David Lynch and the genre of Fashion Film

One of the most exciting fashion films produced in the past years, is David Lynch’s promotion motion picture “Lady Blue Shanghai” produced 2010 and starring Marion Cotillard. Dior, responsible for the financing of the film imposed only three conditions: the Dior bag, the Oriental Pearl Tower in Shanghai and parts of old Shanghai should be featured in the short film, (Berra, 2012).

 Photo Source: kurvmag.com

Photo Source: kurvmag.com

Although Lynch is a recognised auteur, whose signature style and techniques were unmistakable in Lady Blue Shanghai, a big discussion whether it is a commercial or a short film have begun. It was argued, that it is not a fashion film “due to its status as a narrative piece that utilises many of director’s signature techniques and tropes”, (Berra, 2012: 234). It was also argued that although Marion Cotillard has a leading role, the actual protagonist of the short is the Lady Dior Bag, in terms of narrative and brand promotion: “The branded product becomes a central character that undergoes a transformation from a source of anxiety to a fetish object that replaces Cotillard’s love interest”, (Berry, 2012). Lynch himself describes his work as belonging to an ‘in-­‐between’ artistic space: “This falls between a regular film and a commercial”, (Copping, 2010). Finally, examining the short film, John Berra (2012) suggests that this collaboration resulting in Lady Blue Shanghai represents a “convergence between the artist and brand, achieving product recognition through the appropriation of Lynch’s trademark techniques”, (Berra, 2012: 246).

As we know today, there are different kinds of fashion films, such as “Sex and the City” or “The Devil wears Prada” – which due to their length, can be portrayed as feature films. Nevertheless, all of them have one thing in common: fashion is their central theme. Putting the discussions aside, about whether it is a feature, short or promotion film, let’s have a look on the emergence of the fashion film as such.

The first fashion film can be identified in the early years of the cinema around 1909 to 1918. The short fashion show films simply offered a display of gowns. Later on short films it would include a narrative built around the mere showing of the dresses. This type of fashion newsreel, including a narrative lasted into the late 1930s, (Herzog, 1990; Leese, 1976).

At the same time, haute couture found a way to be a part of the new entertainment business, as MGM offered a contract to Coco Chanel in 1931. What Chanel contributed, was “the glamour of a name”, (Bruzzi, 1997: 3). This development, as we would see later in similar collaborations with Givenchy, Armani, Gaultier, etc., would question the use of clothes in films, as a simple contribution to the narrative. Chanel’s garments stood out and offered a spectacle, which would be recognised as “the prerogative of the couturier”, whereas “the overriding ethos of the costume designer is conversely to fabricate clothes which serve the purpose of the narrative”, (Bruzzi, 1997: 3).

Hollywood possessed the motion picture costumer’s code; its task was to find the right balance between the design and the dramatic text. This idea had to do with the  “primary  function  of  costuming  in  classical  realist  cinema  where  every element in the mise-­‐en-­‐scène – from painted backdrop to lighting cue – serves the higher purpose of the narrative”, (Gaines, 1990). Therefore, the duty of the clothes is to contribute to the narrative ideas, as its place is on the lower level of the hierarchy of screen discourses. However, in the 1930s and 1940s recruiting more couturiers, Hollywood contributed to a shift away from its own code, by reducing the gap between costume and couture fashion. Elsa Schiaparelli commented on this development, by saying “what Hollywood designs today, you will be wearing tomorrow”, (Haggard 1990: 6).

The ultimate collaboration between Hubert de Givenchy and Audrey Hepburn took the relationship of the couturier and the star to a completely new level, as the designer also dressed the actress off screen. The creation of the garment by the couturier clearly sought for the purpose of spectacle. In the films Sabrina and Funny Face, where the character of Audrey Hepburn undergoes a transformation à la Cinderella, the task allocation was simple: whereas the costume designer Edith Head had the responsibility to design pre-­‐transformation clothes, the couturier Givenchy was responsible for the unforgettable ball gowns with the Parisian chic factor. Thus, “Givenchy and other couturiers since have used films to showcase their designs”, (Bruzzi, 1997: 6).

For Peter Wollen this very spectacular gown is an artistic piece. He describes fashion as art as “good”, but only accepts extravagant designs as “art”, (Bruzzi, 1997). With his notion of fashion as art, he leans towards the idea, which Anne Hollander describes as following: “In the middle of the nineteenth century the French invented, fostered, and spread the idea of the dress designer as an original genius, like a painter – someone totally responsible for his creations”, (Hollander 1993: 351). Stella Bruzzi does not share Wollen’s view, criticising that in this way he excludes men’s film fashion and couture, dismissing  the works of designer like Giorgio Armani and Nino Cerrutti, who created “common” clothes, which still can be “items of display in cinema without being spectacularly extrovert”, (Bruzzi, 1997: 8). She goes on to criticise, that Wollen fails to understand “the double meaning of classic fashion, namely that even the least extravagant item of clothing is spectacular because it can be recognised as exclusive”, (Bruzzi, 1997: 25).

Unlike Armani and Cerrutti, most couturiers designed spectacular gowns, which were there to dominate the scenes. Their essence is to portray their own meaning. For the director Pedro Almodóvar the couturier’s gown is a chance to impose meaning within the story, giving the film the essence of a “very radical puzzle”, (Strauss 1996: 127). Again, the difference between the costume designer and a couturier is that the former are not “doing fashion – (they)’re doing characters, building energy, portraying a slice of life”, (Vance-­‐Straker 1191: 5). For the couturiers, however, it is a major concern to preserve their house look, as the costume designer Lindy Hemming (1994) states. “Designing for a film is, for a couturier, an ambiguous process of maintaining a balance between self-­‐ promotion and immersing the designs in the film”, (Bruzzi, 1997: 26).

To ridicule haute couture, Robert Altman created an interesting fashion film named Prèt-­‐à-­‐Porter. In focus, are the unwearable clothes of high fashion, with their impracticality underlined. Like Barthes and Bell, Altman “cannot see the point of fashion and is certainly not inclined to elevate it to the status of art”, (Bruzzi, 1997: 32). However, with Prèt-­‐à-­‐Porter, Altman unaware of what was to follow created a role model for later fashion films. He “set up a series of tropes which would come to characterise these later films: the appearance of real designers as themselves, the shots of their runway shows within the cinematic narrative, the appearance of recognisable supermodels and other fashion-­‐ friendly celebrities, the use of fashionable locations and settings, the interiors of well-­‐known shops and finally the centrality of luxury brand names and their now recognisable logos as reference points, even as character in their own right”, (Church-­‐Gibson, 2012: 84).

Films such as The Devil Wears Prada (2006), Confessions of a Shopaholic (2009) and Sex and the City: The Movie (2008) borrowed a lot from Prèt-­‐à-­‐Porter, with the only exception: their immense financial success. It seems the audience was not ripened for Altman’s film, not “as designer-­‐aware, or as fashion hungry (…).

It seems ironic that Altman, always proud of his outsider status, should have unknowingly created what could be described as a new genre”, (Church-­‐Gibson, 2012: 85).