The way we wear: Fashion in film

Lights, camera, fashion! 'The Devil Wears Prada' is only the most recent film to testify to Hollywood's long fascination with clothes. Vera Rule lists the key movies and their key designers
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The Independent Culture

Fashion isn't really important in The Devil Wore Prada. Shopping is, andmoreover shopping for multiple outfits to be worn once only. True, no cash hits the tills. Anne Hathaway is clad from rails in Runway mag's closet, while couture names plead to ply Meryl Streep with the outerwear she dumps on the desk daily, but it's still the implied no-limit spending and accumulation that excites designer Patricia Field rather than the garments. It's a traditional movie passion, given that several Hollywood moguls began their careers in the luxury clothing trades, and knew to a finger the value of a drawerful of gloves. Publicity stills for 1920s productions by Cecil B DeMille, before he got religiosity, were of the shoe racks of the stars of such fashion parades as The Affairs of Anatol (1924) rather than the stars themselves.

In the 1960s there was a phase of boutique flicks, such as Kaleidoscope (1966), featuring girls descending the circular stairs of Biba-like premises in a different dollyrockfrock and boa in every shot. The definitive shopping is fucking film, however, remains Pretty Woman (1990) in which Julia Roberts begins with barely a change of condoms and is Cinderella-transformed by obscene acts with a credit card on Rodeo Drive.

Handsome is as handsome wears.

American Gigolo (1980) is usually cited as the film in which Giorgio Armani deconstructed the male suit and reconstructed the masculine ego, with Richard Gere as his narcissist mannequin. But the wardrobe that Armani produced for The Untouchables (1987) has had quietly lasting effects. Designer Marilyn Vance adapted his prototypes for its leads, except Robert De Niro. There's a non-period drape to the Armani cut, yet the shape matters less than the fabrics, so much softer than the streetcar upholstery serges worn by the authentic Eliot Ness, which suggest a harsh temperament. All the conflicts of Andy Garcia's character are eased into his flexible blouson in neutral leather, while the bulky but nonabrasive tweeds and knits worn by Sean Connery are his - alas vulnerable - armour of Celtic integrity. In the 20 years since, autumn collections for real men have again and again cited Armani's Milan-does-prohibition.

Women at work

Travis Banton's monochrome repertoire of Folies Bergere fetishism (furs, feathers, leathers, lace, spangles) for Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express (1932) and Blonde Venus (1932), is still admired, and he was a dab hand at satin slip gowns, those Hays-Code OK'd naked skin substitutes of the 1930s - see, and sigh over, Carole Lombard in My Man Godfrey (1936). But the most fashion-aware, one-designer, one-star, one-film combo is less obvious - the work of Bonnie Cashin for the 1944 noir Laura. Californian Cashin outgrew, when she was a pupil at Hollywood High, the Banton-Adrian-Walter Plunkett sumptuous diva approach, and her professional interest was in her state's greater contributions to American fashion - sportsclothes and women-at-workwear. She dressed over 50 films in the 1940s, and thereafter returned to the New York garment trade. The clothes she provided for Gene Tierney's ad exec in Laura were modern in concept then and remain durably so - not gowns and ensembles but a waterproof with whacky rainhat, office dresses, and accessories that earning women could buy for themselves.

There were other ace capsule wardrobes around that era, too - Milo Anderson's, for Lauren Bacall to tote in her suitcase in To Have and Have Not (1946), and Orry-Kelly's for Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca (1942): the shadows cast by the brim of its felt hat are part of the mood of the farewell scene at the airport.

Unreality check

Neal Gabler, in Life: The Movie, his unified field theory of the dominance of entertainment over contemporary US existence, dates to circa 1980 the changeover point when clothing brands began to sell the customers movie genre wear through outlets mocked up and propped like sets. (Although Nathaniel Hawthorne had grumbled as far back as 1939, in The Day Of The Locust, about Angelenos going about their daily business dressed for parts for which they had not been cast - the cap and blazer without the yacht).

Gabler concentrates on Ralph Lauren, who crossed from doing the custom menswear for Robert Redford in The Great Gatsby, (1974), to doing mass-production Gatsbywear for men, passim. Lauren and Ruth Morley's old and new, male and female, blend of gear for Diane Keaton in Annie Hall (1977), was a collage of quotes mostly from informal publicity pix of stars, especially Katharine Hepburn. Lauren also established monopoly dry goods rights in the cinematic west - between Dances With Wolves (1990) and Deadwood on recent cable television, the Western has been more present in his Double RL and Roughwear lines than on screen.

Of course, the unreality crossover went far wider in the 1980s than Lauren and his Chaps: would Banana Republic have flourished and Gap expanded without Deborah Nadoolman's expeditionary outfitting for Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1982)?

In them there days

The fascination of costume movies lies not in their accuracy - so seldom achieved, although Piero Tosi for The Leopard (1963) remains exemplary and the genuine WW2 kit for It Happened Here (1966), surplus-warehouse sourced by Andrew and John Mollo, comes frighteningly close. The amusement is in the interaction between current tastes and the past as reimagined in the present tense. For example, the 18th century has been updated by (among others) Adrian, with his last-gasp-of-deco diamanté for Marie Antoinette (1939), John McCorry and his Chelsea set suede for Tom Jones (1963), Milena Canonero, and her museum vitrine displays for Barry Lyndon (1975), Theodor Pistek, and his doiley prettiness for Amadeus (1984), and James Acheson, with his elegant individual garments for Dangerous Liaisons (1988). The Marquise's travelling jacket in the latter was entirely novel and covetable.

