Film and Fashion

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The couturier and designer of surreal hats, Elsa Schiaparelli once declared, "The film fashions of today are your fashions of tomorrow" (Prichard 1981, p. 370). Besides planning haute couture collections, Schiaparelli also designed costumes for such stars as Mae West (Every Day's a Holiday [1937]) and the British stars Margaret Lockwood and Anna Neagle (The Beloved Vagabond [1936], Limelight [1936]). Since then, the interrelationship between film and fashion has become more complex. Schiaparelli's belief in the direct influence of the "dream factory" on what ordinary people wore is borne out by a number of examples from the classical Hollywood period: one of Adrian's robes for Joan Crawford in Letty Lynton (1932) was widely copied, as was Edith Head's white party dress for Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun (1951). However, since then various factors have enriched and diversified fashion's interaction with film. First, there was—in the wake of Audrey Hepburn's successful collaboration with the then young and relatively unknown Paris couturier Hubert de Givenchy from Sabrina (1954) onward—the growing use of fashion as opposed to costume design on a number of key movies. Second, alongside this industrial shift and commensurate with the expansion within the couture industry into prêtà-porter, there was an escalation of fashion's influence over film as well as the other way round. Third (and a far more contemporary factor) is the rise in celebrity culture and a burgeoning interest in movie stars, what they wear both on and off the screen.

From the 1920s through the 1940s, relatively few fashion designers demeaned themselves by working for moving pictures. The most notable Parisian export was Coco Chanel who, in 1931, was lured to Hollywood by Sam Goldwyn for $1 million, only to find that Hollywood costume design—because she was too meticulous, too precise—was not for her. When she returned to France, Chanel did return to costume designing, working on the films Les Amants (1958) and L'année dernière à Marienbad (1961). Despite the phenomenal impact on cinema as well as fashion of his New Look in 1947, Christian Dior lent his designs to a relatively small and eclectic series of films: René Clair's Le silence est d'or (1946), for example, some of the costumes for Jean-Pierre Melville's Les enfants terribles (1950), and Marlene Dietrich's costumes for Alfred Hitchcock's Stage Fright (1950). It was Givenchy's collaboration with Hepburn that changed everything.

Called in reputedly at Hepburn's behest, Givenchy's first film costumes were the ball gowns in Sabrina. The details of this story are muddled because Givenchy's account of his input in the film at times directly contradicts the version proffered by the film's overall costume designer, Edith Head. Head, who had designed the costumes for Hepburn's Oscar-winning role as the princess in Roman Holiday just the previous year, was clearly hurt by the star's—and director's—decision to acquire an actual Paris wardrobe for Sabrina. In The Dress Doctor, Head comments: "I had to console myself with the dress, whose boat neckline was tied on each shoulder—widely known and copied as 'the Sabrina neckline'" (Head and Ardmore 1959, p. 119). Elsewhere, Givenchy queried Head's claim to the bateau neckline design. Certainly it is a more eyecatchingly cut than one might expect from Head who, having found her so-called breadline, rationing-conscious costumes of World War II made to look démodé by the immediate impact of Dior's opulent New Look, declared herself to be a "fence-sitter" who would follow rather than lead fashion. This claim by Head that she intentionally occupied the middle of the road crystallizes the difference between the couturier and the straightforward costume designer. While the couturier might be more expressive and daring when designing for the screen, costume designers opted for safer styles that remained secondary to character and narrative and never, as the Hollywood director George Cukor commented, "knocked your eye out" (Gaines and Herzog 1990, p. 195). The inherently spectacular quality of Givenchy's designs for Hepburn is frequently accentuated by the nature of the narratives the costumes serve. In both Sabrina and later Funny Face, the story revolves around the Hepburn characters' Cinderella-esque rags-to-riches tales, transformed from a chauffeur's daughter to a millionaire's wife in one, bookshop assistant to an icon of glamour and sophistication in the other. The joke in Funny Face—in which Hepburn's character models clothes on a Paris catwalk—is ultimately that, for all the appeal of high fashion, Hepburn is happiest (and most iconic) when dressing down in black leggings, turtleneck, and flats.

