Book review: Fashion with a sense of Uma

Undressing Cinema: Clothing and Identity in the Movies by Stella Bruzzi Routledge pounds 45/pounds 12.99

Think 30's musicals and Ginger Rogers floats in front of the eyes in a Bernard Newman white chiffon ballgown making "Swing Time" swing with Fred Astaire. Think 90's neo-noir and a smouldering Uma Thurman scissors the room in immaculate Agnes B white shirt, fingertips painted with Chanel's "Vamp", carrying out her seduction of John Travolta in Pulp Fiction.

But in her book on fashion in film Stella Bruzzi aims to go beyond mere label-spotting. Instead, this author's quest is to peel back the hidden meanings that lurk beneath the time-honoured cultural cross-dressing between costume and celluloid. For, according to Bruzzi, movie clothes are no longer simply a form of social signalling but also "testaments to fantasy and desire".

To do this she has to convince her readers that movie costumes can operate independently of character or even plot. In other words, film-fashion doesn't have to be functional, it can be there purely for aesthetic display, it can jump gender boundaries, or it can even impose rather than absorb a film's meaning. In order to develop these arguments, however, Bruzzi finds herself taking on a whole raft of heavyweight cultural commentators - from Freud to Foucault - who have already laid down widely accepted views on how dress, gender and sexuality are constructed.

In her treatment of gangster films, for instance, Bruzzi questions the traditional assumption that men aren't interested in fashion since, according to many feminist critics, the male figure supposedly cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification. But Bruzzi tears through such old theoretical chestnuts to reveal true directorial intentions with such pithily penetrative observations as: "In gangster films, a man's masculinity is directly measured by his narcissism: the smarter the clothes the more dangerous the man, and the more damaged the clothes, the more vulnerable the man."

Throughout, Bruzzi dresses up her theoretical observations with sartorial facts to fascinate fashion victims as well as film buffs. She reveals, for instance, that Robert de Niro refused to wear Armani for his role as Al Capone in The Untouchables and instead insisted that he was dressed - down to his silk underpants - by Capone's original Chicago tailor. And Bruzzi is also sufficiently conversant with haute couture to trace the lineage of Betsy Heimann's black suits for Reservoir Dogs through John Woo's The Killer via Agnes B, as worn by Alain Delon in Le Samourai back to the "Linea Italiana" which "comprised tapered cuffless trousers and slim-fitting single-breasted jacket which had to be short, so even in a sitting position on a Vespa it would not touch the seat".

But what this book is really about is encapsulated in Jean-Paul Gaultier's simple remark, "Codes are changing." Reversing the now-cliched equation about the power of "the male gaze" over "the female object", Bruzzi points to films like Orlando and The Piano which address the question of what happens when the film-maker's gaze is female and its object is the male body. In her chapter on the modern femme fatale she comes up against feminists, such as Susan Brownmiller and Rosalind Coward, to show how John Dahl's 1993 neo-noir The Last Seduction uses, abuses and subverts such feminine stereotypes as short skirts and high heels to such an extent that the male lead can't even finish the sentence, "I'm beginning to feel like some sort of ..." before Linda Fiorentino's femme fatale interrupts with, " ... sex object? Live it up."

This sort of role-reversal has its roots in Kathleen Turner's famous come-on in the 1981 thriller Body Heat to William Hurt, "You're not too smart. I like that in a man." But even though these new gender boundaries have now entered the mainsteam via movies like The Full Monty, it is still crucial that Bruzzi is laying down the markers that demarcate the current battle of the sexes. Vive la difference.

Arts and Entertainment
The crowd enjoy Latitude Festival 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
'I do think a woman's place is eventually in the home, but I see no harm in her having some fun before she gets there.'

Is this the end of the Dowager Countess?tv
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Martin of Coldplay performs live for fans at Enmore Theatre on June 19, 2014 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith from The Office ten years on

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams prepares to enter the House of Black and White as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones season five

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn