Thursday, November 24, 2011

Revolutionary Fashion

As a new edition on our blog we will occasionally be featuring posts about our favorite male and female fashion in film. Some of you may find this silly or irrelevant, but we are trying to present a socially relevant way of looking at and examining  films in light of what you actually see on the screen. Email us if you have any suggestions of things you would like us to focus on.

As Godard infamously quipped “All you need for a movie is a girl and a gun.” I would like to add that the girl must be dressed impeccably and the gun should most certainly be a pistol. I could talk a great length, and quite frivolously in fact, about female fashion on film, but I would like to use this opportunity to examine fashion as it relates to the other aspects of filmmaking.
When one thinks of revolutionary films, female fashion is probably not the first thing to come to mind. Indeed, “revolutionary films” (loosely organized here around the idea of political or social change) often relegate women to supporting roles if we even see them at all. The idea of a female lead in a war film or political thriller is, with few exceptions, basically unheard of. Instead, women are often featured as the protagonist in social melodramas  (Gone with the Wind, Written on the Wind, A Cold Wind in August, etc– Wind here being a stand in not only for women, but for social change- that’s another tangent for another time). When we see women in revolutionary films, or playing revolutionary figures, we tend to rely on visual cues, I think mostly makeup, jewelry, and clothing to tell us exactly what power she has and the extent of that power.
Let’s look at a few examples:

Theda Bara in Cleopatra (1917)
Forgive me for beginning with perhaps one of the more obvious and well known portrayals of a revolutionary female figure. Bara’s portrayal of Cleopatra, as one can see from this promotional still, was basically built around her wardrobe. The entire film is probably just an excuse to play dress up and pretty up the set, but the choice of pretreating Cleopatra in such a manner is precise and intentional.  Everything here, from the headpiece to the embellished bodice on the dress to her bare feet reads sex appeal. Much in the same way that a leading man in Hollywood demonstrates his power though his attractiveness, this Cleopatra follows suit. Her power, that is, her revolutionary potential, is suggested in her form fitted dress (not every lady could have a dress fit to her exact measurements), with its beading running the length of the gown from her hips to her toes. The beading is mimicked by the snake anklet that she is earing as well as the snake embroidered on her scarf. Of course, the symbolism of the snake is well documented from ancient time though present day, but the motif is taken to an extreme in this garment.

Lets now think about another kind of “revolutionary woman”: Marie Antoinette.
I’d like specifically to focus on Sophia Coppola’s 2006 version of the film starring Kirsten Dunst.

What is so striking about the fashion in this film is the detail to accoutrement. So detailed in fact that it obtains an unbelievable level of artifice (which might explain why even some of  Coppola’s  biggest fans find this film hard to approach.) The satin gloves, the fabric covered book, a string of pears, the ribbon around her neck, and not to mention the birds nest on her head all portray an overwhelming sense of not only a scandalous amount of wealth, but also privilege and power in general. The clothing and styling in this film is perhaps the most important aspect, especially in relation to the overall tone and narrative function of the story. Coppola places us squarely in this world of unbelievable detail, not merely to overwhelm our senses, as in many period pieces, but to drive the plot of the story. Marie Antoinette’s grip on her body politic is stressed by the tightening of lace on each notch of her corset. 

Greta Garbo in Ninotchka (1939)

Ninotchka is a well-liked film based on a clich├ęd story of a woman being attracted to everything that she claims that she hates. Ninotchka (Garbo) is a Russian leader sent to Paris to oversee the selling of a jewelry collection and bring back three of her comrades who seem to be enjoying Paris a little too much. When she first comes onto the scene she is dressed in a no-nonsense crisp white shirt with a black handkerchief necktie and a simple ¾ length black A-line skirt. There is really no hint of a woman or any kind of feminine figure to be found in her costuming in the early part of the film. She is basically buttoned up, taped down, and in one scene, she even wears a hat that looks like an uncircumcised penis. The fashion in the early part of the film is a stand in for her “Russian-ness” (read: male), but as the film progresses, and she falls in love with the Count (and all of his capitalistic wonder) her wardrobe dramatically changes course. As she is exposed to the riches and excitement of the west, the necklines of her dresses begin to plummet, the fabrics become sheerer, and she goes from black muslin handkerchiefs to delicate beading along her neck.  And it happens so quickly it is as if she came directly from the field to the balcony at the opera. These moments of transformation that rely on a change of fashion and styling are typically in Hollywood films, but the speed at which it happens in this film is truly exceptional.
 The next time you are watching a film, pay attention to the extent to which the filmmaker expresses emotion, tone, and character development though the wardrobe. You can basically use this analysis on nearly any film, Hollywood and non-Hollywood film alike. The fashion is not only a cultural signifier, but a narrative device that should be created just as much as the other aspects of filmmaking.
Tune in next time when I plan to discuss the fashion of “crazy women” in film. 

1 comment:

  1. what are your thoughts on fassbinder's use of costume in creating his female characters? the marriage of maria braun is exemplary, as her outfits comment on her shift from seeming war widow to head of a textile empire (never mind that they're amazingly gorgeous).. it's not coincidental, either, that the movie's dvd cover is of the main character in lingerie.. more than just titillation, the image is a nice crystallization of fassbinder's use of female sexuality.. anyway, cool post! looking forward to seeing more..