With the advancement of film technology, movies became an untapped resource, from which designers could not only market and sell their fashions, but also from which they could attach a certain cache and iconography from the film to their clothing. The costumes these designers made for the blockbuster films of their day have gone on to have a lifespan and impact that surpasses that of the movie itself. The costumes have become societal and cultural reference points that embody a time, feeling, and aesthetic for an entire generation. Fashion designers in film demonstrate the power clothing has not only to transcend styles and eras, but also to transport the wearer and allow him or her to step outside the quotidian.
The meeting and subsequent friendship between Hubert de Givenchy and Audrey Hepburn is one of fashion’s greatest and most influential stories. The pair first met in 1953 during the filming of Sabrina. Givenchy had just opened his first store in Paris and was already competing with major designers of the time such as Christian Dior. Givenchy had trained under his friend and mentor Cristobal Balenciaga before working under Lucien Lelong and Elsa Schiaparelli. Hepburn said of her friend, “Balenciaga once said the secret of elegance is elimination. I believe that. That’s why I love Hubert Givenchy… They’re clothes without ornament, with everything stripped away.” Although Givenchy created all of the incredible evening gowns in Sabrina, the Oscar was given to the legendary costume designer Edith Head who was responsible for the plainclothes looks in the movie. Givenchy was left without any credit, and although he was unperturbed, Hepburn made sure that he would receive the recognition she believed he deserved. The two went on to work together on Funny Face as well as the unforgettable Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Givenchy was responsible for the film’s iconic black sheath evening gown. Givenchy’s simple, timeless designs for Hepburn spawned a craze for the Little Black Dress that still dominates fashion to this day. Hepburn told reporters in 1956, “His are the only clothes in which I am myself.” Together Givenchy and Hepburn created a mode of style and a level of iconicity that is still unrivaled to this day.
Givenchy was not the only designer who saw the growing power these young film starlets had in shaping the world of fashion. Yves Saint Laurent, who was just beginning to make a name for himself in the sixties with his new, eponymous store, also started working in film. The French designer lent his superb understanding of the sixties silhouette to films such as The Pink Panther and Arabesque. However, it was his collaboration with the young actress Catherine Deneuve on the set of Belle de Jour that rocketed Saint Laurent’s career to a level of international recognition. Much like Givenchy and Hepburn, the two developed an intimate friendship, working together on a number of films over the decades, including La Chamade, Mississippi Mermaid, Liza, Un flic, and The Hunger. The outfits Saint Laurent created for Deneuve in Belle du Jour continue to be some of the most celebrated and referenced looks in fashion. Saint Laurent’s crisply tailored, minimalist coats and dresses embody the image of the perfect Parisian girl in the late 60s. In the film, Deneuve’s character puts on the façade of being a wholesome wife, when in fact, at night she doubles as the sensuous employee of a brothel. The film is considered to be one of the most seductive movies of all time, and surely the contrast between Deneuve’s skimpy lingerie and her immaculately put together, effortlessly cool daytime ensembles only serves to highlight and enhance the beauty of Saint Laurent’s clean designs.
Woody Allen’s Annie Hall defined 1970s style and continues to influence women’s fashion today. This is evident in all the ‘menswear as women’s wear’ collections that came down the runways this spring in Milan. Diane Keaton’s Annie Hall is a fashion inspiration and icon, who manages to be both casually disheveled and perfectly put together in a way that is one hundred percent original. Although Ralph Lauren is both credited and takes credit for the Annie Hall look that re-defined women’s fashion, the style is actually more accurately attributed to costume designer Ruth Morley as well as Diane Keaton—whose personal style deeply influenced the film. The reason for the Lauren misconception is that Keaton wears a tuxedo jacket and blazer by the designer and Allen wears a number of his jackets. Although Lauren isn’t quite as responsible for Annie Hall’s aesthetic as he would like viewers to believe, it is undeniable that his clothing and designs, particularly from the late 70s, embody that same androgynous, mysterious quality of Hall’s that viewers still long so desperately to capture.
