Black Magic

When it comes to sex on the big screen, the black dress is a cinematic tradition all its own.


Tom Cruise takes one look at Renée Zellweger's black spaghetti-strap first-date dress in Jerry Maguire and pronounces, "Wow! That's more than a dress-that's an Audrey Hepburn movie." He was definitely on to something: in Hollywood, the right black dress is powerful psychosexual dramatic device and Audrey Hepburn wore some of the best. As costume designer Joseph Porro, who designed Lucy Liu's wardrobe in the upcoming Shanghai Noon, says, "It was Chanel who made the black dress modern, but we do have Audrey Hepburn to tank as well." Like Rita Hayworth's strapless black gown in Gilda before it, the pearl-draped column Edith Head and Hubert de Givenchy created for Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's became an icon. "The black dress comes with its own life," says costume designer Ann Roth, who created Gwyneth Paltrow's upper-crust wardrobe in The Talented Mr. Ripley.

In movies, a black dress gets the job done like nothing else-no matter what the dress or what the job. Vivien Leigh slayed Clark Gable from the confines of a corseted black mourning gown in Gone With the Wind. Mrs. Robinson's knee-length shift reduced Dustin Hoffman to a stammering mess in The Graduate. Anne Parillaud dodged bullets in skintight number in La Femme Nikita, Jamie Lee Curtis wore one to dangle from a helicopter in True Lies. In The Thomas Crown Affair, Rene Russo wore a see-through black Halston to pluck Pierce Brosnan out of a supermodels arms. Ashley Judd's Armani allowed her to breeze into a Big Easy society bash in Double Jeopardy.

After seeing what a black dress can do on-screen, women have always been eager to cry the same thing in real life--classic black designs have been knocked off for decades. Remember the scrappy gown Robert Redford bought Demi Moore before making his Indecent Proposal? For a year after that movie was in theaters, half the women in America looked like they were at least potentially for sale.

--Kathleen Hosman


(counter clockwise from top left) The dress Rita Hayworth wore when she sang "Put the Blame on Mame" in Gilda (1946) sparked a craze for strapless dresses; Anita Ekberg's gown in La Dolce Vita (1960), a slinky wrapper for an international sex symbol, evoked the dramatic sexiness of such screen sirens as Ava Gardner and Marilyn Monroe; the black column dress Edith Head and Givenchy designed for Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961) was so elegant audiences forgot that Holly Golightly was, after all, a call girl who cabbed home in this dress at six in the morning; this noir number was the one that set off the 19-year-old Lauren Bacall in her screen debut in To Have and Have Not (1944), in which she stole costar Humphrey Bogart's heart; Demi Moore's strappy dress in Indecent Proposal (1993) conveyed her character's power over Robert Redford's lust-driven millionaire and went on to become one of the decade's most copied designs.