Fashion is all about image. Film is all about the moving image. Bringing the two together not only produces some delicious eye candy, but provokes us to look at fashion’s role in our lives. We take a look at five different ‘takes’ on the fashion world, and their varied responses.
The Devil may wear Prada, but even he couldn’t be more creepily, fascinatingly, watchable than Meryl Streep in this film, playing a fashion magazine editor, based – allegedly – on US Vogue’s editor, Anna Wintour. When nicely normal college-leaver Andrea (Anne Hathaway) goes to work at a fashion magazine for editor Miranda Priestley (Streep) she enters a world where fashion is all about fear.
A woman’s self-worth is based on an absence of cellulite and, ‘You look so thin’ is not just a compliment, but a genuine life aim. True, Andrea develops more self-confidence through dress sense, but there’s always the danger that by focusing so much on the outward form you forget the inner: ‘You sold your soul the day you put on those Jimmy Choos,’ comments one onlooker.
What’s so appropriate about this film’s finale is that it takes place during Paris Fashion Week, historic home both to haute couture and to revolution. So, will Andrea reach an entente cordiale with the luxe labels brigade? Or strike out for libération?
The Devil Wears Prada is fiction but The September Issue is most definitely fact: a documentary charting the creative process of putting together the yearly September issue of US Vogue, traditionally the most anticipated and highest selling issue of the year.
Watch this and notice a whole different emphasis from The Devil Wears Prada: this is fashion not so much as a business, but as a pure art form. ‘Most of us read Vogue not with the intention of buying the wildly expensive clothes,’ one reader comments, ‘but because doing so educates our eye and hones our taste’.
Watching this film, you realise that the minds behind Vogue see fashion shoots as more about inner dreams than reality, about building ‘a fantasy around the girl. What she’s doing. Who she is.’ They are banking – literally – on their intuition that somewhere deep inside ourselves we can identify with that fantasy. And then be inspired by it to go out and buy clothes.
Prêt-à-Porter is to the fashion industry what Dr Strangelove (Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb) is to the military-industrial complex. When a film about Paris Fashion Week starts with proud owners flaunting their pampered pooches at a Dog Show, and continues with a running gag involving unwary people stepping in dog turds, you begin to suspect that director Robert Altman may not have a totally reverential attitude to fashion.
So hats off to so many people from Planet Fashion – Naomi Campbell, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Issey Miyake, Christian Lacroix to name an exquisitely manicured handful – who may or may not have realised they were taking part in this satire on their very own world.
Watch it for its wit, for Tracy Ullman as an mildly batty British fashion editor, for Stephen Rea as an exploitative Irish fashion photographer, but especially for its unexpected catwalk climax channelling a darkly cynical Hans Andersen fable that sums the whole film up.
Marie Antoinette may have lost her head over fashion more than 200 years ago but director Sofia Coppola’s post-punk-infused take on the French Queen’s story is easy for contemporary fashionistas to relate to. Sumptuous from the word go, the film is relevant today for the way its characters glory in excess, an excess which was available to only a few then, but a much bigger chunk of the population of the West now.
Ladies then carried little dogs in the same way a contemporary woman might flaunt an It bag. The hooped dresses of the time caused a woman to walk differently, with poise and presence and deliberation, in the same way today’s high heels do, when they’re not causing you to hobble. It’s a fashion film which feels weirdly contemporary. ‘I Want Candy’ by Bow Wow Wow is the musical backdrop to Marie Antoinette and her ladies drooling over rows of silky, Louis-heeled shoes, rippling bolts of silk, pink leather, and lace. Siouxie and the Banshees’ ‘Hong Kong Garden’ backs the swirling figures at the masked ball like a 21st century nightclub.
Poignantly the sight of Marie Antoinette – married to Louis XVI by proxy at the age of 15 – alone, on the balcony of Versailles, reminds us of the iconic photograph of a solitary Diana, Princess of Wales, in front of the Taj Mahal. It’s a sobering reminder that looking good doesn’t guarantee happiness.
Perhaps Diana Vreeland – Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar writer and editor sometimes known simply as DV – deserves the last word. And the word isn’t necessarily fashion, it’s more likely to be style. Her inclusion among the fashionistas comes as a refreshing sock in the eye. In a world dedicated to outward perfection she had a face which, to put it bluntly, reminds you of a camel wearing lipstick. She could have let society see her, as her mother did, as the ugly daughter.
Instead, her love of life – which staved off negativity – coupled with her love of fashion – which trained her eye to develop a personal style more effective than mere physical beauty – were essential ingredients which enabled her to break out of any limitations society might have imposed on her and become the most influential woman in fashion of her time. She is quoted as saying, ‘The only real elegance is in the mind. If you’ve got that, the rest really comes from it.’
And the mind is as individual as you are. So maybe a trawl through the fashion films shows the drawbacks of fashion as fear, fashion as fantasy, fashion as an industry, and fashion as excess, and brings you to fashion as starting point from which to create your own style, your own elegance.