This wasn’t the first time, however, that Lauren was involved in a mis-credited costume dispute. In 1974, before his involvement in Annie Hall, Lauren took credit for the costumes worn by Robert Redford and the male cast of The Great Gatsby. The costume designer Theoni Aldridge actually sued Lauren, claiming that all he did was craft her own designs. Whether Ralph Lauren actually designed these costumes or not is irrelevant. It is clear that his sense of design permeates both these films whether the clothes actually come from him or not. Lauren’s vision of tailored menswear and 70s Americana lent to the costumes in both these films a timelessness and strength that have carried them into modern times.
Patricia Field is now a household name, but only a select few knew of the fashion designer’s work before Sarah Jessica Parker hand- picked her to be the costume designer behind the fashion-driven HBO smash hit, Sex and the City. Field’s designs and sense of style, as embodied in the four sartorially distinct leading ladies of SATC, immediately sent the fashion world into a tizzy. Bradshaw’s high-end designer closet inspired city and country girls alike to run to department stores to snap up the latest Manolo Blahnik stilettos, Fendi baguettes, and cheesy nameplate necklaces. But aside from the labels, Carrie and her friends became fashion icons, representative of all the different types of young women in the big city trying to find their way. Through her characters, Field introduced trends such as oversized flower brooches, underwear as outerwear, and single-handedly made sequins a perfectly acceptable choice for daytime. For her work on Sex and the City, Field won an Emmy and four Costume Designers Guild awards. The successes of the TV show carried over to film, where Field did the costume design for both the Sex and the City feature film and the sequel. On the big screen, Field was given a chance to showcase the women’s characteristic senses of fashion and create cinematic ensembles worthy of her four leading ladies. Through Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte, and Miranda, Patricia Field gave a generation more than just fashion icons, she imbued her characters with a sense of fun and freedom more covetable than any pair of Manolos.
One of the most incredible and talked about collaborations between a fashion designer and a film in recent years would have to be Rodarte’s costumes for the film Black Swan. Natalie Portman, who stars in the film, chose her good friends, sisters Kate and Laura Mulleavy, who together form Rodarte, to help bring out the psychological torment her character experiences, and infuse it into the ballet costumes. Portman’s spectacular costumes on stage are meant to represent her character’s precarious mental state and the fine line she walks between excellence and obsession. Rodarte clearly shines through every costume, with their intense attention to detail and interest in combining darkness with beauty. Unlike Ralph Lauren, the Mulleavy sisters received no credit or critical acclaim for the designs they created. Not only were they not nominated for an Oscar for Best Costume Design, but they were also forgotten at the Costume Design Guild awards. However, Amy Westcott, the credited costume designer for Black Swan who was responsible for Portman’s plain clothes looks, took home an award for Excellence in Contemporary Film. Westcott has also been very outspoken about the unfairness of the media attention Rodarte received for their designs, when, according to her, they actually contributed very little to the film.
From Givenchy up to today, fashion designers have collaborated with filmmakers to create exclusive and inspirational pieces as well as costume wardrobes that have captivated audiences and added to the visual drama of the productions. These collaborations have proven time and again to be mutually beneficial for both the designer and the director, and have, in recent years seen an exuberant revival after decades of dormancy. The one-of-a-kind pieces created for a specific character transcend couture fashion and the technical aspects of design by adopting their own metanarrative, or story about a story. They are the ‘looks’ that evolve to become defining factors in how a film or TV series is experienced and remembered by its audience. In coming full circle, said movies and shows, often because of these outstanding designs— a memorable dress, tutu, hat or shoe line even—in turn shape years of fashion to come. To that end, designers play an important role in the history of cinema, even if they don’t receive due credit from the industry itself. Their work is memorialized not just by the ensuing iconic imagery from the film in which it’s showcased, but also by the generations of trends that are inspired by it. The talent behind these works will be judged in the long-run not necessarily by technical expertise, but by how extraordinary and momentous a single outfit can be in shaping the imagination of the public.
Article by Emily Kirkpatrick for The Untitled Magazine “Cinema” Issue 5
Copy Editor Marianne White