Bright Lights Film Journal

The Next Top Model: Cinema’s Rules of Dressing

“Black hair is set off by bright colour, and these women often resembled blocks of pure pigment. They look ravishing but only half-alive . . . even the tough-talking Gardner looks like an image painted onto the screen.”

In Hollywood films of the ’40s, fashion is personality: character is determined not so much by dialogue as by the shapes the actor makes onscreen. In Technicolor, star actresses of this period appear opaque, more like stylized drawings than human beings. Women are defined by the two-dimensional factors of colour and cut: the line of the shoulder, waist, and legs as presented within a costume.

This was particularly the case with ultra-refined brunettes such as Cyd Charisse, Gene Tierney, and Ava Gardner. Black hair is set off by bright colour, and these women often resembled blocks of pure pigment. They look ravishing but only half-alive: in a red dress, even the tough-talking Gardner looks like an image painted onto the screen. With Charisse, the face is just one component of a total image: an arc on top of a long green form. Costume and lighting sculpt the body in space, and the result is closer to fashion illustration than a 3-D model.

In Drake Stutesman’s excellent article in Adrienne Munich’s anthology Fashion in Film (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011), “Costume Design, or What is Fashion in Film?,” fashion is seen as a device that promotes a certain stance: a way to give characters the “most compelling lines possible.” As Stutesman beautifully puts it, the lines of a garment end up “taking our eyes with them.” Our gaze strokes an image up and down, tracing over an embossed detail or losing itself in a plush fabric. If a costume designer can get the eye to move repeatedly across a seam, that look becomes indelibly associated with the character.

In the ’20s, designer Clare West created lines so hard and defined that the actors seemed locked into an abstract pattern, threatening the reality of the plot. Stutesman chooses a shot from The Affairs of Anatol (1921) that is shocking in its absolute starkness: the human figure is dwarfed by the spider-like spread of an enormous, black-lined cape. The performer’s face is a sliver within the frame; it peeks out of a tessellation. The film flirts with experimental effects whenever this cape appears: the scene looks like a sketch by Klimt or Beardsley rather than a filmed sequence.

In the majority of Fashion in Film’s essays, the focus is on women’s fashion, although Stutesman performs a great dissection of Brando’s T-shirt in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), training her gaze over every fold and wrinkle, noticing even the placement of sweat and the way the fabric hangs off the body. Each seam, whether it causes our eyes to move up or down, has implications for the character of Stanley Kowalski. The viewer may believe herself indifferent to this brute, but the gaze caressing that shirt tells another story.

According to Caroline Evans’ essay “The Walkies,” an audience’s passion for clothes turns moviegoing into a cinema of attractions rather than narrative. Evans makes the link between early cinema and couture shows, but if anything, today’s films are even more driven by consumer impulses. Rouben Mamoulian and Vincente Minnelli may have used gorgeous gowns, but thanks to set design and the texture of ’40s cinema, these items were part of a coherent visual fantasy, not product placement. Gilbert Adrian’s costumes were so unreal that one desired them as images rather than must-have pieces: Cecil B. DeMille’s rule was “Don’t design anything that anyone could buy in a store.”

However, in the past twenty years, there has been an overwhelming shift toward what “anyone could buy,” so that cinema has become a form of virtual shopping. So many recent films are made for the covetous eye, and not just ones that are explicitly about fashion: A Perfect Murder (1998), Great Expectations (1998), Possession (2002), Lost in Translation (2003), Atonement (2007), A Single Man (2009) — note that half of these films feature clotheshorse Gwyneth Paltrow. Aside from a warm and vulnerable performance by Rene Russo, the main reason to see The Thomas Crown Affair (1999) is the parade of Michael Kors outfits swishing across the screen. Perhaps we can divide fashion films into those that are built around the spectacle of clothing (doting and waiting on garments to appear) and those that mysteriously integrate fashion effects into a narrative. Johnnie To’s Sparrow (2008) is an instance of the latter, in its stylized but consistent presentation of the female lead. When Seinfeld‘s George Costanza insisted that “beautiful women walk faster,” he might have been describing the appearance of Kelly Lin in Sparrow: always breathless, caught in rushing close-up, or suspended in a high-fashion pose of animation. Couture serves a diegetic purpose here, as Lin is as impossibly distracted and elusive as a top model. As Evans points out, both fashion and film are preoccupied with the idea of “women suddenly appearing out of nowhere.”

