fashion

'Legally Blonde' at 20: The enduring legacy of Hollywood's pinkest wardrobe

Published 20th July 2021
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384593 09: Actress Reese Witherspoon acts in a scene from Metro-Goldwyn Mayer Pictures'' comedy "Legally Blonde.",(Photo by Tracy Bennett/MGM Pictures)
Credit: Tracy Bennett/MGM Pictures/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
'Legally Blonde' at 20: The enduring legacy of Hollywood's pinkest wardrobe
Written by Marianna Cerini, CNN
There are a few reasons why movies go on to become cult classics. Sometimes, it's because of their storylines. Other times, it's their razor-sharp scripts and quotable, sassy one-liners.
"Legally Blonde," which turned 20 this month (and has a long-awaited third installment on the way), ticks both these boxes. But there's something else that helped secure the movie's pop culture legacy: its protagonist's inimitable -- and overwhelmingly pink -- fashion choices.
A refresher, in case you need one: The movie follows sorority queen Elle Woods (played by Reese Witherspoon), a perky blonde obsessed with the color pink, as she enrolls in Harvard Law School to win back her ex. It transpires that she's naturally suited to the courtroom and can overcome adversity simply by being herself -- that is, both smart and stereotypically blonde. She neither has to compromise her style to be taken seriously nor conform to gender stereotypes of what successful women are supposed to look like.
Reese Witherspoon as Elle Woods in "Legally Blonde."
Reese Witherspoon as Elle Woods in "Legally Blonde." Credit: Tracy Bennett/MGM/Kobal/Shutterstock
Throughout her neofeminist awakening, Elle flaunts one hyper-feminine outfit after the other -- 44 in total, for a film that's just over 90 minutes long. Among them are the sequined bikini she rocks in her college admission video, the bubblegum-pink tailored knee-length dress she wears to court, and the hot-pink leather two-piece sets -- with pink sunglasses, naturally -- that she arrives at Harvard Law School in. (And that's not to mention the many matching pink get-ups worn by her chihuahua, Bruiser.)
Oozing self-assurance, Elle's wardrobe is central to the movie's message of female empowerment and its rebuttal of the "dumb blonde" trope. With every skirt, fur coat and halter top, she proves that looks don't define us, and that a woman can be many seemingly contradictory things at once. It is society, not Elle's love for pretty things, that sees her pigeonholed by the "Malibu Barbie" cliche.
This clever use of clothing to upend traditional narratives helped "Legally Blonde" achieve cult status, according to Stitch Fix stylist Ashley Sanchez.
"Elle's uncanny ability to embrace individuality and feel empowered by her sense of style is what resonates with audiences everywhere," she said over email. In addition to Elle's optimism, kindness and compassion, it's her closet that "makes her an icon," Sanchez added.
Elle Wood's outlandish outfits are critical to the movie's plot, exposing the characters she interacts with as either judgemental or kind-hearted.
Elle Wood's outlandish outfits are critical to the movie's plot, exposing the characters she interacts with as either judgemental or kind-hearted. Credit: PictureLux/The Hollywood Archive/Alamy
So too does her unapologetic fixation on pink, a hue associated with these same qualities.
"What's important to note about the film's use of the color is that (the color pink) represented more than the hyper-femininity and girlishness we often associate with it," Sanchez said. "To Elle, pink is representative of power, confidence and an assured sense of personal style."
The movie's costume designer, Sophie de Rakoff said in a recent Vogue interview that she settled on the color after visiting a sorority house ahead of filming. "Everybody was in pink and I was like, 'Why are we trying to reinvent the wheel?' Obviously it has to be pink," she said, also telling the magazine: "You can't talk about pink without talking about 'Legally Blonde' at this point. You can't."
There were 44 outfits throughout the movies 90 minute run time.
There were 44 outfits throughout the movies 90 minute run time. Credit: Tracy Bennett/MGM/Kobal/Shutterstock

Refashioning Elle

Rewatching "Legally Blonde" two decades on, it's striking how many of Elle's outfits still hold up, from her sparkly off-the-shoulder crop top to the halter dress she wore the evening she is dumped by her boyfriend, Warner. Her "first day of school" ensemble, complete with cardigan, pencil skirt and tie, wouldn't look out of place today -- nor would her sharp internship attire, which comprised a high-necked ruffled blouse and a fitted mid-length black skirt with a slip peeking out at the bottom.
The same could be said of Elle's rival Vivian Kensington (Selma Blair), with her preppy tennis skirts, headbands and pearls, or the double-denim-wearing manicurist Paulette (Jennifer Coolidge), both of whom would look at home alongside millennials or Gen Zers.
According to Sanchez, this is partly due to a recent revival of 2000s style. "Y2K trends can be seen everywhere these days," she said. "Our seemingly endless nostalgia for that period means that Elle's most iconic outfits feel just as modern today."
The recent resurgence of 2000s style has cemented "Legally Blonde"'s credence in the fashion world.
The recent resurgence of 2000s style has cemented "Legally Blonde"'s credence in the fashion world. Credit: Tracy Bennett/MGM/Kobal/Shutterstock
The color pink's fashion renaissance has also helped "Legally Blonde" retain its sartorial relevance. Take Marc Jacobs' and Halpern's Fall-Winter 2020 shows, both of which featured an abundance of silky pink dresses, or the likes of Simone Rocha, Versace, Prada, Miu Miu, Valentino and Loewe, which all recently embraced pink, from muted to millennial, in their Spring-Summer 2021 collections.
Then there's the celebrity factor. With Ariana Grande parodying "Legally Blonde" in her video for "Thank U, Next," and Kim Kardashian dressing as Elle Woods for Halloween, it's easy to see why the movie's candyfloss outfits are still talked about -- even among those who weren't born when they first hit the big screen.
Audiences have less than a year to wait -- until next May, to be precise -- to see what Elle's style looks like now she is in her 40s. Though little is known about how her wardrobe will be updated for 2022, one thing is for sure: With de Rakoff reprising her role as costume designer, pink will be on the agenda.
"While Elle might swap her stilettos for chunky heels, or trade in her fur-trimmed coat for a more polished pink blazer," Sanchez said, "she would never dull her shine."