I love circus costumes. Those sequined bodysuits and elaborate headdresses make me want to get up on that trapeze like a dazzling aerial angel. Circus-themed movies have really great vintage looks, so if you’re afraid of heights, tigers, or anything else that comes with the territory of being a circus performer, here are some options, ripped straight from the big screen, to give you a little bit of that sideshow style!
Freaks (1932) was inspired by director Tod Browning’s experiences as a member of a traveling circus. In the movie a shady trapeze artist named Cleopatra is having an affair with the strongman Hercules, but she sets out to seduce and marry one of the circus’ little people, Hans, after she finds out that Hans has inherited a large fortune. Even though Hans’s friends accept Cleopatra as one of their own during this famous scene, she treats her new husband terribly, and starts poisoning him so she and her hunky strongman sidepiece can run off with his money. My favorite “freak ladies” are a pair of conjoined twins named Daisy and Violet Hilton. You can mimic their matching collared print dresses and dark lipstick, but why not go a step farther and find something like this circus-print dress?
In Big Top Pee-wee (1988), Pee-wee Herman fantasizes about becoming a Frank Sinatra–type crooner; in reality, he owns a farm and his BFF is a talking pig named Vance. Until, that is, a powerful tornado plops a circus right onto his farm. What does Pee-wee do? Join them, of course! He meets the circus darling, trapeze artist Gina Piccolapupula, and falls in love with her, much to the dismay of his fiancée, Winnie. HOW SCANDALOUS, PEE-WEE! Gina’s sequined trapeze outfits are pretty glamorous, so if you want to copy any character’s style it should definitely be hers! It may not be practical to walk around in a ginormous feathered headdress, but you can definitely style out in a sparkly bodysuit and fun accessories. Glittery liquid eyeliner would be the perfect way to top off the whole look.
In Water for Elephants (2011), a veterinary student named Jacob (Robert Pattinson) learns his parents have been killed, leaving behind huge debts. Without a home to return to, Jacob leaves town and becomes a vet for a traveling circus. The circus’s owner has Jacob train a new elephant for his wife, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), to ride in the show. Jacob and Marlena fall in love, of course, and big-top drama ensues. Marlena has the most beautiful clothes in this movie: Feathers! Tutus! Sequins! MORE sequins! I’m particularly fond of her nautical-themed outfit, which you can replicate with a form-fitting pencil skirt (very pinup!) and a beret. I can’t guarantee Rob Pattinson will come a-runnin’, but you’re gonna look good anyway!
Sure, Carnivàle (2003–2005, HBO) is a TV show and not a movie, but the Dust Bowl–era characters and costumes are so badass we simply must discuss. A man named Ben (Nick Stahl) discovers he has magical healing powers and joins a traveling carnival. He meets an array of interesting people, including a fortune-telling mother-and-daughters team, a “lizard man,” a bearded lady, and a family that runs a striptease show. I loved these characters, especially the mother and her two daughters. They had the coolest outfits, consisting of a lot of flower-print tea dresses and playsuits. Be inspired by their 1930s finger waves, which you can fake with a curling iron, then accessorize with rhinestone hairpins. You might just want to run away and join the circus yourself.