The power of costumes in 1960s cinema

If there was ever a decade that showed you could be a nonconformist yet stylistic through your clothes, it was the 1960s. When people think of this decade, they think chic, trendy, slick, elegant and fun, primarily derived from the fashion choices in real life and films of the time. The ‘60s set a new age in motion, with prior traditions and expectations being swapped for something more fresh and innovative. New social cultures and movements were gaining momentum, and, in turn, public attitudes changed, along with fashion and film costumes.

One of the most significant changes of this decade was that new styles emerging from small villages and cities into urban centres were now receiving media publicity. This change resulted in Haute couture, an impeccable, custom-fitted high-end fashion design that today is partially constructed by hand. The elite designers were putting out the now trademark items of mini skirts, go-go boots and PVC dresses. The experimental new items flooded shop windows, capturing the public’s eyes, who wasted no time adding the trends to their wardrobe. 

If someone in the ‘60s wasn’t dressed sharply and stylishly, they went for a more free-flowing and casual style. The hippie movement emerged in the early years of the decade, characterised by a strong emphasis on nirvana, nature and living an anti-capitalist life. A hippie wardrobe comprises warm tones, comfortable drainpipe trousers and print tees. While the more sophisticated, high-end wardrobes demonstrated that subculture’s attitudes and values, a hippie wardrobe represented the more flower power outlook. 

One medium through which modern society can celebrate and learn about ‘60s fashion is film. This era of filmmaking and Hollywood offers some of the most stylish and best-dressed stars the industry has ever known. Costumes are highly significant in symbolism. They can capture audiences’ attention and align with a setting’s style. In addition, it can hold a more profound sense in communicating a character’s personality or current mental state. A costume is a tool for emphasising both surface-level imagery and analytical undertones.

In the ‘60s, costumes upheld the new societal values of sophistication, elegance and class. Although, it did incorporate more light-hearted attitudes, such as having fun and living freely. Costumes showcased a film’s aesthetic elements and presented characterisation and emotions. If you haven’t noticed, ‘60s fashion on film is multi-layered, with more than one style to offer, so let’s observe the power of costumes in ‘60s cinema. 

French New Wave films

The French New Wave was an artistic campaign that began in the late ’50s, arguing for a rejection of traditional filmmaking and for improvised dialogue, rapid changes of scene, and shots that broke the common 180° axis of camera movement. The New Wave also introduced a unique documentary style to filmmaking, characterised by on-location shooting, long takes, focus on subjectivity, and authorial commentary.

The films’ fashion choices translated these attitudes. The movement aimed to utilise its actors as icons, as an iconoclastic spirit fed through the French New Wave. One icon of the French New Wave is Anna Karina, director Jean-Luc Goddard’s muse, who appeared in many of the movement’s most iconic films. Karina’s film debut was in Godard’s Le Petit Soldat, released in 1963. The actor impressed critics and audiences with her fresh and innocent style, comprised of cardigans, blouses and knee-length skirts that aligned with the French New Wave’s casual tactics. Karina’s screen style reads as tailored and chic, exemplifying fashion approaches of the time. 

Another staple in French New Wave is Goddard’s Breathless, a 1960 film that follows a petty thief trying to convince his student girlfriend to run away. Breathless exhibits the movement’s visual techniques of long takes and natural locations, as well as improvised dialogue and jump cuts. The director also orchestrated the characters’ costumes to demonstrate the French New Wave style and uphold this naturalistic approach.

“The costumes worn by Jean-Paul Belmondo (the petty thief) and Jean Seberg (the student girlfriend) are effortless and natural, as though both actors simply wore what they arrived with on set each day,” Kate Scheyer writes in Vanity Fair. “In fact, the credits do not list a costume designer, and in light of the creative freedom Godard was known to give his actors, it’s likely they were able to make many of their sartorial choices themselves.” Seaberg’s wardrobe of striped tees, cotton dresses and fedoras embodied French style, influencing it for years to come. As Scheyer comments: “it’s safe to assume the young director would never have predicted the impact his film would also have on the wardrobes of legions of young Americans setting off for a semester abroad in Paris”.

