Why Hollywood's bad girls are rarely fashion victims

From Marlene Dietrich in the 1930s through Brigitte Bardot and Ursula Andress in the 1960s, the more 'fatale' a 'femme', the better she is dressed. Charlotte Cripps on a new festival of cult thrillers in which the devil always gets the best clothes
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Links between film, fashion, crime and violence are explored in a festival that will examine how fashion and style in film glamorise criminal behaviour.

There is no shortage of examples. Frank Borzage's 1936 film Desire stars the foxy-but-treacherous Marlene Dietrich as a super-glamorous aristocratic crook trying to get hold of a rare string of pearls. The classic 1971 crime flick Get Carter rounds up the whole relationship between the beautiful surface and the darker underworld of the criminal look with a stylish Michael Caine, who plays a violent London gangster, in suits designed by Vangie Harrison.

Fashion gets even darker in Dario Argento's 1970 Italian horror film The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, in which an anonymous figure in a shiny black PVC raincoat and black leather gloves slashes beautiful young women. The 1981 film Ms .45, directed by Abel Ferrara, is about a vengeful female serial killer who looks dowdy until she embraces her killing sprees and obsessively puts on red lipstick and killer heels.

At the Fashion in Film festival around London, designer Bella Freud will present a rare Swedish film, Mannequin in Red (1958), about murder in a fashion house, directed by Arne Mattsson, who has been dubbed the Swedish Hitchcock.

"The thing about fashion and film is that still the most important aspect is the plot," says Freud. "Some films are so stylised and the costumes are amazing, but the film is boring. Apocalypse Now, which you would never call a fashion film, has got the most brilliant fashion in it. It's so stylish. There is a scene where they lower these dancers in from helicopters and they are wearing cowboy boots and shorts. I thought I'd died when I saw that scene. It was such an exhilarating moment.

"Some directors have such a feel for how things look that it becomes fashion. This film that I'm introducing, Mannequin in Red, is set in a fashion house, but there is so much intrigue in the woman that runs the fashion studio, who has a white cat on her lap like a James Bond villain. This old harridan also has a wheelchair draped in leopard print, and another one draped in black lace.

"But despite the beautiful 1950s full-skirted dresses and petticoats – definitely worth a few sketches while watching – it is a gripping film.

"As a fashion designer I was really influenced by the 1965 film Viva Maria!, directed by Louis Malle, and starring Brigitte Bardot and Jeanne Moreau. It was made in the 1960s but it was set at the turn of the century, so it was a slightly bouffant version of revolutionaries in the early 20th century wearing these long white skirts with coloured cinched-in waists and circus people wearing these flowered shirts. My whole second catwalk show in 1994 was based on this film."

GQ's editor Dylan Jones introduces the 1965 Italian cult science fiction film The Tenth Victim, directed by Elio Petri, starring Ursula Andress as a huntress who uses clothes as both weapons to seduce and to kill victims in the "big hunt" – a competitor sport of 10 rounds in which players are both hunter and victim. In one scene she even fires at her victim from her bra, a move later copied in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. Marcello Mastroianni stars as the blond-haired victim, her tenth potential conquest.

"I was surprised this iconic quintessentially Sixties film hadn't been more lauded, actually. It is so of the moment yet it is almost slapstick," says Jones. "The point of the film is that it is futuristic, but like a lot of science fiction it says more about the time that it was produced than the time it is meant to represent. A lot of films that were made in the Sixties have similar themes. The 1968 film Barbarella is probably the most famous one of them. It says more about the hopes and dreams and the short-term iconography of the Sixties than it does about anything else.

"The Tenth Victim is a very funny film. Mastroianni does look amazingly cool and, whenever someone is trying to represent anything that is remotely Modernist or Futurist, they always put somebody in a polo-neck jumper, which is exactly what he is wearing. Andress as his beautiful hunter could dress in anything and look good; at that point she had such a phenomenal body. She plays this mad sex-maniac and she is very vampish.

"Often you look back on these films and they are rather shallow affairs. Everybody holds up The Thomas Crown Affair, the 1968 heist film, as being a cool Sixties moment, with all the obvious iconic fashion flag-points. But actually this film inspired many more art-directors and advertising campaigns than it did cinematographers or directors. If you watch it now, the film is incredibly slow, brooding, and pretentious, despite being an extraordinarily elegant film to look at – but the remake is a far superior film. Does The Tenth Victim glorify crime? If you think that The Italian Job glamorises criminal behaviour, then so does The Tenth Victim. It is so far removed from reality that I don't think it glorifies it because it's a farce."

Other Fashion in Film screenings include the 1945 melodrama Leave Her to Heaven, directed by John M Stahl and starring Gene Tierney as the wickedly possessive wife whose impeccable dress-sense masks her flaws.

There is also Michelangelo Antonioni's first feature film, from 1950, Chronicle of a Love, with the former Miss Italy star Lucia Bose groomed to perfection in high couture designed by the lawyer-turned-costume-designer Ferdinando Sarmi. He was also cast in the film as her husband Enrico.

The Korean-director Kim Yong-Gyun's 2005 thriller The Red Shoes is an adaptation of the 1948 Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger classic of the same title, and its showing is a London premiere.

Follow Me Quietly (1949) features a faceless dummy of a serial killer used by police to track down a criminal in a noir thriller by Richard Fleischer. And Marleen Gorris' 1982 feature-film debut, A Question of Silence, tells the story of a bunch of women who decide to kill a boutique owner with clothes rails and shopping bags in a metaphorical gesture of violence against being exploited by men.

Does fashion in film glorify violence and can we see this throughout cinema's history? The festival's curator Marketa Uhlirova, based at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, thinks it might. "We wanted to explore the link between cinema, crime, fashion and costume," says Uhlirova, "and soon realised that certain patterns were emerging for us across film history and a variety of genres. The thread that weaves throughout the whole season is a concern with how and why fashion and clothing have been so instrumental to cinema's crime-narratives.

"We were particularly fascinated with how film often pinpoints specific garments and accessories, such as hats, gloves, shoes, handbags, or jewellery – and how these begin to function as objects of desire, murderous weapons, clues, evidence... There is something very poetic about that. But some of our guest curators identified sartorial gestures, rituals and even mistakes as worthy of examination – take the turned-up collar, or the blood stain."

"Cinema definitely has a tendency to show criminality as stylish. Not that real criminals can't be stylish [in fact, a short film by Dino Dinco, one of the artists involved in the new commissions, looks at real LA gangsters' obsessive preoccupation with clothes, and specifically focuses on the ritual of ironing], but cinema often exaggerates the glamorous or dandyish element of criminals and their criminal acts.

"Fashion is all about fabricating the ultimate arresting image and, on top of that, it can be very obsessive and indulgent. It is all artificiality, which makes it inhuman – and this is why it can make crime absolutely captivating in its cruelty. It's generally the baddies and the troubled ones that are portrayed as glamorous and gorgeous, not the goodies.

"Having said that, I would argue that fashion doesn't just glamorise crime – it can also sensualise it. Just look at some of the silent films in our season, or the sumptuous horrors by Bava and Argento, or some of the artist-films we are screening at Tate. Fashion rests on the surface, it has an excessive preoccupation with dress and grooming – and this usually signals something dark."

Fashion in Film Festival: If Looks Could Kill takes place at various cinemas in London (www.fashioninfilm.com), from 10 to 31 May