Last Year at Marienbad (1961)
This feature first appeared in the March 1995 issue of Sight and Sound


Fashion means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. It can be seen as an industry, as a social phenomenon or as an art-form.

In his latest film, Prêt-à-Porter, Robert Altman is mainly interested in fashion as social phenomenon, although he is personally well aware of its status as art. Talking to an interviewer, he observed, “I think that many designers are hype artists but that the majority of these people are real artists. That’s very clear.” Nonetheless, as he noted immediately afterwards, “Actually, I don’t really deal very much with the designers and what they do. It’s much more about media and related product and hype.”

The problem, of course, is that without the art the hype appears pointless. The fashion world may caricature itself, unconsciously as well as consciously, and it may be cruel and absurd, but it is more than that. Without an acknowledgment of fashion’s potential as art and thus as a value betrayed, Altman’s satirical treatment of fashion loses its edge and begins to spin around in a grotesque vacuum. If he had taken the clothes more seriously, the satire would have carried more weight.

Prêt-à-Porter is set in a world in which two or three genuine artists show their work, which is then drowned out by a kaleidoscopic rabble of supermodels, journalists, publicists, self-publicists, celebrity clients and assorted hangers-on and riffraff. Altman is interested in clothes and the role they can play in our behaviour, in our construction and projection of a self, in our obsession with image. He is amused by the fashion world in terms of its ethnographic peculiarities, its rituals and status systems, its propensity for farce.

Fascinated by the glitz of the catwalk, he is not really committed to showing clothes as artefacts in themselves, as anything worth looking at seriously. For example, the re-creations of vintage Dior worn in the film by Sophia Loren are surely of enormous interest, constructed as they were from Loren’s original fitting body (still retained by the house) and cut by Monsieur Claude, the same craftsman that worked there in the 50s when she was already a customer. Unfortunately, they are scarcely visible in the snappily edited film – much too long on its first cut – and we have to hope that the out-takes are deposited for future scholars in a fashion museum.

Pret-a-Porter (1994)

Prêt-à-Porter is essentially a backstage fashion-show movie, in the same sense that Nashville was a backstage musical. Altman embeds fashion shows in a French facade in the same way that Frank Tashlin embedded rock’n’roll numbers in the framing narrative of The Girl Can’t Help It. We are given – very rapidly – just three major set-piece runway sequences, which display supermodels the traditional Ziegfeld way, the stately promenade modernised to frenetic catwalk (the key historical reference point here being Ossie Clark’s proto-MTV introduction of pop music into his shows during the 60s).

But Prêt-à-Porter misses its chance of becoming a Girl Can’t Help It for future fashion cultists and connoisseurs. Tashlin’s film, which set out to poke fun at rock’n’roll, is still lovingly watched today not so much because of its gags or its social satire, but because it inadvertently immortalised a series of great moments in music history. Future fashion historians may go back wistfully to Prêt-à-Porter to catch a glimpse of the Vivienne Westwood and Issey Miyake runway sequences and to regret the absence of Galliano or Alaïa or even Saint-Laurent. But for a deeper look at current couture, they will return to Mike Figgis’ new documentary on Westwood rather than Altman and Prêt-à-Porter.

At the very end of his film, Altman gives the fashion show an anti-fashion twist by turning it into a public exhibition of nudity, with the female body as a site of authenticity, in contrast with the inauthenticity of fashion. Watching this update of The Emperor’s New Clothes, I was reminded of Rudi Gernreich’s experience with his topless bathing suit of 1964, which he deliberately chose not to show on the catwalk. Gernreich’s use of nudity in fashion caused a flurry of press publicity but had very little lasting impact on fashion itself. It was too risky, too ‘philosophical’.

