Analyzing Gender and Fashion In Legally Blonde
Updated: Feb 25, 2021
Often in order for women in film to be deemed as strong or smart, they are often given stereotypically masculine traits or hobbies, such as liking sports, rejecting fashion, and hating other women, but Elle Woods, and many of the other female characters in Legally Blonde (2001), exhibit a variety of overtly feminine traits and dress, yet no two characters are exactly alike or treated as less important than the other. Each character has a style that perfectly represents their personality to the extent that you can just glance at their wardrobe and understand exactly what kind of person they are. “The clothed body is an arbitrary manifestation of the individual in which the chosen identity is imagined and constructed through apparel and gesture” (Craik 4). The protagonist, Elle Woods from the beginning of the film is the blueprint for the ultra-feminine, wealthy, Californian, sorority girl who follows her ex-boyfriend to Harvard Law School to win him back and finds that she doesn’t fit in amongst her new peers, partially because of her fierce adoration of the color pink.
“many adult women have shied away from a color that seemed to emphasize their difference from men even while women were demanding equality to men” (Dole). The colour pink is coded for femininity since the early 20th century. Pink is “... unsurprisingly, connected with femininity and its stereotypical features, such as softness and delicacy, with childhood and innocence as well as with vanity and artificiality. However, there are also emergent and less obvious connotations like independence and fun, sexuality and lust.” (Koller 396). She perfectly pairs high-end feminine designer pieces that signify wealth and submissiveness, with utilitarian pieces to gain respect. Throughout the film, Elle Woods makes a statement about gender and equality without conforming to expectations of dress or rejecting traditional femininity within both academia and the professional sphere. This essay will discuss Elle Woods’ transformation of fashioning her body through femininity by utilizing preconceived expectations of professional and feminine roles as she grows from a Californian sorority girl to an East coast law student.
Elle’s way of dress goes through a dramatic change throughout the film, sporting many different looks defining her character as well as the time in which the film was produced. Within her Harvard application video essay, Elle takes advantage of preconceived notions about gender, sexuality through her way of bodily presentation to achieve goals, such as donning a sequin bikini top to appeal to the all-male admissions board at Harvard.
This sexualized way of dress defies expectations for what is expected of a remarkable applicant: scoring a 179 on the LSATs, maintaining a 4.0 GPA, and boasting a plethora of extracurriculars. By diverging from the expectations, she is able to stand out from the gendered expectations of an aspiring law student, and be awarded with admittance.
For Elle’s first day of classes at Harvard law, she adopts a style that codes her body in a different manner than she had presented in all previous scenes. She dons a cooler colour palette, masculine-inspired pieces such as a tie and collared shirt, while still maintaining her femininity and individuality.
As a fashion undergrad, she is “highly skilled at adopting costumes to signify very social roles. What would law school Barbie wear? … donned in black-rimmed glasses and layering her pink shirts with earth-toned sweaters that reflect the dominant colour scheme of the Harvard students” (Dole). Adopting pieces that signify intellect and masculinity which translates to academic excellence helps her to present as more similar to her peers and to be awarded with respect. Elle’s hyper-femininity still exceeds her peers, making her protrude from the classic East-coast women’s fashion. Her direct visual opposite is Vivian Kensington: the textbook definition of preppy, east coast privilege. Her colour palette throughout the film is relatively dull and uninteresting, mostly featuring greys, blacks, and tans with the occasional touch of blue or purple. The implication of these colours, besides being the opposite of Elle, showcases Vivian’s more conservative and traditional values as well as her aspirations to be taken seriously. Vivian also matches with fiance, Warner, Vivian’s male parallel- even down to colour schemes, signaling to others immediately that they are a pair.
Her clothing together implies that she’s not necessarily unfashionable just unadventurous. It makes sense for her to dress this way because she is in her early-to-mid 20s and dressing this way signals a supposed maturity as Vivian upholds old-school fashion ideas about gender roles and dressing like this reflects that. “In a fashion system in which clothes then function as symbols that indicate social markers such as status, gender, social group allegiance, personality, fashionability, and sexuality. The symbols are internalized or naturalized among a fashion culture so that they are understood almost automatically”(Craik 5). Warner views Vivian as a serious, “Jackie” type, and Elle as a sexualized “Marilyn”. This exhibits the binary in which women are viewed as either a sex symbol or a nurturing body: viewing nurturance and sexuality as mutually exclusive. “women cannot be both feminine and competent, and its code phrase “tough or caring,” ... Those who exercised their brains and brawn in public were thought to be tough, active, analytic, decisive, competent, and masculine; those who exercised their uteruses with the attendant responsibilities in the private sphere were identifies as nurturant, passive, warm, and feminine” (Jamieson 120). The Madonna-whore dichotomy categorizes women largely based upon how they present their gender through dress dividing women according to “ (1) their degree of removal from carnal knowledge and (2) their degree of obedience to male authority thus results in a polarity between the Madonna, whose grace derives from her marital chastity, and the Whore, who, as an unmarried woman, exudes sexuality” (Conrad). Vivian’s classic style is representative of a East coast wealthy wife and mother type, whereas Elle’s is youthful, playful, and sexy.
