Film Studies: Why are we all so fashionable these days? The movies, darling

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The Devil Wears Prada opened a lot better in the United States than "industry experts" had predicted. It's an adaptation of the best-selling novel by Lauren Weisberger, previously an assistant to Anna Wintour, editor of US Vogue. In the movie the assistant is played by Anne Hathaway, and the editor is Meryl Streep.

In its making, and in most departments, it's a deeply conventional film that went along happily with the scheme of the book: that working for a fashion magazine is the devil's business; that the editor is a monster; and that Andrea, or Andy, is fundamentally a good, decent girl who nearly, but not quite, falls for the Devil. So Andy gets a job that is way beyond her. She finds the editor rude, unkind, imperious and unfair. She has her own nerdy dress sense mocked by everyone in the office. And then she gradually loses her amiable but self-satisfied boyfriend as she becomes more heavily involved in the awful job. Why? Because she has fun with it.

She learns to dress well. She can anticipate the whims of the editor. She does good work. She goes to Paris for fashion week and she is romanced by charming scoundrels. She is at all the hot parties. She gets a taste for it and she looks good - and when the film turns Anne Hathaway into something lovely then it's rivalling the job done 50 years ago with Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face, one of the few other films about life on a fashion magazine.

But then the "irrelevance" of the job hits Andy, along with pangs of conscience about the boyfriend. So she hands in her notice. She goes back to drab sweaters and she takes a reporting job on a small alternative newspaper. Why is the film a hit? Because it places this Cinderella plot in a new setting? Maybe. But my guess is that it's because the audience likes clothes so much that it regards Andy as a wet idiot when she gives it all up. How much better the film would have been if she'd taken on the editor herself and tried to get her job - just like Eve Harrington in All About Eve.

My clue to this is a moment when the editor realises that Andy's sack-like turquoise sweater is giving her a sense of moral superiority in the office. Whereupon - and Streep is worth the price of admission alone - the editor delivers an analysis of shabby, poor, humble clothing as just one offshoot of a business or an art that tells people what to wear and how they might look.

You can argue that clothing is so much more ephemeral and frivolous than automobiles or heavy consumer goods. But we have economies that have nearly given up on products that require strong men for their delivery. So much more of our resources and our invention go into style and goodies so light you can hardly weigh them, items we wear for a season. And it's clear that there's a direct link between the flourishing of the movies and the development of what we call fashion as something that catered to millions of people instead of just an aristocratic elite.

In the 1930s, when audiences were having a very hard time, and when standards of lower- and middle-class dress were laughably uniform and anonymous, Hollywood took the chance of showing off the most exquisite and powerful clothes. No, people couldn't buy them, of course - and in those days there was no way for high fashion to be sold in mainstream stores at more modest prices. So maybe the audience would be offended, maybe they'd take that out on the films... Not a bit of it - they fell in love with the exotic, fanciful clothes until, in the Sixties, a real marketing revolution occurred and the drastic design styles evident in films became purchasable in Marks and Spencer.

That's what Streep's character is talking about in The Devil Wears Prada, and if the trend affected just women at first, now the lads - the footballers, the gangsters, the last pipe-fitters in England - take pride and pleasure in their threads. One result of this is that costumiers in the movies now are people who can have as much influence on public dress sense as the heads of the great fashion houses.

No one had a greater role in this history than a woman named Edith Head - and as I watched and enjoyed The Devil Wears Prada, I felt that the time was ripe for a few words to remember her by. Edith Head lived from 1907 to 1981. Born in Los Angeles, she studied at Stanford and taught art before she landed a job at Paramount in the late Thirties designing clothes. Over the years, she won eight Oscars and she did the clothes on such films as She Done Him Wrong (Mae West); The Lady Eve (Barbara Stanwyck); Sullivan's Travels (Veronica Lake); all the way to Rear Window (Grace Kelly); Funny Face (where Audrey Hepburn plays an assistant in a book shop who gets whisked off to Paris to be a model); and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (remember Newman and Redford beginning to demonstrate that looking good wasn't necessarily gay?).

Edith Head was - I have to say - a very plain-looking woman who wore spectacles and a cloche of dark hair. The industry trusted her on what looked good. Her Oscars included The Heiress, All About Eve, A Place in the Sun, Roman Holiday, Sabrina and The Sting.

We've long passed a time when plain clothes bespeak virtue, humility, poverty or reliability. These days, such things may be signs of malice, trickery and fraud. No, we don't need clothes, but we don't need music, literature or painting. Still, many of us can't live without those things and most of us find fun, imagination and individuality in clothes. Remember, back in 1939, when Ninotchka came to the West, her downfall was a Paris hat. Well, hats are out of fashion now, but even Andy's brutish boyfriend gets interested when he sees the kind of underwear his girlfriend has brought home from the office. What Victoria knows is no longer secret.

'The Devil Wears Prada' will be released in the autumn