Fransk mote på film

Gjestekurator Johanna Zanon skriver om hvordan fransk mote har preget filmhistorien. Vi viser i alt elleve filmer i denne serien, både ordinære visninger og barnevisninger.

Bette Davis i Fashions of 1934.

Bette Davis i Fashions of 1934.

Plotting French fashion

Fashion is everywhere. We all put on clothes every day. We use them to present our «self» to the world, as well as a tool, among many, to craft our individual identity. At the same time, fashion is an important part of the global economy, employs billions of people worldwide, and poses a massive challenge for sustainability as it is a particularly wasteful industry. In this fashion landscape, French fashion holds a special place in our collective imagination, as it is associated with both creativity and excess.

This movie cycle shows how French fashion has been depicted on screen over time through eleven films. It encompasses fictional films from the early days of cinema to the present day, and blends many different genres from romantic comedy to thriller. All these works present different aspects of the French fashion industry from production to distribution, promotion, and consumption. Film directors have integrated fashion to their narratives, instrumentalizing it for dramatic effect, using to build characters and atmospheres, and, last but not least, move the plot along. They have, in short, plotted French fashion!

The fashion designer

Since the birth of Parisian haute couture in the mid-19th century, the fashion designer has emerged as a charismatic figure of the fashion system. He or she embodies fashion innovation in the eyes of the consumer, a phenomenon called the «personification of fashion». The figure of the designer is ubiquitous in films about fashion. Yet designers’ depiction on screen is often stereotypical: they are dictators of fashion and tormented geniuses, epitomized by the self-absorbed couturier in Falbalas (1945). In contrast to this trope, Scandale aux Champs-Élysées, a 1949 thriller, provides a more nuanced depiction of the couturier’s profession. This likely stems from the fact that Jacques Fath, one of the most successful couturiers in the post-war years, plays the dressmaker Monsieur Thierry. The movie, shot in his couture salons at 39, Rue Pierre Ier de Serbie, offers a look behind the scenes of his couture business, showing the dressmaker as a collaborator rather than a dictator.

Recently, fashion designers have inspired cinematic biographies, with three biopics on Coco Chanel (one in 2008 and two in 2009), and two on Yves Saint Laurent (both in 2014). By scrutinizing the lives of fashion designers, the biopic genre shows these individuals’ complexity, the specificities of their professional paths, and their struggles. Coco avant Chanel / Coco før Chanel portrays the formative years of Gabrielle Chanel (played by Audrey Tautou).

Collective and invisible fashion work

Biopics cement the idea that fashion is conceived by individual creators. In reality, however, fashion is the result of collective work that is organized in the couture workshops. In addition, and beyond the fashion house, many more players contribute to the creation of fashion from fabric manufacturers to lace makers, embroiderers, suppliers of feathers, artificial flowers, buttons, etc., often outsourced to precarious laborers.

Embroideries have employed many skilled, immigrant women, especially following the Armenian genocide in 1915-1916, and the Russian Revolution in 1917. Brodeuses, released in 2004, shows that the trend continues to this day. The film focuses on an Armenian embroiderer and her newly appointed apprentice, who create awe-inspiring decorations at their home in rural France. No matter how invisible in the eye of the public, their work is essential to the creation of Parisian haute couture collections.

Promoting fashion through film

Haute couture houses have historically relied on singers and actresses, first in theatre and then film, to advertize their creations. During the Belle Époque in Paris, performers like Lucille in the animé Un monstre à Paris / Skjønnheten og monsteret i Paris ( (2011) acted as early day brand ambassadors. In addition to the favorable presentation of garments, the association with stars and celebrities has helped couture houses to build their brand image.

Some movies have made a lasting impression in that respect. La piscine / Svømmebassenget (1969), with its elegant clothes exuding glamour and timelessness, contributed to the renown of fashion designer André Courrèges. The trapeze-shaped dress he designed for Romy Schneider not only reflects her self-confidence and womanhood, but is also one of Courrèges’ signature designs. Meanwhile, Jane Birkin (who plays the adolescent Penelope) is dressed in tiny crochet dresses, a different take on the miniskirt. Similarly, the James Bond film A View to a Kill (1985) brought fame to Paris-based couturier Azzedine Alaïa, who dressed the Jamaican singer and icon Grace Jones, the villain’s hired gun of this 007 installment. Alaïa, a proponent of diversity in fashion, continued to collaborate with Jones, who was also his muse and favorite model.

