The Iconic Outfits of Elle Woods in Legally Blonde (2001)
Elle Woods is the epitome of a complex female character. This hit movie has taught many to accept who they are wholeheartedly, and provide outfit inspo.
The everyday slights, indignities, put downs and insults that people of colour, women, LGBT populations or those who are marginalized experiences in their day-to-day interactions with people.
Legally Blonde was released 20 years ago and has been a huge inspiration to many. It was truly a cultural reset, empowering women to go against the mold that society tends to force us into. Further, it has provided numerous Halloween-costume-worthy-looks, and just general fashion tips, like how orange is not the new pink. I remember watching the film for the first time in 2016 and since then I’ve watched it more times than I can count - it just never gets old. Reese Witherspoon’s portrayal of Elle Woods brought a level of gentleness and strength and I can’t imagine anyone else playing the role.
Also, it teaches us that femininity does not equate to weakness, unlike other chick-flicks which shows that to be strong and taken seriously, you have to exude masculine energy either through your outfits, or your choice in profession. It was Elle’s work ethic, determination, and courage that led to her success and she looked incredible at each step of the way.
Fashion in films can give you so much of a character’s history without the requirement of dialogue. I love the symbolism that arises from clothing, and when looking at films especially, colors and textures can provide a lot of additional meaning such as showing the eventual growth that Elle undergoes through law school.
When we think of Elle Woods, we immediately associate her with the brightest shade of pink due to some of her iconic looks. However, there are instances wherein she is wearing other colors like blue and purple that play a role in our understanding of her character development. I will be analyzing some of Elle’s outfits in order of appearance and what I think it represents, with assistance from an interview done with costume designer Sophie de Rakoff.
All screenshots are taken from here.
In this scene, Elle is with Margot and Serena, her sorority best friends, in a store trying to find the perfect dress to wear to dinner with Warner where she suspects she will be proposed to. She tries on a blue sequined dress. She states in the scene that she wants to look special, thus straying away from her signature color. I’ve realized that she wears a lot of blue at the beginning of the film, which I will get into later.
This scene is symbolic as we get to see Elle’s intelligence when it comes to fashion (which makes sense considering she is a fashion major). In hindsight, this scene foreshadows the ending as her knowledge of something that may seem superficial ends up coming in handy in her law career. As mentioned previously, the idea of a woman having traditionally feminine interests like fashion and beauty is usually analogous with weakness and having a one-dimensional personality. Thus, this scene gives us an idea of Elle already breaking that stereotype as she tells the shop owner off from trying to scam her.
In this scene, she is getting picked up by Warner in her sorority house and is in a patterned dark pink halter top dress. It was created by makeup artist Molly Stern and has an asymmetrical bottom with squiggly lines.
De Rakoff states that Witherspoon requested for the dress to be “really young and relevant and not too grown-up”, which is perfect for the scene as those were the reasons why Warner ends up breaking up with her.
More specifically, he states that he needs to marry a Jackie, not a Marilyn. Marilyn, who in her iconic photo, is wearing a white dress with a similar silhouette to the one worn by Elle in this scene.
Furthermore, halter top dresses were a product of scarcity from World War II as its simplicity led to less material being required. In the 60s, this silhouette became synonymous with its implied informality. It was later revived in the late 1990s with stars like Britney Spears and Mariah Carey, It’s significance in Elle’s expectation to be proposed to in this scene is major.
Elle is in her college counselor’s office asking for advice on how to proceed with law school applications who tells her she needs excellent recommendations, a heck of an admissions essay and a 175 in her LSATs. Again in this scene, she is wearing blue.
She has already gotten into law school at this point and her parents, Daniel and Sapphire are surprised at this announcement. Her father even states that “law school is for people who are boring and ugly and serious”. Both her parents do not believe in her and are skeptical about this sudden change. Also note that her bikini is blue in this scene (it will make sense soon, I promise!)
The legendary pink pleather driving suit - very much a notable look of this movie. The contradiction between the pleather, which is quite a grown-up fabric, and the brightness of the pink is explained by Rakoff who states that she wanted to show how Elle is definitely a fish out of water in this new environment on the East Coast, but is still trying to keep true to herself.
In this shot, in particular, you can see that the people around her are already not taking her seriously (just like her parents, and Warner).
How she overcomes the challenge of balancing her true self with the academic demands of Harvard, is what makes this movie even more interesting. Unrelated but the line “Hi I’m Elle Woods, this is Bruiser Woods, and we are both Gemini vegetarians” from the introduction circle scene cracks me up each time.
Elle is absolutely doing the most in this outfit, which is so endearing as it is just a product of not knowing what to expect. This is one of de Rakoff’s favorite looks as she says that she loves that it has a little bit of everything - a cardigan, a skirt, a tie - implying that Elle is just trying to be prepared for anything that is to come (which she is not).
