10 great films about fashion

With the Audrey Hepburn classic Funny Face – set in the haute couture worlds of New York and Paris – back in cinemas, we unveil this season’s essential collection: our 10 favourite fashion movies.

Ashley Clark

Funny Face (1957)

Funny Face (1957)

1957 was a particularly busy year for the prolific director and choreographer Stanley Donen, with three films released bearing his authorial stamp, including the classic Broadway adaptation The Pajama Game, with Doris Day, and the vivacious Funny Face, starring Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire.

Funny Face, which is back in cinemas this week, is one of the all-time great films about fashion. Astaire stars as photographer Dick Avery (a character based on the film’s own visual consultant Richard Avedon), who is dispatched by his boss Maggie Prescott (Kay Thompson) to find a “new face”. Dick soon discovers Jo (Audrey Hepburn), an owlish Greenwich Village bookstore employee who has little time for the fashion world (“It is chichi!”). However, when Dick whisks the unprepossessing Jo off to Paris and transforms her into the world’s biggest new supermodel, a veritable cavalcade of romantic complications and full-throated song-and-dance numbers ensue; not to mention a host of eye-popping costumes designed by the legendary Edith Head.

A clear forerunner of the likes of The Devil Wears Prada (2006) and popular ABC TV comedy Ugly Betty (2006-2010), Funny Face casts a sharp and satirical yet ultimately affectionate eye over the New York fashion world, and affords Hepburn one of her most memorable roles. Yet its most enduring moment is arguably the snappy opening number ‘Think Pink’ (“Red is dead! Blue is through! Green’s obscene! Brown’s taboo!”), delivered by stern, wry editor Maggie Prescott (Kay Thompson). Her character was based on real-life Harper’s Bazaar editor Diana Vreeland.

To mark Funny Face’s return to the big screen, we’ve threaded together a selection of great films about fashion. Some are more firmly located within the milieu than others, but all display their own, unabashed style.

Making Fashion (1938)

Director Humphrey Jennings

Extract from Making Fashion (1938)

Given that the pioneering British documentary filmmaker Humphrey Jennings was born to a painter mother and an architect father, it’s of little surprise to find that he turned his attentions to an emerging creative industry – the fashion world – for 1938’s sprightly Making Fashion.

Gloriously shot in Dufaycolor (based on a four-colour screen photographic process invented in 1908 by Frenchman Louis Dufay), set to an irresistibly jaunty score and blessed with a magnificently haughty male voiceover, Making Fashion showcases a group of society ladies who are modelling designer Norman Hartnell’s 1938 Spring Collection. According to Robin Baker, head curator of the BFI National Archive, Jennings and Hartnell were stylistically influenced by British society photographer Madame Yevonde, whose portraits of aristocrats posing as ancient Greek goddesses had recently been exhibited.

Cover Girl (1944)

Director Charles Vidor

In this classic musical, Rita Hayworth dazzles as Rusty, a chorus girl working at a nightclub run by her boyfriend Danny McGuire (Gene Kelly). A route to stardom emerges for Rusty when the elderly, wealthy magazine editor John Coudair (Otto Kruger) – who years earlier had been in love with her grandmother, Maribelle Hicks (Hayworth again in a cheeky dual role) – offers an opportunity to be a highly paid magazine cover girl.

Cover Girl’s highlight is the lavish, extended title number, which plays out against a backdrop of magically enlarged camera lenses and magazine covers. The film won the Academy Award for best original scoring, but the couture, designed by then-chief designer at Paramount Pictures, Travis Banton, among others, is equally breathtaking.

Blowup (1966)

Director Michelangelo Antonioni

Michelangelo Antonioni’s stylishly elliptical mystery-thriller is the apotheosis of the swinging 60s in London, magnificently capturing the milieu that defined its mood.

Blowup stars a never-better David Hemmings as hip photographer Thomas, whose powers of seduction render a string of beautiful women (including Jane Birkin and Vanessa Redgrave) utterly helpless to resist his charms. Undoubtedly the key film in glamourising the world of fashion photography as a profession, its influence can be seen absolutely everywhere, from cover shoots to music videos and, of course, in the wonderful world of Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997).

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972)

Director Rainer Werner Fassbinder

One of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s most bitter and curdled human studies – and that’s saying something – is almost entirely restricted to one claustrophobic set: the bedroom of the eponymous, successful fashion designer (Margit Carstensen), who is about to embark on a tortuous love affair with Karin (Hanna Schygulla), a 23-year-old with dreams of becoming a model. The room is decked out with a gargantuan classical painting (‘Midas and Bacchus’) and, creepily, a host of mannequins which represent the deadened souls of the characters and, possibly, Fassbinder’s stark view of the industry and its corrosive effects.

With its array of imperious and confrontational costumes designed by Maja Lemcke, the film has also proven influential from a fashion design point of view. Miuccia Prada (of the internationally renowned Prada house) recently told The Guardian of her admiration for German influences and the avant garde, with particular reference to Fassbinder’s films, like The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant and 1981’s Lola. “I watched his films years ago,” she said. “It was time to do what was in my mind for so long.” 