Conversely, film costumes have influenced haute couture designs. Jean Paul Gaultier drew inspiration from Marc Caro’s character sketches of La cité des enfants perdus / De fortapte barns by in 1982 to design the original costumes for the film. His costumes echoed the blend of spectacular yet «perversely functional» displays often found in his couture collections. In turn, the steampunk universe of La cité des enfants perdus influenced his aesthetic research.

Motedesigner som syr.

Scene fra Coco før Chanel (2009).

Plakat fra filmen Scandale aux Champs-Élysées

Plakat for Scandale aux Champs-Élysées (1949).


Scene fra Brodeuses (2004).

A View To a Kill.

Grace Jones i André Courrèges i A View To a Kill (1985).

Jente i strikkegenser.

Scene fra De fortapte barns by (1995).

Kvinne i vakker aftenkjole står i en trapp.

Scene fra Funny Face (1957).

Paris versus New York

Paris was long considered the capital of creative fashion, while New York the capital of garment manufacturing. Parisian haute couture was a cosmopolitan industry from the start, catering to the international elite of wealthy French, Americans, Argentinians, Germans… It also sold fashion designs to foreign professional buyers, who would then resell them to manufacturers and department stores in their countries, making Parisian fashion available to a broad audience. The rivalry between the two cities intensified from the First World War onwards as New York tried to become a fashion creation center in its own right.

The musical drama Fashions of 1934 delves into many crucial issues of the transatlantic fashion trade in the interwar years, highlighting its ambiguities with regard to exclusivity vs. mass-availability, and originality vs. copy. The main character, fashion entrepreneur Sherwood Nash deceives both his New York counterparts and the Paris-based couturier Oscar Baroque. He either copies the latest Parisian designs and sells them as his own creations or pretends that his products are the hottest trends from the Rue de la Paix. His murky business is a lens through which we can look at the power dynamics in the fashion system.

In the post-war era, New York had consolidated its position as a center of fashion creation. Nevertheless, the trip to Paris remained a staple of American films from Funny Face (1957) to The Devil Wears Prada (2006). These movies suggest that one needs to make it in Paris to get recognition in fashion.

Satirizing high fashion

Considering the competition between Paris and New York, it should not come as a surprise that the critique of the French fashion system has come first and foremost from American film directors: Stanley Donen, who directed Funny Face, William Klein and his Qui Êtes-Vous Polly Maggoo? (1966), and Robert Altman, director of Prêt-à-Porter (1994). In Funny Face, bookish Jo Stockton (Audrey Hepburn) describes the fashion world as «chichi… an unrealistic approach to self-impressions as well as economics.» Blending footage from actual catwalk shows and fictitious ones, Prêt-à-Porter portrays a fashion system that has become indistinguishable from its own parody, as fashion scholar Stella Bruzzi argues.

It is true that fashion lends itself easily to satire, as it is seemingly vacuous, artificial, and excessive, populated by colorful yet uncritical characters. However, even these films, which are presented as ferocious satires of the fashion world, cannot help but subvert the genre. They end up giving a more complex ‒ and more interesting ‒ account of fashion. For instance, in Funny Face, the traditional hierarchy between philosophy and fashion is inverted, when a young woman interested in «Empathicalism», a fictitious relative of existentialism, discovers there is more to fashion ‒ and less to philosophy ‒ than she previously thought.

Together, the eleven films of this cycle unveil a multi-faceted French fashion industry. They show a rich and nuanced picture of the French fashion system, its actors, and its power structures in the global fashion trade. Undoubtedly, the film industry will continue to find inspiration in the many contradictions, tensions, and dichotomies of the fashion industry…

Mann beundrer kvinne i hans motekreasjon.

Scene i Scandale aux Champs-Élysées (1949).