Pret-a-Porter (1994)

20 years later Peggy Moffitt, Gernreich’s principal model, threatened to resign from the Los Angeles Fashion Group if the topless suit was modelled on stage at a retrospective of Gernreich’s work. Moffitt protested that “Rudi did the suit as a social statement. It was an exaggeration that had to do with setting women free. It had nothing to do with display and the minute someone wears it to show off her body, you’ve negated the entire principle of the thing.” Altman has argued that the presence of Ute Lemper, nude, eight and a half months pregnant, in the climactic runway sequence of Prêt-à-Porter, “took the titillation out of it”. Even if this were true, it still comes across as hype, exploiting shock-effect to outdo the fashion world and establish Altman himself as cock of the walk.

Episodes in chiffon

The fashion show as spectacle has long been a staple of Hollywood films. In the 1910s fashion shows were filmed as shorts for supporting programmes and very quickly began to infiltrate feature films themselves. The decisive impetus came from Lucile (aka Lady Duff-Gordon), the dress designer who more than anyone else brought together the worlds of Hollywood, New York and Paris – film, revue, couture.

Lucile’s American career began at a Christmas dinner at the Waldorf Astoria in 1909, given for the interior designer Elsie De Wolfe. Duff-Gordon and De Wolfe noted that their high-society dining companions were wearing inferior copies of out-of-fashion Paris couture. “Some of these women are extraordinarily attractive,” observed Duff-Gordon, “but they don’t know how to dress. I wish I could teach them.” De Wolfe was enthusiastic: “Why don’t you? I have a splendid idea. The first English Lady of Title to open a dress-shop for the Four Hundred!” (In other words, for the New York elite.) Next spring the salon was already open, with 150 gowns shipped over from London and, more significantly, four of Lucile’s top models Gamela, Corisande, Florence and Phyllis.

Some years later, in 1915, Flo Ziegfeld married the comedy actress Billie Burke, a Lucile customer, who took him shopping at the Lucile salon on 57th Street, where he saw and was stunned by Dolores, the then-current supermodel. In homage, he recreated the scene of his discovery in a special revue number titled ‘Ladies in Fashion, An Episode in Chiffon’, with nine models, among them Dolores as the ‘Empress of Fashion, The Discourager of Hesitancy’. From then on, fashion numbers with Lucile models and gowns became a Ziegfeld staple. Gamela, Dinagarde, Clarie, Mauricette, Anangaraga, Savia-Maria, Boneta, Iseult, Majanah and Phyllis all followed Dolores to glory. Customers flocked to Lucile – the day after Irene Castle (of The Castles, in the teens a hugely popular dancing duo) danced in a Lucile “Fragonard” dress, there were lines outside the door, and, by the end of the week, 90 copies had been shipped out to Los Angeles.

More importantly, Ziegfeld’s appropriation, for his revue, of ideas for couture via Lucile and her supermodels, set a standard of opulence and knock-em-dead tastefulness which Hollywood could accept as the touchstone of fashion. Indeed, the fashion show became a standard Hollywood device, lovingly satirised by Walter Plunkett and Roger Edens in Singin’ in the Rain. Ziegfeld turned the promenade of models, invented by Paul Poiret at the turn of the century, into a show-business number – and Hollywood gratefully followed suit.

Artists and Models Abroad (1938)

The high point was reached with Artists and Models Abroad, directed by a former fashion designer, Mitchell Leisen, in 1938. For this showcase film, Lillian Fischer (or Fisher), the Paris correspondent of Harper’s Bazaar, rounded up clothes by Mme Grès, Paquin, Patou, Schiaparelli, Lelong and Worth. As Fischer put it in her cable to Paramount: “THESE SHOULD DO THE TRICK.” Two years later, in 1939, another frontier was crossed when an Adrian fashion show was inserted as a colour sequence into Cukor’s black-and-white The Women.

In the final analysis, the Hollywood fashion show has always been devoid of aesthetic interest: at most, in Stanley Donen’s over-rated Funny Face, there was Audrey Hepburn showing yet another Givenchy outfit. In the immediate postwar period, one eccentric British picture – Edmond Gréville’s 1948 spiv film Noose – was genuinely a film about fashion, with an American film journalist as heroine, investigating the impact of Dior’s New Look on English life and uncovering the garment industry’s involvement with organised crime.

