By Vanishaa Vasudhevan

A Case Against Revenge Dressing in Pop Culture

Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned wearing a revenge dress.
Image credit: Getty Images

The notion that “looking good is the best revenge” has long been a mantra whispered in the ears of those facing heartbreak, betrayal, or any form of adversity. While it may sound superficial, the power of fashion to empower and encourage cannot be underestimated. Consider the iconic revenge-dressing revolution. 

An early masterclass of revenge dressing

The beginning of revenge dressing in pop culture started with the royal scandal that shook the world: June 29, 1994, Prince Charles went on national television confessing his infidelity with Camilla Parker-Bowles. Princess Diana knew what was coming, as the interview was pre-recorded. Rather than cancel any existing plans and hide in the shadows, instead, she attended a high-profile Vanity Fair party for the Serpentine Gallery that same evening, making the entrance of entrances in a black off-the-shoulder dress (an unlikely design to be worn by a member of the royal family) paired with killer heels, a stunning pearl and sapphire choker, and black tights. The late princess overshadowed his confession in one sweeping fashion statement and bold PR move.

The next day, every newspaper in the world captured the “Charles had the story, but Diana had the picture” moment. That was it—the revenge dress juncture that got everyone talking. But it’s not just a royal thing; it’s something that everyone can relate to.

Why is it a pop culture phenomenon?

Everyone has their curveballs: a breakup, betrayal—you name it. What do we do? We put on our fiercest outfits and strut our stuff like we own the place. It’s not about revenge in the traditional sense; it’s about taking back control and showing the world that we’re still fabulous, no matter what.

Fast forward to today, and we see a new generation of celebrities and influencers embracing the concept of revenge dressing with gusto. Whether it’s a bold red carpet appearance after a high-profile breakup or a jaw-dropping Instagram post with a divorce update, these individuals understand the power of fashion to convey a message without uttering a single word. The message is clear: “Yeah, I went through some stuff, but look at me now!”

But it’s not just about looking good for the cameras. It’s about feeling good, too. Social media plays a big part in this. People share their revenge dress snapshots online and receive a whole community of support. You see someone else rocking their revenge dress and you think, “If they can do it, so can I!”

Revenge dressing standouts

Since Princess Diana’s iconic revenge dress moment, similar fashion affirmations have emerged. One notable example occurred in 1997 when pop diva Mariah Carey donned a striking two-piece black ensemble at the MTV VMAs. This bold choice was not just a fashion statement; it symbolised her liberation from the confines of her marriage to Tommy Mottola, a powerful music executive who exerted control over her image. Their union in 1993, had dissolved by 1997, marking the end of a tumultuous chapter in Carey’s life. As she stepped out in her revenge dress, she sent a powerful message signalling her newfound freedom from both her marriage and a toxic professional environment.

At her third Diamond Ball in September 2017, Rihanna made a stunning entrance in a gown by Ralph & Russo that paid homage to Princess  Diana. While it may not fit the traditional definition of a revenge dress, her choice was a direct nod to the late princess’ style. Speaking to Vogue Paris, Rihanna shared her perspective and noted how every woman understands the concept of needing a revenge dress after being mistreated by a man. Whether Rihanna’s pick was intentional or not, she was moved by the idea that even someone as revered as Princess Diana could experience the same struggles as any ordinary woman. This resonated deeply with Rihanna, encapsulating what she described as a “Diana bad bitch moment”.

revenge dressing
Image credit: @kreshabajajofficial

In 2024, South Indian actress Samantha Ruth Prabhu ignited a social media storm with her version of revenge dressing. The actress transformed her former wedding gown into a breathtaking black ensemble for the Elle Sustainability Awards, evoking the spirit of resilience. The once-white tulle of her gown took on new life, dyed in hues of nude and black while the original structure remained intact, preserving its essence. Reflecting on her choice, Samantha shared in an interview that while the dress held profound significance, the transformation has given it a bold new take, especially after her divorce.

Revenge dressing on the silver screen

revenge dressing
Image credit: Disney+

Absolutely, and another compelling illustration of this dynamic is portrayed in the movie Cruella. The protagonist, Estella, undergoes a remarkable transformation into the infamous Cruella de Vil, driven by ambition and a quest for vengeance upon uncovering the truth behind her mother’s demise. What truly captivates is how seamlessly her desire for retribution intertwines with the world of fashion and haute couture. Against the vibrant backdrop of 1970s London’s punk fashion scene, the story weaves a tale of vengeance threaded through the fabric of anger, culminating in a visually stunning portrayal of rebellion and style.

But beyond the silver screen, the influence of Cruella and similar tales is palpable in the real world. From street style to haute couture, we see echoes of the revenge dress concept in every daring ensemble and unexpected pairing. It’s a reminder that fashion is more than just fabric and thread—it’s a form of storytelling, a means of communication, and sometimes, a weapon of choice for those seeking retribution.

revenge dressing

The Devil Wears Prada also embodied the concept of revenge dressing, albeit in a slightly different context. In the film, protagonist Andy Sachs finds herself thrust into the cutthroat world of high fashion as assistant to the formidable Miranda Priestly, editor-in-chief of Runway magazine. Initially viewing fashion as superficial and beneath her, Andy transforms as she learns to navigate the demanding world of couture and designer labels.

The concept of revenge dressing comes into play when Andy, feeling overlooked and undervalued, decides to assert herself by embracing fashion and using it as a form of liberation. In one memorable scene, Andy stuns her colleagues and Miranda herself by stepping out in a glamorous designer gown at a prestigious event. This act of sartorial defiance marks a turning point for Andy, as she asserts her independence and commands attention in a world that previously dismissed her.

Do you always need to wear black when revenge dressing?

Yet, the idea of a white revenge dress presents a persuasive contradiction—an embodiment of purity transformed into rebellion. Imagine the impact of a woman in pristine white standing tall amidst the chaos, her attire a stark contrast to the darkness of betrayal and injustice.

Some may argue that no one would willingly portray themselves as Odette, the innocent swan, in such a scenario. However, therein lies the power of the white revenge dress—to redefine narratives and reclaim agency in the face of adversity. It asserts that one’s worth is not defined by the actions of others but by the strength to rise above them. Why not try red too? One might argue that red holds even more potent symbolism. In contrast to the innocence of white or the mystery of black, red is boldly self-assured. 

At the end of the day, revenge dressing isn’t just about clothes; it’s about the attitude. Revenge dressing is about standing tall, shoulders back and head held high, saying, “I got this.” 

The next time life gives you lemons, don’t sweat it. Just throw on your fiercest outfit, strut your stuff, and show the world what you’re made of. After all, there’s nothing more powerful than a person who knows their worth and isn’t afraid to show it.