Girls on Film

The lights recede, the soundtrack kicks in and the images dance across our eyes — shapes, colours, textures at once startling and strangely familiar. Is it a fashion show or a half-forgotten movie projected from somewhere within our pop subconscious? In an era when so much of fashion is retrofitted style reimagined for the now, you only need look at this year’s runway collections to see how cinema — which has always existed in its own time and space — has resonated with many designers. When Marc Jacobs unveiled his Fall range, the ’30s-via-the ’80s silhouettes on the catwalk weren’t simply influenced by the arch glamour of fascist Europe; they were drawn directly from the classic art films Il Conformista and Last Year At Marienbad. As Jacobs once said: “He who insists on their own creativity has no memory.”

There’s always been a relationship between fashion and film costume design, of course. Givenchy dressed Audrey Hepburn for Sabrina. Yves Saint Laurent designed outfits for his muse Catherine Deneuve in Belle de Jour. Ralph Lauren lent his signature touch to Diane Keaton’s East Coast neurotic in Annie Hall. Celebrated costume designer Milena Canonero would draw upon the high court of renaissance fashion for her exquisite work on Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon and Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette.  And at the other end of the spectrum, who could forget Gaultier’s outlandish couture for sci-fi comic The Fifth Element? But what of the cult movies — from micro-budget miscreants to lavishly oblique sci-fi — could fashion designers now be looking to cinema’s fringe for inspiration?

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“It’s a mutant look — mutant fashion,” cult director John Waters mused of his films’ Baltimore eccentrics, whose shock ensembles comprised thrifted oddities, cutesy nostalgia and outright sleaze. Following a trail blazed by fellow outré auteur Russ Meyer (with his sexually aggressive vamps in Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!), Waters films like Pink Flamingos and Desperate Living staged a trash fashion aesthetic that ranged from the hot pink slips worn by Divine to the deceptively square good girls of Hairspray.

Ironically, Waters’ long time costume designer Van Smith had gone from a high fashion job at Women’s Wear Daily to scouring clothing dumpsters for his films’ outfits. When Comme des Garçons ‘ Rei Kawakubo recently asked Waters to model for her, things came full circle — the Pope of Trash was now the (clown) Prince of the Catwalk and the cult had gone couture.

Alongside Waters and the so-called “midnight movies” like the stylised monster–glam camp of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, another sub-genre of cult films had taken the DIY trash manifesto and turned it into a movement: punk. Borrowing from society’s seamier crevices, Vivienne Westwood was punk’s most crucial link to the fashion design world and her style both feeds into and off films like Jubilee, The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle and Sid And Nancy. Punk films cultivated influential styles in the US, too, from the bright-n-tight primary stripes of Ramones vehicle Rock ‘n’ Roll High School and the proto-riot grrl looks of Ladies And Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains to the LA trash of Repo Man and the eclectic, layered pop version worn by Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan.

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If punk was smoking in the toilet of cult film’s high school, then its sworn enemy was teen prep — the conservative girls of American Graffiti and Back To The Future — and the ’80s yuppie — think Jami Gertz in Less Than Zero, Chloë Sevigny in American Psycho… anything with James Spader’s hair. Unless, that is, the headmaster happened to be John Hughes. In Hughes’ teen cliques punk, new romantic and yuppies mixed in high schools that existed only in your dreams, where preppy wiseasses like Ferris Bueller and his girlfriend Sloane, with her high-waisted shorts, stiff shoulder-pad tassle jacket and Wayfarers, became a kind of inverse cool.

Marc by Marc Jacobs typifies the preppy super-cute look: check coats, knits and stripes, along with Anna Molinari’s blush pinks, knitted cardigans and puffy-sleeved shirts. Prada, too, have returned to the coats that might have been worn by the schoolgirls in Heavenly Creatures, while Hilfiger similarly offered tartan, toggle coats and tweed pinafores.

Where Hughes’ films portrayed a teen utopia with styles living side-by-side, other cult movies set out to deliberately subvert such make-believe. The cult teen movie du jour, Heathers was the sour antidote to high school’s hierarchy, and its clothing put a twisted spin on the power-mad dressing of ’80s snobbery. It’s all very Chanel and Lacoste gone wrong: exaggerated plaid blazers, power skirts and croquet mallets ready to tear the social pecking order; a look that’s surfaced in Phillip Lim and Luella, amongst others (okay, maybe sans mallet).

The melancholy underside these cartoonish cult film personae lies in the dark, repressed suburbia of pastels and tree-lined cul-de-sacs. Like Winona Ryder’s washed-out doll in Edward Scissorhands or the soft-focus, sunlit dresses of the Lisbon girls in The Virgin Suicides, suburban boredom is the hazy resignation of the cult movie outsider. These ethereal shapes echo in Erin Fetherston’s Fall collection, itself drawn from a turn-of-the-century space romance from Georges Méliès called The Eclipse.

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Nothing ages faster than movies’ visions of the future, so it’s odd that perhaps no other cult genre has been more of an enduring touchstone for the fashion designers of tomorrow than science fiction.  Both Christopher Kane and Lagerfeld proved the future is a place designers love to go back to, with military cut jackets, fishnets and neon nods to cyberpunk; not to mention Gareth Pugh’s freaky spaced oddities or Thierry Mugler’s typical Jane Fonda-in-Barbarella pieces. Luella’s black-and-white dresses nod to Anna Karina’s emotionless cipher in Alphaville; while Viktor and Rolf’s wire-bound girl-puppets possessed all the fragility of Japanese Manga heroines. And locally, Cybele and Tina Kavalis’ neon-plastic outfits wouldn’t have looked out of place inside the mainframe of Tron.

We’re living in a plastic age and “More human than human” is the motto. As Miuccia Prada remarked: “On videos and TV all of the women look fake. I wanted to show this plasticized vision, but filtered through classic pieces.” In this sense it’s Blade Runner, with its precocious fusion of state-of-the-art deco, future noir and cyberpunk that remains the most fertile cult film dystopia for design influence. The bold shapes of Sean Young’s old school glamour android (think Galliano Dior) and the downtown trash punk-chic of Daryl Hannah’s basic pleasure model have inspired runway looks time-and-again.  Seems everyone’s still looking back to go forward.

May 2007

Originally published in RUSSH

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