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The eternal passion between fashion and film

18 March, 2013

Annie Hall was part of El film a l'agulla season. / Filmoteca de Catalunya

What have films done for fashion? And what has fashion done for films? These two questions form the basis of the Filmoteca de Catalunya’s El film a l’Agulla exhibition, which shows some of the decisive chapters in the love story between style and the silver screen.

There are pieces of clothing which have symbolised an age. For example, James Dean’s white T-shirt and jeans, or the short, buttoned, open-necked cardigan worn by Joan Fontaine in Hitchcock’s Rebecca.

Many of these garments which the movies made fashionable – or which appeared on film because they already were fashionable – form part of the ‘inventory’ that the assistant manager of the Filmoteca de Catalunya, Octavi Martí, has prepared for the El Film a l’Agulla exhibition.

We discuss with Octavi Martí the love story between film and fashion which has been going on since the very earliest days of the movies. “From the very beginning, the cinema has set trends in fashion,” he says.

“Fashion doesn’t exist if people in the street don’t wear it,” claims one of the exhibition panels, reminding us of designer Coco Chanel’s famous phrase. A good example of this, says Martí, is the sophisticated trend which began with the film Bonnie and Clyde. The long skirts and beret sported at a jaunty angle by actress and former model Faye Dunaway influenced a whole generation.

Film critic, film and television director and newspaper correspondent Octavi Martí waxes lyrical when discussing scenes he describes as watershed moments in the relationship between film and fashion.

How to explain fashion

The role played by fashion in the cinema can be seen not only through the clothes worn by the actors, but also when a film focuses on the story of a designer or when the excellence of a costume designer’s work breaks out of the projection room and bursts onto the catwalk. Donatella Versace, Valentino, Prada and Armani have been the subject of documentaries on the fashion industry by such renowned directors as Wim Wenders and Martin Scorsese. Even Tom Ford dared to take on a film which he both appeared in and directed – a good example of when the parallel lives of film and fashion meet.

“Until the 1960s, what counted in the cinema was the stars and the name of the production company. People went to see actors and actresses, drawn by the fame of major studios like Metro Goldwyn Meyer, for example. Later on, the tendency that developed was for filmgoers to follow the career of a particular director; it was the beginning of a new ritual in the cinema: the director as the great lure,” explains Martí.

Why have the names of the cinema’s great costume designers never become widely known?

The great majority didn’t design for people outside the world of the cinema. I suppose that in the golden age of the Hollywood studios, designers made more money in the film industry than by opening their own boutiques. That’s probably why the designers never made the leap to the catwalk. Furthermore, they were responsible for many sets of costumes over the course of each year and this left them with very little time for other projects.

Adolph Greenberg is a clear example of a break with this general anonymity.

Yes, Adrian, as he was better known, even had his own boutique. He was one of the most famous costume designers. He put his name to more than 200 costumes for MGM, notably those he did for The Wizard of Oz and The Philadelphia Story.

Some designers have been sought by filmmakers precisely because they are well-known.

Yes, we deal with this in the exhibition. Their universe is recognisable and personal, that’s why they are invited to work on a film.

Although, in general, as we said, designers have never really been the stars of a film.

Just like dubbing artists, supporting actors and vital technicians, costume designers were simply another name on the long list of closing credits. They were at the service of the vanity and beauty of others. Some names are recognised by those in the business, like Natacha Rambova, who apart from being a costume designer was an occasional actress and also the wife of Rudolph Valentino.

Another exception might be Edith Head.

Yes, she won several Oscars in recognition for her work.

Can the cinema revive fashions?

Yes, the TV series Mad Men is an example. It has done a lot to bring back the styles of clothing popular in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Thanks to the cinema or television, you can reproduce sets and costumes of very high quality and take them to the masses. For the moment, only the cinema can do that.

If you analyse the thirty or so films in the exhibition, would you say that the cinema creates fashions or reflects them?

Essentially, films created new fashions rather than reflecting existing ones. However, it created these fashions against the background of the image and values of the existing society.

Finally, the exhibition includes only one example of the relationship between film and fashion from here. Why is this?

Probably because the important designers we have had have been obliged to go abroad to work. Also, when there have been good fashion designers (there have been several in Barcelona) they have rarely managed to achieve international fame. They have been very good at what they do, but were only known in Barcelona. There hasn’t been an effective launch pad to make our designers better known.

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