1. The Bare Chest: Clark Gable, "It Happened One Night," 1934. During filming, Gable had trouble getting through the scene at tempo while removing his undershirt, so director Frank Capra suggested he skip the undershirt. During a time when men ALWAYS wore undershirts, Gable's appearance onscreen bare-chested caused quite the coup. Not only causing thousands of women to feel faint in the theater, Gable caused sales of undershirts to plummet and started the bare-chest phenomenon. A rumor even surfaced that one underwear manufacturer had tried to sue Columbia Pictures.
2. Jeans and a T-Shirt: James Dean, "Rebel Without A Cause," 1955. It is hard to imagine that this simplest of combinations was once considered innovative and groundbreaking. But women didn't wear trousers before Katharine Hepburn, right? So it is with denim, white t-shirts, and James Dean. His character, Jim Stark, was effortlessly cool in an organic, careless way. By discovering and harnessing the power of this look, James Dean not only incited an army of lookalikes, but an enduring fashion statement that remains among the most sexy looks anyone - male or female - can wear. He also raised the profile of those undershirts Gable had so ruthlessly trampled on two decades before.
3. The Little Black Dress (...and pearls...and oversized sunglasses...and probably danish): Audrey Hepburn, "Breakfast At Tiffany's," 1961. As fashion no-brainers go, this one pretty much tops the list. Almost every woman, fashion-savvy or not, owns at least one of these. Many of us live in them. And we can thank Audrey Hepburn for proving to women the world over the irrefutable chicness of this article of clothing. To give credit where credit is due, Coco Chanel introduced the LBD way back in 1926. Audrey simply upped the ante. Standing in front of Tiffany & Co. in her pearls and large-framed shades, Audrey represented the beautiful dreamer in all of us. And we wanted to dress like her. As an aspiring socialite on a budget, Holly showed us how to create a variety of looks by using the same basic pieces: simple, impeccably-tailored, black dresses and neutral separates, mixed with eye-catching accessories like wide-brimmed hats, oversized sunglasses, and an abundance of jewelry. This is a lesson every woman should take to heart. And if the sales of little black dresses over the past 50 years are any indication, most of us have. If you're ever in doubt about how to dress for any occasion, just ask yourself WWAW? (What Would Audrey Wear?) Find the answer, and you'll be the chicest woman in the room.
4. The White Three-Piece Suit: John Travolta, "Saturday Night Fever," 1977. Though we don't see many of these anymore, everyone can call to mind the image of a disco-crazed John Travolta in his polyester best dancing the night away. Not only did he give chest hair some good press, but he gave disco fiends everywhere an icon to look up to. This look lasted far longer than disco as it was revisited by the mobster played by Al Pacino in Scarface. Despite its iconic status, until the runways bring it back, this style of dress is best left to costume parties.
5. Menswear for Women: Diane Keaton, "Annie Hall," 1977. So we know that Katharine Hepburn was first to break this societal norm by wearing pants. But it wasn't until Annie Hall came around that menswear for women really took off. Characterized by baggy trousers, men's shoes, loose dress shirts, suspenders, and ties, Diane Keaton's neurotic, but lovable character gave an alternative to women who didn't identify with the disco-sparkle, short and tight look of the mid-70s. Costume designer Ruth Morley scoured vintage and resale shops all over lower Manhattan to find pieces for Keaton to wear in the film, though the style of dress was nearly rejected. Woody Allen recalled, "She came in, and the costume lady said, 'Tell her not to wear that. She can't wear that. It's so crazy.' And I said, 'Leave her. She's a genius. Let's just leave her alone, let her wear what she wants.'" And it was a good thing he did, because "The Annie Hall Look" became such a paragon that the term "trend" doesn't even apply. Women in menswear have been in and out of vogue (And Vogue) since before the movie was released, but they never truly go away. Even when the style is on a downswing, the most fashion-forward among us will step out in suspenders and brogues and start the movement all over again. Oh, and did I mention Keaton won the Oscar for her portrayal of the delightfully awkward Hall? If the clothes weren't reason enough, perhaps its four Oscar wins will tempt you into seeing this classic film.
6. Armani: Richard Gere, "American Gigolo," 1980. Julian Kaye (Gere's character) is a male prostitute in LA who has champagne taste and uses his unsavory but lucrative job to indulge his caviar sensibilities. Giorgio Armani recognized the advertising power of placing his product in film, especially a film like this in which most of the appeal lies in the accessories of Kaye's life. In the scene where Kaye stands shirtless in his bedroom, laying out his Armani shirts across the bed and selecting ties to match, we get an intimate kind of fashion show that showcases incredibly Armani's collection, and turns it into an aspirational brand. Men who, like Kaye, want the most expensive, most luxurious in everything began to view Armani as fulfilling that need. This film put Armani on the map And oh, Mr. Gigolo: we are forever grateful.
