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Fashion in Film: The Role of Clothing and Style in Cinematic Storytelling


More than just clothes, fashion in film is a big part of how stories get told on screen. Whether it’s a character in everyday clothes or a superhero in a flashy costume, what they wear can tell us a lot about who they are and what’s going on in the movie.

In this discussion, we’re going to talk about how fashion and storytelling go hand in hand in the world of cinema. We’ll look at how the clothes characters wear help us watch and understand them better, set the mood for scenes, and show us what life was like during different times and in different places.

What Is Fashion in Film?

Fashion in film refers to the way clothing and style are portrayed and utilised within movies to enhance storytelling, evoke emotions, and create visual impact. It’s not just about what characters wear but how their fashion statement reflects their personalities, backgrounds, and the overall cinematography.

In fashion films, whether they’re Hollywood blockbusters or independent productions, the costume collection is carefully curated to convey specific messages and immerse viewers in the world of the story. 

Costume designers play a crucial role in bringing these visions to life, collaborating closely with filmmakers to ensure that every outfit complements the characters and enhances the storytelling experience.

How Was Fashion Film in the Early Years

Fashion in Film - Audrey Hepburn

Fashion has always been important in movies, right from the early days of film.

Back in the 1930s and 1940s, Hollywood stars and fashion icons like Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe wowed audiences not just with their acting but also with their fabulous outfits, thanks to talented designers like Adrian and Edith Head.

In the 1960s and 1970s, as times changed, so did the films we watch. Films started showing a more rebellious style that mirrored what was happening in society. The people behind the scenes—like costume designers and directors—worked together to make sure the clothes helped tell the story just as much as the script did.

Why Is Clothing Important in Film?

Fashion in Film

Clothing plays a crucial role in a film for several reasons, each contributing to the overall storytelling experience and audience engagement.

Character Development

Clothing helps to establish the identity and personality of characters within a film. Whether it’s the sleek and sophisticated style of Audrey Hepburn in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” or the edgy avant-garde looks of characters in “The Fifth Element,” fashion choices provide visual cues that inform viewers about who the characters are and what they represent. 

Fashion designers like Jean Paul Gaultier and Vivienne Westwood collaborate closely with filmmakers to ensure that the costume collection accurately reflects the essence of the characters and their roles within the story.

Setting the Scene

Clothing also helps to establish the time, setting, and cultural context of a film. From the glamorous Hollywood films of the past to the gritty urban landscapes of contemporary films, fashion serves as a visual marker that transports viewers to different worlds and eras. 

Whether it’s the elegant haute couture gowns of the 1950s or the rebellious street style of the 1990s, costumes evoke specific periods and societal norms.

Mood and Atmosphere

The clothes worn by characters can also influence the mood and atmosphere of a film, setting the tone for individual scenes and shaping the overall cinematic experience. Whether it’s the romantic allure of a flowing gown or the ominous presence of a dark suit, fashion choices evoke emotions and create visual impact. 

Costume designers draw inspiration from the themes and directorial vision to create outfits that enhance the dramatic tension, heighten suspense, or add a touch of whimsy to the story.

Audience Connection

Fashion film not only engages audiences visually but also fosters a deeper emotional connection with the characters and storyline. Viewers are drawn to the characters’ outfits, identifying with their struggles, aspirations, and triumphs through their clothing choices. 

Whether it’s the aspirational allure of high fashion or the relatable authenticity of everyday attire, fashion resonates with audiences on a personal level, sparking conversations and leaving a lasting impression long after the credits roll.

Cultural Reflections

Beyond its role in storytelling, clothing in film reflects and influences broader cultural trends and societal values. Fashion serves as a mirror to society, showcasing evolving attitudes towards gender, identity, and diversity. 

From the gender-bending style of David Bowie in “Labyrinth” to the groundbreaking representation of Black culture in “Black Panther,” fashion film has the power to challenge norms, spark social change, and celebrate the rich tapestry of human experience.

How Has Film Influenced Fashion?

The film has been a significant influencer of fashion trends throughout fashion history, shaping the way people dress and express themselves.

One of the ways film influences fashion is through the portrayal of characters and their clothing choices. When audiences see their favorite film stars wearing certain styles or outfits, they often aspire to emulate those looks in their own lives. For example, Audrey Hepburn’s timeless elegance in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” inspired a generation of women to adopt the little black dress and oversized sunglasses as wardrobe staples.

Additionally, the film serves as a platform for designers to showcase their creations and push the boundaries of fashion. High-profile collaborations between filmmakers and fashion houses, such as the partnership between director Baz Luhrmann and costume designer Catherine Martin for “The Great Gatsby,” bring couture to the silver screen in spectacular fashion.