Two articles make the case against the fashionable woman on film. For Diana Diamond, the excess of items on display in Marie Antoinette (2006) shows that the queen inhabited a “complete bubble” of fantasy. Maura Spiegel sees The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981) and Angels and Insects (1995) in terms of the battle between the fashionista and the plain woman, with the latter winning out. However, her conclusion is that “plainness is a performance no more nor less than ornamentation is.” Indeed, this may be a case in which film has influenced the tone of high fashion rather than vice versa — today’s concept of “intellectual” design is founded entirely on the performance of plainness. Miuccia Prada has made a career out of clothes that resemble the bookworm outfits worn by Audrey Hepburn and Cyd Charisse in Funny Face (1957) and Silk Stockings (1957). But while those costumes were intended as a satire of the bluestocking, Prada is unironically marketed as serious, brainy fashion. It is laughable that, fifty years later, a caricature of pretentiousness has become an icon of the elite. I’ll admit it: I have a beef against Prada. Maybe I’m in the minority — or it’s the designer’s exclusion of black models that gets my goat — but I find Prada’s clothes less innovative than those of a supposedly mainstream house like Calvin Klein or Donna Karan. Prada may have an uncontested reputation as the “thinker” of fashion, but her aesthetic is based on an extremely conventional reading of culture: the careful exclusion of hips, sex, and colour. Her models can be Caucasian or Asian, but they are always blank-faced and pale-skinned — as if a black girl could not convey delicacy, restraint, or disdain as easily as a white one. The influence of this way of thinking has been pervasive: even in contemporary music, sterility and whiteness are the values associated with intelligence. Listen to the sexless, affectless voice in Ladytron, La Roux, Cut Copy, Hot Chip, et al: this is the sound of haute electronica. But after more than a decade of pale and interesting, it’s time to move on.

The book closes with a piece by the feminist scholar E. Ann Kaplan, “After Fashion,” which laments the fact that older women are not invited to the party of the previous chapters.1 On and off screen, female seniors must either conform to the dreaded “age-appropriate” tag or risk being called mutton dressed as lamb. Kaplan is largely referring to women over sixty — but even this may be too generous. While models of the ’90s tended to be in their twenties or early thirties, the ideal fashion plate of the 2000s is a girl of thirteen: someone with a high, foetal forehead who can wear granny chic (cardigans, saggy floral dresses, white socks with sandals), the vintage clothes contrasting with the unmarked skin. These days, fashion can only refer to age ironically — anybody over twenty would look ridiculous in these clothes. In Australia, trends in model casting have seeped into film, where the most popular type is a mini-Cate Blanchett: a blonde, translucent nymph (often a former model) along the lines of Abbie Cornish, Emma Booth, Sophie Lowe, Maeve Dermody, Emelie de Ravin, and Gemma Ward. It’s hard to imagine the young Judy Davis, let alone a woman of age and colour, emerging as a new star. Given that actresses now depend on the fashion press not only for publicity but for their careers, the ability to sell clothes is non-negotiable. But Kaplan finds that, on the older body, contemporary designs cannot even “look right,” let alone fashion-forward.

