A character’s outfit can be more important than you might think. It might simply grab the audience’s attention, or it can help define who the character is in the context of the film—particularly when it comes to period pieces and superhero movies, in which seemingly tiny incorrect details can make a huge difference (and cause a huge uproar). Here’s a look at some of the most controversial movie costumes in recent memory, as well as the explanations for their existence.
Karen Gillan – Jumanji
In September 2016, audiences got their first look at a set photo from Jake Kasdan’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, a new adventure inspired by 1995’s Robin Williams-led adaptation of the Chris Van Allsburg children’s book. In the photo, Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, and Jack Black are each wearing jungle-appropriate outfits…alongside co-star Karen Gillan, who’s wearing what amounts to child-sized clothing. The photo prompted immediate criticism, prompting Gillan to try and defuse controversy by telling The Hollywood Reporter, "The payoff is worth it, I promise!"
THR later revealed that the first footage for the film, which screened at CinemaCon in March, does explain Gillan’s skimpy outfit. "The plot involves four high-school students who are forced to clean out the basement of their school while in detention," reads a recap. "They find an old video game (rather than a board game) and each chooses a character to play." Gillan’s character is a shy girl who transforms into her adult character, and — as viewers saw in the film’s first trailer — the costume choice is a reflection of the way video games portray women.
George Clooney – Batman & Robin
Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin was a disaster, to put it mildly. Setting aside the cartoony elements, the terrible dialogue, and poor plot choices, fans will never forget the movie costumes—specifically the Bat-nipples.
"There’s no way I can explain it to you other than I had no idea that putting nipples on the bat costume were going to [make] international headlines," Schumacher explained in a Batman special. "The bodies for the suits—the inspiration for them are Greek statues that have perfect bodies. And, so, we’re molding this perfect body in rubber, and they’re anatomically erotic. So, it never occurred to me not to put nipples on the men’s suits because I didn’t know the male nipple was a controversial body part."
That all sounds reasonable enough—and if Batman & Robin had succeeded on many other levels, audiences might have been able to look past the costume distractions. Alas, the movie sent the entire franchise into limbo for a solid decade, leaving fans with years to mock the worst misstep in the franchise’s long cinematic history.
Ryan Reynolds – Green Lantern
This costume caused controversy the second fans caught a glimpse. An all-CGI Green Lantern? Original stills and trailers for the film looked pretty awful, and although the studio insisted it would look amazing onscreen, the animated costume has been widely held up as one of many reasons for the film’s failure. Star Ryan Reynolds later admitted he didn’t care for the CGI ensemble. "I mean, it’s brutal doing a film where you’re wearing a motion capture suit for the whole time," he pointed out. "I didn’t even get to see the Green Lantern suit until the first trailer. I never even knew what it looked like."
The filmmakers wanted to do something new for a superhero, and costume designer Ngila Dickson came up with the idea that the suit was his power manifesting outside the body—an interesting idea, but the special effects just didn’t hold up, and Dickson agreed. "We were literally doing like what you would sculpt in a studio, but we were doing it with a computer," she recalled. "In many respects, we were following all the same principles, but you never got the tangible result that you get from the build you do in a costume house."
Rebel Wilson – Pitch Perfect 3
Even before Pitch Perfect 3 made its way to theaters, the production caught flak for potential discrimination against their plus-size stars. Rebel Wilson posted a photo online of herself alongside co-stars Brittany Snow and Chrissie Fit; while the latter two were wearing sleeveless tops, Wilson was in short sleeves. The photo prompted accusations of size discrimination, arguably intensified since Wilson has been a public advocate for a healthy female body image.
The controversy intensified when people pointed out that Ester Dean, one of Wilson’s co-stars, also wore a similar sleeved version of the striped sailor top in a photo posted on her Instagram feed. Movie costume designer Salvador Perez ultimately took to Twitter to try and put out the fire. "I let each actor decide how their costume fit, it was their choice," Perez wrote. "Rebel, Ester & Hana Mae wanted sleeves." In another photo posted by Kelly Jackle, each of the stars are seen wearing a variety of styles of the same sailor top. It appears that the photo that ignited the controversy in the first place may have been taken out of context.
