“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.
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.
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.”
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.
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) . . . [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- 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,” SoapTownUSA.com, October 2007 www.soaptownusa.com/PatrickMulcahey.html [↩]
- 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. [↩]