Also, this is the outfit where she says the iconic line “What, like it’s hard?” when running into Warner in the halls, who is taken aback that Elle has enrolled. Personally, I love the elegance that is brought to this outfit with the emerald green and the tie. Though it all clashes aesthetically, it just shows that she is still unsure and trying to figure things out underneath the facade of being confident with the pink of the shirt (which is a lot lighter than her normal bright Barbie pink).
One of the problems Elle faces on the first day is the immediate rivalry between her and Vivian that arises in Professor Stromwell’s class, which causes her to get kicked out of class. Vivian is clearly meant to be the complete opposite of Elle and in this introductory scene, she is sporting a blue sweater. We later find out that Vivian is in fact Warner’s fiance.
Blue plays a large part in the beginning of the film for this reason. Whenever Elle is insecure in her relationship with Warner, she tends to sport the color blue seen through Look 1, Look 3, Look 4, or even in the scene where she tells her Harvard plan to her friends for the first time (See left).
Thus, it can be implied that the color blue symbolizes her transition to be the woman that Warner desires. Vivian wearing this color, therefore, personifies Elle’s insecurities and all the traits that she does not have, which is exactly what Warner wants in a wife.
Though this article focuses on Elle’s outfits, I do think that the juxtaposition of Vivian’s outfits and Elle’s that illustrate the underlying issue of the portrayal of female characters in movies. Vivian tends to stay conservative throughout the film with her use of layering, plain colors and classic string of pearls around her neck. Elle even states that ”she's not completely unfortunate looking”. She is the preppy girl, known for her intellect and elegance - a product of her rich and privileged life growing up. She probably felt the need to be more mature growing up, reflected in her choice of outfits that though are put-together, can be deemed out-dating and boring.
Though we are supposed to villainize her due to their competition for Warner, I love that Vivian is as multi-dimensional as Elle as we see her want for female friendships (e.g. the scene where she reveals to Elle that Warner was on the waiting list and his father had to make a call to get him into Harvard) and the insecurities that arise seeing that Elle has it all: fashion sense, charisma, intelligence, and work ethic.
Another very notable look of Elle in which de Rakoff has noted that Witherspoon interpreted this scene as being more fun and flirty rather than having her in a sexier costume. Even though the party isn’t actually a costume party and literally anyone else would feel embarrassed, we really get to see Elle’s courage that we all love her for.
Further, this outfit marks the change in trajectory that she undergoes in her law school career as she starts studying for herself and herself only, after realizing that she will never be good enough for Warner who undermines her despite getting into the same law school as him.
In the montage we see Elle in a lot of purple, which is a result of pink and blue. Thus, it can be understood that we start seeing that doubt in herself diminish and rather, she starts to enjoy being in law school. Her blooming career in law starts to culminate with the past version of her that was innocent and naive, seen through the use of purple in these outfits wherein she is helping Paulette, played by Jennifer Coolidge, get her dog back from her ex. Further, Elle’s confidence increases with this newly gained knowledge that she is able to use to help others.
Also, in this shot on the left, Elle is a lot more stripped down with her light purple shirt. Breaking away from the multitude of layers of doubt when compared to her in Look 6 as she starts to put in the work for herself.
Similarly, in this scene on the right, she is wearing a purple cardigan with a hot pink shirt underneath. Personally, this is one of my favourite scenes as she makes a point that is different to Vivian’s and later is praised for it by Professor Callahan. Thus, proving that her work ethic is finally paying off.
We get to see Elle at her classiest and most sophisticated. De Rakoff states that most of her clothing for the internship were from the brand Céline, known for its chic minimalism stemming from its Parisian roots. Though most of the outfit is black, her sense of style and personality peeks out from the ruffles and slip showing from the bottom of the skirt.
This part of the movie really brings out the best of her as she keeps Brooke’s secret for the sake of her reputation. Her professionalism and the sisterhood she tends to have with the women around her is beautiful to watch.
We have reached the pièce de résistance of all of the outfits: the all-pink courtroom outfit. This is where we see Elle in all her glory. De Rakoff states that this outfit is important as it has to portray Elle in her truest form.
This outfit incorporates her newfound confidence with the Elle she always was, thus, proving to herself that she is in fact capable and intelligent when other people did not think she was at the time. It is empowering as the things that others may have ridiculed her for have proven to be useful as she wins the case.
As you can tell, I absolutely adore this movie. There is so much nuance brought in by the costumes that just encapsulates the growth and empowerment Elle undergoes throughout the film, with grace and determination.
Further, I love the theme of sisterhood with her strong friendship with Paulette, who gives her a lot of support in times when she needs some encouragement. But also with Vivian, who becomes best friends with her by the time they graduate. The important messages alongside Witherspoon’s incredible portrayal of this character make it a timeless piece of cinema and will forever hold a place in my heart, and many others.
For example, Ariana Grande recreated some of the looks in her 2019 music video, “thank u, next”. I have high hopes that the third movie expected to come out in 2022, created by Mindy Kaling and Dan Goor, will have the same comfort-movie feel as this one does. Till then, I will be rewatching Legally Blonde for the foreseeable future.