Fashion In The Moving Image

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The language of fashion has somehow always been juxtaposed to the language of film. Indeed, clothing, costume, and sartorial ‘fashionable’ elements are central to filmmaking, and they convey a wide variety of meanings that oscillate between the characterization of filmic subjects and their narration, the dressing of the actress/actor as a film icon, and the overall aesthetics of the film. Sure, Fashion and Costume design are two distinct things: costume is simply and designed assigned to support the film’s narration and the bodies of the actresses, while fashion is about commerce and industry of its own, a system that renders dress customs in and out in the snap of a finger. Cinema is art, Fashion is, kind of. Such is the consensus. Yet it is so much more complex and the two merge in more ways than one, including process-wise.

The film industry, as we know it, was invented by the brothers Lumière in France at the end of the nineteenth century. While moving image were produced before then, cinema as an industry was developed right around the time of the revolution of industry, culture and behaviour. Then ensued a gradual development on a technical level – with the implementation of sound film in the twenties, and color film in the thirties – as well as an artistic one. In their book, The Art of Watching Films (2004), Boggs and Petrie consider film both an industry and an art form of its own. In fact, film was graced with the “seventh art qualification” by Ricciotto Canudo, Italian film theoretician in his 1919 manifesto, placing it in the very linea of the noble arts, being pictural arts, musical arts, et cetera. In 1920, he published an essay called “Défendons le Cinématographe!” (“In Defense of the Cinematographer”) in the roman publication L’esthétique du spectacle.

All arts, before becoming industries, were sole aesthetic expressions of a few dreamers. It just so happened that cinema skipped that first stage, directly industrialized and existing as an aid for commerce. Despairing over these facts, Canudo then claimed that cinema must do it backwards, and become an art. The very same predicament is still heating up thinkers and the masses when it comes to fashion. A well oiled industry it is, yet the artistic, or at least creative aspect simply cannot be taken out of the equation.

Film as we know it today is the synergy of image, motion, and sound, giving it an all around set of assets to solicit our senses. Fashion is very well on the same line, also multi-sensorial – after all it is made to be touched, worn, felt – and just like film, presents all the assets necessary to solicit desire. Much like the play on light and shadows on a woman’s body on film, the intricate drapes, veils, hide-and-seek capacities of textiles magnify the very same body, objectifying it in the rawest sense of the word, and also making it exist not only for our eyes, but for our mind. Film and fashion both use metaphors and symbols, a system of signs, as determined by Barthes heavy with meaning that seems, in fact, meant to be consumed like a piece of poetry. Fashion, much like clothing, is a three-dimensional object. While film is not, it is the one medium that is closest to reality when it comes to showcasing objects, as opposed to photography which is a still image that may be able to print itself on the retina, but can only show a flat and set take. The moving image makes objects exist and interact with space, but also follow a rhythm, which can be manipulated to communicate whatever message is intended – or not, as it is subject to personal interpretation which bears no boundaries. When costumes are chosen and assigned to bodies on screen, they are by no means a casualty. Indeed, their particularities may very well be predefined on the script of a film, then taken on by the army of costume designers, the production company, hair stylists, make up artists, to not only define the character as it is meant to be, but also add drama. Film is an illusion of sorts, and requires a recipe to create a simulation of reality – better yet in fact, an augmentation of reality, since each take, each closeup, each cadence is thought through and chosen carefully. Storytelling is what cinema is all about. One could argue that the most famous styles populating the collective imaginary: have gained their aura through their presence in movies. It is common to refer to movies as « cult »; such is the same for looks and styles starring in the movie, sometimes acting as full on characters on their own..Colors, fabrics, shapes matter. Much like theater has to exaggerate every single expression, costume acts as said exaggeration too. Thus, there are costume-specific tropes that are here to stay, but are also complex and infinitely exploitable. A black dress can be chic, as it can be evil; red may mean lust as it can violence; feathers can mean lightness as it can translate the heaviness of a character’s ego; glitter can sublime and mean over the top opulence. On the runway, any of these elements are used and abused as staples of the wardrobe of the woman coveting the designer’s pieces, aspiring to be “that” woman. In most interviews given to fashion designers, the question that always comes back is: Who is the (insert couturier name) woman?

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Defining who that woman is does not narrow down the target of the designer. By elaborating on his answer, the designer does not describe who that woman should be, but rather, defines who she will aspire to be or at least, dress up as. Much as fashion means much, much more than just dressing up, it remains just that – dressing up. Thus, much like actresses put on their feathered boas, their slinky red dress, their gray tailored shoulder padded work wear, any woman putting on their outfit of choice, is starting the narrative that will surround her that day, that week, that year.

What is specifically interesting to note is, beyond just costumes used to dress up characters, the relationship between fashion and film has started with fashion shows. Indeed, the very birth of both film and fashion shows happened almost simultaneously: the very first movie shown in a cinema was in 1895; the very first fashion shows in the late 1890s in London and Paris. Therefore, one can truly speak of both fashion shows and film as part of one major artistic and sociological momentum: beyond just showing women’s clothing, showing women in motion. Fashion modeling as such was first absent from film, with the consensus that the audiences of each was clearly separate. After 1910 however, both fashion shows and film initiated an actual collaboratio n, with the introduction of the fashion “newsreel”. In the words of Markheta Uhlirova “Informative, topical, indulgent, entertaining even, the newsreel was a perfect marriage between fashion and cinema at the time as it benefited fashion businesses through naming and sometimes through direct commercial tie-ins, and at the same time boosted cinema attendance by female spectators.

Historically, the first target audience of cinema was female, which explains just how much importance was given to the costumes on film to entice them. In her essay 100 years of Fashion in Film, Uhlirova says, “The newsreel and the cinemagazine (and indeed, cinema in general) offered a mediation of fashion characterized by an open-to-all kind of visual consumption that married scopic pleasure with calculating attention. The blueprint for this heady mix of desire, excapism and specialist knowledge had already been established by the nineteenth century World’s Fairs, and even more importantly so the department stores, with their combination of spectacle and new opportunitues to study merchandise in detail, made the cinema experience into a form of window shopping.”

Interestingly, as Uhlirova proceeds, these films “Elevated the cinematic experience to a more middle-class pursuit.” Indeed, cinema at the time did not yet bear the prestige it does today, while the work of couturiers certainly did. What may be missing from a fashion show, often voluntarily as the main focus must remain the garments, is a narrative. Interestingly, the infant state of cinema, from 1895 to 1906 or 1908, was later referred to as the “cinema of attractions” by George Méliès who produced trick promotional films that are the ancestors of today’s commercials, showcasing shoes and corsets in an enticing, selff-proclaimed “magic” way. Paul Poiret was the first couturier to use cinematographic strategies to promote his creations. In 1911 he puts out a promotional film covering the full history of his designs including footage of his mannequins from The Thousand and Second Night. In 1913, he produced a coloured film as a literal substitute for a live fashion show, starring Poiret himself as a presenter. The main motive of this move was actually very practical: he was aiming to elude fees related to customs for physical garments. In spite of that, it was a small revolution that may very well be the first fashion film as we know it today, which was for sure an ego-boosting coup for Poiret. If nowadays showcasing fashion on film is akin to adapting the strategies of popular visual culture to high-end consumer culture, back then it may have been the opposite.

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