How The Iconic Looks From Bend It Like Beckham Transcend Time And Space

"The looks of the film became so powerful because they were realistic and attainable to anyone."

bend it like beckham fashion photo

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In celebration of the 20th anniversary of Bend It Like Beckham, Junkee is spending the week digging into the impact and legacy of the iconic film.

The noughties might have had some questionable looks, but the 2002 film Bend It Like Beckham offers a time capsule for immaculate outfits that transcend the cruel microscope of time two decades on.

For a film predominantly about soccer, the conversations around fashion sit at the heart of most scenes — from sports attire, traditional wear, defiance of gendered clothing — carried by protagonists Jess (Parminder Nagra) and best friend Jules (Keira Knightley).

Bend It Like Beckham Sari

Fashion In Context

In Hounslow, where Bend It Like Beckham is set, the London borough catches up to a larger zeitgeist at the time. Fashion Week coverage from the year prior notes the city leaning towards “gauche chic” — muted and understated trends slowly trickling away from urbanwear, off the back of the rolling, catastrophic effects of 9/11.

But Bend It Like Beckham also captures the calm before the storm. The film makes even three-quarter drawstring pants look cool, amid its depictions of tracksuits, V-necks, baguette bags, transparent lens sunnies, gold hoops, boxy jackets, headbands, cardigans, and chunky belts.

And at the heart of it all is Keira Knightley, whose breakthrough role as Jules cemented her presence as a style influencer for years to come. “I think skinny jeans and micro-miniskirts are very unfriendly,” the actress reflected a decade later in an interview with W Magazine.

“I’ve been known to wear both, but on some days it seems like they were invented to make you feel bad about yourself,” she said of a bygone time when body neutrality would have been laughed at in the industry, and diet culture and disordered eating prevailed.

Bend It Like Beckham Club

Sports And Style

Naturally, Bend It Like Beckham remains incredibly relevant and memorable for its players and the game — and by extension, its soccer attire as well. For Morgan Brennan — an Aussie in London who founded it-girl team Victoria Park Vixens, and is also a creative at women’s football platform Indivisa — the Hounslow Harriers uniform still sticks with her as an iconic look.

“For me, it’s got to be the classic white and red kits they wear,” she told Junkee. “You rarely see those stripped back, classic kits anymore, and they look so neat.”

The former Social Media Executive at ASOS believes that soccer uniforms are inherently empowering on women, as they transgress traditional limitations on who should, and can, play the sport.

Bend It Like Beckham Uniforms

“Women in soccer kits are strong and powerful by default. They are playing a sport they have been told throughout history isn’t for them, and they are confident doing it,” she said. “Personally I feel great when I wear my football kit partly because I’m proud to represent the club I play for, but also because it makes me feel confident and looks sick.”

The carefree aesthetics of the Harriers just radiated coolness. Even if you weren’t trying to make it pro, you could still look badass with a wire comb bandeau through layered locks, or rock a sports bra and shorts combo — spikes optional.

“I think the looks of the film became so powerful because they were realistic and attainable to anyone, regardless if they played or not,” said Brennan. “It showed the actors playing football without glamourising: they had messy hair, sweat, scrunched down socks and the basic kits you could buy similar at Sports Direct at the time.

“It inspired girls and women to play football, and embrace the feeling of sisterhood as they saw in the film.”

Traditional Wear

Bend It Like Beckham also champions and spotlights traditional Punjabi wear — from saris, sherwanis, bridal jewellery, and dastārs worn by Jess’ family and the wider community in Hounslow. The vibrancy of South Asian clothing is best seen at her sister Pinky’s wedding, where South Asian style, history, and culture was showcased on the international stage.

Sydney creative Shiv told Junkee the sari Jess wears to the event, and is later helped back into by her soccer team after she sneaks away to help win the league tournament final, still sticks with her all these years on.

“Parminder Nagra is of a darker skin tone, and this is important because in Bollywood colourism is very prominent, thus at that point in time when Bend It Like Beckham came out, there was a lack of representation of this,” she said. “I myself am not on the fairer side and often opt for brighter Indian wear. To see Jess wearing a hot pink sari that accentuates her skin tone resonated personally with me. As a child watching the movie and being able to witness this was reassuring.”

