Culture Trips

Is the devil really Prada? An uneasy history of fashion as cinema’s punchbag | Fashion

Which professions get a bad press in the movies? TV executives tend to be portrayhed as manipulative and sociopathic. Journalists can be boozy and lazy (although sometimes they’re dishy investigative idealists, like Woodward and Bernstein). Nightclub owners are awful. Dentists are creepy. Hotel receptionists are sinister.

But if there’s one trade that’s somehow perennially getting it in the neck on screen, it’s fashion. The new horror movie from Canadian satirist Elza Kephart – Slaxx – is a case in point, showing a new brand of jeans, unveiled to an elite audience of hipsters at a haughty upmarket store, becoming possessed by the spirits of exploited workers from the developing world who made them. The jeans run violently amok, slaughtering fashion vloggers and Instagram influencers in showers of blood.

‘Pouting clotheshorse’ ... Derek Zoolander and Hansel, in a scene from Zoolander.
‘Pouting clotheshorse’ … Derek Zoolander and Hansel, in a scene from Zoolander. Photograph: Philippe Antonello/Scott Rudin Prods/Paramount/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

In Robert Altman’s 1994 film Pret-a-Porter, the fashion world is venal, backstabbing and manipulative; in Zoolander, fashion models are outrageously stupid and narcissistic, with pouting clotheshorse Derek Zoolander obsessed with founding the Derek Zoolander Center for Kids Who Can’t Read Good, and failing to understand that the architectural model isn’t the real thing. (“What is this? A centre for ANTS? How can we be expected to teach children to learn how to read when they CAN’T EVEN FIT INSIDE THE BUILDING?”) Sacha Baron Cohen’s Bruno is about a fashion journalist who is grotesquely self-obsessed. Even sympathetic movies, such as the ill-fated Sex and the City outings, make fashion look meretricious. Fashion, it seems, is good for a laugh or a mocking or sorrowing jibe.

But why? Fashion is about surfaces, but so are many artforms, particularly the artforms that go into the making of a film. The movies are utterly dependent on the fashion industry, dependent on costume designers who are fashion-literate and can dress the actors in ways that look good and make sense on camera. And fashion designers themselves intervene decisively in the movies in all sorts of ways: Hubert de Givenchy more or less invented the willowy screen persona of Audrey Hepburn. London tailor Douglas Hayward invented Michael Caine’s look in The Italian Job.

You can see a backhanded compliment in movies such as Olivier Assayas’s 2016 psycho chiller Personal Shopper, with Kristen Stewart as the dogsbody shopper working for a pampered celebrity who finds herself pursued by a demonic stalker from another world. Similarly, from the same year, Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon has Elle Fanning as a heartbreakingly innocent ingenue in an LA fashion world that is literally evil. In both cases, there is a kind of demonic sexiness in fashion, a sensually satanic gorgeousness that demands to be taken seriously.

Elle Fanning in Neon Demon.
Elle Fanning in Neon Demon. Photograph: Icon Film Distribution/Allstar

One year after these two, there was a film that has a claim to be the most pro-fashion movie in history (perhaps even more essentially pro-fashion than Stanley Donen’s brittle 1957 romantic comedy Funny Face, in which Fred Astaire’s ageing fashion photographer becomes entranced with a brainy bookstore manager played by Hepburn and wants to make her the face of intellectual fashion). That film is Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, with no less a figure than Daniel Day-Lewis playing a fastidious and demanding 50s fashion designer, or rather couturier, like a cross between Hardy Amies and Norman Hartnell. Day-Lewis’s brilliance convinces you of the essential beauty and seriousness of fashion. But perhaps it is significant that he is an imaginary fashion designer. In 2014, two French attempts to dramatise the life of Yves Saint Laurent – Bertrand Bonello’s Saint Laurent, with Gaspard Ulliel, and Jalil Lespert’s Yves Saint Laurent, with Pierre Niney – had decent actors climb into the velvety jackets, cravats and big glasses and come up with little more than cliched hamminess.

Fashion can be attacked from many different angles: that it is shallow, or that it encourages an abusive enforcement of body image or that it exploits developing-world labour – though, on that last point, so do many other industries. The one film that really does make an attempt to proclaim fashion is The Devil Wears Prada, despite or because of the wonderful baddie performance from Meryl Streep as the Wintouresque fashion editor Miranda Priestly.

Stanley Tucci’s excellent performance as Miranda’s associate editor Nigel gives us someone who is passionate about fashion as an aspirational way of life, and an industry that generates prosperity and creativity. Nigel and Miranda furiously rebuke the fatuous condescension of newbie Andrea, played by Anne Hathaway, when she presumes to giggle at tiny distinctions of colour. Their world is one of professionalism and commitment and also an artistic devotion. Mockery is easy, but fashion is hard.

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