as “you can always take off the skirt and use it as a cape”, which I’m thinking of making my mantra. When the documentary was remade as a TV movie starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange in 2009, we saw another wave of “Little Edie-isms”. Her mix-and-match aesthetic has provided inspiration for countless stylists and encouraged the vogue for vintage shopping. As Kate Peters, managing director of vintage shop Beyond Retro, notes, “Little Edie’s unique style really resonates with our customers – her layering of different prints and textures creates an extremely luxe feel for thrift-lovers.”

Street style

Street style

Topshop dress, £49

Mango robe jacket, £49.99

Max and the Wild Things, Where The Wild Things Are (2009)

If we were to play a hypothetical game of word association (think of it as a Mallett’s Mallet for millennials), it’s unlikely that if I said “adaptation of a children’s book”, the phrase “fashion-forward” would be the first thing to spring to mind. But Spike Jonze’s Where The Wild Things Are (2009), based on the children’s book by Maurice Sendak, defied all established precedents and spawned not only a limited-edition collaboration with Opening Ceremony, but also formed the basis for a Mulberry collection in 2012, which culminated in a catwalk show that closed with a song from The Muppets. Frankly, there are not enough monsters or Muppets in fashion for my liking, so I was elated. 

Max in Where the Wild Things Are (2009)

But it’s with the Wild Things and Max’s wolf suit that the influence really took hold. The film was released the same year that the co-founder of Kigu realised that importing adult-sized animal onesies from Japan could be a viable – and highly profitable – business. Festivals the country over were soon populated by grown women and men dressed as tigers and sloths. 

Festival onesies

When faux-fur label Shrimps launched in 2013, the Wild Things look was validated and spawned a love for faux fur. Fozzie Bear jackets lined the high street as we shifted our perceptions from cheap-imitation to clear-conscience trend. Fuzzy textures are again popular for this autumn – check out Whistles and Zara for coats and jackets, and Charlotte Simone and Helen Moore for stoles. 

Style blogger Susie Lau in Shrimps

Zara coat, £229

Winona Ryder, Beetlejuice (1988)

As the summer has faded away like the end titles to a John Hughes film, you may be left wondering what improbable cinematic style stars we have to look forward to in the future. I’m putting money behind Lydia from Beetlejuice, who was cited by Marc Jacobs in his autumn collection, which totally works with our current collective Winona-in-the-80s love-in, thanks to Stranger Things. He also referenced another anti-hero of camp Goth glamour, Wednesday Addams, so don’t be surprised by a lot of black, lace and velvet on the high street this autumn, alongside maybe (hopefully) a trend for blood-red bouffant wedding dresses. I, for one, will be taking the tailoring route and wearing my Beetlejuice black-and-white-striped suit. Just me? 

Winona Ryder as Lydia in Beetlejuice (1988)

Marc Jacobs autumn/winter 2016 collection


Amber Butchart's book The Fashion of Film: How Cinema has Inspired Fashion is published by Mitchell Beazley.


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From left to right: The Night Porter, Cry-Baby, Carmen Miranda and The Royal Tenenbaums
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