However, I think relief could come from an unlikely source. I’m not talking about the fashion parade of older actresses in recent films: Patricia Clarkson in Cairo Time (2009), Tilda Swinton in I Am Love (2009), Julianne Moore in A Single Man (2009). Right now, the most richly sensual actresses are to be seen on TV, in daytime soaps. It is a world in which young, fleshy bodies are seen as callow compared to the shows’ eternal divas, who rule by virtue of bone structure and a storied romantic past.2 Watching The Young and the Restless and The Bold and the Beautiful, it is textured skin that seems to hold the light; the ingénues are often perceived as vapid, yet to be marked up by life. As someone who recalls The Bold and the Beautiful as an interminable bore in the early ’90s, I recently became attracted to the show after reading an interview with writer Patrick Mulcahey. The brilliant Mulcahey has played a part in bringing a complex female character, Brooke Logan (Katherine Kelly Lang), to the fore: a woman who was introduced to us as a trophy girlfriend, but has subsequently shown unexpected qualities. In his words, Brooke is “simple, but in a specific, even complicated way. She’s kind of dim and kind of not. She’s kind of sleazy and kind of upright. She can be manipulative and open-hearted in the very same moment.” When asked for an alternative casting choice, Mulcahey suggests “Giulietta Masina . . . as pretentious as that sounds.”3 This may be the most intriguing character description I’ve heard, so I resolved to give the soap a second look. Now I’m hooked: the show’s heroine is not the traditional woman of sensibility but Brooke, a flashy, carelessly sexual wife. Every day the camera studies this unaccountable woman, as if to say: here is where real depth lies. Her costume accurately reflects the mix of aging bimbo, corporate woman, and sympathetic friend her character represents. Some of her clothes verge on the tarty, but she wears them with a masculine directness. The blonde hair is coiffed, yet she tosses it around unaffectedly; the face is extremely polished but also gently creased. Next to Brooke, the show’s young stars seem interchangeable: we can never look away because, as Drake Stutesman might put it, Brooke has the most “compelling lines” onscreen.

It is possible that this dynamic feels familiar because, like most viewers who grew up in the ’80s and ’90s, I was a fan of the primetime soap: a medium dominated for nearly twenty years by the likes of Donna Mills, Joan Collins, and Diahann Carroll. From these shows I learned that glamour was the preserve of people over forty-five; certainly, no teenager could aspire to it. The fashion culture of the time promoted a Freaky Friday-like transformation, in which a fifteen-year-old longed to assume the body of a mature woman (rather than the reverse.) Soaps did not suggest that older women might also be stylish; they took it for granted that only women over forty were aspirational — who else could wear a power suit at the lectern? In the ’80s, sophistication was a hard shell rather than a soft skin; once you acquired it, you could wear important jewellery and the armour of fashion. Huge shoulders were grafted onto costumes: you didn’t know where the garment started and the body ended.4 Never was there a concern about appearing too dominant: soaps show no fear of the tigress, the dowager, the superwoman. So to Kaplan, I propose: a solution could come from raiding the past as well as the present. If us ’80s kids can remember what made us, we can pick up where we left off.

  1. Almost every ’90s star actress you can think of has been relegated to playing the old crone in a fairytale: Michelle Pfeiffer in Stardust (2007), Susan Sarandon in Enchanted (2007), Sharon Stone in Catwoman (2004). And Julia Roberts is about to be the evil queen mourning her lost beauty in Mirror Mirror (2012) . . . []
  2. The ’80s were a period for glamorously hard women on TV, and a parallel line of warm, soft, and maternal actresses in film: Karen Allen, Anne Archer, Isabella Rossellini, Joanna Cassidy, Maria Conchita Alonso, Lea Thompson, Kathleen Quinlan, Sissy Spacek in Raggedy Man (1981), Susan Sarandon in Bull Durham (1988). A resurgence of both types would be welcome. []
  3. This interview with the sophisticated and erudite Patrick Mulcahey, in which he discusses the construction of core characters, families, and story arcs, has renewed my interest in soaps: Giada DaRos, “Interviews: Patrick Mulcahey,”, October 2007 []
  4. Fashion in the ’80s reflected a willingness to take up space, with its creatively loose, flowing, and ballooning shapes. In today’s take on ’80s style, shoulders, hips, and lapels can be ironically exaggerated, but they must be angular and oversize: nothing that could be mistaken for flesh. []