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.
- Photo: Universal Pictures
To understand the meaning of the red jumpsuits in Jordan Peele's Us, you first have to understand the twist ending, so consider this a spoiler alert if you haven't seen it. The whole film is about the "Tethered," who live in subterranean tunnels and are connected to people above the surface. Four of these doppelgangers, led by Red (Lupita Nyong'o), come out to terrorize Adelaide (also Nyong'o) and her family. In the film's final act, it is revealed that Adelaide is actually the Tethered version. She escaped as a child and made the real Adelaide take her place underground. The one we know as Red, in other words, is the one who came from the normal world.
Red is a bold primary color, often considered "hot" and frequently associated with violence or warfare, which is how it's used here. The now-grown "real Adelaide" is angry about having been forced into a life she was not meant to live. Therefore, she and her cohorts wear the color when they escape and make their way above ground. Kym Barrett, the costume designer for Us, said that was a very deliberate choice meant to reflect the character's rage. “She completely enshrouds her being with this red,” Barrett told The Atlantic. “It’s a symbol of aggression, a screaming mission. You cannot miss it.”
Furthermore, the "fake Adelaide" always wears white, and her clothes become more covered in blood as the story advances. According to Barrett in the same interview, this was to connect Red to Adelaide, so that by the end, "she's almost as red as Red."
- Photo: Buena Vista Pictures
In the rom-com classic Pretty Woman, working girl Vivian (Julia Roberts) is hired by wealthy businessman Edward (Richard Gere) to accompany him for a week. He gradually transforms her into a swan during the movie's most famous scene, where she emerges wearing an elegant red dress. Red, as we all know, is associated with extreme emotions, most notably passionate love.
The association with love should be clear in the sense that we know Vivian and Edward have fallen for each other by this point. Yet it also represents her self-love. By the time she dons the dress, Vivian has transcended her troubled background, seeing herself as a lady. For the first time in the story, she radiates pure confidence and is now able to view herself in a different light. It's a deliberately stark contrast to the white outfit we initially see her in.
- Photo: Buena Vista Pictures
Wes Anderson's movies always make very specific use of a color palette. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is no different. Bill Murray plays an oceanographer making a documentary about his quest for a rare, possibly non-existent "Jaguar Shark." He and the members of his crew wear baby blue shirts and pants, with bright red caps. It's an unusual combo, as these are contrasting colors, with red being "warm" and light blue being "cool."
A. Vaughn Vreeland of Elon University has written extensively about Anderson's color obsession, and he sees two different meanings for the clashing red hats. On one hand, Zissou is the captain of a mission that may or may not be successful, and he makes everyone else wear them, so it can be read that the caps represent "the overcompensation of his insecurities about filmmaking." Put another way, they project a false sense of confidence.
Vreeland additionally points out that Anderson has used red in several of his films to signify strife between fathers and sons. During The Life Aquatic, Zissou tells the young man who may be his illegitimate son, "I hate fathers and I never wanted to be one." Putting that into the larger context of the director's filmography, the red cap could also represent the main character's ambivalence about fatherhood. That would also explain why the clashing red hats are paired with baby blue outfits: Baby blue, of course, is widely used for newborn males.
- Photo: Paramount Pictures
Pink is generally equated with femininity. In fact, the color has long been used for baby girls in clothing, bedding, and, more recently, gender reveals. Red tends to represent strength or aggression. When white is added, it softens those qualities, creating something more representative of romance, charm, or tenderness.
The ensembles worn by Lindsay Lohan and her co-stars in the comedy Mean Girls use pink ironically. These characters are not sweet and demure. They're, well, mean, even going so far as to pen nasty comments about classmates in a "burn book." The use - or, one could argue, abuse - of pink in this way weaponizes femininity. Cady and pals might look pretty on the outside, but they're often ugly on the inside. Their outward appearance belies a sense of malice underneath.
The film's costume designer, Mary Jane Fort, compared the mean girls in their pink ensembles to over-indulging at a candy store, saying, "When you see this group, you want to feel like you walked into something delicious and wonderful even though it's kind of bad for you."