Sunday, 8 May 2011

Films, clothes and fashion

Clothes in films can be fascinating, and immensely important. Think of Julie Marsden (Bette Davis) going to a ball in Jezebel (1938), dressed in red when everybody else are dressed in white, as society demands. Or think of the films of Wes Anderson. A couple of years ago I wrote about films, clothes and fashion on my Swedish film blog, and I've been meaning to do the same here, in English. Earlier this week Girish Shambu wrote a post on his blog about clothes in films, and was kind enough to encourage me to translate my original piece, so I've done that. Before I get on with the old text though I'd like to set the tone by a quote from one of Cecil B. DeMille's great, early films, Don't Change Your Husband (1919): "Of those external forces which combine to make us what we are, DRESS is the most potent. It covers our ideas no less than our bodies - until we finally become the thing we look to be." To this might be added that clothes are often used to explain and/or underline a character's position, or state of mind. A favourite example is from The Ghost and the Darkness (1996), an adventure film set in 1898. In the first scene colonel Patterson (Val Kilmer) is dressed in a new, shiny, immaculate uniform, in the last he is dressed in torn, dirty clothes. That pretty much sums up the film, of how a man is changed, transformed, degraded by leaving home, and England, and getting immersed in colonial warfare. Could the clothes perhaps been seen as an allegory for how Britain also became transformed and degraded by its colonial adventures?

So, the rest is the old post, titled Fashion, clothes and style, originally posted January 29, 2007 I have tweaked it a bit to make it read more smoothly, and a few things have been changed because they were too time-specific to when I originally wrote it. It mainly concerns itself with the relationship between film and fashion, but also touches upon the symbolic uses of clothes, which is even more interesting than the fashion angle and needs to be discussed further:

When Clark Cable took of his clothes in a scene in It Happened One Night (1934) United States was in shock, and possibly the rest of the world as well. Not so much because he took of his clothes but for the fact that he wasn't wearing a vest or undershirt beneath his shirt, it was only his naked torso, which went against the conventions. As a result of this the sale of vests decreased rapidly, since men didn't want to walk around with such a garment when the great Gable didn't. And truth be told, when I saw the film for the first time I was surprised as well.

This is but one of many examples of how film and fashion are intimately connected, and proof that it isn't a new phenomenon. Jennifer Aniston is famous for her hairstyles [it least she was when I wrote it], which have been eagerly copied, but she's just one in a long line of others. During the second world war it was the hairdo of Veronica Lake that ruled. It was called peekaboo and consisted of long, flowing hair that covered half the face, something which would cause unexpected problems. Due to the war many women were suddenly working outside of the homes and many were operating machinery. There it was not practical to have the same kind of hairstyle as Lake and after several accidents where women's hair got caught in the machines, the authorities urged Lake to change her hairstyle, which she did (her own contribution to the war effort).

But to get back to clothes. Annie Hall (1977) is famous for being Woody Allen's breakthrough as a serious filmmaker, but it was also the film with which Diane Keaton created a new fashion. The clothes she wear in the film, designed by Ruth Morley and Ralph Lauren, and inspired by Katherine Hepburn's style, was a slightly bohemian mixture of hats, ties, pants and vests, and this suddenly became very trendy. Seen in a broader perspective perhaps Annie Hall's clothes have been more influential than Annie Hall itself. In any event a new fashion was created, just as khaki became fashionable after the release of Out of Africa (1985) and fur hats became fashionable after the release of Doctor Zjivago (1965). Brokeback Mountain (2005) naturally boosted sales of cowboy outfits, and Marie Antoinette (2006) is yet another example of how a film can (re-)create a fashion. Edith Head and Hubert de Givenchy's clothes for Audrey Hepburn in the excessively chic Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961) are even more important. It's one of the most influential films ever made when it comes to fashion, not least for its long, black sheath dresses.

Sometimes it is easier to understand a film if you know what the dress codes are (or were) when the film was made, what was fashionable when, and where, the film was made. The way a person dress signals his/her status and position and in a modern film that might be easy to read, but in older films or films from cultures different from our own it becomes more difficult, but it is still something to pay attention to. When Irene Dunne's character in My Favourite Wife (1940) comes back to civilisation after having been on a deserted island for several years, one recurring motif is that her dresses are hopelessly unfashionable. This was of course obvious for the female viewers at the time, but that dimension gets lost if you're not knowledgeable about 1940s fashion. And because clothes and décor are important good filmmakers don't t leave these things to chance. Alfred Hitchcock, to name an obvious example, took everything into consideration, down to the colour of the shoes, and in several of his films the clothes have a symbolic and/or psychological importance, such as on Madeleine/Judy (Kim Novak) in Vertigo (1958).

In another of Hitchcock's films from the 1950s, To Catch a Thief (1955), it's Grace Kelly that plays the lead and her clothes, created by Edith Head, are among the most spectacular you are likely to see. (I once met a woman who were disappointed that she only had it on VHS, with mandatory subtitles, because the subtitles hid the shoes that Kelly was wearing.) And they tell a lot about her character's personality, self-sufficient and bold, and perhaps with something to hide, since she often looks overdressed, like for a costume ball.

These clothes are perhaps not something you would wear on an ordinary day, but clothes can be important even if they're ordinary. Take as an example the clothes Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney) wears in Laura (1944). They are designed by Bonnie Cashin, and her classy, timeless, office outfits are among the many factors contributing to the brilliance of the film. They say something about who Laura Hunt is, and perhaps even more what kind of person she wants to be. They also say something about women's new role in society in the 1940s.

These are some of the reasons why clothing and fashion should be relevant not just for fashionistas, but for academic scholars as well, and why it should be taught at film studies courses. Clothes are not just superficial, clothes are part of a film's signs, telling details, and only the person who can read all the signs will get a complete understanding of the film.

Almost all examples were from American films but that isn't because clothes are less important in the films of other countries. It's just expediency on my part that has kept the focus so narrow. But I should at least mention Coco Chanel's clothes for The Rules of the Game (La règle du jeu 1939).


  1. interesting post. i love fashion in film. my favorites are Adrien & the great prolific Edith Head.

  2. To be or not to be a fashion designer is a tough choice. Fashion designers are not people you get introduced to all the time. And successful fashion designers are usually too busy or too secretive to share how they got the job. So it can be a dilemma on whether you should take the plunge and invest a small fortune on an unknown future.