Birds of Paradise: Costume as Cinematic Spectacle, ed. Marketa Uhlirova. London: Koenig Books, 2013. 341 pp.
I first became intrigued by London’s Fashion in Film at an unusual series of screenings in 2013. The project, based at Central Saint Martins, produces festivals and writing on costume design. Last year, instead of going for obviously chic choices (a season on Edith Head, Adrian, or a female star), the curators programmed two of the most unfashionable directors in history, Marcel L’Herbier and Claude Autant-Lara. These two have long been dismissed as makers of fusty drawing-room films – or as the French New Wave labeled them, le cinéma de papa. But for decades, it’s been hard to tell if the put-down was justified – the works are rarely screened or available on DVD.
Fashion in Film invited us to take a long look at L’Herbier’s The Sparrowhawk (L’Epervier, 1933) and Scent of the Woman in Black (Le Parfum de la Dame en Noir, 1931): not necessarily acclaiming them as masterworks, but asking us to explore them with curiosity rather than contempt. In contrast to the New Wave preference for strict form and clean lines, this kind of cinema wants as many different kinds of textures onscreen as possible: murky light, theatrical trompe l’oeil, varying layers of depth, and lots of bric-a-brac to fill out the frame. L’Herbier makes films that are not especially “filmic”; they do not focus on resources specific to cinema, and the plot of Scent of the Woman in Black even hangs on the description of a fragrance. But to a contemporary viewer, these works are certainly mysterious, with their fetishistic treatment of fashion and objets d’art, and their shocking moments of abstraction, in which graphic design appears to freeze the moving image.
Scent of the Woman in Black is arguably an ideal film for expressing the concerns of fin-de-siècle decadence; it has an unstable format that hovers between tableau, theatre, and cinema. It marginalizes the human figure and threatens to get sidetracked by pattern. When a character is overwhelmed by a tessellation, art direction overrides human interest; every time a scene is in danger of becoming too filmic, the décor insists on the value of the two-dimensional. For those used to the rigorous modernism of a Godard, L’Herbier’s films make the eye move in an unfamiliar way. Since space is not clearly defined, we glance up and down, here and there, becoming disproportionately attracted to a detail.
This kind of thinking is the starting point of Birds of Paradise, a collection of essays that contend that fashion has always been a defining element of cinema, from the “marvelous” films of the 1890s to the underground works of Kenneth Anger and Jack Smith. Instead of regarding couture as an attraction for bourgeois audiences, this book focuses on the strangeness of filming clothes so specifically. By looking through the lens of costume, we can see the posing of dress in relation to dance, theater, and visual art, and the translation of this moment into cinema.
The editor, Marketa Uhlirova, is particularly interested in the clothing worn by dancers on film, and several authors make strong claims for the connection between dance fashion and early cinema. The first part of the book deals with the popular serpentine films of the 1890s, in which a woman dances with a long flowing veil that spirals around her body. The whirling movement of this veil – hand-tinted in brilliant color – was considered an exotic spectacle, hence the book’s title. The screen-like fabric twisting in an infinity loop, with light and color thrown onto it, is uncannily like the mechanism of film, and it is the book’s argument that this costume was central to the development of cinema.
The bird-woman is a key figure in the history of film, not only in her resemblance to a projection, but for the way directors furthered their understanding of light, movement, and color by studying her garments. As Giovanni Lista’s essay points out, the arrival of color film was closely linked with serpentine dancing, since technicians experimented with shades and pigments in order to “represent chromatically the hypnotic fascination” of the dance. The book contains plenty of great-looking images to support this case: shots of performers such as Loïe Fuller with filmy wings tinted to express lightness and agility.
For Uhlirova, part of the allure of these “semi-immaterial women” is that they exist largely to show off color and wingspan; we may even question whether there is a real person inside the clothes. In the serpentine dance, as in L’Herbier’s films, a fabulous cloak represents not only a fashion moment but a triumph of spectacle, with the fabric’s design explicitly modeled for the camera. Stunning garments may appeal to consumers, but they are also a way of drawing the eye into an intense level of detail. It should be noted that the father figure most treasured by the New Wave, Jean Renoir, made some of his greatest films as pretexts for costumes and color. The characters in French Cancan (1954) and Elena et les Hommes (1956) make gestures that have no ostensible narrative function, other than to show an expanse of lacy sleeve or to highlight the shimmer of a dress. Arms are extended solely in order to have bright shapes draped over them, saturating the eye with color.
In her outstanding essay “Dreams for Sale,” Esther Leslie proposes that “clothing and ornaments take on the power to concentrate vision, interrupt things by insisting on their own presence . . . thrusting their own aesthetic quality to the fore.” For Leslie, an arts professor and militant aesthete, costumes tend to inspire a “detail-spying and texture-seeking look” that goes beyond the gaze of a consumer. This links into the final section of the book, in which we see how the hot, desiring look associated with fashion leads into the world of queer cinema.
In Kenneth Anger’s films, clothes are often infused with a peculiar intensity; the viewer receives lascivious invitations to stroke and finger fabrics, even to swallow jewels whole. The erotic animation of the clothes is then imparted to other objects in the frame; under the spell of the initial touch, every subsequent prop becomes a “needful” thing. Juan A. Suárez writes that the costumes in Anger’s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954) are “prolongations of the body that expand its outline and enhance its erotogenic potential,” drawing on the historical triangle of “strange clothes, unconventional sex and magic.” The book’s images certainly promote this feeling of occult sensuality, with pages of lavish, beautiful shots of Anger’s work. Printed in faint silver on black to evoke tarnished photographic prints, these images receive the same mystical treatment as Georges Méliès’ serpentine films. The intention may be to surround queer films with the same haze of alchemy that marks early cinema; these pictures conjure a glamour that is smeared and lurid.
In the era before product placement, it is possible to read film’s fixation on clothing as a genuinely odd disruption of narrative. Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome reveals a distaste for naturalism related to fin-de-siècle decadence. The craving for jeweled, bedazzled fashion reflects a distrust of the organic and the realistic: there is the desire to go against nature, against narrative. But when garments are displayed in the film, it is the invitation to linger that is perhaps the strangest of all: the fact that a fabric’s texture is too overtly visible, forcing itself into our awareness. The intense concentration on a fragment suggests the fetishistic attachment to a cult object.
We can envision the viewer of a film by Anger or Smith (or L’Herbier, for that matter) as an aesthete who requires a large, busy arrangement of objects to absorb the gaze, needing novelty and spectacle as much as formal interest. These filmmakers surrender the appearance of directorial authority to a feeling of objective strangeness: the fact that we have no reason for looking at a garment, yet it is being shown to us in inordinate detail. When an image flaunts itself as excessive and irrelevant, it encourages the needful gaze: this object is so close, so literally present, that it becomes uncanny, as if sustained by the force of our attention.
By tracing a line from the early spectacle films to ’60s queer cinema, this book identifies a tradition of directors who use marvelous costumes to provoke desire and mess with our sense of time. In place of a clear style and a concise set of meanings, we sense that we are looking at something that is extraordinary both onscreen and off: it’s not just the camera, it’s not just editing. And if the films are more primitive and less cinematic as a result? Well, modernism is not the only way forward.