There have been other significant collaborations between stars and designers—Adrian's partnerships with Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford, or Jean Louis's designs for Doris Day's comedies of the late 1950s and early 1960s—and following these, couturiers contributed more regularly to film costume design. Hardy Amies (Queen Elizabeth's favorite fashion designer) designed the wardrobe for films such as The Grass Is Greener (Stanley Donen, 1960) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968). Giorgio Armani later became the most prolific couturier costume designer, working on a number of films, ranging from American Gigolo (1980) to the remake of The Italian Job (2003). However, the way in which Armani has approached costume design—and this holds for several classic designers such as Nino Cerruti, Yves Saint Laurent, Donna Karan, Calvin Klein—is in a likewise classic way. His costumes occupy a traditional, servile role in relation to the narratives and characters they serve; they remain stylishly unobtrusive and do not "knock your eye out," as arguably Givenchy's extravagant ball gowns for Hepburn do. Cinema's most popular couturier costume designers, it seems, are those who follow the underpinning conventions of costume design.

From the 1970s onward, a schism has become increasingly apparent between the classic and the spectacular look in film. Peter Wollen has argued that only the latter kind of extrovert costume design (such as those in William Klein's 1966 film Qui êtes-vous, Polly Maggoo?) can be considered art, thus echoing Saint Laurent's belief that "Art is probably too big a word for fashion. Fashion is a craft, a poetic craft" (Saint Laurent 1988, p. 20). The "art" of fashion in film would be exemplified by the film work of Jean Paul Gaultier, who has designed costumes for various art-house movies including The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989) and Kika (1993). In both, exaggerated versions of Gaultier's signature styles—his cone bras, his use of corsetry as outer clothing, his asymmetrical cutting, his persistent predilection for classic tailoring alongside much more radical designs—are evident with a pervasive, more nebulous interest in creating outlandish costumes in their own right. Gaultier's designs are intrinsically fashionable and extend the boundaries of costume and style (as Chanel once explained, there is an essential distinction to be drawn between "fashion," which is ephemeral, and "style," which endures). Although Gaultier trained with Pierre Cardin and Jean Patou (thereby explaining his residual interest in traditional tailoring), in The Cook, the Thief alone one can find a string of witty, audacious juxtapositions—there are echoes of Courrèges's space-age costumes (far more outlandish than Amies's designs for 2001), the influence of the effete cavaliers and more than a whiff of seventeenth-century cardinals. InKika, the smooth surface of classicism—exemplified by Victoria Abril's black bias-cut dress—is ruptured by radical flourishes, such as the prosthetic breasts bursting out of it.

The creation of self-consciously spectacular costumes (less "over the top" than drawing attention to themselves in whatever way) has persisted through a variety of eclectic movies. Gaultier's own wardrobe for Luc Besson's The Fifth Element (1997) is incontrovertibly spectacular; the clothes are ostentatious, wildly colorful, eclectic and, again, overtly sexual, as in Leeloo's artful stretch-bondage gear. Once more, these costumes flagrantly come in the way of character identification as one cannot help but notice them, and in their very styles (asymmetric, clashing) and man-made fabrics, they proclaim their ephemerality. This is only one, obvious, use of the spectacular; other more subtle examples from within contemporary film of costumes that draw attention to themselves and so intrude upon the seamlessness of the classical narrative form would be The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), Far from Heaven (2002), and Dolls (2002). Like Luis Buñuel's Belle de jour (1967) before them, Ripley and Far from Heaven in particular make use of costumes that are only slightly out of the ordinary. The cardigan trimmed with thick, swirling braid that Cate Blanchett is wearing when she bumps into the only slightly less ostentatiously dressed Paltrow is a further example of a costume's overt fashionableness being used to prevent the spectator's unthinking identification with the characters and the scene. Fashion (and it is important that the character Blanchett plays here is a textiles heiress) creates an alternative dialogue between text and spectator.

However, it is perhaps not altogether surprising that the dominant tendency in cinema has been to follow the Armani route, using fashion to denote stylishness and class but not to be too spectacular and so interrupt the flow or balance of a scene. For The Italian Job (2003), Armani's costumes are used, very traditionally, as a means of interpreting character. Essential differences between the principal characters are signaled through costume, in much the same way as Edith Head created a shorthand for understanding her characters through dress (a high-buttoned neckline for a repressed woman, a shimmering décolleté dress for a more sexually available one). So, Donald Sutherland's sensuous, unstructured wool coat and warm turtleneck sweater serve as coded references to his innate charm and old-school heist-master values (he has had enough of the criminal life and the "job" at the start of the film is meant to be his last before going straight), while Mark Wahlberg's tighter-fitting, slightly spivvy black leather jacket quickly makes him out to be eager and on the make. Armani had used a similar system of typage for the four protagonists in The Untouchables (1987)—the friendly father-figure in chunky knits, the nerd in a coat slightly too big, the cop from the wrong side of the tracks in his rather-too-jazzy brown leather jacket, and the dependable leader (again) in his flowing Armani coat and tailored three-piece.

