Since the earliest days of the cinema, fashion has been an integral part of the movies. As soon as there were movie stars, there were costumes, and the movie business and the fashion industry have long enjoyed a reciprocal arrangement of shared glamour as costume designers and fashion mavens clothed leading men and ladies. Films about fashion are another matter: periodically in style, but often disappointing. It seems strange, but these two creative fields – both of which answer to the auteur theory – often fail to click. There are exceptions, whether dramatic or documentary, so with the couture biopic Yves Saint Laurent arriving in cinemas, here are eight previous films that have the right measurements when it comes to cinema screens.
Funny Face (1957)
With one suitably stunning outfit after another by the celebrated Hollywood costume designer Edith Head, Stanley Donen’s terrific musical defines the uptown chic versus downtown disdain that’s become a staple of the fashion discourse. Fred Astaire is Dick Avery (based on Richard Avedon, who served as consultant), a fashion photographer who sweeps a bohemian bookstore clerk, Audrey Hepburn’s Jo, off to Paris and transforms her into the season’s It girl. Comic complications, include romance, ensue. Avery’s outrageous editor, Kay Thompson’s Maggie Prescott, was inspired by Harper’s Bazaar queen Diana Vreeland, who completed the fashionable circle more than 50 years later (see below).
The disaffected fashion professional has almost become an archetype in the movies, and it essentially stems from Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 visit to swinging London, where the social hubbub and commercial hum didn’t fool the master of austere introspection. David Hemmings’ fashion photographer is frustrated by his work and lifestyle, jettisoning shoots in a search for something real, which may turn out to be a deception involving a murder. Sixties supermodel Veruschka poses for him, but the film returns to alienation and the danger of becoming emotionally invested. And eventually, of course, it also gave us Austin Powers. Insert your catchphrase and/or impersonation here.
Notebook on Cities and Clothes (1989)
One day the realisation is going to sink in that some of Wim Wenders best work is in the documentary discipline. As 2011’s 3D dance documentary Pina uncovered much about the life of the late German choreographer Pina Bausch, this 1989 exploration of the celebrated Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto proved to be an unlikely meditation. Wenders reportedly scoffed at the idea initially, but in his subject’s sombre, arresting work he found a creative voice to compare to his own, with discussions that range across the creative process, the strange milieu Yamamoto must inhabit as a show approaches, visual rhapsodies that traverse Tokyo and Paris, and the trustworthiness of imagery in the then video age.
The comedy that launched a still enduring collection of catchphrases – “so hot right now”, “Blue Steel” – and ludicrous trends in posing for pictures that have become dangerously mainstream in the selfie era, Ben Stiller’s antic comedy follows a really, really good looking and really, really dumb male model, Derek Zoolander, whose career crisis is subsumed by a plot to kill the reformist Prime Minister of Malaysia. The film is full of spot-on cameos and hilarious lines, with Owen Wilson’s Hansel, the rival to Stiller’s Zoolander, perfectly capturing the surfer boy disregard for what the industry is actually about. Bonus points for Will Ferrell’s Mogatu, an evil designer who may or may not be a nod to Karl Lagerfeld.
The Devil Wears of Prada (2006)
A liberal adaptation of Lauren Weisberger’s roman à clef about her time as the personal assistant to American Vogue editor Anna Wintour, David Frankel’s romantic career comedy turned the fact into legend, softening the view of the fashion-industrial complex by arching an eyebrow and re-stitching the condemnation. Anne Hathaway’s Andy Sachs is the journalism graduate who becomes an unlikely assistant to Meryl Streep’s coolly imperious editrix Miranda Priestley, becoming seduced by the proximity to power and becoming a desperate “clacker” (stiletto wearer) playing the game. The best pure fashion moment? The cerulean lecture, where Miranda explains to a sniggering Andy why the smallest choice of which two belts to include as an accessory in a fashion shoot actually matters.
The September Issue (2009)
Notionally about the production of American Vogue’s annual blockbuster edition, R.J. Cutler’s incisive documentary explores the contrasting dynamic of the two women driving the issue: coldly inscrutable editor Anna “Nuclear” Wintour and mercurial creative director and former model Grace Coddington. Within their joint alchemy, a distinct study in diametrically opposite styles that unfolds largely at a removed distance, resides the divining of fashion’s next trend or celebrated young designer. Perhaps stung by The Devil Wears Prada, Wintour has been accessible in documentaries in recent years, but her guarded presence is overwhelmed by Coddington, whose enthusiasm and eye for detail combine to make the selection, presentation and photography of very expensive clothes into something akin to an act of faith.
Bill Cunningham New York (2010)
Towards the end of this charming but deceptively robust documentary, a security hitch leaves veteran New York fashion photographer Bill Cunningham stranded outside a Parisian catwalk show. A staffer literally runs out to escort the octogenarian New York Times snapper inside, explaining that “this is the most important man in the world”. Hyperbole rules in fashion, but maybe they’re right. Snapping on the streets and at parties, which he reaches via bicycle, Cunningham has traced – and divined – fashion’s evolution for decades now, creating a viewpoint of what we wear that belies his humble demeanour. Cunningham literally lives for his work – “who needs a kitchen?” he asks at one point – and he talks about clothes with a passion that is revelatory.
Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel (2011)
“Fashion is a way of life,” declares Diana Vreeland, who lived to make pronouncements, in this first-rate documentary about an icon of the editorial ranks. With a persona defined by her jet black hair and chicly colourful wardrobe, Vreeland graduated from Vogue to the top job at Harper’s Bazaar, where she helmed the reinvention of fashion photography for multiple generations; Vreeland introduced Lauren Bacall and Twiggy to popular culture. Her admirers, including prominent fashionistas, remember a larger than life woman who survived a privileged but unhappy childhood, only to create an image of the modern American woman – independent, stylish, sexually assured – that eventually left the page and became reality.