Notebook on Cities and Clothes (1989)

Director Wim Wenders

“Fashion. I’ll have nothing of it” – so said German director Wim Wenders when first approached by the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris to make a short film in the world of fashion. But he soon changed his tune. “Maybe I was too quick to put down fashion. Why not look at it without prejudice? Why not examine it like any other industry. Maybe fashion and cinema had something in common. And something else – this film would give me the opportunity to meet someone who had already aroused my curiosity, someone who worked in Tokyo.”

The end result, Notebook on Cities and Clothes, is one of Wenders’ most underrated films – a cool, compelling portrait of the influential, and deeply thoughtful, Japanese fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto. It’s packed with revealing backstage footage and probes a number of intriguing themes, such as whether eastern concepts of artistic identity differ from western ones.

Clueless (1995)

Director Amy Heckerling

A dazzling, fashion-obsessed midpoint between Desperately Seeking Susan in the 1980s and Mean Girls in the 2000s, Clueless is a loose, super-smart adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma, in which lively high-schooler Cher (Alicia Silverstone in a career best performance) matchmakes among her friends and orchestrates the school’s sartorial trends. It’s the type of film in which even the minor characters – like Mel (Dan Hedaya), Cher’s perpetually enraged father – know a thing or two about fashion. “What’s with you, kid? You think the death of Sammy Davis Jr left an opening in the Rat Pack?”, he barks at a young pretender in the film’s best line.

Illustrating both the film’s bounteous sartorial inspiration and perpetual popularity, BuzzFeed recently published a list of 37 – count ’em – of Clueless’s best looks.

Zoolander (2001)

Director Ben Stiller

Ben Stiller’s gleefully unrestrained satire on the shallowness and hyperbole of the modelling world is light on plot, but bursting at the seams with inspired comic set pieces. Stiller is a hoot as the eponymous, razor-cheekboned idiot, but gets terrific support from the languid Owen Wilson as his boho rival Hansel, a fright-wigged Will Ferrell as evil fashion overlord Mugatu and, wonderfully, David Bowie, who referees a catwalk standoff that ends in a special kind of agony for our vapid hero. Perhaps Zoolander’s best joke of all was to cast the unconventional-looking Stiller and Wilson as supermodels in the first place; somehow, it works.

For all of Zoolander’s manic invention, it’s worth mentioning that it shares some conspicuous similarities with Bret Easton Ellis’s mammoth 1998 novel Glamorama, which also focused on the travails of a preternaturally vapid male model, before morphing into a surreal mystery thriller about international fashion terrorism.

The Devil Wears Prada (2006)

Director David Frankel

This witty, hugely enjoyable adaptation of Lauren Weisberger’s 2003 novel follows the fortunes of Andrea Sachs (Anne Hathaway), a college graduate who heads to New York City and gets a job as an assistant to terrifying, charismatic fashion magazine editor Miranda Priestly (Streep, Oscar-nominated for the 14th time.)

Although the movie is set in the fashion world, designers and other fashion notables avoided appearing as themselves (unlike, say, in Robert Altman’s Prêt-à-Porter, 1994), for fear of damaging their relationship with the fearsome US Vogue editor Anna ‘Nuclear’ Wintour, who, despite denials from Streep and director David Frankel, is generally believed to be the key inspiration for Priestly. This unease, however, didn’t prevent the designers from authorising their work to be used: it remains the most expensively costumed movie of all time. 

Bill Cunningham New York (2010)

Director Richard Press

Richard Press’s zippy documentary focuses on the eponymous, indefatigable 82-year-old photographer who scoots around the Big Apple on a bicycle and snaps local scenesters for the style pages of the New York Times, the publication for which he has worked for decades.

Cunningham is a terrific subject for a cinematic portrait: he’s warm, wryly funny, forthcoming about his artistic choices, and far from camera shy. Crucially, however, he’s also enigmatic and ultimately unknowable; even those closest to him (including friends and luminaries like Wintour, who appears as a talking head) are shown to not really know the full picture about his personal life and motivations. This sense of mystery lifts the film into the realm of the ineffable, and consequently it becomes an inspirational hymn to passionate, singular creativity.

Girl Model (2011)

Directors David Redmon and Ashley Sabin

This harrowing and discomfiting documentary intends to expose the rancid underbelly of the fashion world by focusing on the exploitation of young girls, often from poor backgrounds. It succeeds with a grim efficiency.

There are two subjects in Girl Model. The first is 13-year-old Nadya, a friendly, strong-willed Siberian girl encouraged by her poverty-stricken family to travel to Japan to earn money as a model. The second is Ashley, a detached, psychologically scarred American model-turned-scout who acts as a living embodiment of the contradictions of the industry. She despises it, yet is unable to extricate herself from its tendrils of financial comfort. As the exploitations accrue, one feels like crying out for the filmmakers to intervene, yet they maintain a cool distance.

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