The use of color in costume design is a fascinating cinematic subject in its own right. It's the kind of thing you might not consciously think about while you're watching a movie, yet the choice of color can have a significant subliminal impact on your experience. Filmmakers often carefully select hues to accentuate the story's themes or reveal something about a character. After you've seen a movie once or twice, it's easier to pull back and think about the manner in which colors have been utilized.
This list will take a deep dive into movie costume color symbolism, utilizing elements of color theory to illustrate each example. Comments from the designers themselves will help provide an understanding of the thought process behind the color selection. All genres take advantage of what color choice has to offer. A horror movie like Us is creepier because of it, an action picture like Kill Bill becomes more exciting, and a comedy like Mean Girls grows funnier. What they all have in common is using various shades to signify something meaningful.
After re-examining the color symbolism in these movies, you may see them with a brand new appreciation.
Orange tends to symbolize positive qualities like energy, vitality, and excitement. It's no surprise, then, that Leeloo, the character portrayed by Milla Jovovich in The Fifth Element, wears an orange rubber harness in many of her scenes. She embodies all those qualities as she sets out on a mission to prevent Earth from being wiped out by an evil force.
Director Luc Besson said that all his films have a dominant color, and he wanted orange to be dominant here. To that end, he hired noted fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier to come up with the costumes, incorporating the hue wherever possible. The orange harness was designed to match Leeloo's hair, as well as a vest worn by Dallas (Bruce Willis), her world-saving cohort.
When you consider all the action Leeloo sees over the course of the film, the amount of energy her character has, and the naive curiosity that makes up her personality, orange is the perfect color. The way Gaultier and Besson use it on her is fun and playful, signifying the youthful vitality that makes her a natural to save the world.
- Photo: Miramax Films
Uma Thurman played "The Bride" in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill saga, but it's not a wedding dress that comes to mind when you think of her. Instead, it's that yellow jumpsuit, which has gone on to become iconic. Keeping in mind that this character is motivated by a desire for revenge, yellow might seem an unlikely choice, given that it's considered a bright, cheery color.
It's important to remember, though, that the Bride wants revenge because her happy day was ruined by assassins. She tells Bill that she's pregnant right before he unloads his weapon on her. As the Bride later eliminates her enemies (and their henchmen), her yellow outfit becomes more stained with red blood. We can therefore infer that the yellow represents a single-minded obsession with the anticipated happiness that a marriage and baby would have brought, while the red is the trauma she sustained because it was taken away from her.
At the same time, it could be argued that the yellow jumpsuit also represents Tarantino's own single-minded obsession. Kill Bill was inspired by his favorite martial arts films, especially those of Bruce Lee, who frequently wore yellow onscreen (including in his final film, Game of Death, in which he dons the original version of the Bride's jumpsuit). Dr. Steven Peacock, head of media at the University of Hertfordshire, points out, "Tarantino is a very accomplished filmmaker in his stylistic choice, and color would be a huge part of that. He's drawing together all those associations of previous movies and character types and costume design and iconography - it’s all there for a reason, folded into the drama on-screen in a way that doesn’t suggest itself as willfully placed."
- Photo: Paramount Pictures
Alicia Silverstone wears what is arguably the most famous plaid outfit ever in Clueless. She plays Cher Horowitz, and the yellow plaid was designed to be bold so the audience understood something crucial about the character right away. Cher is near the top of her high school's social ladder, so the yellow is a way of setting her apart from everyone else. It implies that she stands out in a crowd - and, in this case, she literally does.
Clueless costume designer Mona May explained the bold color further to Bustle. "You start with: What would the girls' first day of school outfit be? The quintessential plaid skirt," she says. "Then you want to take that to the next level. So you say a suit would be much better. Then what color? Yellow pops."
Look closely and you'll see that whenever Cher is wearing this outfit, she's surrounded by people - other than Dionne, naturally - and objects that are more dully colored, just to reinforce the dynamic.
- Photo: Focus Features
If you've seen Atonement, odds are you remember the sight of Keira Knightley in a striking green backless dress. Her character Cecilia wears it in and around the film's signature romantic moment.
Part of what makes this dress so memorable is that, as The Guardian points out, it evokes "both sexual power and the potential for harm." Green is often associated with luck (i.e., a four-leaf clover), although in some cultures it's actually considered to be unlucky. Given that dichotomy, the use of this bold shade in the scene is ideal. So many contrasting moments of power and discomfort are happening simultaneously. An embarrassed Robbie (James McAvoy) has accidentally sent a dirty letter to Cecilia, but she's turned on by it and unexpectedly wants to make love to him. As they do so in the library, her younger sister Briony (Saoirse Ronan) walks in and mistakes their passion for an assault. Through it all, that stunning green dress is essentially providing commentary on the madness of the situation.
Atonement costume designer Jacqueline Durran credits director Joe Wright with the color selection, even if getting to it was tricky. She told Entertainment Weekly, "The specific shade he may not know until he sees it, so I will then offer him up as many shades as I can and he'll say 'That's the one!'"