Canonero is also the designer for the fashion week catwalk at Versailles that is the new Marie Antoinette; its director Sofia Coppola specified that its costume colours and textures should be borrowed from the macaroons of Paris patisserie Ladurie (let them wear cake) and has allowed Manolo Blahnik to shoe the teen queen in heels of a height and shape impossible to attain by period techniques. The result is less the excesses of the Bourbons than Karl Lagerfeld sketching Anna Piaggi in her pageants of fancy dress. Just as successful at inspiring revolutionary ire, though.

Bravo bravura

Pedro Almodovar has never employed a consistent designer through his career. A mix, including Armani, Lagerfeld and the Spanish theatre costumiers Jose Maria de Cossio and Peris Hermanos, outfitted his leads, sometimes all in one film. High Heels ( 1991): says it all; Bina Daigeler takes sole credit for the latest. But the fabulous fashion sensibility in Almodovar's films is uniquely his own and a joy to the eye. He has deployed the Balenciaga-level sculptural gown, to die in as well as for (Matador, 1986); the ensemble cast in crazy wigs and ready-to-wear against clashing backgrounds (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, 1988 - without which Wallpaper* magazine could never have been launched); and the current cheapo Euro ropa from Zara and Primark type chains, in Volver (2006) whose ecstatically mascara'ed workingclass heroine in an apron looks as hot and chic as the smarties for whom she party-caters.

Since Erté in early silents, nobody has patterned the screen with Almodovar's exuberance and confidence - the motifs from Penelope Cruz's tops even scroll over the end credits. And he layers the mad fabrics of the older women into patchworks of time and emotion.

'Quality Magazine' the fashion bible

Funny Face (1957) is the movie as glossy mag, its production numbers the equivalent of major pic stories. It was produced early in the partnership between Audrey Hepburn and Hubert de Givenchy that began with Sabrina (1954) and continued through Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961) and Charade (1963). When Hepburn asks Peter O'Toole, in How To Steal A Million (1966) why she has to disguise herself as a charwoman, he replies that it'll give Givenchy the night off. Hepburn's change into prêt-a-porter, bought from several labels for Two For The Road (1967), began the reign of the stylist in film wardrobes - choosing rather than designing the wardrobe.

Givenchy's formal couture in Funny Face, central to its plot, projects an isolation - it works best when being modelled by Hepburn before the lens of the Richard Avedon-type photographer, rather than worn for a dialogue scene. Hepburn is more interesting in the beatnik rig Edith Head supplied for her mousy entrance, particularly the flatties, black pants and hooded parka in which she lands in Paris; they look forward to the Rive Gauche 1960s of Yves Saint Laurent. Head constantly monitored the zeitgeist after the 1947 Dior New Look launch had left all her designs for the next year's films "looking as if the women were standing on breadlines". Her powerful suits for Kay Thompson's editor drag no labels or tags behind them, for their provenance and cost is immaterial. Thompson orders the women of America - "no, make that women everywhere" - to "Think Pink" in a sung editorial, but she doesn't doff her black, beige and grey. She wouldn't be seen dead in pink.

Needle and threads

Few films have ever cared a pin about the construction of clothes, and montages tend to cut from preliminary sketch to final twirl without a needle between. So Éléonore Faucher's A Common Thread (2004) is a rarity, its leading characters an embroiderer and her protégé outworking for couturier Christian Lacroix and the Paris atelier of François Lesage. Faucher assigns much screen time to the slow stitching of an exhibition-worthy evening dress, stole and wedding veil; she shows the technical preparation, beads being sewn and sequins tamboured. The handiwork gets the glam close-ups: the pale irridescence of the veil's pearl paillettes is lovely. Nadja Berruyer was designer, Chansophom Saing embroiderer and Marina Esposo textile stylist. Esposo's influence is visible through the film, since the uncommon colours and textures of the actors' clothes narrate their backstories. The hero's burnt orange sweater has a lot to tell.

Fashion passes, style endures

Fred Astaire's idols were the ragtime and foxtrot dance team Vernon and Irene Castle. Irene solo had starred in early silent serials, cool in short bobbed hair and remarkable, advanced outfits designed by herself and the house of Lucille, including a chiffon dress with a raw hem and a wrap of brocade used inside out. Vernon (whom Fred played, opposite Ginger, in the 1939 biopic musical The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle) tested dance pumps to destruction, preferring the right shoe from one manufacturer, the left from another; Astaire did that too, and his lifelong care over minor sartorial details, such as his superb socks for The Band Wagon (1953), has never gone out of style. Neither has the comfort-blanket mink coat that Edith Head awarded Bette Davis in All About Eve ( 1950), presumably for services rendered to survival.

Chanel's wardrobe for a weekend shooting party in a country chateau in Renoir's La Reglè du Jeu (1939) is eternal, notably her little black dresses for the chatelaine's maid. As are Irene Sharaff's patiently-dirtied jeans in experimental stretch denim for the gang dancers in West Side Story (1961). Sharaff was gifted at the subtle, hairfine Lurex threads woven into the plaids for Brigadoon (1955).

There are a few rules for permanent cinematic style. Personality. Simplicity. And practicality - as the best of the best, Edna Mode, the Edith Headalike of The Incredibles, advises: "No capes".

* 'The Devil Wears Prada' goes on general release on 5 October