Film + Fashion by Julia Broder

Karl Lagerfeld, the inarguable beau idéal of couture, once said, “Art is Art. Fashion is Fashion.”

It’s curious how a designer, whose own body of work incorporated numerous artistic influences, could promote such a contradictory attitude. To Karl – fashion was only ever an applied art. The clothes maintain a functional purpose irrespective of any embellishments of a designer’s aesthetics or style. Still, Lagerfeld’s fundamentally binary perspective on art and fashion is further compromised when that same utilitarian object acts as a technique or expression that signals to broader artistic themes and devices.

Reader – I struggled to articulate my ideas on the historied relationship between film and fashion. Filmmaking, like fashion design, is a deeply collaborative process that requires coalescing various mediums of creative and performance arts. I hardly claim to understand the intricacies of either industry. I further struggled to find a compelling angle from my genuine, yet amateur, criticism of the artistic merits of fashion in recent movies and IP law.

Last year, many publications ran articles, each essentially alike yet appropriately dissimilar in various degrees of nuance, on the impact of blockbuster films such Barbie. I am resistant to offer my own, unoriginal ideas on the cultural and economic impacts of the mega-successful movie. Which is not to say that I don’t recognize that a more skillful writer may be able to deliver a compelling analysis of why Barbie, a film based on Mattel’s existing Intellectual Property, exceeded all critical and commercial expectations, while other movies based on recycled Intellectual Property have not. And they’d probably be able to write about the fashions of Barbieland too. Shamefully – this is my admission that I’ve still not seen the Barbie movie.

Yet, in planning this article, I was able to think of a few sartorial achievements in films I had seen in the recent past. What compelled me most was not only how these clothes helped achieve a film’s sense of setting and tone, but how the fashion could articulate the film’s themes on their own.

Perhaps the most deft and literate use of fashion in film I’ve come across in the last year is best exemplified in Yorgos Lanthimos recent movie Poor Things. A brilliant adaption of Alasdair Grey’s novel of the same name, Poor Things is a seething critique of the patriarchy’s egregious misogyny and intoxicating alternative to Hollywood’s usual brand of commercialized feminism. Hidden under the guise of traditional period films, Poor Things fashion offers radical interpretations of how women might choose to dress if they possessed control of their choices at all.

Influenced by the classic patterns and exaggerated designs of 19th century fashion, the surreal, eccentric costumes embrace Poor Thing’s alternative Victorian setting as well as the fantastical notion of the fully liberated woman. In service of the film’s subversive message, Bella wears salaciously excessive pieces like a blouse inspired by female genitalia. Resembling David Cronenberg’s polarizing techniques, whose work explores the boundaries of the human body as both explicitly grotesque and implicitly sexual, Poor Thing’s fashion challenges conservative sensibilities – emphasizing Bella’s blossoming autonomy from adult-infancy to lascivious woman while exploring clothes potential subliminal applications and political relevance. It is a masterclass in how fashion in film extends beyond costuming and into the space of political art.

I was similarly affected by Ira Sach’s Passages, and the director’s great finesse in his characterization of the polarizing Tomas by way of costume choices. Specifically, Tomas’ incongruous crop top. Sachs spoke about the significance of Tomas’ costuming in a recent BAFTA interview. He discussed the ability of a character’s clothing to make storytelling “more efficient”, and emphasized how a simple wardrobe piece can act as a functional element of the story’s narrative. The crop top, worn by Tomas in the previous scene as he attempts to seduce his ex-husband, reappears immediately the following morning when he shows up late to meet his pregnant girlfriend’s parents, brilliantly articulating the character’s insufferable selfishness. The crop top poignantly exposes his erraticism, foreshadowing the impending consequences of his persistent narcissism and brazen apathy. Tomas’ crop top is cunning use of dramatic irony.

Whereas the crop top attempts to expose Tomas, Sandra Voyter’s oversized, rugged alpine sweater in Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall achieves the opposite effect. I am biased in my adoration of this film and its main character, Sandra, a working mother and wife who bristles at any instance of a perceived slight on her valued independence. Sandra defies an audience’s expectations on how a woman, a grieving widow no less, should behave and present herself in a series of highly stressful and anxiety-inducing circumstances. She is unapologetic in her determination to exist by her own standards in an environment where we expect women to acquiesce their personal space, time, and desires to their families. As a character Sandra, played by the incomparable Sandra Hüller, is unavailable to her audience’s demands as well. The sweater becomes her armor – another layer atop her carapace of self-confidence that we are denied access to. This sweater is a small part of a larger act of resistance.

It seems a glaring omission not to mention another recent film in which its controversial female protagonist uses clothes to project the contrived personage of her own design. Lydia Tar’s immaculate blazers and fanatical obsession with her presentation reflects the character’s own hyper-fixation on maintaining her doomed illusion.

Todd Field masterfully exposes his titular character’s entire con in the film’s brief opening sequence. No other scene in the two hour and 40-minute-long film betrays Lydia’s domineering idiosyncrasies quite like puppeteering her assistant to requisition a replica of Maestro Claudio Abbado’s shirt.

While these observations by no means represent a comprehensive report on the state of fashion in film – or the even the most memorable moments of fashion on film – they may inspire a different perspective on the nature of fashion in film. One that suggests it is not entirely possible to divorce the notion of art from fashion if we accept that fashion does, and continues to, offer an opportunity for artists, like filmmakers, to better communicate their themes and intentions. Nonetheless, I recognize I still failed to parlay these tangentially related moments into a larger opus on Intellectual Property, film, and fashion. I can only hope that what this article lacked in legal merit it makes up for in pure adoration and enthusiasm for art, the artists who make it, and the people who appreciate it as much as we do at Jayaram.