20 of pop culture's most show-stopping red dresses
Ladies in red
Red means stop. And throughout the history of pop culture, costume designers, stylists, and stars themselves have used the color to show-stopping, heart-stopping, stop-you-in-your-tracks effect. In celebration of the 20th anniversary of Moulin Rouge! and the release of Disney’s Cruella, here are 20 unforgettable red dresses that could stop time itself.
Moulin Rouge! (2001)
Did someone say “smoldering temptress”? Early in Baz Luhrmann’s beloved jukebox musical, in an attempt to win an investor for the iconic venue where she is the star performer, Mademoiselle Satine (Nicole Kidman) gets strapped into this to-die-for red dress (from costumers Catherine Martin and Angus Strathie, who won an Oscar for the film) and then promptly changes out of it for a poetry reading inside an elephant (just go with it), only to appear, corseted up once again, to perform the medley of love songs that steals the whole movie. Spectacular, spectacular indeed.
In Craig Gillespie’s live-action origin story about Disney’s most glamorous villain, Emma Stone’s Cruella (dressed by costume designer Jenny Beavan) shows up to a black-and-white ball in a hooded white cape — which she dramatically burns up, commanding the attention of the whole room, to reveal a bloodred gown inspired by Charles James’ “Tree” dress. Hey, at least her hair respected the dress code.
Romeo and Juliet (1968)
That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet, but by any other color? No thanks. Olivia Hussey’s lovely Juliet attends the Capulet ball in Franco Zeffirelli’s Technicolor adaptation of the Bard’s romantic tragedy wearing this arresting scarlet gown (her family typically opts for shades of red in this film, while the Montagues favor blue). Who could blame Romeo (Leonard Whiting) for falling so fast?
Pretty Woman (1990)
Michelle Obama at the 2013 inaugural ball
For her second inaugural ball as first lady, Michelle Obama stuck with designer Jason Wu (a white gown of whose she wore four years prior) and wore this custom chiffon-and-velvet bright red gown, paired with matching Jimmy Choo shoes. The look’s most talked-about feature, however? That would be her bangs. Who doesn’t love a FLOTUS fringe?
Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
Following summertime parties and Halloween intrigue, the emotional climax of Vincente Minnelli’s lush musical comes at Christmas, and Judy Garland’s Esther Smith certainly dresses for the occasion. In this rich red party dress, with a romantic sweetheart neckline and cheerily puffed sleeves, she dances all night with boy next door John Truitt (Tom Drake) and then serenades her little sister Tootie (Margaret O’Brien) with the melancholy Yuletide standard “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” in its original, and definitive, rendition.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)
The bubblegum pink William Travilla sheath worn by Marilyn Monroe during her iconic performance of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” might be Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ most celebrated look, but we’d be remiss to overlook these ruby-red showgirl dresses worn by Monroe and Jane Russell to open Howard Hawks’ subversive musical comedy. Glittering in the slit-to-there gowns, the duo delivers an efficient statement of purpose with the number “Two Little Girls from Little Rock,” which clearly establishes the gold-digging M.O. that makes “Diamonds” sparkle so brilliantly at the film’s climax.
In the Mood for Love (2000)
As the melancholy Mrs. Chan in Wong Kar-wai’s 1960s-set drama, Maggie Cheung wears a whole series of breathtaking cheongsams. Her vibrant red one is hard to see here — and it hardly gets any screen time, as it appears in a mostly cut but significant scene — but the very elusiveness of the image echoes the spirit of the achingly romantic film itself, in which something beautiful and longed-for exists only in incomplete glimpses, or within a hopeful imagination.
It’s a testament to Alicia Silverstone’s pitch-perfect performance as Cher Horowitz, Beverly Hills teen queen in Amy Heckerling’s era-defining, Emma-inspired high school classic, that her cry of “this is an Alaïa!” really is as memorable as the dress itself — a clean-lined, body-hugging mini that could only be made by, like, a totally important designer.
Meghan Markle at the 2020 Mountbatten Festival of Music
In one of her and Prince Harry’s final outings as senior working members of the royal family, the Duchess of Sussex made an impact in a sleek, caped, bright red Safiyaa dress (which coordinated elegantly with her husband, wearing his Royal Marines dress uniform for the last time).
Funny Face (1957)
The film may have urged you to “think pink,” but Audrey Hepburn’s most spectacular style moment (unless you prefer her all-black beatnik-chic look) in Stanley Donen’s sunny musical is the stunning appearance — on the steps of the Louvre in front of “Winged Victory” — of this crimson sheath by Hubert de Givenchy, whose partnership with Hepburn made for one of the most influential and generally gorgeous collaborations in fashion history.
Ruth Negga at the 2017 Oscars
There as a lot worth loving in this look from nominated Loving star Ruth Negga, who was a vision of elegance on the Oscars red carpet in a custom Valentino lace gown, accessorized with a ruby tiara and ACLU ribbon.
Gone with the Wind (1939)
Here’s a dress that aged better than the movie it’s in! Everything Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara wears in the Victor Fleming-directed, David O. Selznick-produced adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s romantic epic is extravagant, but nothing makes such an impact as this shocking red dress — which is cut to a much narrower silhouette than is seen anywhere else in the film — that Rhett (Clark Gable) makes her wear to a party.
Minnie Driver at the 1998 Oscars
Nominated for Best Supporting Actress for Good Will Hunting, Driver hit the Academy’s carpet in a slinky red gown by Randolph Duke for Halston. She accessorized the bias-cut, asymmetrical dress with matching lipstick and a dyed faux fur stole.
Ever After (1998)
She wore pale blues to win her prince and lost her glass slipper in an icy white, but Drew Barrymore’s Danielle de Barbarac — the leading lady of Andy Tennant’s practically perfect Cinderella adaptation — finally appears as a princess, to her stepmother (Anjelica Huston) and the rest of the world, draped in regal red.
Jennifer Lawrence at the 2011 Oscars
She’s the ultimate animated sex symbol. She’s got Kathleen Turner’s voice! Of course she’s wearing a sparkling, gravity-defying, absolutely insane red dress.
Rihanna at the 2017 London premiere of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
Eternal style star Rihanna loves to play with volume, and she hit the blue carpet at the London premiere of Luc Besson’s space opera wearing a rich red Giambattista Valli gown with a tiny fitted off-the-shouler bodice atop a huge tiered skirt.
Lady Gaga at the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards
The Matrix (1999)
She doesn’t even have a name, but to be fair, she’s not even a real person. In the Wachowskis’ seminal sci-fi classic, as Neo (Keanu Reeves) learns how to navigate the simulation that is the Matrix, he gets distracted from his lesson by the woman in the red dress — which is just what she was programmed into the scene to do. Rookie mistake! But hey, he’s not the first person to fall victim to the glamour of a red dress. That’s exactly how they work! Aren’t you being distracted from something by looking through photos of red dresses at this very moment? Is that, perhaps, the point of all of this? Are we in the Matrix right now???
BONUS!!! Britney Spears' "Oops!… I Did It Again" music video (2000)
Oops! This is technically a jumpsuit, but when we’re talking about showstopping red looks, Britney’s iconic intergalactic-Titanic latex ensemble absolutely cannot be left out of the conversation. That is just so typically her!