A Walk Down the Runway of Fashion Films

October 9, 2018 | By Michelle Weth

Fashion is an integral part of society, and one of its biggest impacts is on the film industry. At award shows, there are sections dedicated to costuming, as fashion is a huge aspect of visual storytelling. Fashion in films can not only start trends, but can become part of mainstream culture in its own right. In honor of all of the recent fashion weeks and A-list flicks, here is a list of four films about the fashion industry in both its past and present iterations.

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Phantom Thread

A period drama set in London’s couture fashion world in 1954, “Phantom Thread” is about the complex relationship between a fastidious, well-established dressmaker and his muse. Reynolds Woodcock, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, is a couturier known for his beautiful designs. His sister Cyril, played by Lesley Manville, runs the operations of the business and has significant influence over his life. Woodcock meets a waitress, Alma,Vicky Krieps, and decides to invite her out for dinner. During their first date, Reynolds starts imposing his domineering fashion and style values on Alma by removing her makeup and having their date devolve into a fitting. Their relationship becomes marked by Reynolds’s desire to control Alma’s choices, especially those involving fashion. During the time period the movie was set in, clothing said a lot about a person’s status, a sentiment that continues into the present. After all, only rich women were able to afford couture clothing, since price points had to accommodate the labor and customization required for such spectacular creations. And while the film may focus on Reynolds, it also includes the female seamstresses necessary to bring his designs to life. Alma, as his muse, desires far more than Reynolds gives her. Dedicated to his work, Alma becomes jealous of the dresses themselves, as he only pays attention to her when she wears them.  Throughout the film, Reynolds’s dresses become works of art designed to be admired, and the beautiful cinematography captures the amount of dedication he put into creating his pieces. 


The Devil Wears Prada

No list about fashion in films could be complete without this movie. The Devil Wears Prada stands the test of time with a star-studded cast of Anne Hathaway as Andy Sachs, Meryl Streep as Miranda Priestly, Emily Blunt as Miranda’s assistant Emily Charleston, and Adrian Grenier as Andy’s hipster boyfriend Nate. Andy went to Northwestern to study journalism, but couldn’t find any appropriate journalism jobs in New York and thus applied for a position as Miranda’s assistant at Runway Magazine. Of course, Runway Magazine acts as a proxy for Vogue Magazine and Miranda as a proxy for Anna Wintour. The film makes us confront our own perceptions about fashion, and what appearances say about people. As someone who received her degree in journalism, Andy disregards the fashion industry in favor of what she perceives to be “serious journalism.” Thus, she looks at fashion as something that is absurd and frivolous, completely disregarding the amount of thought that is put into the industry and ultimately showing her disdain for her job. As she spends more time in the office, she starts to assimilate into the office culture, which does wonders for her career but takes a toll on her relationship. This film takes a great look at the emotional labor that happens behind the scenes in the fashion industry, and normalizes that behavior due to the film’s most iconic phrase: “A million girls would kill for that job,” demonstrating that everyone is expendable unless proven otherwise. Furthermore, networking and appearance heavily impact the way someone is treated in the industry. In the end, Andy  leaves the fashion industry after realizing that she was slowly becoming callous, and seeing a potential future in Miranda, when one prioritizes career and appearances over personal relationships. All in all, a solid film that delves deep into the fashion and publishing industry, giving us a fictionalized insider account of the behind-the-scenes.


Coco Before Chanel

Audrey Tautou stuns as a young Gabrielle (Coco) Chanel in an embellished biographical film about the fashion designer's life. Gabrielle Chanel and her sister, Adrienne, were abandoned in an orphanage by their father. While life was strict under the watch of the nuns taking care of the orphanage, this is where both sisters learned to sew. As they grew older, they became seamstresses by day and sang at night in a cabaret frequented by cavalry officers. This is where Adrienne met a baron and Gabrielle met a wealthy heir, Etienne Balsan, played by Benoît Poelvoorde. Etienne is also the one who gave Coco her nickname (based on a song they sang). Later, she meets Balsan’s friend Arthur “Boy” Capel, an English businessman who sold coal and became her lover. He inspired many of her personal clothing choices before she started her fashion house, as she modified many of his dress shirts to fit her. This was a revolutionary move, as women at the time were expected to wear corsets. Coco prioritized comfort above all else and believed that a soft silhouette could be more seductive than a structured one. Due to Boy’s encouragement, Coco was able to open a millinery (hat shop) selling minimalistic yet elegant hats to rich women, which brought her joy and some financial independence. Unfortunately, Boy died in a car accident, which was the catalyst for Coco to start designing clothes for women. One of the last shots of the film showcases many iconic looks from the Chanel brand, including Coco wearing the Chanel tweed suit. Fashion may not have been Coco’s original goal in life, but her contributions to the fashion industry are indisputable. From an artistic standpoint, Coco used her grief to designer, showing that fashion can be transformative not only for the wearer but for the dressmaker as well.


The Neon Demon

A horror film surrounding the modelling industry, this film takes a deeper look into beauty and youth. Elle Fanning is stunning as Jesse, a doe-eyed model who is new to Los Angeles and the modelling scene. She meets makeup artist Ruby (played by Jena Malone) at an amateur photo shoot, getting dragged along to a party and meeting Ruby’s model friends Sarah (played by Abbey Lee)  and Gigi (played by Bella Heathcote). Jesse’s youth and beauty turns heads, causing her to be cast in a fashion show that Sarah also auditioned for, with Sarah being passed over. Gigi is included in the final lineup for the show, and Jesse closes the show. At the after-show dinner the designer of the fashion show, Sarno (played by Alessandro Nivola), mocks Gigi’s plastic surgery. He states that manufactured beauty is just a knockoff of true beauty and that true beauty is the only form of currency. This statement is extremely problematic, in that men like Sarno are the ones who are dictating what true beauty is, and upholding an industry that causes so much insecurity in people. To note, Gigi admitted that she got her plastic surgeries for her modelling career. In this case, beauty goes hand in hand with fashion. The models have to have a certain body type in order to be proper hanging racks for the clothing, but also have to be beautiful to elevate the societal value of the garment. The film delves into who fashion designers choose to showcase their garments, and examines the industry’s toxic relationship with its models. Jesse is an underage sixteen-year-old and encouraged to lie about her age to get jobs. Ageism is huge within the modelling industry, with many models being replaced by younger girls. Not to mention the toxic assumption that older models have, implying that younger models are only advancing due to casting couches. While the film’s twist is entirely unrealistic, the beauty and fashion featured throughout sets an entirely enjoyable aesthetic that plays on our expectations of neon.