BY AAMINA KHAN
If the color pink had a written history, Legally Blonde is entitled to a chapter. The movie premiered 20 years ago today, with the color as its visual north star—from Elle Woods’s sparkling pink bikini she wore for her Harvard “admissions essay” to her killer bubblegum dress she wore to court. “You can’t talk about pink without talking about Legally Blonde at this point. You can’t,” says the film’s costume designer Sophie de Rakoff. With the omniscience of hindsight, calling Legally Blonde a piece of fashion iconography is easy and obvious. But it wasn’t obvious two decades ago. In fact, for a moment, De Rakoff almost didn’t go with pink.
De Rakoff and the movie’s star Reese Witherspoon (who played Woods), had gone on a visit to a few sororities to take field notes. At that point, de Rakoff had been toying with the idea of blues and purples, maybe even lavender. But the research made the choice clear. “Everybody was in pink and I was like, Why are we trying to reinvent the wheel? Obviously it has to be pink,” De Rakoff says. As for which pink? “A strong California pink that can survive in a California light.”
The clothing and styling were more than just decorative, which is why the movie stands the test of time as a fashion film. The visual choices were steeped in intentionality: pink was more than just an emblem of femininity, and Elle was more than the stereotype of a Malibu Barbie. In the movie, Elle’s exaggerated femininity emphasized the way society viewed pretty women who enjoyed feminine things, and women who, for whatever reason, were discounted at first glance. And for its ability to strike that particular chord, Legally Blonde is loved by people who don’t necessarily look like Reese or behave like Elle. “Obviously there’s a symbiosis between [those women] and Elle Woods,” De Rakoff told Vogue. “Because on the surface, she was a dumb blonde, but obviously the whole point of Legally Blonde is that that is not what was going on underneath the surface.”
De Rakoff calls Legally Blonde an alternative reality, a pastiche meant to throw the aesthetics of high style, femininity, and womanhood into an over-the-top cocktail that exaggerates Southern California and the East Coast, levity and formality, girlhood and womanhood. It might surprise, but De Rakoff says her inspirations for Elle came from the archives: Ali MacGraw in Love Story (1970) and the women in His Girl Friday (1940). And as 2000s style makes a comeback, De Rakoff says she sees Legally Blonde becoming the archival inspiration for today’s fashion enthusiasts. The Y2K revival, according to de Rakoff, feels like an over-the-top offshoot of its own, particularly because a lot of the references go beyond just the clothes. It’s the revival of a character’s persona or the vibe of the era. Like Kim Kardashian’s Elle Woods Halloween costume or Ariana Grande’s thank u, next music video.
“You’ll see a blonde in pink with a dog and you’ll be like, it’s Elle Woods, just as a general thing in the universe,” she says. “I love the Ariana Grande video. That to me was the biggest tribute because that felt to me in the spirit of [Elle], and also the bend-and-snap is such an iconic part. There’s so much iconography in that movie that is not specifically to do with the clothes. It just all worked as a massive part of the jigsaw puzzle.”
De Rakoff still gets emails from people asking about the iconic Elle Woods pink sequined bikini that she wore in her video submission to Harvard Law School. Much to fans’ disappointment, though, De Rakoff doesn’t remember all that much about how that particular look came together. Costume designing back in 2001 was different than it is now. Scrappier and less online. De Rakoff described tracking things down via old school beginning-of-the-internet Google searches and cold phone calls. “Detective work,” she called it.
We live in an era where almost any detail of almost any outfit is not just available to us, but also easily shoppable. Transparency and information sharing can be great for consumers and growing fashion businesses, but the murkiness around Elle’s designer duds is a little freeing. Yes, we know Elle to have worn that silver Tiffany’s heart charm necklace and a Birkin and a few more of these easily identifiable pieces. But the spirit of Elle Woods is one that requires no logo or name brand to identify and emulate.
“A lot of the stuff [Reese Witherspoon wore] was vintage, a lot of the stuff was found. And with that, we created Elle Woods,” De Rakoff says. “There were little things that I did, like the Bottega bags and the scarf that was tied on the bag. No one else had done that at the time, so there were these things that became trends that you could pick up on if you were looking for it.”
These days, style is influenced less and less by film and TV and more by the far more prolific social media. And that drastically changes the landscape of who has the power to influence style and trend. For better or for worse, De Rakoff cites Sex and the City, Gossip Girl, Clueless, and The Devil Wears Prada as some of the last movies and shows that have had that kind of culture-defining impact on fashion. And of course, Legally Blonde. And maybe the reason it worked back then is because Legally Blonde (and all its contemporaries) put a fantasy filter on real life that wasn’t yet so easily available to us. “I [styled] things that I would want to wear if I was in a different, in an alternate reality. Because Legally Blonde is an alternate reality.”