Legally Blonde Fashion: Costume Designer Sophie de Rakoff on Elle's 'Signature Color'
Pink, Pink, and More Pink
Legally Blonde tells the story of wealthy, California, sorority girl Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon), who follows her ex to Harvard Law School to win him back and finds that she doesn’t fit in amongst her new peers, in part because of her fierce love of the color pink. Costume designer Sophie de Rakoff (Legally Blonde 2, This Means War), who has worked with Witherspoon on six films, explains of the color, “The backstory is, Reese and I, and maybe the production designers, went to visit some sororities [in downtown Los Angeles]. We knew that she needed a signature color, and we were like, ‘Do we really want it to be pink? It’s so on the nose. It’s so feminine. Could we do lavender? Could we do light blue? Is there another color that we could do?’ When we met all the sorority girls, it had to be pink.” On the film’s 15th anniversary, de Rakoff expands on Elle’s signature color, how her style departs from that of the Harvard crowd, and more (you bet there’s talk of the bunny outfit for Vivian’s “costume” party).
The Proposal Breakup Outfit
Toward the beginning of the film, Elle searches for an outfit to wear to a dinner with her boyfriend Warner (Matthew Davis), and it has to be perfect because she thinks he’s going to propose. “I wanted something traditionally sexy, something reminiscent of an old-fashioned movie star, something that was more of a wiggle dress, something that was very captivating,” de Rakoff recalls. She ultimately went with a piece made by Witherspoon’s makeup artist Molly Stern, a halter dress with an asymmetrical bottom that was a darker pink and had squiggly lines on it. Witherspoon suggested Stern, whom de Rakoff says “does everything by hand, hand sews stuff and works a lot with really fine, stretchy jersey, so I knew that she could get me the shape that I wanted and still have it be really young and relevant and not too grown-up.” The dinner ended up being a bust as Warner dumped Elle, but the dress was a big success.
The Pink Sequin Bikini
In Elle’s Harvard video essay, she wears a pink sequin bikini, which is just one example of a piece de Rakoff says she came to in a less structured, very organic way. “At that point, I wasn’t sitting down and designing on paper, like I wasn’t sketching,” she explains. “It was much more about ‘Ok, she needs a bikini for this scene. Well guess what? She’s going to wear a sequin bikini, so let’s go and find that. What’s that going to look like?” She was able to work that way because she had a lot of creative freedom on the film. “A lot of the time, when you do a studio movie, with the costumes in particular, it’s decision by committee,” she says. “Everyone has an opinion and there’s a lot of vicarious designing from studio executives, so quite often a vision can become muddled quickly because you have so many cooks in the kitchen, [but] this was not that.”
The Driving Suit
“It was a point in my career where I was a lot more spontaneous because I didn’t know what I couldn’t do and the studio didn’t restrict me," De Rakoff continues. "There was no second-guessing and when there’s no second-guessing your imagination is a lot more wild. ‘Oh, she’s driving? Guess what, she needs a driving suit, so it’s a [pink], leather driving suit.’” De Rakoff worked from moment to moment, determining what each scene required. As for her overall vision, “It was about taking the idea of a wealthy, California sorority girl, and also a character that was very much obsessed with fashion. What that would look like when she went to Harvard, to the East Coast? How could she be a fish out of water, but still be true to herself? It was always about, what would Elle want to do in this situation? How would she dress herself? What would she think was appropriate?”
The First Day of School Ensemble
Elle’s ensemble for the first day of school is one of de Rakoff’s favorites. “I love to put a girl in a tie; I think it’s so cute,” she details. “To me, that was everything that Elle would do. She’d say ‘Oh, I’m going to Harvard and it’s on the East Coast so it’s chilly, so I need something warm, but [it's] law school and it’s professional, so I need a tie, but I want to wear a skirt because I’m a girl. I think it came together really well as an outfit.” That outfit had some pieces that were high, some low, and some made by the film’s costume team, which is how de Rakoff likes to approach her work, just with a little bit everything. “If you were going to write it down,” she goes on, “you’d be like, cardigan, skirt, tie, which sounds like a really conservative outfit, and then you look at it and it’s really individual. This girl has a really unique style.”
