London gears up for its first 'Fashion in Film' festival

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The Independent Culture

As Robert Altman's ill-fated 1994 film Prêt-à-Porter and countless wooden turns from models-turned-actresses have demonstrated, the worlds of fashion and film do not always mix. Where Altman attempted to deride the industry with an emperor's new clothes parable (in the final scene, a designer sends his models down the catwalk without a stitch on), the 2001 Ben Stiller vehicle Zoolander settled for making it look plain idiotic.

This ambivalent attitude to fashion in film - a subject deemed worthy of ridicule but nevertheless frequently portrayed on screen - will be further explored in London's first Fashion in Film festival. Subtitled "Between Stigma and Enigma", it takes place over two weeks and at three venues (the ICA, the French Institute and the Horse Hospital), and will screen 10 programmes of films, newsreels and artists' videos, as well as holding discussions with film-makers and fashion designers on the mysterious allure of fashion as a cultural object.

The founders of the festival, Roger Burton (the costume designer for Quadrophenia and Stoned) and Marketa Uhlirova (associate lecturer at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design), have hand-picked films that have clothing and fashion as their central theme or that have been made by figures with inside experience of the fashion industry.

The picture that emerges is far from as simplistic as Prêt-à-Porter or Zoolander would have us believe. From the dangerous, and ultimately damned, silhouette of femininity created in Hitchcock's films, to the dialogue that struck up between fashion and politics in newsreels and public service announcements during the Second World War, and even the erotic charge of shoes and their potential to stimulate strong emotions, fashion has played a wide variety of film roles over the last 100 years.

Burton and Uhlirova were inspired to create the festival by Qui Etes-Vous Polly Maggoo?, a 1966 film directed by the American photographer William Klein. Klein worked as a photographer for Vogue between 1955 and 1965 and drew on his experiences for his first feature film - a monochrome Mod film about the life of a model in Paris. As the fictional film crew follow Polly (Dorothy McGowan) around and interview her about her life, they find themselves continually frustrated by her superficial answers. "They think there must be something more beneath the surface," explains Uhlirova. "But they come to the conclusion that fashion is nothing but surface. It's a love-hate relationship. Klein is critical of fashion but he can't deny the fact that he also finds it fascinating. The quest for Polly's identity is his own quest to discover what, if anything, lies beneath the surface of fashion."

Polly Maggoo acts as the festival's touchstone for a host of female characters whose lives on screen are changed in some way by fashion. Her experience is mirrored by the protagonist of Vera Chytilova's Ceiling, also made in the 1960s. Chytilova, a Czech director who worked part-time as a model in the 1950s, is one of few female directors to focus on fashion in film. While Ceiling portrays a model who is dissatisfied with her life and eventually finds the courage to escape from the shallow fashion world, it betrays an obsession with clothing and a loving attention to detail that could only come from a former fashionista. "It's not a straightforward rejection," says Uhlirova.

In the 1926 film Fig Leaves, the director Howard Hawks appears to cite fashion as a Satanic force responsible for the fall of womankind. In this Hollywood classic, the heroine, Eve, becomes a model in a Fifth Avenue boutique without telling her husband, who disapproves of fashion and all things frivolous, resulting in considerable marital difficulties. "Although it is ultimately criticised and dismissed by the male director, fashion is shown as an arena that offers women some kind of independence from the domestic situation," says Uhlirova. Hawks understood that there was a growing breed of female consumers and ticket-buyers who would go to the cinema and pick up fashion tips there. The final fashion-show scene is played out in startling Technicolor as Hawks simultaneously rejects the glossy, superficial world of fashion and falls prey to its magical cinematic potential.

Some 30 years later, Hitchcock also subscribed to the idea that women's fashion was potentially liberating but ultimately sinful. His highly groomed, sharply tailored and heavily made-up heroines in films such as Vertigo, Rear Window and Marnie possess a dangerous and powerful feminine allure, but they rarely escape lightly. Like Eve, their physical perfection is punished by a male director.

A more positive take on fashion and female empowerment comes in the Norwegian director Elsa Kvamme's 1999 documentary Lady with a Hat. It tells the tale of a resourceful Jewish milliner, May Aubert, who fled Oslo during the Second World War and became a currency smuggler, sewing Nkr100,000 into the linings of her hats. Now 87, Aubert still designs and is the official milliner to Queen Sonja of Norway.

Fashion on film is largely a girl's world, with male protagonists featuring rarely. Clothes and the Man, an RAF film from 1941, is one such rarity. It links clothes and war, warning viewers that the (male) enemy can be disguised in a wide range of outfits. The disparity in perceived attitudes to fashion at the time is highlighted by another newsreel, Tin Hats for All. Two women are shown modelling army headgear as though it were high fashion, while a male voiceover berates them for being interested in frivolities during wartime.

Gender politics aside, clothes have also been granted an inner life on film, free from interference by their human owners. The 1914 film Amor Pedestre (Love on Foot), by the Italian director Marcel Fabre, is filmed entirely from the waist down. As legs, feet and - crucially - shoes interact, Fabre forces the viewer to contemplate the relationship between shoes and love, and the fetishistic emotions that inanimate objects can produce in flesh-and-blood humans.

In the programme The Enigma of the Fashion Object, clothes take on a life of their own on screen. "In fashion curating there's a great debate about the displaying of clothing in museums. Museums are often considered the graveyard of fashion, as clothing should be alive and moving on the body. We're trying to suggest an alternative - that film can be a medium to animate fashion," says Uhlirova.

In The Extinct World of Gloves, five pairs of gloves are animated in five different styles of cinema, including slapstick and Federico Fellini, while 59 Positions explores the variety of shapes and movement possible when empty shells of garments are liberated from their usual positions on human bodies, and Ghosts Before Breakfast depicts clothes mischievously rebelling against their manipulation at the hands of humans.

While many of the films criticise fashion, this section of the festival celebrates it - a reminder to viewers, and directors, that they should ignore the power of clothing and fashion at their peril.

Additional reporting by Victoria Edwards. Fashion in Film Festival, 14-27 May. ICA (020-7930 3647); The Horse Hospital (020-7833 3644), French Institute (020-7073 1350)