Margot Robbie – Suicide Squad
Harley Quinn’s big-screen debut in David Ayer’s Suicide Squad was one of the movie’s biggest draws, especially since Margot Robbie was playing the famed villain. As with any other comic book character, a lot of media attention focused on her movie costume—particularly how much of it there was.
When asked about her body-hugging costume, Robbie told The New York Times she was "wearing hot pants because they’re sparkly and fun," but that didn’t mean she necessarily enjoyed the experience. "As Margot, no, I don’t like wearing that," she admitted. "I’m eating burgers at lunchtime, and then you go do a scene where you’re hosed down and soaking wet in a white t-shirt, it’s so clingy, and you’re self-conscious about it."
Ayer offered his perspective, saying he "didn’t think denim overalls would be appropriate for that character" and insisting Robbie understood "that’s part of the iconography." He may have a point: Harley initially wore a jester suit in Batman: The Animated Series, but over the years, her wardrobe has changed significantly as the character went from being a jester to more of a sex symbol in the comic book industry—who’s now made her way into Hollywood, hot pants and all.
Marilyn Monroe – The Seven Year Itch
Everyone’s seen photos of Marilyn Monroe standing on a subway grate in a free-flowing white dress. The shot filmed for Monroe’s 1955 release The Seven Year Itch, was totally intentional—but the filmmakers didn’t imagine it would cause such a stir.
It didn’t take a genius to figure out that filming Monroe in public might generate some buzz for The Seven Year Itch, so they shot on a real New York street, invited 100 photographers, and let a crowd of over 2000 watch the action. Photographer George Zimbel was there and said the crowd went "’50s wild" (a more polite kind of enthusiasm than we see from crowds today) every time Monroe’s dress flew up. The crowd loved Marilyn and she easily stole the picture, but one man was definitely not a fan of the stunt.
Baseball star Joe DiMaggio, Monroe’s husband at the time, unexpectedly arrived at the raucous set. After watching his wife ogled and hollered at, he decided to leave with his friend and columnist Walter Winchell. Zimbel recounted the moment, recalling, "They were very publicly leaving and everything stopped for their exit…There was a changed mood on the set and everyone could feel it." According to the New York Times, Monroe and DiMaggio got in a terrible fight after filming, and the next day on set, Monroe needed makeup to cover the bruises. Though the revealing dress wasn’t the only problem in the marriage, it did seem to be the straw that broke the camel’s back, as Monroe filed for divorce three weeks after the infamous scene.
As for the dress itself, costume designer William Travilla didn’t imagine it would become his most memorable piece. He took care to give Monroe an outfit that would convey her sweet, innocent nature, while still letting her sexiness shine through. The dress was hand pleated with metal boning and made in an ivory crepe. Weirdly, ivory would look more white than white on film, so every Marilyn Monroe impersonator has been getting it wrong for years. Despite his detailed work, Travilla always called it "that silly little dress" and didn’t seem to appreciate all the fuss.
Carrie Fisher – Return of the Jedi
Princess Leia’s metal bikini struck an immediate chord with adolescent male fans of the Star Wars series from the moment it debuted in Return of the Jedi. But not everyone fell in love with the "slave Leia" outfit; in fact, many viewers found it to be a prime example of sexual objectification and sexist treatment of the series’ only notable female character at the time. Carrie Fisher, who played Leia and had to put up with decades of discussion around the outfit, warned Daisy Ridley, star of The Force Awakens, "Don’t be a slave like I was… You keep fighting against that slave outfit."
The designers of the infamous two-piece have insisted they never intended the movie costume to be demeaning. Aggie Guerard Rodgers and Nilo Rodis-Jamero based the design of off Frank Frazetta’s artwork for the cover of The Princess of Mars. George Lucas loved the idea and since he wanted something "special" for the scene, he got it.
Fisher got extra attention on set while wearing the getup—for more reasons than one. Since it was literally made of metal, the outfit wouldn’t stay in place. "After the shots, the prop man would have to check me," she recalled. "He’d say, ‘Okay t**s are fine. Let’s go.’" Though Fisher may not have loved the revealing outfit, she refused to be victimized by it; during a controversy over "slave Leia" figures decades later, she quickly pointed out that the character’s brief time in captivity ends with her killing Jabba—with her own chain.