Vivian’s First Day of School Getup
Though Elle’s first-day-of-school sweater is green, and she appears in the color a handful of times in the film, de Rakoff says earth tones were really reserved for other characters, namely those at Harvard like Warner’s fiancee, Vivian (Selma Blair). “It’s a color that works really well on Reese, but I can’t remember if it was conscious [to put her in it] or not. I would say the more muted version of that and the earth tones were [for] the other characters.” As for Vivian’s style, she’s very conservative, so pretty opposite to Elle. “Vivian was Ivy League, educated, silver spoon to a certain degree, so she’s tweeds, [she’s houndstooth], and she’s got a lot more traditional fabric to her,” de Rakoff says. “[She wears] stuff that is a little more masculine, and then she’ll have argyle.” She’s all about tradition, she’s “Love Story-ish.”
The Bunny Costume
Vivian invites Elle to a “costume” party, so Elle shows up as a bunny that’s less va-va-voom and more fun and flirty. “That’s partly Reese though; it’s how she wears things,” de Rakoff notes. “That was her interpretation of the character, [and] if she had vamped it up, it would have been activated in a different way. If she was playing a different character, that could be a much sexier costume, but you put the Malibu on it and she has Miu Miu shoes on, which have that asymmetrical heel on them; she’s not in crazy shoes. And it’s super cheap, like the ears are bent over on the headband. She makes it cute, as opposed to super sexy, because that’s what she did with her character. She looks like a Playboy Bunny, but when you see [the costume] in the movie, her interpretation of it is a whole other thing.” Turns out the party isn’t actually one for costumes, but Elle still looks great.
Paulette’s Style and Fervor for Denim
Elle’s manicurist Paulette (Jennifer Coolidge) has a fun and adventurous sense of style like Elle, but is less polished than said blonde and bubbly counterpart. “She was more down-to-earth, homespun, eclectic,” de Rakoff says of the character, who often appears in all her denim glory. “The denim speaks, I think, to Middle America. It has that little bit Western feel to it no matter how it’s interpreted. Paulette really is a mishmash of all different things because her character is so all over the place. The idea for her is basically that she’d be easier and she would be someone who would be trying, but wouldn’t have that innate sense of style that Elle did.” To be fair, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone with Elle's fashion sense.
As Elle spends more time at Harvard, she starts to blend in with the Ivy League crowd more and more, but does still maintain her strong, personal style. Take the outfit she wears for her first day at Professor Callahan’s (Victor Garber) internship; it’s black and professional, but has a ruffled blouse and slip peeking out at the bottom that keeps things fun. Many of the clothes she wears at the law office are by Céline, and de Rakoff looked to designers and similar brands because it’s a contemporary film in a contemporary world. “I think fashion designers do what they do and they do it very well. Their clothes can often be a tool for us in addition to what we bring, so it would be ‘Ok, we know that we want this... professional look. Who is doing that this season? Who would Elle be looking at?’ She’d be like ‘Oh, I love that. Céline does that. I’m going to go and get this from Céline.’”
Brooke’s On-Trial Looks
Brooke (Ali Larter) is another point of comparison for Elle, and she’s most similar style-wise. Since she’s on trial for the murder of her husband, she spends a lot of her time behind bars in an orange jumpsuit, and we all know that orange is just the worst. But she shows off her style while on trial, opting for a newspaper-print blazer. “That was about making a statement in a courtroom and having a point to prove, being somewhat of a fish-out-of-water,” de Rakoff says before turning to the similarities between Brooke and Elle. “She was supposed to be the kind of older version of Elle, almost like someone that had a similar past or background.”
The Courtroom Standout
As you can see, Elle wears a lot of pink in myriad shades, but the dress she wears in the courtroom, when she takes over as Brooke’s lawyer, is a true pink and with good reason. “She needed to be her most true self at this moment,” de Rakoff says of the look, which was a riff on a shirt dress and suit and had glittery touches. “She needed to be like the super vibrant, alive version of Elle, so that’s why we went with this bright pink, and then used the light pink to tone it down for the details.” All together, the costumes and film itself have continued to endure. “It’s this movie that girls come back to again and again and again and again and again,” de Rakoff concludes. “What Reese did with that character, it’s still really relevant to girls today and I think that’s the most interesting thing about the movie, and they still respond to the clothes. They could be dated, but I think because they’re...so idiosyncratic and [Reese] wears them a certain way, it’s like a Goldie Hawn movie; it kind of has a longevity that stays.”