7. Dancewear: Jennifer Beals, "Flashdance," 1983. There has always been a grace and inherent elegance associated with the world of dance. Translating ballet and jazz-inspired clothing into fashion trends is in no way a radical move. But the epitome of this sartorial ideal (until Black Swan, that is) has certainly been Jennifer Beals's Alex Owens in a cut-off sweatshirt and legwarmers. In an interview, Beals explains that the sweatshirt she wore in the film's most memorable scene was inspired by an accident. Jennifer had dried her sweatshirt at too high a temperature, resulting in its shrinkage. To put it on, she had to enlarge the neckhole. And just like that, a mania was born. Though the slouchy sweatshirt with legwarmers look may be a bit dated in 2011, dancewear will always be chic in one incarnation or another, as evidenced by the resurgence of wrap sweaters and dresses when Center Stage was released, and again by the avian-mania that is a response to the incredible influence of the Rodarte costumes in the film, Black Swan. So, while there will probably never be an occasion where I can get away with wearing a tutu again... sheer tights, chignons, and a DvF wrap-dress will always be in style.
8. Bangles, Bows, and Lace: Madonna, "Desperately Seeking Susan," 1985. Madonna is known for her style, and that is exactly what she brought to the table in this film. As the movie involved the New Wave and dance cultures, Madonna's aesthetic was a perfect representation of what young people wanted to wear. After the release of the film, studs, leather, lace, gloves, bangles, and bows were seen all over the streets. Beyond influencing fashion, "Susan" inspired a generation of over-permed, red-lipped, thick-browed women. I can say with some assurance, this film was the cause of many of the 1980s most criminal makeunders. But as Madonna is the master of self-reinvention, the "Susan" look was thankfully short-lived.
9. Beverly Hills Prep: Alicia Silverstone, "Clueless," 1995. This film was the first memorable movie in which we see teenagers actually being aware of designers and couture trends. Prior to this movie, if teen characters were dressed fashionably, it was never mentioned. "Clueless" was about Beverly Hills teens, who, being wealthy, had access to high-end wardrobes. The focus on fashion in Cher and Dionne's lives (from Cher's virtual closet to Di's eccentric hat collection) birthed a cult of teenagers who were more brand-conscious than any generation before. Short plaid skirts, knee-high socks, and platform Mary Janes were the Catholic school-girl-gone-bad uniform of preppy teens in the mid-90s. This film has had such an enduring sartorial influence that just last year, Cher's scandalous white Calvin Klein minidress was reissued. While I was too young to experience much of this trend's heyday, I have certainly used it to my advantage on several Halloweens past.
10. The Studded Belt, Manolo Blahnik, Bag Borrow or Steal: Sarah Jessica Parker, "Sex And The City," 2008. Okay, so it's kind of impossible to narrow or define the incomparable effect the SATC franchise has had on fashion. It has far surpassed "Clueless" in its dissemination of designer knowledge to the previously uninformed masses. But I chose three themes from the first film (because most of us want to forget the second) that I feel had a noteworthy impact. Now, when I refer to "the studded belt" I have no doubt that most of you know what I'm talking about. Because Carrie wears it in literally almost every scene of the movie. I wouldn't have been surprised if it made a cameo on that Vivienne Westwood wedding dress (okay, maybe a little). The Burberry belt in question set off a frenzy that, while massive, was unsurprising. Carrie Bradshaw's wardrobe has done wonders for any style or designer to whom she's ever shown love on air. Not only is this particular piece edgy, classic, and incredibly versatile, but three years later, it would still look perfectly on-trend. Few statement accessories have that kind of staying power. Manolo Blahnik, Carrie's footwear designer of choice, has benefited immensely from the success of this franchise - not only do you see his shoes in nearly every episode, but his name is spoken so many times (in hushed and hallowed tones, of course) that devotees of the show couldn't help but learn to pronounce it. Finally, I get to Bag Borrow or Steal: in the endearing words of Jennifer Hudson's Louise, "It's like Netflix for purses." When this film came out, I had never heard of BBS. If you wanted a designer bag, you either had to shell out a few grand, or become a recluse who lived on eBay and try to get one for a few hundred (yes, that's how I got my Chanel shoulder bag). But this website, like RentTheRunway and all the other couture-rental-sites spawned in its wake, was a breakthrough ripe for exploitation. Its placement in the most fashion-conscious movie of the century, up to that point (calm down, people, it was only 2008) just got the ball rolling with far more momentum than it might otherwise have had. So, while these three moments in SATC history don't come close to encompassing the vast influence these characters, their lifestyles, and most importantly their wardrobes have had on our lives, I think they are representative of the impact of this cultural phenomenon on American women and our closets.
I hope this recap of historic fashion moments has inspired you in some way. Whether you shop your closet this evening to create a Carrie- or Audrey-inspired look, or you simply rewatch one of these classic films with a danish or a cup of noodles, I wish you a fashionable evening, a stylish week, and a beautiful life.