Fashion, A La Mode Again At The Multiplex

Audrey Tautou as Coco Chanel in 'Coco Before Chanel' i i

hide captionCoco Before Chanel, starring Audrey Tautou, explores the early life of the iconic French designer who changed fashion history with her classic tweed suit.

Sony Pictures Classic
Audrey Tautou as Coco Chanel in 'Coco Before Chanel'

Coco Before Chanel, starring Audrey Tautou, explores the early life of the iconic French designer who changed fashion history with her classic tweed suit.

Sony Pictures Classic

In Bright Star, a new film about the poet John Keats, the opening shot is of a needle being threaded and then plunged into a piece of fabric. You don't see hands, so there's no sense of scale to the enormous close-ups, which make the needle look like a spear, the thread like heavy cable.

Director Jane Campion is letting you know that Fanny Brawne — the poet's muse, who made a point of designing and making her own clothes in 1818 — took her sewing seriously.

Fanny is part of a sort of on-screen sewing circle at the multiplex right now. The title character in Coco Before Chanel is the little-black-dress designer who came along a century after Brawne. The editors of Vogue spend their screen time accessorizing their annual fashion bible in September Issue, and a celebrated designer gets celebrated all over again in Valentino: The Last Emperor.

Hollywood's always had a way of falling for couture, of course, but the falls this fall feel a little different — more process-oriented, more about the business and people of fashion than about the name-dropping and look-dropping that extends back from the Jimmy Choo-crazed gals in Sex and the City to their great-grand-aunts in The Women, way back in 1939.

When those dames needed new clothes, remember, they headed for their local couturier — where the curtains parted and the screen exploded from black-and-white into color for a six-minute fashion parade. (There was a similarly exuberant eruption when Dorothy stepped through her farmhouse door into Oz in another picture that same year.)

And for a while, there were lots of cinematic runway moments like the one in The Women. Jane Russell sang her way down a fashion runway in The French Line. In Funny Face, Audrey Hepburn struck poses for fashion photographer Fred Astaire, not too long after fashion-mag editrix Kay Thompson urged her minions to "Think Pink." And in one particularly bizarre variation on the theme, Federico Fellini offered up an ecclesiastical fashion show in Roma — nuns parading in basic black, roller-skating cardinals in red, and an array of fur-trimmed, jewel-encrusted, electric stained-glass robes for the pope who wants to make a really bold fashion statement.

Audrey Hepburn, Fred Astaire in 'Funny Face' i i

hide captionIn Funny Face, Audrey Hepburn stars as an intellectual beatnik turned model. Fred Astaire plays Dick Avery, the photographer who convinces her that fashion can be freeing — and fun.

Hulton Archive/Getty
Audrey Hepburn, Fred Astaire in 'Funny Face'

In Funny Face, Audrey Hepburn stars as an intellectual beatnik turned model. Fred Astaire plays Dick Avery, the photographer who convinces her that fashion can be freeing — and fun.

Hulton Archive/Getty

Much of this was mockery of one sort or another — as were many of the movies centered on fashion models. No, the '70s thriller Lipstick didn't mean to ridicule its leading lady, but it was hard to take Margaux Hemmingway too seriously as she raced around in a scarlet evening gown she'd accessorized with a rifle.

She was bringing down a rapist who'd been freed by the courts. But while there is an occasional model-as-social-crusader flick — think Diana Ross railing at an all-white fashion industry in Mahogany — the more usual approach is to show models as dim bulbs, as Ben Stiller did in Zoolander.

Diana Ross in 'Mahogany' i i

hide captionMahogany, a 1975 rags-to-riches film directed by Berry Gordy, stars Diana Ross as Tracy, a young woman from Chicago who dreams of becoming a fashion designer — but becomes a supermodel instead.

Paramount/The Kobal Collection
Diana Ross in 'Mahogany'

Mahogany, a 1975 rags-to-riches film directed by Berry Gordy, stars Diana Ross as Tracy, a young woman from Chicago who dreams of becoming a fashion designer — but becomes a supermodel instead.

Paramount/The Kobal Collection

All of which suggests that Hollywood assumes audiences don't take fashion very seriously. But in recent years, that assumption's been changing. The '90s documentary Unzipped surprised even its producers by raking in millions while making a pop figure of designer Isaac Mizrahi. This year's Valentino: The Last Emperor and September Issue look at the business strategies that rule the fashion world, because fashion is big business — big enough that Hollywood wants to piggyback on its appeal.

That seems especially clear when a bona fide blockbuster can offer the summer cineplex a tutorial in why people should care about couture, as when The Devil Wears Prada's Anne Hathaway lets slip to fashion editor Meryl Streep that she isn't much interested in high fashion. By the time Streep has finished tracing the cerulean blue shade of Hathaway's sweater from the couture collections of Oscar de la Renta to the "tragic" bargain bin in which she knows Hathaway must have found it, the fashion world's impact on Main Street almost had to be clear to anyone who'd ever watched TV's Project Runway — or followed the $400 million boob-tube-to-multiplex migration of Sex and the City.

The fashion industry may be taking a recessionary hit at the department store, but on screen it's boom time, with audiences apparently as intrigued by couture as the stars who walk the red carpet on Oscar night.

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