Fashion in Film Festival: A magical, material world

This year's Fashion in Film Festival is a paean to the power of costume on camera, says Laura McLean-Ferris, and a reminder of a truly ingenious cinematic age

Cinema has long been enamoured of the special effect – explosions, animation, 3D, CGI – all of them tricks of one kind or another that can make elaborate fantasies appear on the screen. But for generations, particularly in cinema's early years, the sensual textures, sparkles and architecture of elaborate costuming were important cinematic devices used by film-makers to dazzle viewers. London's third Fashion in Film Festival, Birds of Paradise, taking place at several major arts venues across London, gives viewers a chance to experience the extravagance of costumes constructed to create moments of pure, unadulterated wonder.

Indeed, one of the earliest films was made by France's Lumière brothers in 1896, and features a lone dancer enveloped in a white costume with many elaborately constructed folds and billows. As she spins and dances, the dress flies up around her in fluid layers, so that she starts to resemble a floating jellyfish, strange-winged insect or heavy-petalled flower. The film print is hand-tinted, so that the figure changes colour, emulating the coloured lights that were shone on to the white costume in live performances. The dancer becomes, quite simply, a moving piece of magic, and a joy to behold. This kind of dance was known as the "serpentine", and was created by the stage performer Loïe Fuller; the Lumière brothers' film depicts one of Fuller's many imitators enacting the dance.

But among the fluttering folds of fabric is an interesting revelation: many film-makers throughout history have used costuming or clothing to do something more than simply depict elements of the wearer's character. Throughout cinematic history there are countless examples of fashion and fabric being used to depict movement, textural beauty and pure spectacle.

Marketa Uhlirova, the Fashion in Film Festival's director, explains that these early dance films were a source of inspiration for Birds of Paradise. "These films are a celebration of cinema in a way, right at the moment that cinema is being born. Early film-makers embraced these costumed performances because they showed so beautifully that film is a medium of movement. On a level of technical invention, they helped to communicate what cinema is about."

The Barbican will focus on films featuring the divas and showgirls (often elaborately costumed as dancing fairies or butterflies) who populated the films of the silent era. There are themes that predominate in this era: 1925's Red Heels (Das Spielzeug von Paris) and 1928's Golden Butterfly (Der Goldene Schmetterling), both of which will be shown at London's Barbican centre, feature showgirls of the demi-monde. What these films also share is that they were created in an atmosphere of some moral panic, and so dancers are shown as tragic figures. Like moths attracted to a glamourous flame, they are depicted being drawn into a world of vice and tragedy.

The BFI Southbank will show several films featuring spectacular dream sequences and fantasies. These devices allowed directors to create wildly creative scenes, unbound by the constraints of reality, as exemplified by Cecil B DeMille's Male and Female (1919), in which Gloria Swanson enters a lion's den in a white robe and huge swan-like headdress made from pearls, beads and feathers.

It's significant that the majority of the films selected for Birds of Paradise are silent, suggesting that there was a level of ingenuity in cinema before the advent of sound. Though the coming of the "talkies" in the 1930s changed film forever, Uhlirova believes that there was a kind of visual creativity that was left by the wayside. "So many actresses lost their jobs, because they couldn't convey their talents with their voice. And, importantly, films lost that particularly dreaminess that silent cinema has. "

There would be a later generation, however, who would return to these silent films for inspiration. American postwar film-makers such as Kenneth Anger, James Bidgood and Jack Smith were fascinated by the visual excesses of the silent era. They recognised the potential for decay and degradation that existed within the image of the diva covered in feathers and glitter. Films by these directors are being shown at Tate Modern and the Horse Hospital, and are largely centred around drag and luxury, and on dressing up as a performative act.

Ultimately what these films share with silent film is an attentiveness to visual detail, moments in which no words are needed. This is also what makes them exciting for a modern audience.

Birds of Paradise: The 3rd Fashion in Film Festival, Tate Modern, BFI Southbank, Barbican, Horse Hospital, Somerset House, 1 to 12 December,