The 1960s were a golden age for costume design. The increasing use of color in film, the popularity of bright, vibrant musicals, and the continuing desire for large scale historical epics all helped to create a cinematic environment where elaborate and stylish costumes were featured more and more heavily.
For most of the 1960s, the Academy Awards featured two costume design categories, one for color films and one for black-and-white, showing how competitive the field was and how many impeccably costumed films were being made at the time. At its best, costume design is so much more than simply the outfits the characters wear in a film: it’s one of the key visual components of storytelling, and a way to construct a narrative without ever saying a word.
10. La Dolce Vita (1960)
dir. Federico Fellini
“La Dolce Vita” won Best Costume Design at the Academy Awards in 1961, and is one of the few winners that features contemporary costuming that isn’t a musical. It earns its win with pure style. Bringing to the big screen Italian fashion in all its glamour, “La Dolce Vita” oozes elegance in every scene. It’s the rare film that gives its male characters the same attention to detail as their female counterparts when it comes to aesthetics, giving its male lead a streamlined, fitted look while still maintaining a masculine edge. The cherry on the top of it all is Anita Ekberg’s iconic black dress from the Trevi Fountain scene, an instantly classic strapless number with the sweetheart neckline we see featured on every poster for the film.
“Gypsy” is a musical about show business, so great costumes are a must. There’s the main storyline of a stage mother relentlessly pushing her daughter into the spotlight, sure, but beyond that, the film mostly exists as a contest to see how many gorgeous evening dresses the costume department can put on Natalie Wood. Orry-Kelly, the Australian costume designer who also gave us some of Marilyn Monroe’s best outfits from “Some Like It Hot,” puts Wood in one stunner after another, providing the glitz and sparkle needed to elevate her striptease artist Gypsy to the next level.
8. Juliet of the Spirits (1965)
dir. Federico Fellini
“Juliet of the Spirits” is Fellini’s first film in color, and he goes all-in on a dreamlike, fantasy aesthetic defined by its sets and costumes. As he explores the life of a middle-aged woman who turns to mysticism to seek answers about her philandering husband, the costumes highlight the elements of the narrative that seem to take place on another plane of existence. There are avant-garde outfits everywhere, filled with vibrant color and extravagant lace and ever-so-many comically oversized hats. Together, they serve as one of the most compelling examples of the potential impact of costuming as visual storytelling.
7. Mary Poppins (1964)
dir. Robert Stevenson
With a film like “Mary Poppins,” it’s not enough for costumes to be beautiful or memorable: they need to be magic. Costume designer Tony Walton blends the buttoned-up and straitlaced fashion of the Edwardian era with something that’s a little bit unexpected. The costumes have an unusual pop of color or a distinct flourish that cues the audience to the extraordinary nature of its lead character. The outfits of Mary Poppins herself especially have a touch of the fantastic about them, a perfect fit for a character who needs to function in both the real world and the imagination.
The 1960s is filled with prestige films focusing on English medieval and Renaissance history, and their costumes tend to fall into one of two categories. The first is a drab, nondescriptness, full of beiges and washed-out greens with a distinct burlap feel. That’s perhaps fine for Robin Hood, but not suited to a film about historic royalty. The second category is made up of costumes that look like costumes, brand new and elaborate but overwhelming. “Becket,” the story of the famously stormy relationship between Henry II and his Archbishop of Canterbury, has neither. The costumes in “Becket” seem like real clothing: they’re well-made, elegant, and detailed, but they also feel lived in.
5. The Leopard (1963)
dir. Luchino Visconti
“The Leopard” is an Italian historical film, and one of the few films that maintain real period accuracy with its costumes. Set in the 1860s and focusing on the fortunes of an aristocratic Sicilian family, it’s a sumptuous affair, with massive ballgowns, elaborate uniforms, and attention to detail that creates an incredible sense of opulence. The painstakingly orchestrated ball sequence shows this element of the film off to its full advantage, extravagant gowns filling every inch of the frame, both in the foreground and background.
4. Sweet Charity (1969)
dir. Bob Fosse
With legendary director and choreographer Bob Fosse’s incredible attention to detail, it’s no surprise that “Sweet Charity” would feature some incredible costuming. Add to the mix Edith Head, who by the time she worked on this film had already won the Academy Award for costume design seven times and been nominated an astonishing thirty times, and it’s pretty much a slam dunk. The “Hey, Big Spender,” sequence of the film showcases some of its best costuming, as a group of prostitutes desperately try to entice a wealthy-looking man over to them; the dresses they wear walk an inspired line between chic and tacky that hasn’t been done half as well before or since.
3. The Sound of Music (1965)
dir. Robert Wise
“The Sound of Music” doesn’t feature the extravagant costuming of many other 1960s musicals. Its costumes are humble and utilitarian, for the most part – even the obviously wealthy characters are in mostly understated attire. But as the years have gone by, it’s clearer than ever that they’re all incredibly memorable. From the children’s green floral outfits that they wear to traipse around Salzburg to Liesl’s “I Am Sixteen” dress from her gazebo rendezvous with Rolf, they’ve stood the test of time far better than many other flashy musical costumes from the same time period.
2. West Side Story (1961)
dir. Robert Wise, Jerome Robbins
“West Side Story,” the 1960s version of Romeo and Juliet depicting a star-crossed romance that transcends ethnic boundaries, builds a vibrant and dramatic world using sets, lighting and, most of all, costuming. Not only are Natalie Wood’s virginal white dress and Rita Moreno’s flirty purple ensemble both instant icons, the film carefully uses costumes to visually contrast the Jets from the Sharks. While the Sharks wear oranges, reds, and purples, the Jets are clad in more subtle earth tones, making them instantly identifiable as distinct from one another and at conflict. West Side Story took home ten Academy Awards in 1962, including the Oscar for Best Costume Design.
1. My Fair Lady (1964)
dir. George Cukor
When you look at a film like “My Fair Lady,” it’s clear that the costumes are not just simply a visual component of narrative storytelling, but works of art in themselves. In the Ascot Opening Race sequence alone, costume designer Cecil Beaton dresses the ensemble in monochromatic shades of grey, white, and black, using fabric and lace like paint on a canvas. He designed over 1000 costumes for “My Fair Lady,” but the ones we’ll always remember are two of Audrey Hepburn’s most iconic looks: the black and white lace Ascot dress, complete with a massively oversized hat, and glittering, elegant ballgown from the film’s climax.