10 classic style movies that inspire moviegoers

(The Kobal Collection)

Movies have always influenced style. In 1934 -- when Clark Gable shed his shirt in the Frank Capra comedy “It Happened One Night” to reveal his bare chest -- men’s undershirt sales reportedly plummeted. Men didn’t suddenly tire of layering. They saw an easy “in” to becoming a bit like Gable, who played an extraordinarily dashing ordinary Joe.

“The most important style movies make the audience walk out and think, ‘I wish I could look like that,’ ” says Patricia King Hanson, historian at the American Film Institute. “In the 1930s, legend has it that Al Capone wanted to dress like [the actor] George Raft, who played gangsters.”

No doubt Capone saw a chance to finesse his profile. It’s not hard to imagine hookers fashioning their street wear after Julia Roberts’ character in “Pretty Woman” or Jane Fonda’s call girl in “Klute” either. But cinema doesn’t set out to hawk clothes. The costumes -- whether it’s Faye Dunaway’s beret in “Bonnie and Clyde” or Richard Gere’s Armani suits in “American Gigolo” -- are part of the larger sell: an image.

And that’s what makes style in film, more than fashion on a runway, so marvelously democratic. A woman slips into her husband’s trousers and striped necktie and she suddenly has entree to be as zany as Diane Keaton in “Annie Hall.” A guy, tired of his milquetoast silhouette, adopts the gait of a hungry thug wearing a slim-cut suit and Wayfarers, à la “Reservoir Dogs.” Clothes help shape our identities, and copying a film icon is like taking a shortcut to cool.

“An agent once called me and said, ‘Take me shopping. I want to look like John Travolta in ‘Get Shorty,’ ” says costume designer Betsy Heimann, who also outfitted the motley gang in “Reservoir Dogs.” “He didn’t just want to look like him. He wanted to be that guy.”

And who hasn’t wanted to thieve an identity when the credits roll on a great character-driven film? The style movies that affect us most deeply are the ones that present a packaged identity. It’s not just the clothes and shoes that we covet. We want to dive inside the character headfirst and smirk like her or tango like him or even throw out a dirty frying pan instead of washing it, like Gena Rowlands did in “Gloria.” I did that once, imagining myself as a Cassavetes moll. I also bought knee-high leather boots, hot-rollered my hair and practiced flaring my nostrils like Julie Christie in “Don’t Look Now” -- just last month.

That’s the power of the movies we sought out for this list of 10 films that left us -- and still leave us -- style-struck. They’re the ones with a clear emphasis on the broader sense of style, a distinctiveness that has as much to do with subtext as surface. Designer clothes figure in a few movies. Others offer us the Pied Pipers of subcultures. One, a documentary about abject socialites, unintentionally redefines the rule of being stylish as “working with what you’ve got left in life.”

Wrapped in fantasy

Clothes don’t make the character, of course, but they’re a powerful talisman for the fantasy. Not that we could always slip right in. In the 1930s, dressing like the saucy socialites of screwball comedies -- the women in bias-cut silk gowns and dapper men in top hats -- was no mean feat.

“There wasn’t much money around, and the gap between the clothes on-screen and the clothes people were wearing was immense,” says film critic and author David Thomson. “Seeing a movie was a way to dip your toe vicariously into the great swimming pool of luxury. Back then, style hadn’t worked its way down to off the rack yet.” Meaning those sumptuous clothes were as out of reach as caviar.

Twenty years later, the economy was flush and the no-fuss looks in films couldn’t be easier to ape. Take Marlon Brando’s crisp white tee and cuffed jeans in 1953’s “The Wild One” or Elizabeth Taylor’s simple slip in “Butterfield 8" in 1960. “In the ‘50s, people were trying to find their identities through their clothes,” says Paul Duncan, editor of Taschen’s “Cinema Now” and " The Godfather Family Album.” “They were mixing classical with rebellious looks in movies, and everyone wanted to do that too.”

Brad Pitt’s red leather jacket in “Fight Club”? Uma Thurman’s white shirt and bangs in “Pulp Fiction”? Movie looks spread virally now, and cults of style multiply.

So keep in mind that picking the best style movies is as subjective as choosing flavors for a banana split. One gal’s “Network” is another woman’s “Working Girl.” Most people have a favorite era, when it comes to cinema style, that’s based on nostalgia or the period’s aesthetics. “Costume dramas are more influential to fashion designers than to the women in the street,” notes Andrew Bolton, curator of the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

How then to settle on a list of the 10 films that epitomize the power of style? We polled historians, critics, fashion designers, costumers, directors and any stylish dinner companions willing to weigh in. And we tried to reach beyond the films that come easily to mind -- because the world of great movie style is so much broader than “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” say, or “American Gigolo.”

The aim was to honor films that are sometimes overlooked. And, especially, the ones that made us identity thieves. “You can’t always predict which films will be influential in terms of style or fashion,” says Stella Bruzzi, author of “Undressing Cinema: Clothing and Identity in the Movies.” “It happens when the audience really wants to be that someone.”