When Elle is invited to her first party on campus and is led to believe it is a costume party, She dons an iconic costume: her own multi-toned pink version of the classic playboy bunny suit. Pink sheer tights, a corseted pink bustier bodysuit, and topped with satin bunny ears and a fluffy tail.
Described in the Presidential Papers, the bunny costume, constructed as a humorous sexual reference to rabbits, reconstructed on the female body. It “exaggerated their hips, bound their waist ... and lifted them into a phallic brassiere—each breast looked like the big bullet on the front bumper of a Cadillac… and to the back, on the curve of the can, as if ejected tenderly from the body, was the puff of chastity, a little white ball of a bunny’s tail which bobbed as they walked.” (Mailer). This costume reshapes the female form and while viewed often as a cartoonish cliche of female sexuality or the pinnacle of sexuality. When donned on Elle’s body, it is viewed as cute, polished, and an extension of her regular wardrobe. This costume reinforces the strict binary between Elle’s presentation of gender between her and her law school peers. It diverges from the signifiers of a law student, making her appear to be unthreatening, unintellectual, and superficial.
Elle is accepted into Callahan’s legal internship to the surprise of many of her classmates, due to their culturally influenced views of her as an unthreatening body within the academic world due to her hyperfeminine and non-traditional collegiate style. Both Vivian and Elle adopt a traditionally professional colour palette of grey, black, and white. Elle goes through the most distinct style change during this time, donning an all-black set, reminiscent of a judge's robe with a ruffled collar, specifically referencing feminist icon, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, known for adorning the collar of her robe with fashionable frilled pieces.
This is an attempt at fitting in and being taken seriously. The women recognize that despite their efforts to adhere to the male standard, mirroring men’s dark and neutral tones and tailoring, they are still treated as unequal within the workplace. They are sent on feminized tasks such as fetching food and drink and serving their male counterparts. No matter how these women present themselves, whether that be in a sensible cardigan set or a pink leather driving suit, female bodies are treated as less than male.
Elle’s final courtroom look of the film perfectly encapsulates her preferred presentation of hyper-femininity within her professional sphere. Elle Woods defies gendered expectations for women in academia as well as in the legal career while maintaining her signature feminine way of dress.
“The critical task for feminism is to locate strategies of subversive repetition enabled by [constrictions of the gendered subject] to affirm the local possibilities of intervention through participating in precisely those practices of repetition that constitute identity and therefore present the imminent possibility of contesting them” (Butler 147). The female body is coded with submissive, unthreatening, and weaker connotations than male no matter their way of dress, so Elle’s mode of leaning into the power of her femininity, paired with her academic excellence and exhibits power and defiance of the Madonna-whore (or the Jackie-Marilyn) dichotomy.
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2015.
Conrad, Browyn Kara. “Neo-Institutionalism, Social Movements, and the Cultural Reproduction of A Mentalité: Promise Keepers Reconstruct the Madonna/Whore Complex.” The Sociological Quarterly, vol. 47, no. 2, 2006, pp. 305–331., doi:10.1111/j.1533-8525.2006.00047.x.
Craik, Jennifer. Fashion: the Key Concepts. Berg, 2009.
Dole, Carol M. “The Return of Pink: Legally Blonde, Third-Wave Feminism, and Having It All.” Chick Flicks: Contemporary Women at the Movies, by Suzanne Ferriss and Mallory Young, Routledge, 2008, pp. 58–78.
Jamieson, Kathleen Hall. Beyond the Double Bind: Women and Leadership. Oxford University Press, 1997.
Koller, Veronika. “`Not Just a Colour': Pink as a Gender and Sexuality Marker in Visual Communication.” Visual Communication, vol. 7, no. 4, 2008, pp. 395–423., doi:10.1177/1470357208096209.
Luketic, Robert, director. Legally Blonde. 2001.
Mailer, Norman. The Presidential Papers. Dell, 1982.