Audrey Hepburn

Recognised as both a film and fashion icon, Audrey Hepburn will always be one of the greatest female screen legends from cinema’s ‘Golden Age’. Hepburn’s style was branded as minimalistic, usually wearing clothes with simple silhouettes to frame her body, monochromatic colours, and occasional statement accessories.

Photographers and critics cited the actor as the ultimate embodiment of the feminine, distinguished by her delicate features and slim-fitted clothes. For women, the ’60s were an era of fashion innovation. Thanks to Hepburn, Capri pants and drainpipe jeans became popular during the early 1960s.  

The actor’s timeless style can be seen in her most iconic film appearance, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which was released in 1961. This romantic movie follows Hepburn as an eccentric young woman who falls for a songwriter, played by George Peppard. Breakfast at Tiffany’s is an apex in not only ’60s film fashion but film fashion as a whole.

Hepburn made film and fashion history in Blake Edwards’ romantic comedy when she graced the screen in a little black dress, an iconic fashion symbol. Hepburn’s LBD is a satin sheath evening gown that’s sleeveless, the bodice is slightly open at the back with a neckline that leaves uncovered shoulders, and Hepburn accessorised with a matching pair of elbow-length gloves the same colour and strings of pearls. Hubert de Givenchy designed the magnificent garment, giving it to Hepburn, who he considered his sister. Thus, he is responsible for one of the most iconic clothing items in the history of the twentieth century and perhaps the most famous little black dress of all time.

Hippie style on film

On the other side of the spectrum is the hippie style in ’60s films, presented primarily in hippie exploitation films. This type of storytelling began in the late ’60s when Hollywood utilised the growing subculture by producing several films that showed hippie traits such as drug use, psychedelic parties and sexual freedom. Hippie exploitation flicks celebrated the counterculture for its innovative and joyful attitudes and style. In contrast, others exploited it by employing imagery and actions to caution the public of the crazy and uncivilised way of life they were portraying. Filmmakers associated with hippie exploitation include horror filmmakers Wes Craven and Tobe Hopper and the Pope of Pop Cinema, Roger Corman. As the hippie movement is heavily invested in music, mainly the genres of folk music, psychedelic rock and reggae, some hippie films focused on musical acts, such as The Beatles. 

Films such as Věra Chytilová’s surrealist comedy Daisies, Corman’s psychedelic The Trip and Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider portrayed hippie stylistic choices. These films showed characters living off the land dressed in flower crowns, brown suede jackets, and re-worn graphic tees. The costumes align with the subculture’s atmosphere and tone, prioritising the environment and spiritualism over mass consumerism and excessive style. 

The hippie counterculture received mixed responses, with some loving it and showing gratitude for its switch to carefree attitudes. In contrast, others called for a more polished style to occupy stores. Paramount Pictures designer Edith Head had a scathing response to the rise of the hippie style, especially on film. “The invasion of the hippies was the worst thing that ever happened to fashion. The look was all right for the young, for college kids who had no responsibilities,” the designer said. “But all of a sudden, as if afflicted by a strange disease, people of all ages began trying to look like hippies. It was fashionable to be uncombed and dishevelled. It was chic to go to secondhand stores and find something old. This trend was disastrous to the film industry because we had to adapt quickly and get out of it in time to avoid looking dated.”

This decade’s cinematic style upholds and represents many evolving societal trends. Audiences saw film icons donning go-go boots, capri pants and fitted items, exemplifying the style exhibited in stores. Different approaches to filmmaking also influenced onscreen fashion, with French cinema demonstrating a casual yet attentive costume department. It’s safe to say that ’60s fashion has been safely encapsulated in the cinema of its time. 

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