In addition to script, acting and direction, the most iconic moments in some of the best-loved films are defined in no small part by costume.
This can most certainly be said of Dirty Dancing (1987) in that classic scene where “Nobody puts Baby in a corner” Johnny Castle’s (Patrick Swayze) half-unbuttoned black shirt and equally rebellious leather jacket with up-turned collar define him as the bad boy ‘your Daddy would never approve of’, whilst Baby (Jennifer Grey) wears a floaty, pale pink dress that gives her the grace of a ballerina and the elegance of a dove reflecting her much purer nature.
But beyond these best known ensembles by costume designer Hilary Rosenfeld, Dirty Dancing offers an array of outfits from the stylish sixties. Baby, who goes through the biggest transformation in the story, showcases her ascent to womanhood through wardrobe choices. At the start of the film, an innocent and quirky Daddy’s girl, she can be seen in a loose white blouse and knee-length denim shorts, hiding her personality and her figure.
In contrast to her fashion-conscious older sister, Baby explores Kellerman’s holiday resort and spends her first night on the tiles in a long pale dress with horizontal stripes and rows of delicate pink flowers, teamed with an over-sized woollen cardigan, ‘baby’ blue in colour and giving her a somewhat frumpy appearance. Overall this outfit, along with her bouncy, unmanaged frizzy hair, present Baby as being particularly childish for her age. One may expect an adolescent to be push boundaries a bit more.
In the scenes following the staff party (during which Baby famously carries a watermelon) a more daring side begins to surface, as we see her in a more fashionable red and white striped top. The red is brighter than the colours we have seen her wearing prior to this, and is perhaps there to signify that a more sexual side is beginning to emerge. Baby’s outfits change more drastically when her dance lessons with Johnny commence, swapping frumpy cardies for blouses tied up to make crop tops and figure hugging white high-waisted jeans.
An even bigger change can be seen when Baby practises her dance steps. She is now wearing short shorts with a low-cut pink vest tucked in. She looks more grown up and sexualised here, implying that dancing is helping her to feel good about herself and gain confidence. This can also be seen in her exaggerated movements, in which she sways her hips and sashays across the bridge with a pouting expression.
Forgetting her earlier inhibitions Baby’s clothes get become increasingly revealing with plenty of flesh on show during the ‘Hungry Eyes’ sequence when Baby wears little more than her underwear reflecting the sexual tension and desire between her and Johnny. This ascends to its peak when they rehearse lifts in the water. Shirtless Johnny displays his strength when lifting Baby, clad top to toe in white, which inevitably reaches a fine shade of see-through, up and over his head.
With Johnny at her side it would seem Baby is ready to display her newfound sex appeal when they perform together at the Sheldrake Hotel. A hot pink halter-neck with plunging neckline is the outfit of choice here, with sparkly waist-belt proving that those days of covering her figure are well and truly behind her.
From this point onwards a more sexy and feminine style largely remains; blouses are tied up to reveal her toned tummy, vest tops take precedence over covering floral dresses, and with one pale pink dress and successful lift later, Frances ‘Baby’ Houseman’s style transformation is complete. With the help of a man other than her Daddy, she has found her feet.
© 2010 – 2013, Christopher Laverty.