Three-Ring Circus

High drama and high fashion under the tent.

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?

Clockwise from left: Clowning around dress, $110, ModCloth; In With the Nouveau earrings, $13, ModCloth; Charleston Time full slip, $45, ModCloth; Seth the Curve Heel in Apple, $45, ModCloth;  Kat Von D Painted Love Lipstick in Homegirl, $19, Sephora.

Far left: Clowning Around dress, $110, ModCloth. Middle column, top to bottom: In With the Nouveau earrings, $13, ModCloth; Kat Von D Painted Love Lipstick in Homegirl, $19, Sephora; Set the Curve Heel in Apple, $45, ModCloth. Far right: Charleston Time full slip, $45, ModCloth.


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.

Clockwise from left: Sequined bodysuit, $30, Urban Outfitters; Milani Ultrafine Liquid Eyeliner, $8, Milani Cosmetics; crystal drop earrings, $13, Claire’s; Vintage bangles, $12, Trashy Diva; sparkly wedge heels, $36, Go Jane; glitter phone purse, $6, Topshop.

Far left: Motel Hillary Jelle bodysuit, $30, Urban Outfitters. Center column, top to bottom: Milani Ultrafine Liquid Eyeliner, $8, Milani Cosmetics; Iridescent crystal teardrops chandelier drop earrings, $13, Claire’s; glitter hard phone purse, $6, Topshop. Far right, top to bottom: Vintage shimmer bangle, $12, Trashy Diva; sparkly peep-toe wedges, $36, Go Jane.


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!

Dress, $100,; Trumpets for Crumpets ring in gold, $10, ModCloth; cream beret, $6,; Near and Safari earrings, $10,ModCloth; Milena grosgrain vintage evening purse, $98, Pinup Girl Clothing.

On the left: Two-toned dress, $100, Daddy-o’s. To the model’s right, clockwise from the top: Off-white beret, $6,; Near and Safari earrings, $10, ModCloth; Milena vintage grosgrain evening purse, $98, Pinup Girl Clothing; Trumpets for Crumpets ring in gold, $10, ModCloth.


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.

Clockwise from left: Dress, $90, ModCloth; rhinestone hair clip, $13, Claire’s; fan purse, $45, ModCloth; lipstick in Dubonnet, $15, M.A.C.; heels, $70, ModCloth.

Far left: Floral Field Day dress, $90, ModCloth. Center column, top to bottom: Rhinestone barrette, $13, Claire’s; Kudos Were the Days Heel in Brown, $70, ModCloth. Far right, top to bottom: Fashion Fan Club clutch, $45, ModCloth; M.A.C. lipstick in Dubonnet, $15, M.A.C.


  • Sophie ❤ August 28th, 2013 3:06 PM

    I think that this definitely counts as my favorite style article yet- this is so, so, so cool! Love the leotards.

  • Amal August 28th, 2013 3:23 PM

    This is great but I wish there had been an outfit with a tutu!

  • rottedteeth August 28th, 2013 3:59 PM

    The water for elephants look is amazing. Added to my wish list.

  • elliecp August 28th, 2013 4:05 PM

    so awesome…I love circus style. Glitter and bodysuits are the way forward. also I want to see all of these films :D

  • Lemons August 28th, 2013 4:17 PM

    ahh cool, I love this new circus theme. Must check out carnivale the series..i had never heard of it before! I love the first dress… I really need to work in some more va va voom to my wardrobe!

  • Erin. August 28th, 2013 4:29 PM

    Freaks! “One of us! One of us!”
    What a good movie.

  • littleshoshalist August 28th, 2013 5:47 PM

    I think you’re forgetting Killer Klowns from Outer Space. A true masterpiece.

  • Manda August 28th, 2013 6:03 PM

    I love this!! One grammatical error, though: “fiancée” instead of “fiancée”

    • Manda August 28th, 2013 6:06 PM

      Instead of “fiancé”*

      Sorry about that!

    • Danielle August 28th, 2013 6:09 PM

      Thank you, Manda!

  • olivianoel August 28th, 2013 7:29 PM

    I love how Water For Elephants looks, but I read that the elephants in the movie were seriously abused on set, so I haven’t watched it :( I will watch Carnivale though! That looks amazing.

  • darkponydesigns August 28th, 2013 11:56 PM

    I am obsessed with vintage circus looks!
    I make costumes as well-

  • Sssophiabh August 29th, 2013 12:30 AM

    The movie Wings of Desire is like the best movie ever AND it has great circus scenes.

  • julalondon August 29th, 2013 6:18 AM

    I love this, especially the dress from the ‘Water for elephants’-look… <3

  • streaked lights August 29th, 2013 7:09 AM

    More vintage circus stuff! Whee! Now I have some outfit inspiration to go along with that makeup tutorial you put up a few days back!

  • Bumblecake August 29th, 2013 12:50 PM

    Oh my I love all those outfits especially the clown around dress!! Lust lust lust!

  • liiiiily August 29th, 2013 4:03 PM

    I love modcloth but are there any cheaper options online?

  • Mimi7 August 30th, 2013 11:37 AM

    I just finished reading Water for Elephants, so this is perfect timing! Makes me want to bring out my feather headdress :)

  • Ella W September 1st, 2013 1:27 PM

    That circus dress is amazing! And the elephant ring… but I’m skint… :( :( :(

    I love Water for Elephants as well, it’s such a beautiful film!

  • piisaa October 19th, 2013 2:46 PM

    Oh these are AH-MAZING! The top one is most inspirational to me, but oh, the sparkly blue bodysuit!