The Fifth Element Still Has The Best Costume Design 25 Years On

As the iconic movie celebrates its 25th anniversary, Danai Dana explores the lasting impact of Gaultier's futuristic designs.

WORDS Danai Dana

Picture it, it’s the year 2263, humanity is still going strong despite climate change, there’s flying cars, and the fashion is out-of-this-world iconic. Luc Besson’s 1997 film The Fifth Element celebrates its 25th birthday this month, and its visuals and cinematography are still standing strong, injecting a colourful life into the gloomy dystopian future.

But what really makes this film stand out in cinematic history are its costumes that, a quarter-century on, are more relevant than ever. Looking back at its costume design created by French designer Jean Paul Gaultier – best known for his cone bra famously worn by Madonna, cut-out bandage dresses and French sailor-inspired uniforms – whose designs couldn’t be more current, with Gaultier mesh tops going up for £500 on Depop, Bella Hadid and Dua Lipa copping vintage JPG on their street style shots, and subversive basics taking over the fashion industry.

With a $90m budget, the most expensive production outside the US at the time, 1,000 pieces were designed by Gaultier for the film (including the costumes for all the extras – all of the aliens were dressed in couture), amounting to over 10 fashion collections for one movie. It’s fun to see a vibrant, fun and cool conceptualisation of what people would wear in the 23rd century. Fashion and pop culture Youtuber Mina Le has said about The Fifth Element in one of her videos: “It’s always tempting to make the colour scheme for a lot of sci-fi apocalyptic movies to be dark and grim and have the characters appear as such, but adding colour just makes the action so much more exciting.” Besson’s orange motif throughout the film, from Leeloo’s hair to Korben Dallas’ vest brings another layer of cohesion. 

With a $90m budget, the most expensive production outside the US at the time, 1,000 pieces were designed by Gaultier for the film (including the costumes for all the extras – all of the aliens were dressed in couture), amounting to over 10 fashion collections for one movie.

The film follows Korben Dallas, an ex-special forces major and current taxi driver who stumbles upon humanoid and “supreme being” Leeloo, and they go on a mission to save the world, obviously. When Leeloo is first introduced, she is synthetically created in a capsule and dressed in the most memorable piece from the film, the bandage playsuit. Milla Jovovich in her recent Vogue video about the film mentioned that they were looking for something hospital gown-esque: “I said, ‘listen, what about bandages?’” she mused. The piece mirrors Gaultier’s own collections of cut-out dresses during the 90s, has been the inspiration for multiple designers, such as Alexander McQueen Spring 1998, and has been the foundation for subversive designs today from Ottolinger to fast fashion brands. In a 2017 Vogue interview, Jovovich had said: “That just became the most unique costume that anyone had ever seen in a sci-fi movie at that point.” And that still stands today.

However, although significant for the role, Milla has mentioned the costume’s impracticality, explaining that the bandages were difficult for stunts: “There was a lot of skin showing, so I got pretty bruised up, because I couldn’t wear pads and things that other people could wear.” 

Also worth mentioning is Leeloo’s second costume, the white crop top with the orange rubber suspenders that perfectly paired Besson’s orange aesthetic for the film, which is still seen along with flame-orange wigs at Comicons around the world and given homage by different artists, including Doja Cat and Drag Race’s Aquaria

Bruce Willis’ Korben Dallas is the toxic masculine cis man that we cannot escape – even in the 23rd century – and his clothing resembles his butch character. His outfits give a dystopian Ken-meets-Willis’ action characters. His initial costume, the orange backless tank top made of a rubber-like material, was a subtle nod to his Die Hard role – and was also embedded into Gaultier’s own house collections, although he had been doing cut-out menswear for years prior to the film. In the airport scene, he cops an apocalyptic-esque bomber, possibly a reference to his military background, that feels inspired by the Issey Miyake FW96 parachute jacket and resembles a lot of Glenn Marten’s Diesel pieces of today. 

His most “super-green” costume is the head-to-toe leopard print catsuit with the avant-garde lapels, which match his radio crew, paired with the leopard print microphone and unicorn-esque blonde wig.

The role of Ruby Rhod, the celebrity radio host played by the hilarious Chris Tucker, was originally intended for Prince, and you can feel that in the 1970s disco-themed costumes (needless to say Chris Tucker did a fabulous job at bringing the character to life). Ruby Rhod’s outfits are extravagant and gender fluid, blurring gender norms just like Prince. Although he has feminine qualities in his mannerisms, Ruby is obviously also a toxic cis heterosexual male figure that can appear predatory at times, however, he isn’t judged for his flamboyant style nor his gender-fluid persona which breaks our current day’s gender norms (as it should because gender standards will be evolved by the 23rd century), and he’s considered normal. His most “super-green” costume is the head-to-toe leopard print catsuit with the avant-garde lapels, which match his radio crew, paired with the leopard print microphone and unicorn-esque blonde wig. The red rose-lapelled black catsuit that he wears at the opera is also a 10/10. 

But it’s not just the main protagonists that have the best looks. Arguably the best costumes of the film only appear on screen only for a scene. The retrofuturistic periwinkle-blue flight attendants’ two-piece suits with matching pillbox hats are the most exciting 1960s-mod-inspired looks. The cut-out crop tops and miniskirts accentuate their figures, and are very reminiscent of Courréges. Blue Diva, the alien opera singer, is in a blue couture gown that’s worthy of the Met Gala red carpet. The 23rd-century McDonald’s drive-thru employees are only shown for about 10 seconds yet are one of the most influential pieces of the film. A huge stretch of what McDonald’s uniforms look like today, the red bodycon dresses have a yellow figure-hugging M carved out in the chest area, matching gloves, and the workers have red wigs and a plastic M sitting on their hair. Gaultier’s McDonald’s costumes were the main inspiration for Jeremy Scott’s 2014 Moschino collection, which was accused of glorifying fast-food culture. Scott also took inspiration from The Fifth Element for his FW18 ready-to-wear collection, where models wore Leeloo-inspired wigs in different colours, orange bombers, futuristic suspenders and an orange transparent PVC skirt that resembles the Mangalore spy’s miniskirt, which has been replicated by various brands such as Dolls Kill since. 

Inspiration from the film is also seen in various music videos, such as Doja Cat’s “Get Into It (Yuh)” where she’s sporting a Leeloo-esque white vinyl dress, while her backup dancers are in bodysuits that resemble the flight attendant uniforms, and she then switches to an orange and blue catsuit.

The whole film captures the essence of what and who is Jean Paul Gaultier, from the colourful subversive silhouettes to the gender-neutral looks and even the costumes of Vito Cornelius (the priest that helps Leeloo save the world) and the soldiers who are more based on more traditional sci-fi films, such as Star Wars.

It’s interesting to see that Gaultier was very much inspired by trends from the 60s through til the 90s, instead of trying to come up with what the future will look like. In an interview for Entertainment Weekly from 1997 he had said: “I spoke with Luc [Besson] about what is futuristic and we decided that there could be elements of today. You could even imagine that there will be only retro clothes in the future. Everything is possible.” And with consumers’ ever-increasing interest in second-hand and questions over fast fashion’s dubious practices, this is a vision of fashion’s future we’re sold on. 

<strong>Danai Dana</strong>
Danai Dana

Danai Dana (pronounced Dan-eye Dan-ah) is a writer and sub-editor from London. She likes analysing silly pop culture phenomenons, fashion and costume design, and also writes essays on what beauty products you should be using. 

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