The dressing of Gwyneth Paltrow in many of her films conforms to a similar pattern. Apart from her period films (Emma) and latterly The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), in which she appears to be signaling her desire to break free of her previous typecasting, Paltrow has exemplified a certain well-groomed, affluent but slightly frigid and repressed look, given to her in films such as Sliding Doors (1998) or Alfonso Cuaròn's modern-day Great Expectations (1998) by the elegant but unexceptional designs of Calvin Klein and Donna Karan respectively. These designers, like Ralph Lauren before them, exemplify a specific kind of safe but sophisticated New York fashion. Like costumes in Hollywood's heyday, the clothes in these films accomplish the easy, unobtrusive creation of Paltrow's characters' social identity. The straight lines, modern fabrics, and neutral colors do more than suggest the characters' fashionableness, they mark them out as coming from a specific milieu, in much the same way as Head's costumes for Grace Kelly in her Hitchcock films of the 1950s (Rear Window, Dial M for Murder, To Catch a Thief) had done.

The refined, slightly aloof elegance of Grace Kelly could perhaps have been expected to make a bigger impact on fashion itself than it did. The relationship between fashion and film is a two-way process: fashion designers get involved in films in part to showcase their designs and perhaps influence fashion outside cinema along the way. Armani, for example, has denied that his film designs are product placement, although the association with movies is a tidy way of giving his designs exposure. Films, even the less clearly fashionable ones, have frequently influenced fashion. There are multiple examples throughout cinema history of items of clothing in films making a significant intervention into fashion on the street. Some films (such as Michelangelo Antonioni's quintessentially 1960s' Blowup) are notable as "time capsules" of the fashions of their times, while others might add a look, a garment, or accessory to the contemporary fashion scene. The latter are more intriguing, as they are actively rather than passively engaged with fashion. Sometimes, though, the precise reason for a film having a significant impact on fashion might remain elusive; it simply captures the zeitgeist.

An early example of a single garment changing the course of fashion occurs in It Happened One Night (1934) in which Clark Gable takes off his shirt to reveal that he is not wearing an undershirt underneath (reputedly because he felt that taking off another shirt would prove ungainly). Undershirt sales in the United States plummeted by 30 percent. Male underwear sales went up again in the 1950s when the white T-shirt became a fashionable item of male clothing, with Marlon Brando sporting one in The Wild One (1953) and James Dean another in Rebel without a Cause (1955). Later examples of films directly impacting on fashion are Annie Hall (1977) and Out of Africa (1985). Just months after the respective releases of both films, the pages of American and BritishVogue were awash with derivative images. The distinctive, ditsy look Ralph Lauren created for Diane Keaton as Annie Hall was swiftly mimicked in fashion magazines and in department stores as women were urged to mix up masculine and feminine styles as Annie had done—a big tweed jacket over a feminine shirt, or a waistcoat and tie over peg-top trousers to accentuate rather than obscure the feminine form. In the wake of Out of Africa, both in the pages of glossy magazines and on the street, the safari look dominated women's and men's fashions alike. Fashion shoots had safari settings and ensembles featuring billowing linen, cotton shirts, wide skirts, breeches, and leather riding boots. A clear reason for the fashion success of both these films was that their looks were easily attainable; the British store Top Shop tempted shoppers to its Out of Africa–inspired collection with the tag line "Out of Oxford Circus, into Top Shop." Likewise, women and girls could achieve the androgynous Annie Hall look by simply raiding the wardrobes of their older, more traditional male relatives or by visiting thrift shops.