Last Year at Marienbad (1961)

However, it was not till the 60s that film and fashion, treated as an art-form, began finally to coincide. The turning-point came with Chanel’s designs for Delphine Seyrig in Alain Resnais’ Last Year in Marienbad. (The only other successful film for Chanel was Renoir’s La Regle du jeu, a film perfectly suited to her taste, with its floor-length gowns, its masquerade party, the parallelism of its little black dresses for mistress and maid.)

Stringing up the Beautiful People

After Marienbad came Antonioni’s Blow-Up, with a fashion photographer as its central character, yet only a glancing look at fashion itself. The same year, 1966, Stanley Donen made his best solo movie, Two For the Road, a Hollywood attempt at a European art film, with Audrey Hepburn now wearing Mary Quant, Foale & Tuffin, Paco Rabanne and other contemporary designers.

But the key fashion film of the year was William Klein’s extraordinary Qui etes-vous, Polly Maggoo? (Who Are You Polly Maggoo?). For the first time, a fashion film was made by somebody intimately involved in the fashion world itself, looking at it – satirically, to be sure – from the inside rather than the outside. Klein, a friend of Resnais, Chris Marker and the ‘Left Bank Group’ of filmmakers, was one of the first photographers to put models in everyday, non-fashion environments – inspired in part by Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera and Marker’s photo-books.

Basically, Klein was always critical of the fashion world for its elitism and its flattery of high society. Nonetheless he felt a genuine attraction to high fashion. As he himself put it, “Perhaps, ideologically, I thought the Beautiful People should be strung up or sent to factories. But, let’s face it, I was as much Made In Hollywood as any American kid, brought up not only on Scarface and Dead End but The Philadelphia Story and Swing Time” (costumes by Adrian and by Bernard Newman, head designer for Bergdorf Goodman).

As Martin Harrison has noted, “Klein and Vogue were a successful mismatch.” Much the same mismatch provided the energy for Klein’s films too. In Polly Maggoo the creativity and eccentricity of the new, glitzy 60s couture outshone but never entirely obliterated the political critique of a world in which everything, including politics itself, was becoming glitz and spectacle. Klein himself conceived the extraordinary couture clothes for the film, which his wife Jeanne designed and constructed, working with two musical instrument makers. The clothes were made out of aluminium, eerily anticipating Paco Rabanne’s chain-mail and plastic collection shown later the same year. Klein knew fashion well enough to be ahead of the game.

Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? (1966)

His next film, Mr Freedom, for which he and Jeanne Klein also designed the costumes, was an anti-Vietnam War farce-cum-tract, which got Klein fired as a photographer for Vogue. It was not till 1985 that Klein returned to fashion and film. Mode in France had 13 sections shot in different styles, the designers featured now including Gaultier and Alaïa. In one sequence hundreds of extras, dressed by Gaultier, cavorted through a caricature set of a picturesque Paris street-market, complete with street-singers, pimps and prostitutes.

Klein’s more favourable attitude to the fashion world reflected his realisation that the fashion world itself was changing. “Miyake is an all-round artist, Gaultier and Alaïa in their way too… Far from the couturiers whose clothes I photographed for Vogue.” The change he noted in the world of couture had begun in England in the 60s and it gradually worked its way through into cinema and films as various as Ulrike Ottinger’s Madame X (clothes by Tabitha Blumenschein), Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense and David Byrne’s True Stories (Adele Lutz’s Urban Camouflage series), Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (Jean-Paul Gaultier, with costume changes as Helen Mirren moves from room to room) and Derek Jarman’s jubilee (an anthology of post-Sex, post-Seditionaries and post-Westwood street fashion). In these films, fashion was an integral part of the overall look of the film and was genuinely treated as another art-form in its own right, incorporated into the cinema but not reduced to an ornament or an accessory.