"That chain only ‘enslaved’ me," tweeted Fisher, "until I could use the frabjous thing to KILL THAT DROOLING SWOLLEN SUPERTONGUED SLUG & whirl him off into infinity." As always, Fisher had the last and best word.
Princess Merida – Brave
Princess Merida from Brave has been hailed as one of Disney’s least princess-y princesses. From her refusal to marry to her amazing archery skills and her insistence that her curly hair run free, audiences felt Merida was a step in the right direction—so it was all the more disappointing when Disney dolled her up later on.
When Merida was officially announced as the 11th Disney Princess, the corporation debuted a new illustration of the Scottish lass, and a number of fans weren’t pleased. The 2D drawing gave Merida a slightly slimmer figure, bigger eyes, and an all-around more glammed-up look. Brave co-director Brenda Chapman didn’t mince words, saying, "I think it’s atrocious what they have done to Merida. When little girls say they like it because it’s more sparkly, that’s all fine and good but, subconsciously, they are soaking in the sexy ‘come hither’ look and the skinny aspect of the new version. It’s horrible! Merida was created to break that mold — to give young girls a better, stronger role model, a more attainable role model, something of substance, not just a pretty face that waits around for romance."
Disney responded to the controversy by saying all the Princesses are given new looks from time to time, and that particular version of Merida would just be one of many. The company argued it had chosen that design because Merida would want to "dress up" for the special coronation. The fact that Merida hates getting dressed up in Brave and tears apart her fancy gown at the first opportunity didn’t factor into the character design, apparently.
Ryan Reynolds – X-Men Origins: Wolverine
You may have blocked it from your memory, but Ryan Reynolds played Deadpool before Deadpool. Unfortunately, during his first outing as the character in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the filmmakers decided to make the brave choice of doing everything they could to insult the fans. They took away his suit, including his mask, and they sewed his mouth shut—leaving a character who’s literally referred to as "the merc with a mouth" physically unable to speak. Even director Gavin Hood admitted Deadpool came out all wrong in his film, explaining it was hard to fit Deadpool’s personality into a PG-13 movie.
Studio ADI, who applied the creature effects for the film, made a video explaining their whole side of the Deadpool tale. The artists believe the studio didn’t intend for Deadpool to be fully formed in Wolverine, just a setup for what he could become in a later film. "If you think of this as an embryonic Deadpool," suggested one artist, "it might make more sense."
Gal Gadot – Wonder Woman
If you had a nickel for every time Wonder Woman’s costume caused a controversy, you’d have…probably ten nickels or so. From the comics to the screen, the DC superhero’s attire has been the focus of attention numerous times over the years, so it’s no surprise that from the second Gal Gadot signed on to play Wonder Woman in the DC Extended Universe, a number of pundits and fans immediately chimed in about how wrong she was. Her performance in Batman v Superman silenced many who claimed she was too thin and didn’t have a hero’s figure, but the controversy didn’t end there. The Amazonian’s latest costume seemed fairly appropriate, though a lot of people were unhappy about the shoes—Wonder Woman has to run around and kick ample butt in heels, which many argued were unnecessary and put the emphasis on sexiness over strength.
Though the heels might not be the most practical thing for a superhero, the rest of the movie costume was thoroughly thought out. Designer Michael Wilkinson spoke to Pret-a-Reporter about his ideas behind her signature look. "We wanted to create something incredibly strong and portray her as a legitimate fighter," he assured fans. "There was a lot of love that went into all the details, making her really look like a powerful, legitimate warrior." Now people have moved on to complaining that Wonder Woman doesn’t have underarm hair—it seems the hero will never get a break.
Bryce Dallas Howard – Jurassic World
Though audiences generally loved the dinosaur action and the guy carrying two margaritas as he ran from prehistoric monsters, there was one big problem with Jurassic World: Bryce Dallas Howard’s heels. Howard played Claire, an uptight executive who ends up running around in mud, rain, and wet concrete and never for a moment takes off her nude pumps. Even when escaping a T-rex, those heels stay glued to her feet. It’s not hard to see why audiences had a problem: heels would be the worst possible shoes to wear in that situation, and the pumps must have been made of magic since they never came close to falling off in any of her off-road adventures.