Two issues emerge from the impact a film such as Out of Africa had on fashion: that it still, despite being a period film, exerted considerable influence on contemporary fashion and that its wardrobe manifestly illustrated the importance of accessibility and democratization when it comes to film's influence on fashion. Few costume films have influenced fashion—although Edward Maeder makes a case for the 1933 version of Little Women leading to the popularization of such items as the gingham pinafore, and John Fairchild, publisher of Women's Wear Daily, waged a personal crusade in the late 1960s to have hemlines drop after enjoying The Damned (1962), Doctor Zhivago (1965), and Bonnie and Clyde (1967) (Prichard, 216). It is tempting to presume that any period piece that influences fashion must contain elements of inauthenticity: Julie Christie's "swinging sixties" makeup and hair in Far from the Madding Crowd (1967) or the anachronistically colorful gowns Michelle Pfeiffer wears in The Age of Innocence (Hollander 1993). If such period films have affected contemporary fashion, there has tended to be a manifest overlap between the fashions of the historical period and the fashion trends at the time the film is made. This mutuality was evident in the safari clothes of Out of Africa and was logically the reason for Moulin Rouge, with its basques and retro-new romantic styles, having been readily emulated in shop windows. While costume films have indirectly influenced designers (Kubrick's Barry Lyndon [1975] has been cited more than once as an inspiration by modern couturiers), the films rarely impact upon clothes styles as a whole.

The accessibility of film fashion has become a hugely significant factor in their appeal. In the 1970s and 1980s, fashion had become about what people wear, not what they might fantasize about wearing, a transition that altered the relationship with film. Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs (1992), which inspired London department store windows and led to an increase in the wearing of dark suits and shades amongst younger men, is just such an example of film's democratization of fashion; the costume designer Betsy Heimann had bought the suits cheaply. As Reservoir Dogs became successful as a movie, however, so did the clean-silhouetted French gangster look (Tarantino readily admitted to having emulated the look created by the French director Jean-Pierre Melville for his gangsters). By the time Tarantino came to make his second film, Pulp Fiction (1994), the idea that his films were trendy was cemented, and this time he bought suits for Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta and Uma Thurman's black trousers and white shirt duo at Agnès b. Audiences now somewhat randomly scavenge films for fashion ideas, so Thurman's Chanel Rouge Noir nail polish in Pulp Fiction was much in demand, as earlier Tom Cruise's sunglasses from Top Gun (1986) had been. The overall attractiveness of the film is only partly responsible for its potential impact on fashion; sometimes just a single garment or accessory becomes popular, such as Keanu Reeves's mobile phone and long black coat in The Matrix (1999) or Nicole Kidman's half-fitted, half-loose teddy in Eyes Wide Shut (1999), which sold out everywhere. As Schiaparelli noted back in the 1930s, cinema is inevitably going to influence fashion. Since then, a more fluid, flexible interaction has emerged—sometimes fashion borrows from film, but often the exchange is reversed. Film actors are inevitably dressing up, and this use of clothes as fantasy comes out in audiences' acquisitions of particular on-screen looks, whether this be women using patterns to make up their favorite costume designs in the 1940s or their granddaughters going to Agnès b. in the 1990s to find Uma Thurman's trousers. Likewise, as Jean Paul Gaultier has remarked, film lets the designer's imagination run riot in a way fashion, because of its commercial constraints, does not. In the early twenty-first century, there is the added dimension of what stars wear off-screen becoming as important in influencing cinema audiences. Film and fashion will continue to serve each other.

See alsoActors and Actresses, Impact on Fashion; Celebrities; Hollywood Style .


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Gaines, Jane. "Costume and Narrative: How Dress Tells the Woman's Story." In Fabrications: Costume and the Female Body, 180–211. London and New York: Routledge, 1990.

Gaines, Jane, and Charlotte Herzog, eds. Fabrications: Costume and the Female Body. London and New York: Routledge, 1990.

Head, Edith, and Jane Kesner Ardmore. The Dress Doctor. Boston and Toronto: Little Brown and Company, 1959.

Hollander, Anne. Seeing Through Clothes. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

Maeder, Edward, ed. Hollywood and History: Costume Design in Film. Los Angeles: Thames and Hudson, Inc., 1987.

Prichard, Susan Perez. Film Costume: An Annotated Bibliography. Metuchen, N.J., and London: Scarecrow Press, 1981.

Saint Laurent, Yves. Yves Saint Laurent: Images of Design. With an introduction by Marguerite Duras. London: Ebury Press, 1988.

Wollen, Peter. "Strike a Pose." Sight and Sound 5, no. 3 (March 1995): 10–15.

Stella Bruzzi