Style in Film: Kelly McGillis in Top Gun

Kelly McGillis style Top Gun
Last week I came across a screen still of Kelly McGillis from Top Gun (1986), where she is wearing the bomber jacket with a white shirt, pencil skirt and red lipstick, and it struck me just how timeless the entire look was. The kind of feminine/masculine approach with military inflections that will never go out of style. The subtle style of the woman on the street, the woman who creates her own style, who doesn’t want to look like the women in magazines or on the runways. I set out to watch the film again and discovered a whole new film than years ago when I watched it for the first time. I finally got the grip of its cultural significance.

Directed by Tony Scott, Top Gun was inspired by the elite pilot training program known as Topgun, held at a now-closed military base in San Diego, California. Tom Cruise is Pete Mitchell, nicknamed Maverick, an exceptional pilot and daredevil who competes to be number one. Although cliché-ridden, Top Gun is an action film that moves fast, with beautifully choreographed, exhilirating flight scenes that make you appreciate the film and forget about any shortcomings it may have. Top Gun was such a hit that recruiting officers were overwhelmed with requests from young men who wanted to follow in the footsteps of Maverick and his fellow trainees. Recruiting officers were even sent to cinemas and the applications to the US Navy’s fighter-pilot program rose considerably after the release of the film. And then there was the fashion: the bomber jackets, the pilot suits, the white t-shirts, the Aviator shades. Everything was ingrained into the public consciousness for decades to come and promptly established Tom Cruise’s film star image.

Style in film-Kelly McGillis in Top Gun
But I would like to talk about the other star of the film, Kelly McGillis. She plays Charlie, an aeronautics instructor, and she has the most basic yet amazing wardrobe. Essential items, subtle elegance, indefinable quality. In fact, I would name all the pieces Charlie is wearing, created by costume designer Bobbie Read, among those every woman should own: the white t-shirt, the white shirt, the pencil skirt, the oversised sweater, the stonewashed jeans, the oversised blazer (very ’80s Armani), the Aviator sunglasses, and, of course, the classic bomber jacket – Charlie certainly knows how to make a cool menswear item even cooler: she rolls up the sleeves and wears it with a pencil skirt. She is a tomboy with a feminine edge. It was the 1980s and women around the world embarking the work-force were perpetually in motion, adopting the power silhouette (the broad, tapered shoulders and the pencil skirts were part of that), but also seeking out clothes that anticipated their needs, to be able to jump into a more casual outfit after working hours. Everything is about balance between what is chic and what is casual.
Style in film-Top Gun

Kelly McGillis' style in Top Gun-1What makes the bomber jacket even better is the aged leather.

Kelly McGillis' style in Top Gun-2Charlie’s squarer Aviator sunglasses complement Maverick’s (Tom Cruise’s) teardrop shape.
The Aviator sunglasses have a place of their own in this film. There is probably no other accessory which knew this kind of rebirth thanks to the appearance in a movie. Tom Cruise’s and the entire casts’ Ray-Bans sparked a fantastic revival and massive worldwide sales for the brand, and reconfirmed the Aviator shades as a classic. 1936 was the year when the Ray-Ban Aviators went on sale for the public, after having been commissioned in 1929 by the US military as eye protection for the United States Air Force pilots. Once again, cinema was helpful in winning a fashion item the status of a style-setter. Fashion may have taken note of the style because of the movie, but the costume designer did so for its authenticity. The Aviators were worn by the cast precisely because they were what fighter pilots wore, and still wear. In Top Gun, they are the ultimate matchmaker of function and form. Not only that, but the shades – Charlie’s square frames perfectly complementing Maverick’s teardrop style – diffuse the romantic tension simmering between the two characters. Therein lies the enduring power of clothes in film: characters that embody real people, fashion that has a story.

Top Gun and the Aviator sunglasses

Editorial sources: Icons of Men’s Style, by Josh Sims
photos: stills from the film for Classiq Journal | credit: Paramount Pictures

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