Image via Alamy

Bend It Like Beckham is a fashion movie, actually

Paisley bandanas? Coloured contacts? Keira Knightley in a silver sequin halter top? These are simply the facts.

by Jenna Mahale
21 June 2021, 1:49pm

Image via Alamy

Locked in an eternal cultural dance, fashion and football have long coexisted symbiotically. Supercouple Posh and Becks provide a pre-eminent example, but there’s also England midfielder Phil Foden channeling 80s realness on the cover of i-D’s new issue, and, of course, Bend It Like Beckham. It is a truth universally acknowledged that the latter is a veritable gem of early 00s cinema, and a pretty gay one at that.

Filmmaker Gurinder Chadha’s 2002 opus was a coming-of-age cultural reset, telling a funny, compelling story about navigating one’s non-normative (read: queer) desires under the twin burdens of tradition and expectation. Whether it’s a love of a typically masculine pastime or a staunch rejection of the gel bra, BILB’s characters are repeatedly confronting obstacles on the way to embracing their truest selves. But not enough is said of just how good they look doing it: fashion is woven into the film’s many warring moral codes, and the fits are as fire as they come.

If you need a refresher, you shouldn’t: go rewatch the movie now, it is scripture. But to recap the film in layman’s terms, 18-year-old British Indian football nut Jess Bhamra (Parminder Nagra) finds herself at odds with her Sikh family when she joins a local women’s team. Her previously assigned priorities — being a doting sibling, homemaker-in-training, expert chapati chef, etc. — fly out of the window when she befriends the chic and sporty gora Jules (Keira Knightley), and falls for her broody blue-eyed coach Joe (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) of “Jess, I’m Irish… of course I understand what [being called a racial slur] feels like” fame. And that’s what you missed in cinematic history.

young Keira Knightley and Parminder Nagra in the movie Bend It Like Beckham

Set in London’s Hounslow at the turn of the millennium, the film is a fashion feast for the senses, especially for the nostalgia-nosed among us. Take cousins Monica, Bubbly and Meena for instance. They appear as the film’s requisite mean girls — Grease’s Pink Ladies but make it Southall — rimless square sunglasses pushed over blonde-highlighted hair, mini LV bags in tow; they stare, irises obscured by coloured contacts (the bane and the boon of every non-white girl’s 00s eye looks, right up there with too-pale cream shadow), waggling their long acrylics for the effect of maximum condescension. We all know now that the smartest thing you can do in life is to make like Paris Hilton and open-heartedly embrace radical bimboism, but Monica, Bubbly and Meena were two full decades ahead of the curve. Let their matching t-shirts (rhinestoned, ruched, and glitter-printed respectively) be a lesson to us all that pink is not just for Wednesdays, but for life.

three women sit on a park bench wearing pink tshirts and miniskirts in the movie Bend It Like Beckham

Of course, the film’s primary aesthetic — cosy, minimalist athleisure — is not one we should disregard, particularly in a more comfort-facing fashion landscape post-pandemic. Jess and Jules’ brand of choice is decidedly Adidas, the most iconic of which has to be the sleeveless tracksuit Jess is seen in at the start of the film, a dusty blue matching set we won’t be forgetting anytime soon. And will be fervently scouring Depop for.

The sporty girl accessories in BILB are also not to be underestimated. The blue bandana Jules has wrapped around her head is a classic Y2K vibe, as well as a 2021 mainstay for those of us with greasy hair and no time. Then there’s also her tooth comb headband — an accessory favoured by none other than Mr David Beckham himself. The large navy scrunchie Jess wears in a number of the film’s scenes is arguably proto-VSCO girl, an aesthetic which, as cogently argued by writer Rachel Charlene Lewis, “embraces key lesbian stereotypes” such as “being generally low-maintenance in terms of beauty”. So that’s another point for anyone interested in the queer scholarship of this film but, more importantly, a testament to the high fashion impact of a casually low-maintenance look.

young Keira Knightley and Parminder Nagra in the movie Bend It Like Beckham

Though that’s not to say that the film’s high-maintenance looks are anything but high impact. Jess’ skin-tight, hot pink sari — famously fitted to have her “mosquito bites” look like “juicy, juicy mangoes” by an overly-familiar tailor — is sexy and striking enough to make Supriya Lele proud. But when the girls go out on the town in Berlin, Jules is the one dressed to kill.

In a backless silver sequin top, with a cowl neck and red tiger stripes — a garment that is somehow not at all overdoing it — she steals the scene. You can’t witness a look like that and not believe that Bend It Like Beckham rewrote the style rules of combat. You simply can’t.

two young indian women wearing saris and gold jewellery, from the movie Bend It Like Beckham
Keira Knightly wearing a sports bra in the movie Bend It Like Beckham
A girl in a tracksuit standing in her bedroom looking at a football shirt, from the movie Bend It Like Beckham

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Keira Knightley