Fashion in Film
A CultureMap®
by Stephen Brewer
Published on 9/8/14

It stands to reason that the fashion world, arbiter of glamour and style, would be a pet subject among the fantasy factories of Hollywood. In fact, it’s a testament to the allure of fashion that movie spoofs—whether featuring doofy male supermodels or Cruella De Vil editors—are not nearly as riveting as real backstage looks at Valentino, Chanel and other larger-than-life but nonetheless flesh-and-blood figures who’ve set the standards of taste for generations.

Unzipped  (Douglas Keeve (dir.) | film | 1995)
to  Ready to Wear  (Robert Altman (dir.) | film | 1994)

Sooner or later, almost every character in Ready to Wear, Robert Altman’s sneering indictment of the fashion industry, steps in dog crap, a peril of Parisian sidewalks but also a fashion statement from which no one in the industry is exempt. Meanwhile, fashionistas speak gibberish (“Hey! Uh, uh…hey”) or utter banalities (“It’s all about looking good”), and models walk up and down a runway in the nude, à la “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”

Unzipped, Douglas Keeve’s homage to American fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi, is much more entertaining. Polly Allen Mellen, then creative director of Allure magazine, notes in the film, “The textures of Isaac’s fake furs are so extraordinary…weightless, nothing, pom-pom, powder puff,” speaking as admiringly as if Mizrahi had discovered penicillin. For his part, Mizrahi does a hilarious riff about the perfectly applied lip liner Loretta Young sports while freezing to death in 1935’s Call of the Wild. Mizrahi has a way of turning flights of fancy into highly successful fashions. Unzipped closes with an exhilarating runway show, where an attendee enthuses, “It was witty and warm and colorful and beautiful.” The film convinces us that the same can sometimes be said of the fashion world.

Ready to Wear  (Robert Altman (dir.) | film | 1994)
to  The Devil Wears Prada  (David Frankel (dir.) | film | 2006)

In The Devil Wears Prada, the appeal of glamour proves irresistible. Even the earnest, frumpy young journalist Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway) eventually sells her soul to the devil—a.k.a. Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep), editor in chief of Runway magazine—and falls under the spell of her milieu. Andy steps into the fashion closet and emerges in Chanel and Gucci and the sort of extravagant clothing no editorial assistant could ever afford and would certainly never wear to work. For her part, Miranda shows up at staff meetings in evening wear, dripping in jewelry. Every morning she dumps her belongings on her assistant’s desk, and while, yes, it’s cruel to make an underling hang up your coat, those furs and designer handbags forgive a multitude of sins. Even Robert Altman’s sour look at the Paris fashion world in Ready to Wear comes to life when Sophia Loren shows up in curvy Christian Dior gowns from another era and glamorous supermodels in fantasy creations stride up and down runways to throbbing music. The Devil Wears Prada and Ready to Wear set out to ridicule, but the joke is on them—they simply can’t escape the pull of the swish world they satirize.

Zoolander  (Ben Stiller (dir.) | film | 2001)
to  Ready to Wear  (Robert Altman (dir.) | film | 1994)

It’s almost impossible to one-up the fashion industry’s outlandishness, and Ready to Wear and Zoolander are at their best when they don’t even try. In Ready to Wear, Italian screen legends Marcello Mastroianni and Sophia Loren reenact a scene they made famous in Vittorio de Sica’s Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (1963). Mastroianni sits on a bed and crows as Loren, voluptuous as ever, removes her stockings. But in this version, Mastroianni is sound asleep and snoring by the time Loren gets to her garter.

In Zoolander, director Ben Stiller portrays the world’s most famous male model, “a really, really, ridiculously good-looking stud.” Casting himself as a supermodel is already a punch line, but Stiller goes further and creates one of the dumbest characters ever filmed. When, for example, he is presented with a scale model of the literacy center to be built in his honor—the Derek Zoolander Center for Kids Who Can’t Read Good (And Who Wanna Learn to Do Other Stuff Good Too)—he sweeps it to the floor. “What is this? A center for ants?! How can we be expected to teach children to learn how to read if they can’t even fit inside the building?”

Zoolander  (Ben Stiller (dir.) | film | 2001)
to  The Devil Wears Prada  (David Frankel (dir.) | film | 2006)

In The Devil Wears Prada, editor Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) catches her assistant sniggering during a discussion about the finer points of color and goes on a rant in her perfect wispy diction. “That sweater is not just blue, it’s not turquoise, it’s not lapis. It’s actually cerulean. You’re also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns.… And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of eight different designers. And then it, uh, filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic Casual Corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin.”

No matter how well Miranda knows the business, she probably shouldn’t be such a mean boss, though her tyranny goes unchallenged. For real-life exploitation, filmgoers can turn to an unlikely source: Zoolander. In this profoundly silly spoof, villainous fashion designers scheme to assassinate the president of Malaysia when he vows to outlaw the child labor on which their industry depends. The plot is foiled, and righteousness wins out. While Devil gives us a peek into fashion’s inner workings, Zoolander raises awareness of one of its most reprehensible practices.

