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Fashion on film

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The relationship between fashion and film is one of history’s greatest love stories; an unassailable partnership that’s lasted over a century. But what is it that makes the two so compatible?

Silent film star Gloria Swanson is dripping in pearls. Hundreds of gems cling to every inch of her floor-length silk dress and hang from her ears in clusters like huge, iridescent teardrops. On top of her black bobbed hairstyle is a huge headdress in the shape of a peacock, made from hand-plucked pure white feathers. Her eyes are lined with thick black kohl and her lips are painted a deep, rich wine. Four feet away waits her most valuable accessory: a lion. A live one. This elaborate mise-en-scène is not the result of too much time spent in a windowless room with a Magic Marker. It’s actually part of a dream sequence from American director Cecil B DeMille’s 1919 film, Male And Female. The ornate ensemble worn by Swanson – the silent screen siren who personified flapper fashion – may have been created almost 100 years ago, but it signifies the beginning of a relationship between two of the most lucrative industries in the western world.

“Nothing that appears on screen is casual or accidental,” says Keith Lodwick, theatre and performance curator at the V&A. “Every accessory and article of clothing is a deliberate choice.” From the silent film era – which today is synonymous with Marlene Dietrich’s furs and Charlie Chaplin’s bowler hats – to the most modern latex- and CGI fuelled sci-fi films, the relationship between fashion and cinema has been carefully considered, lovingly manipulated and masterfully crafted. It is a canny artistic endeavour that serves to communicate character, plot and mood without a word being spoken.

Think of your favourite celluloid moments and it’s likely that they are punctuated by iconic fashion choices: the brown and white polka-dot dress from Pretty Woman (created by indomitable Hollywood costume designer Marilyn Vance), Marilyn Monroe’s figure-hugging pink dress in Gentleman Prefer Blondes, and Hubert de Givenchy’s show-stopping red silk gown worn by Audrey Hepburn on the steps of the Louvre in Funny Face. These outfits create a robust sense of character (give a “commoner” a nipped-in waist, a knee-length hemline and, hey presto, she’s a “lady”) but they also invoke those almost heady feelings of aspiration and fantasy that come with great films.

“[Historically] film costume has been used to indicate character or narrative,” says Pamela Church Gibson, head of the Fashion and Film MA at the London College of Fashion. “But it also had two other functions: to showcase the real star of the show – the person whose costumes were the most lavish – and to create a sense of escapism and spectacle for audiences through the presentation of a sumptuous and spectacular lifestyle.”

But it’s not just the sheer aestheticism of fashion that appeals to film-makers. There’s serious money involved, too. “In the Twenties and Thirties, cinema was the means by which new styles reached average women,” says Gibson. “Glossy magazines were the mark of a small elite.” Ever since then film producers and couturiers have been acutely aware of the selling power of cinema. The Fifties saw the emergence of powerhouse fashion and film partnerships. In 1953, two kindred spirits united (and the dollars rolledin) when Audrey Hepburn met Givenchy on the set of Sabrina (though Hepburn’s “off-duty” uniform – black polo neck, cropped jeans and ballet flats – was arguably just as influential). A similarly serendipitous event occurred in 1967 when Yves Saint Laurent was hired to design Catherine Deneuve’s wardrobe for Buñuel’s call-girl classic Belle De Jour. The partnership brought knitted hats, dark glasses and oversized shirt cuffs to the screen and the pair developed a lifelong friendship – so much so that Deneuve insisted on wearing Saint Laurent’s designs in all her future films.

Cinematic fashions began to define their era – a function carried out with aplomb by Melanie Griffith’s shoulder pads in Working Girl, Madonna’s black bow in

Desperately Seeking Susan and Olivia Newton-John’s Lycra trousers. And certain styles adopted by Hollywood in the Thirties – bias-cut dresses, and trousers for women – began to inspire not just the average woman on the street, but whole seasons of ready-to-wear fashion. The collaborations continued throughout the decades, too – with Jean Paul Gaultier’s flamboyant designs for Luc Besson’s sci-fi epic

The Fifth Element in 1997 and, more recently, Prada’s hugely influential sartorial sponsorship of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby – cementing the long-standing marriage of ideals that exists between the two mediums. Just as fashion has the power to inspire, it has influenced some of cinema’s most celebrated directors.

According to Federico Fellini, the whole look of La Dolce Vita – and specifically Anita Ekberg’s black gown – was inspired by the dramatic, genre-subverting silhouette of Balenciaga’s innovative sack dress. Ironically, Ekberg’s dress went on to inspire a subsequent wave of bosom-hugging fashions, setting a cyclical relationship in motion.

“When a character or a film captures the public imagination, their costumes can ignite worldwide fashion trends,” says Lodwick. “They quickly become part of our modern mythology”. Take, for example, one of the most famous film makeovers of all time. It’s 1942; the film is Now, Voyager; Charlotte Vale (played by Bette Davis) steps off a cruise ship, transformed from a dowdy spinster with unkempt eyebrows to a chic socialite with a sudden penchant for wide-brimmed hats. Apparently Manolo Blahnik was so taken aback by the scene, three decades later he created a collection inspired by Vale’s Spectator shoes.

Similarly, Elizabeth Taylor’s lavish apparel for Cleopatra (at £123,000 it was the most expensive wardrobe recorded for a single actor at that time) still makes an impact now, 50 years after the film’s release (Dior’s Andrew Gallimore reimagined Cleopatra’s beauty looks in issue 177 of Stylist in June this year).

This symbiotic relationship continues to inspire and nourish, proving that fashion and film are inextricably linked. Which is why we’ve dedicated Stylist’s biggest ever fashion issue to the glorious duo, commissioning exclusive films to sit alongside our shoots to highlight the key trends of the season. Read on to discover the inspiration behind our special issue.

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