Extra-terrestrial vectors

All these films, of course, were low-budget European art films (or else, as with Demme and Byrne, New York New Wave). They were directly responsive to the new interface between fashion, music, art and theatre which had picked up momentum in the 70s and eventually, by the 80s, had even impinged on the movies.

The connection with music was particularly important, beginning with the Jean-Paul Goude phenomenon in France and punk in England (Malcolm McLaren and Westwood, above all) and then branching out, via the New Romantics, into the world of music videos. The couture video, once shot simply as a sales substitute for clients who couldn’t make it to Paris, has now won its own independent slot on MTV. Music stars (and supermodels) play the same kind of role that movie stars used to in the 20s – strange, almost extra-terrestrial beings, vectors of glamour and fantasy, brokers between avant-garde and mass audience.

American Gigolo (1980)

Meanwhile, Hollywood takes care to play safe with fashion. The designer of choice since Paul Schrader’s American Gigolo (1980) has been Armani, who Altman passed over as not ridiculous enough. In fact, Armani’s basic motivation has been to design clothes in which the wearer will feel secure against embarrassment, against sticking out like a sore-thumb – as Armani put it, “I’ve always had a strong sense of the ridiculous. A very strong sense. Certain things shouldn’t be done, simply because they’re ridiculous.” Armani wants people to feel comfortably well-dressed in his clothes, elegant, attractive, but never eccentric. In American Gigolo, Armani is about coldness and surface, eroticism without love or depth. In the silent days, by contrast, Hollywood had been obsessed with fashion in the sense of spectacular glamour and display, the signifier of burning passion and intoxicating excess.

Tailors and tycoons

The moguls who created Hollywood emerged, for the most part, from the lower reaches of the garment industry. Adolph Zukor was a furrier who had made the capital he needed to invest in the film business from a far-sighted speculation in red fox pelts. Marcus Loew was a ‘drummer’ (drumming up business) for a clothing company, selling furs and velveteen capes. Samuel Goldwyn was a glove salesman. Carl Laemmle managed the Continental Clothing store in New Oshkosh, Wisconsin. William Fox had a business inspecting and shrinking bolts of cloth for garment manufacturers in New York. Louis B. Mayer was a used-clothes dealer (sometimes described as a rag picker). The Warner brothers’ father Benjamin was a cobbler, and Harry Warner began his working life as a shoe-repairer. Jack Warner reminisced about how, “when we boys needed clothes, my father laid us face down on a bolt of cloth, marked it with white chalk, and made up the suits himself.” Harry Cohn’s father owned a tailor’s shop, specialising in police uniforms.

When they eventually built studios, achieved power and amassed wealth as Hollywood tycoons, it was only natural that they should want to associate the cinema with extravagant and spectacular clothes. Indeed the story of the American film industry as an industry begins, at least in its classic form, with a film whose star was dressed by the great founder of modern French couture, Paul Poiret.

Queen Elizabeth (1912)

In 1912 Adolph Zukor bought the US rights to the French film d’art, Queen Elizabeth, starring Sarah Bernhardt. His $35,000 investment paid off handsomely when the US release, as historian Alan Williams put it, “was an enormous hit, providing the seed capital for what would later become Paramount Pictures, and changing many minds about the shape of the emerging American film industry.” In Zuker’s own words, it “had gone a long way to breaking down the prejudice of theatrical people against the screen.”

In the film, as in ordinary life, Sarah Bernhardt was dressed in Poiret gowns: which meant stylised Italian Renaissance rather than English Elizabethan, with huge draped oversleeves, high wired collars of thick lace folded back to reveal a tiny neck ruff, and flowing capes. It was the prestige of Bernhardt as an actress, combined with the luxury and elegance supplied by Poiret, that moved the American cinema out of the huckster world of the nickelodeon into the headier realm of dramatic art. Combining great artistry with an extravagant sense of showmanship, Poiret – known as ‘Le Magnifique’ – designed for the theatre, as well as for actresses and film-stars.

