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
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The Independent Culture
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.