The 26-year-old said she still feels immense pride looking back at the costume design of the film, and the range of ethnic dress wear showcased — to the point where her friends were genuinely curious about how and where particular pieces are worn, while sharing mutual admiration for their beauty.

“It gave rise to dialogue and discussion about culture and heritage on a more in-depth level. Having this movie air meant the exposure of Indian culture, but also allowed people to see the hardships of first-generation ethnic children trying to maintain both their cultural identity and Western identity,” she explained. “Bend It Like Beckham explored this sense of belonging. To this day I personally feel like resonates a lot with migrant children growing up in a Western country and culture.”

What we also get a glimpse of in the film is a unique blend of Western and South Asian trends, embodied in the diamanté, Bratz Doll, Baby Spice-esque get-ups worn by Pinky, and minor antagonists Monica, Bubbly, and Meena.

Their “radical bimboism” as i-D Magazine aptly put it, is seen again in Director Gurinder Chadha’s 2004 follow-up hit Bride And Prejudice — platforming the experimentation, creativity, and duality of second-generation diasporic expression.

Bend It Like Beckham Bimbo

Tomboy Aesthetics

One of the first scenes in the film sees the pair in a lingerie shop where Jules rebuffs a pretty bra being waved in her face in favour for a more practical fit. “Just because I wear khakis and play sports does not make me a lesbian,” she says to her mother, who continually struggles with the way her daughter dresses.  

Dressing less ‘feminine’ by the standards of the time is a choice that ties Jess and Jules together, as well as their respective mothers expressing how much they’d prefer their daughters not to play soccer at all.

“I tried to get her nice clothes,” said Jules’ mother later on, reconciling her daughter’s tomboy-ish look to a misplaced assumption her sexuality. “We’ve had some lovely prints this summer, you know, in swimwear, sarongs, and that. But she never wants to go shopping with me,” she wept. 

Bend It Like Beckham Jackets

Meanwhile, Jess is scrutinised by her family for wanting a less-fitted garment for her sister’s wedding and is actively encouraged to buy multiple pairs of matching shoes to go with it, which she swindles for a new pair of match boots instead. “My mother chose all 21 dowry suits herself. I never once complained,” said Mrs Bhamra, after Jess rolls her eyes at the idea of having to go shopping yet again with her sister.

While the tomboyish look was used in pop culture at the time to convey rebellion, misunderstood angst, and going against the grain — Avril Lavigne had released her massive track ‘Complicated’ in the same year — it was also a palatable conversation starter on resisting societal gender norms.

Nowadays, a friendlier wear-what-you-want mentality coincides with neutral and fluid clothing styles like gorpcore, workwear, and Thom Browne’s menswear skirt. It’s a mutual inclusiveness Shiv says still happens today. “You see it everywhere — a cheeky sari blouse with pants, Indian jewellery being worn out and cute dress bags with a head-to-toe Western outfit.

“To see people showing off how versatile Asian wear is, but to also see people wearing it proudly really does put a smile on my face,” she said. “A huge part of this is running in a creative space where it is multicultural diverse as well — the sense of acceptance and support is endless!”

Lasting Looks

Both Jess and Jules instead favoured what we’d now consider ‘athleisure’ — brand names like Nike and Adidas, weaved together with the social currency Gap, French Connection, and United Colours of Benneton.

Clothes, trends, and what was on the latest issue of Pop Magazine simply weren’t priorities for them, but that still didn’t undercut their wicked, under-appreciated style. It makes sense for two girls constantly on the move, ready for a kick-around at any given moment, and who might’ve actually been ahead of the curve of inclusive and timeless clothing, said Brennan.

“I think we are so drawn to comfort and practicality now as everyone lives such busy, hectic lives with travel and recreation weaved in between busy working lives and social commitments,” she said. “Everyday life seems to move so fast in this day that people need to always be in something they feel comfortable yet confident in and is practical enough for them to achieve what is needed of them that particular day.”

Bend It Like Beckham Athleisure

In 2022, their minimalist style has experienced a second life in the ongoing Y2k resurgence. Jules looking effortless in a white singlet, low-rise jeans, and paisley bandana would be eaten up during Melbourne’s subversive basics phase, and no one would bat an eye Jess’ grey sleeveless hoodie set if rocked with a pair of New Balances in the present day. Twenty years on, it’s all come around again.

Millie Roberts is a staff writer at Junkee, focusing on social justice and pop culture. Follow her on Twitter.