Together with Matisse and the Ballets Russes of Diaghilev, he transformed modern taste. As a designer, he banished the corset, introduced trousers for women, and launched the directoire revival and a vogue for orientalism which lasted well into the 20s. Thanks to him, fashion had already begun to move out of the world of dress-making into that of show business.

He became the absent godfather of Hollywood fashion during the silent epoch. The founders of the studios’ costume design departments were all decisively influenced by Poiret. Howard Greer, the head designer at Paramount, had worked in Paris for Erté, a protege and former employee of Poiret, and had some direct contact with Le Magnifique himself.

After returning to America and working for Lucile, Greer hired and in effect trained Adrian, Travis Banton, Edith Head and Orry-Kelly, who between them dominated Hollywood costume design, running departments at MGM, Paramount and Warners. He dressed Pola Negri, Louise Brooks, Mary Pickford and many other stars both on-screen and off-screen, eventually abandoning Paramount in 1927 to set up his own salon on Sunset Boulevard.

Bringing Up Baby (1938)

Greer returned to film-design for occasional one-offs – Katharine Hepburn in Christopher Strong and Bringing Up Baby, Ingrid Bergman in Spellbound. When Garbo visited Europe, she bought no less than 18 ensembles from Greer’s salon to wear on the trip. Greer designed Shirley Temple’s wedding dress, launched a wholesale line which prospered and then crumbled, and summed up his film career as follows: “New York and Paris disdainfully looked down their august noses at the dresses we designed in Hollywood. Well, maybe they were vulgar, but they did have imagination… Into this carnivalesque atmosphere I was plummeted. There I wallowed in rhinestone and feathers and furs and loved every minute of it.”

While it was Greer who established the norm for fashionable Hollywood costume, the most extraordinary and spectacular designs came from a fan and a customer of Poiret’s, Natacha Rambova. Rambova had originally been a dancer in Theodore Kosloff’s American version of the Ballets Russes, dressed in copies of Bakst’s original designs. In 1917 she was hired by De Mille to design an Aztec phantasmagoria called The Woman God Forgot, in which Kosloff also starred. The next year, she left De Mille to work for Alla Nazimova, then newly arrived in Hollywood to star in Salome. For this picture, Rambova costumed Nazimova in extravagant capes and head-dresses derived from Aubrey Beardsley. Through Nazimova, she then met Rudolph Valentino, became his designer of choice and soon afterwards his wife.

In 1923, Rambova and Valentino travelled to Paris, where she made a celebrity pilgrimage to Poiret’s salon, modelled Sultana and Crimee for the master (and the photographers), declared him her favourite couturier and treated herself to a collection of gowns and turbans, which became her trademark. For Valentino’s next film, to be shot in New York, designed by Rambova, assisted by Adrian, she had 60 costumes made by Poiret’s tailors in Paris and Lyon.

Rudolph Valentino in The Eagle (1925)

For a while she dominated Valentino’s career, supervising all aspects of his appearance, photographing him as a Nijinsky faun, body-painted and with pointed ears, and inserting elaborate dressing scenes into his films. Soon afterwards, both her marriage and her career collapsed, partly because Valentino’s business manager and his studio, United Artists, blamed her for turning Valentino into a ‘powder-puff rather than a ‘he-man’. Rambova eventually left show business, converted to spiritualism, and opened a fashionable dress-shop in New York.

Her career was meteoric and in many ways disastrous, but she was a crucial contributor to the success both of De Mille and Valentino, crystallising Hollywood taste at its most extreme and shamelessly flamboyant moment. After Rambova, it was all downhill, as narrative got the upper hand over spectacle and stars scaled down their image to safe Middle American proportions.

Hollywood never again had such a close relationship to couture on-screen. Partly, this was because up-market couture itself moved away from Poiret’s ornamentalism and extravagance to Chanel’s understatement and functionalism. As a result, Paris fashion had a more direct impact on the mass audience. In 1929, Patou unexpectedly lengthened hem-lines, carrying all Paris fashion with him, and a panic-stricken Hollywood had to junk thousands of reels of film in order not to appear démodé.