But Howard defended the choice, telling Yahoo! News, "I’m better equipped to run when I have shoes on my feet. So that’s my perspective on it. I don’t think she would carry around flats with her. I think she’s somebody who could sprint a marathon in heels…For me, it was actually logical for her to be in that very illogical situation because she doesn’t belong in the jungle and yet she finds herself there and has to adapt." Whether or not you like the pumps, you have to be impressed by Howard’s ability to run in them without breaking an ankle.
Sylvester Stallone – Judge Dredd
Judge Dredd is less than great for a number of reasons, one being a lot of screentime for Rob Schneider and another being the ridiculous way Sylvester Stallone hollers "I AM the law!" But for longtime fans of the character, that wasn’t the worst of it.
In the comics, Judge Dredd famously never takes off his helmet, but Sylvester Stallone takes it off in under 20 minutes. Director Danny Cannon’s original idea was to keep Dredd dark, violent, and NC-17. He wanted the film to stick closer to the comics and have an overall gritty tone. Stallone, on the other hand, wanted a flat-out comedy. According to Cannon, Stallone wanted countless rewrites and always pushed for more laughs. Plus, he had a less-than-reverent view of his character. " Dredd? A role model? You’ve got to be kidding! This guy’s a nut!" In addition to making script changes, Stallone also wanted a say in the character’s fashion.
The movie costumes were partially designed by Emma Porteous and Gianni Versace, as Stallone wanted the fashion designer’s take. Apparently, Versace thought the future would run on codpieces, since they were heavily featured in his original, unused designs. Alan Grant, co-writer of the Dredd comics, said "The story was subservient to Stallone, who, I think, takes himself too seriously." When Karl Urban was announced as the star of the 2012 Dredd reboot, he immediately assured fans he’d be leaving the helmet on.
Maureen O’Sullivan – Tarzan and His Mate
Tarzan has always roamed around the jungle in a loincloth, and nobody ever seems to mind. But when Maureen O’Sullivan donned a similar ensemble to play Jane in 1934’s Tarzan and His Mate, it caused an uproar. O’Sullivan, reprising her role from Tarzan the Ape Man two years previous, wore a small top and a very revealing skirt. Jane’s skimpy outfit was all over the film and it freaked a lot of women out.
Maureen O’Sullivan stated that the filmmakers wanted sensuality; at first, Jane was going to have no bra or top at all and she’d be covered by strategically placed leaves and such. That didn’t work out. When O’Sullivan eventually got her costume, she felt it was perfectly fine and never thought it would be considered scandalous. "But it caused such a furor," she recalled. "The letters came in…thousands of women who were objecting to my costume. … I was offered all kinds of places where I could go in my shame to hide from the cruel public who were ready to throw stones at me."
The Hays Office (where films were censored to avoid indecency) was just as outraged. In all subsequent sequels, Jane wore a much more traditional dress. Tarzan and His Mate was one of the last pre-code films, marking the final glimpse of side boob and upper thigh young boys would get in theaters for quite awhile.
Theda Bara – Cleopatra
When you think of a movie costume being too risque for 1917, you probably picture a girl showing a little too much ankle. But Theda Bara wore some very revealing outfits in 1917’s Cleopatra. A major selling point of the film was Bara’s 50 separate costume changes, and though not all the outfits were scandalous, there were a few that left little to the imagination. The New York Times‘ review stated "[the costumes] are so thoroughly in attune with the period that they are likely to cause not a little comment."
But Bara wasn’t going for cheap thrills. She delved deep into the role and reportedly worked with a curator of Egyptology at the Metropolitan Museum to research authentic details for costumes and jewelry of the period. Bara didn’t stop with the costumes, she was thoroughly filled with the spirit of Cleopatra. "It is not a mere theory in my mind. I have a positive knowledge that I am the reincarnation of Cleopatra. I live Cleopatra, I breathe Cleopatra, I am Cleopatra."