Films and fashion have an intricate relationship. The clothes and accessories we wear frequently wind up on the silver screen as a reflection of the times we live in. Period pieces define themselves by paying close attention to the details of the fashion of the times as well, painstakingly recreating the outfits that central characters would have worn. But the reverse trend is also true; films often introduce ideas, either directly or indirectly, that lead to major changes in fashion.
So why is this the case, and what can we learn about it?
Let’s start by looking at some key ways that movies have influenced (and continue to influence) fashion. First, there are accessories and adornments worn by central characters in film. For example, Audrey Hepburn was one of the first prominent actresses to use a cigarette holder as a fashion accessory in the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and since then, it’s become so popular it’s almost a cliché. Other people have been drawn to things like the distinctive watch worn by the latest iteration of James Bond, or by gold grillz that were on display in the latest action flick.
Fashion can also be influenced more subtly, playing a role in spawning an entire movement or revival. For example, in 2013, The Great Gatsby helped to motivate an already-simmering trend of early-20th Century fashion being revived. Even earlier, the film Almost Famous, which took place during the late 1960s and early 1970s, was rolling out just as the United States was starting to go through a 1970s revival. These films took an existing fashion trend and made it even more popular by putting it in the national spotlight.
So why, exactly, are films such a powerful medium for spawning or reinforcing fashion trends?
- Celebrity idolization. It’s no secret that we idolize celebrities. The people we see in big-budget movies tend to be worth looking up to in one way or another. In most cases, they’re physically attractive. They’re also probably talented, in ways most of us couldn’t hope to be. And if they’re starring in major motion pictures, they’re also wealthy—which is frequently considered a virtue in the United States. When we see a celebrity we look up to this way, we can’t help but want to copy them—at least a little bit. If they’re wearing a fashion accessory that makes them look more distinctive or more attractive, maybe we’ll try it on. If they dress in a particular style, maybe we’ll try to copy it. On a big enough scale, this is sometimes enough to influence an entire movement.
- Zeitgeist reinforcement. Films also have the power to reinforce trends that are already starting to emerge. There are a few ways this can happen. For example, a new fashion trend (like the revival of a past decade’s top looks) might start to emerge in fashionable circles, at which point a director gets inspired and makes a pitch for a movie that exemplifies that style. Once the film comes out, millions of people are exposed to the style (either by seeing the film itself or just seeing ads and reviews). Those already partaking in the style then wear it more confidently, and millions of new people start following suit.
- Success and copycat waves. It’s no coincidence that you often notice similar types of movies being released around the same time; movie studios want to capitalize on what already seems to be popular. Occasionally, you’ll find a new film that comes out of nowhere, offering a distinctive style all its own and a completely unique voice. Once it becomes successful, other films and elements of pop culture will attempt to capture the same spirit, which usually means copying at least a few stylistic elements; over time, this can spawn a new fashion trend by itself.
Fashion and cinema will always be interlinked, since each draws influence from the other. You don’t need to be up on all the latest movies to be fashionable, nor do you need to take your cues from celebrities, but understanding the intricacies of pop culture and how they affect society can be both insightful and entertaining.