Getting the look

At the beginning of the 30s, when Paris was suffering from the Crash, Chanel was lured to Los Angeles by Goldwyn for a million dollars a year, but she could not abide the egotism of the stars, felt Hollywood was “overdressed”, cut her contract short and rapidly returned to Paris.

In the depression years which followed, the stars finally retreated from excessive spectacle into elegant drama, their costumes designed with social and psychological appropriateness in mind, rather than flamboyant visual effect. At the same time, stars became models for generic fashion ‘looks’ and ‘styles’ rather than for specific couture. Thus Adrian was responsible for the Crawford and Garbo looks, Banton for the Dietrich look, Orry-Kelly for the Bette Davis look, Edith Head for the Mae West look. These looks, in turn, could feed back into couture proper and be elaborated as designer clothes.

Grand Hotel (1932)

Among these, the most influential was the power look Adrian devised for Joan Crawford: jackets and gowns with broad, padded shoulders. In reality, however, this style came from Schiaparelli, whose work Crawford herself had discovered in Paris in 1930. On her return to Hollywood, she asked Adrian to design for her in the Schiaparelli style, which he then proceeded to, with great success and technical skill, beginning with Grand Hotel and Letty Lynton in 1932. Not only did the other Hollywood designers follow Adrian in their own work, but his popularisation of the Schiaparelli look fed back into high fashion too. Crawford, as star, was able to impose her own taste – and thus Schiaparelli’s idea – first on Adrian, then on the public, and through them on other designers.

Hollywood was geared in those days to commercialise its own fashion trends. Macy’s in New York contracted for the first Cinema Fashions shop in 1930 and soon there was a chain across the country, with nearly 2000 shops handling women’s clothes endorsed by the Modern Merchandizing Bureau, for the use of all the major studios except Warners, which established its own Studio Styles. In 1934 a fashion trade fair was launched in Los Angeles, even beginning to have an impact on American high fashion, as well as sportswear, street clothing and of course cosmetics.

It is important at this point to distinguish between fashion in the general sense of popular taste in clothing, realised by the output of the garment industry; fashion as luxury goods associated with name designers, expensive materials, artisanal techniques and skilled tailoring; and fashion, to put it very simply, as an artform. Hollywood film has been at its most important in the first category, Paris couture in the second. Both are commercial institutions, based on a small group of film studios or couture houses, with their own mode of production, routines of exhibition and structures of marketing. In this sense, the annual Paris collections are analogous to the annual round of film festivals, each with its attendant type and fetishised buzz. However, both film and couture as artforms are very different from their respective commercial manifestations, standing on aesthetic rather than commercial foundations.

Perhaps, one day, Hollywood will be able to return to the fashion theme and treat fashion as art, even if that means recycling the makeover movie (Now Voyager, Vertigo, Pretty Woman) in radical new terms. One way forward was signposted by Susan Seidelman’s makeover film Desperately Seeking Susan, which launched Madonna on her rise to fame – but Madonna’s own intense style-consciousness has worked against a movie career. Her early look, created in collaboration with her dress consultant Marlene Stewart, and her later look, derived from Gaultier, have both been too extreme for the movies.

For film to take fashion seriously, there will have to be a revolution in Hollywood taste. Cinema will have to become much more like the music industry or indeed the garment industry, in which couture, including avant-garde couture, now plays a considerably more significant role than art film does in Hollywood, let alone avant-garde film. All those Armani clothes will have to go – and not to be replaced by Calvin Klein either. Let’s see people going up to collect their Oscars dressed in Lun*nah Menoh or, at the very least, Westwood.

10 great films about fashion

With the chic Audrey Hepburn classic Funny Face back in cinemas, we unveil this season’s essential collection: our 10 favourite fashion movies.

By Ashley Clark

10 great films about fashion