The Fifth Element: A Comic Book Future Designed by Gaultier

Science fiction movies could be a costume designer’s dream, but oftentimes the scenery and special effects take precedence in futures where characters are dressed in military uniforms, shapeless robes or makeshift remnants culled from scraps of destroyed societies. The future is usually depicted as dark, and this leaves many costumers returning to the same stale ideas over and over. But when Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element premiered on this day in 1997, audiences were not treated to a future costumed as a drab dystopia, but rather in the vibrant imagination of French designer Jean-Paul Gaultier.

The Fifth Element was released just shy of 15 years after Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, and the two movies’ similar influences were bound to draw comparisons. Both directors cited Fritz Lang’s seminal science-fiction flick Metropolis and the cartoonist Moebius as inspirations, but the films’ overall looks diverge in opposite directions. Besson brought his lifelong love of comic books to The Fifth Element by having Moebius and fellow sci-fi cartoonist Jean-Claude Mézières assist in the production. The result is a color-saturated, surreal version of New York City.

In such a distinctive setting, the costumes must stand out and the signatures of Gaultier are perfectly suited to the task. Exaggerated military silhouettes, sculpted architectural details, boudoir-inspired garb and more rubber than a tire factory help give the movie its comic-book look. In total, Gaultier produced 954 costumes and was on set to inspect each and every extra before they walked in front of the camera. Following the formula he used on other films he’d already costumed (The Cook The Thief His Wife and His Lover, Kika and The City of Lost Children), the designer created original looks for the main characters and pulled items from his seasonal fashion collections for the extras. Gaultier’s fantastical style is a perfect match for The Fifth Element (even the ready-to-wear items don’t look out of place), but the bespoke details of the principals’ costumes are where he shines.

Model Milla Jovovich in the Fifth Element "bandage" costume by Jean Paul Gaultier, and Gaultier's 2009 version seen on Rhianna at the American Music Awards.

The designer’s affinity for bondage is most evident in the costumes of Leeloo—the titular “fifth element,” or Supreme Being, who must save the world from evil—played by supremely bodied model Milla Jovovich in her sixth film role. Leeloo is introduced to the audience in the buff, but is soon covered in “heating bandages” that magically (futuristically?) turn into an outfit of the skimpiest variety. Our heroine manages to keep her naughty bits covered in what amounts to a pair of panties attached to a breast bandage until she gets her hands on some thrifted duds that become her signature look. She then kicks ass in combat boots, skintight gold pants, a ribbed, cropped white T-shirt and a rubber DayGlo orange harness. Her matching orange hair (with blonde roots) add to a distinctive look that has been copied by brave souls every Halloween since the film’s release.The S&M style isn’t reserved for the main character: McDonald’s cashiers of the future wear corsets with strategically placed golden arches and flight attendants are tarted up in cut-out bra tops and miniskirts. The only character sporting a subtle look is the everyman male hero, Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis), for whom Gaultier created simpler, functional clothing. His structured cargo pants and muscle shirt, however, are not without the designer’s touch. A far cry from a standard Hanes undershirt, Dallas’s shirt reiterates familiar themes: It is orange, made of rubber and has bandage straps across the back. Something of a classicist, Dallas is also the only character to don a traditional tux for an opera performance.
Evil munitions dealer Zorg (Gary Oldman) takes a cue from other villains and wears SS-inspired silhouettes made of rubber. The mix of pinstripes and rainbow hues paired with a plastic hat/hairpiece serves well as his evil trademark. He is foppish but intimidating—and pretty damn crazy. “I didn’t know what I was getting into,” Oldman commented later. “I didn’t realize that I was going to get into rubber and that superb thing I wear on my head, whatever that is.” Chris Tucker, who plays flamboyant radio host Ruby Rhod (described by one reviewer as a cross between RuPaul and Prince) also credits Gaultier’s costumes as influential to his acting. Rhod’s eccentric personality is perfectly supported by his gender-bending catsuits with dramatic Elizabethan collars, and Gaultier himself admitted that the look was “the most Jean-Paul Gaultier.” But that description could also be applied to some of the more secondary characters. When the setting shifts to a spaceship resort, the staff are dressed as futuristic sailors, a spin on the look that has served as a trademark for Gaultier’s fragrance, “Le Male.” Gauliter’s witty references to the sci-fi staples, as well as his own playful work, pair perfectly with the comedy aspects of The Fifth Element, and complete its unique visual impression. —Rachel Chambers

Cinemode is OTDIF’s ongoing compilation of the world’s most stylish films, a must-see list for fans of fashion. From Klute to Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Shaft, some of the greatest style inspiration comes from the characters and costumes in film. Bookmark Cinemode and check back often to read the growing list. The reviews, written with an eye specifically toward fashion, are added to On This Day In Fashion on the anniversary of the film’s release date.

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2 Responses to “The Fifth Element: A Comic Book Future Designed by Gaultier”

  • Never saw the movie, Rachel — looks like I missed some enlivening Gautier designs. This was fun. thanks.

  • People seem to either love or hate the movie (case in point: I love it, my boyfriend hates it), but I always mostly liked it for how cool everyone looked in their rubber clothes.

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