When I participated in high school drama club, I realized that the costume department was one of the hardest working and most under appreciated groups of theater kids. They had to design, make, and alter outfits that would distinguish characters among all the other actors on the stage. If a look wasn't memorable enough, there was a good chance that the audience would find the character forgettable.
A similar thing happens when making movies. Other than great lines and a catchy theme song, a fantastic costume is one of the best ways to make sure a character becomes a pop culture icon. Show someone a red cape, and they'll probably think of Superman. A winged helmet will call to mind Thor. And what about a brown fedora? Or a black pointy hat? Point is, there are some costumes out there that stand above the rest as being iconic. Look below to see the top 10 most iconic costumes worn by actors (costumes not inspired by any previous visual media, like comic books).
10. The Black Knight (John Cleese) - Monty Python and the Holy Grail
The brilliance of this costume lies not only in its simplicity, but in the way it manages to be menacing and completely ridiculous at the same time. The bucket-like helmet hides the Knight's face, making him mysterious and threatening, but the words that spew from his visor totally offset the audience's expectations, making the Knight - and his look - very memorable.
9. Neo (Keanu Reeves) - The Matrix
While Neo's costume may seem a little dated (tell me it's not the look of the late '90s/early '00s), the fact that we still call long dark trench coats "Matrix coats" demonstrates this costume's effect on pop culture. The Matrix was a very visually stunning film, and the clean and simple elegance of its costumes probably helped the movie to succeed.
8. Frank N Furter (Tim Curry) - Rocky Horror Picture Show
There is so much to be said about this costume. It's sexy. It's confusing. It's terrifying. It's completely and irrevocably tied to the identity of the film, and yet is infinitely repeatable by anyone with a sewing machine and a decent makeup kit. It's a costume that challenges ideas and assumptions about sexuality without being (too) garish or jokey. And seriously, Tim Curry rocks those fishnets.
7. Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) - Back to the Future
For an outfit that seems so mundane and everyday, Marty's get-up is hard to forget. Maybe it's the simple red, white, and blue color palette that makes it so comfortable and easy to accept, or the unique details in his coat cuffs and the pattern of his shirt. No matter what, anytime you double-denim with a red vest on top, you're going to look ready for time travel.
6. Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell) - A Clockwork Orange
Stanley Kubrick is known for his visually-striking films, but Clockwork Orange is the one that stands out in the costume department. Dressing his villainous main character in all white creates a sense of both a clean-cut future and a kind of strange purity, while the suspenders and bowler hat tie Alex to the past. He is a man caught between two worlds, and his costume makes him grotesque and memorable.
5. Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) - Pirates of the Caribbean
While he is the newest character on this list, Captain Jack Sparrow made quite the impression when he debuted in 2003. Unlike most of the other characters mentioned in this article, Jack's costume is pretty complicated, with lots of doodads and trinkets and colors. It was really the dreadlocks that made Jack Sparrow stand out in the first place, but rather than being a short-lived fad, the character has continued to leave a mark on pop culture.
4. Dracula (Bela Lugosi) - Dracula
Bela Lugosi and his Dracula cape were so completely tied together that Lugosi was actually buried in the thing. After films like Nosferatu, which displayed vampires in a disturbing and gruesome light, Bela Lugosi started the trend of making them elegant and sexy. His Dracula look became the accepted generic look for all vampire costumes, and it is only in recent years that filmmakers and artists have managed to break free of his influence.
3. Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) - Raiders of the Lost Ark
Indiana Jones's costume is so popular that there are entire websites dedicated to tracking down the original sources of each of his costume pieces - or to recreating them altogether. While his trademark fedora hat is key to the character's look, the jacket, whip, and satchel are almost as memorable.
2. Darth Vader (David Prowse) - Star Wars
I'm at a loss for words as to why Darth Vader's costume is so iconic: in my mind, the costume just is, and always was, and always will be. Sure, it nails down "sci-fi villain" to a tee, but it is so much more than that. It manages to be evil, menacing, imposing, dangerous, mysterious, and sad, all at the same time, and it is a costume that allows the audience to experience the tragedy and redemption of Darth Vader without ever seeing his face.
1. The Tramp (Charlie Chaplin) - City Lights
Charlie Chaplin's Tramp character was one of Hollywood's first true icons, and the fact that the character is recognizable today to millions of people who have never seen his films is a testament to the character and the costume. Dressing up as Charlie Chaplin is the only time it is acceptable to sport a Hitler mustache, which means that a simple character managed to, in a small way, overcome what is otherwise a trademark of human evil.
So there you have it: the 10 most iconic movie costumes worn by actors. I can guarantee that even if you've never seen the films, you have probably seen some representation of the outfit. Did you see all of your favorite costumes on the list? If not, maybe you'll spot a few in part 2.