The Devil Wears Prada  (David Frankel (dir.) | film | 2006)
to  The September Issue  (R.J. Cutler (dir.) | film | 2009)

In The Devil Wears Prada, silver-haired Meryl Streep plays the capricious, imperious fashion editor Miranda Priestly, who makes impossible demands of her milquetoast assistant, such as asking her to procure copies of the latest Harry Potter book before it’s even printed. She never thanks anyone but instead dismisses those who do her bidding by saying, “That’s all.” And she brooks no small talk, cutting off any attempt with “Details of your incompetence do not interest me.”

The film is based on a roman à clef by Lauren Weisberger, who worked for 11 unhappy months as an assistant to Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour. The September Issue follows the real-life Wintour as she oversees the publication of the five-pound, 840-page, advertisement-filled September 2007 issue of Vogue. Unlike Devil’s Priestly, Wintour spars (on camera at least) with just one staffer, creative director Grace Coddington, who’s quite capable of holding her own. It’s easy to see why the editor is nicknamed Nuclear Wintour when she chides a waiter at a posh gala for serving ice out of a tacky bucket. But after all, attention to the smallest detail is what makes this lioness the most important person in fashion.

Valentino: The Last Emperor  (Matt Tyrnauer (dir.) | film | 2008)
to  The September Issue  (R.J. Cutler (dir.) | film | 2009)

In The September Issue, a fashion editor describes Anna Wintour’s position at Vogue as “pope,” a title that implies her infallibility in all matters of style. Italian designer Valentino Garavani, subject of Valentino: The Last Emperor, enjoyed similar status as head of a fashion empire that dressed everyone from Audrey Hepburn to Gwyneth Paltrow.

Wintour armors herself with sunglasses, and Valentino takes refuge behind an oaken tan and coiffed dyed-brown hair, suggesting that a little sphinxlike detachment is necessary when arbitrating style. After all, billions of dollars are at stake. In an uncomfortable moment in The September Issue, Wintour looks over a new collection from Yves Saint Laurent and tells the line’s designer, “I don’t see any real evening on that rack.” Such a withering comment from Wintour can ruin a designer’s day, if not career. Though it’s hard to imagine Valentino ever being so vulnerable, Last Emperor shows him just before his retirement, edged out because corporations have snapped up the European fashion houses. For Wintour and Valentino, it’s not all about the money. While they deal in exorbitant commodities, it’s clear they take pleasure in the serious business of making the world glamorous.

Valentino: The Last Emperor  (Matt Tyrnauer (dir.) | film | 2008)
to  Unzipped  (Douglas Keeve (dir.) | film | 1995)

Designers Valentino Garavani and Isaac Mizrahi both turn Hollywood fantasy into high fashion. In Valentino: The Last Emperor, regal Valentino shuttles between his château outside Paris and palazzo in Rome by private jet, often accompanied by his six pugs. But his approach to design is decidedly pragmatic: He wants to create clothes that women will actually wear. Valentino’s clients have included Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, princesses and movie stars, who have gladly slipped into extravagant hand-sewn gowns, often in the designer’s signature scarlet. Valentino claims he dreamed of making women look beautiful ever since he spent his idle teenage hours watching screen goddesses of the 1930s and ’40s.

Mizrahi is at home on the grimy downtown streets of New York City but is every bit as exuberant as Valentino. In Unzipped, Mizrahi becomes obsessed with fur while watching the 1922 silent film Nanook of the North. Scenes of the frozen tundra make him think of a fur jumpsuit, perfect for dog walking on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The astute Mizrahi puts the tongue-in-cheek notion into practice and creates a line of extravagantly colored fake-fur jackets that wows the fashion elite during a runway show.

Valentino: The Last Emperor  (Matt Tyrnauer (dir.) | film | 2008)
to  Coco Before Chanel  (Anne Fontaine (dir.) | film | 2009)

When Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel died in 1971, she was one of the wealthiest women in the world, living at the Ritz in Paris and famous for her fragrances and classic fashion. The emphasis of Coco Before Chanel is on “before,” and the film follows the young orphan to her emergence—with the help of some aristocratic friends—into the Paris fashion world in 1909. “After Chanel” may be the better story—her huge success in the 1920s and ’30s, alleged affair with a Nazi officer during the war, self-imposed exile in Switzerland and career revival in the 1950s. Coco Before Chanel only hints at all this, closing with the designer sitting on a staircase, wearing a beautiful suit of her own creation, surrounded by her elegantly clad models. Valentino: The Last Emperor shows another European style icon at the height of his fame, just before his retirement in 2007. The film ends with Valentino’s swan song: a three-day blowout in Rome that culminated with gowned high-flying ballerinas floating in front of the Colosseum, tossing flowers to the crowd below. It’s over the top, but as Chanel once said, “You live but once; you might as well be amusing.”