Moreover, the fantasy and escapism inherent in film transport audiences to worlds where fashion becomes part of the story. Whether it’s the opulent costume collection of period dramas like “Anna Karenina” or the futuristic ensembles of sci-fi epics like “Blade Runner,” fashion in the film offers viewers a glimpse into alternative realities and inspires them to experiment with their style.

In essence, film and fashion share a symbiotic relationship, with each influencing and informing the other in a continuous cycle of creativity and innovation.

What Are the Different Types of Fashion Films?

Fashion films encompass a diverse range of genres and styles, each offering a unique perspective on the intersection of fashion and film.

Documentary Fashion Films

These films offer a behind-the-scenes look at the fashion industry, highlighting the work of designers, models, and stylists. Documentaries like “The September Issue” and “Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel” provide insight into the creative process and cultural significance of fashion.

Narrative Fashion Films

Narratives incorporate fashion as an integral part of the story, with costumes playing a key role in character development and world-building. Examples include iconic Hollywood classics like “Funny Face” and contemporary dramas like “The Devil Wears Prada.”

Experimental Fashion Films

Experimental films push the boundaries of traditional storytelling techniques, using fashion as a medium of artistic expression and exploration. Filmmakers like Alain Resnais and his surrealist masterpiece “Last Year at Marienbad” blur the lines between reality and fantasy, creating visually striking narratives that challenge conventions.

Fashion Campaign Films

Fashion brands often produce short films or advertisements to showcase their latest collections or collaborations. These films combine elements of storytelling with promotional content, featuring top models and celebrity endorsements to generate buzz and drive sales.

Fashion Show Films

Fashion shows are often captured on film to reach a wider audience beyond the runway. These films provide viewers with a front-row seat to the latest trends and designs, allowing them to experience the excitement and glamour of the fashion world from the comfort of their own homes.

Iconic Fashion Moments in Film

Fashion in Film - The Devil Wears Prada

Fashion has had its fair share of memorable moments in cinema, where clothing played a defining role in shaping characters, scenes, and even entire cultural movements. Let’s take a closer look at some of these iconic fashion moments and their lasting influence on both fashion and pop culture.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)

Audrey Hepburn’s portrayal of Holly Golightly in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” remains one of the most enduring fashion icons in film history. The image of Hepburn in her black Givenchy dress accessorised with pearls and oversized sunglasses, has become synonymous with elegance and sophistication. Hepburn’s style in the film continues to inspire designers and fashionistas alike, cementing her status as a leading lady in both films and couture.

Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? (1966)

Directed by William Klein, “Who Are You, Polly Maggoo?” is a satirical take on the fashion industry of the swinging sixties. The film’s avant-garde style and irreverent humour challenged traditional notions of beauty and glamour, offering a behind-the-scenes look at the world of high fashion.

Mahogany (1975)

Diana Ross turned in “Mahogany” as aspiring fashion designer Tracy Chambers showcased a dazzling array of eye-catching outfits that epitomised the height of 1970s high fashion. From glamorous gowns to bold streetwear, Ross’s character embodied the spirit of the era, exuding confidence and sophistication with every ensemble.

The Devil Wears Prada (2006)

In “The Devil Wears Prada,” Meryl Streep’s portrayal of Miranda Priestly, the formidable editor-in-chief of a high-fashion magazine, showcased the power of clothing to convey authority and influence. Streep’s character is impeccably dressed in designer ensembles from Chanel, Saint Laurent, and other top couture houses, underscoring her status as a tastemaker and trendsetter in the industry.

Other worthy mentions and award-winning fashion films:

  • Marie Antoinette: This 2006 film won the Academy Award for Best Costume
  • Phantom Thread: This 2017 film won the Academy Award and British Academy Film Award for Best Costume Design
  • Vogue: Sixty Years through the Lens: This film won Best Fashion Documentary at the 2020 London Fashion Film Festival.
  • Lady in the Dark (1944): Directed by Mitchell Leisen, “Lady in the Dark” is a musical comedy-drama that explores the transformative power of fashion and self-expression.
  • La Dolce Vita (1960): Sophia Loren and her iconic role in Federico Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita” epitomised the allure of Italian glamour in the 1960s.
  • Prêt à Porter (1994): Directed by Robert Altman, “Prêt à Porter” (also known as “Ready to Wear”) offers a comedic glimpse into the chaotic world of fashion during Paris Fashion Week.

Fashion in Modern Film

Fashion in today’s movies has changed a lot, reflecting what’s happening in society and using new technology to tell stories in creative ways.

These days, costume designers are showing more diversity and inclusivity in the clothes they create for movies. Films like “Black Panther” and “Crazy Rich Asians” have been praised for celebrating different cultures and breaking stereotypes. They’ve shown that clothes can tell stories about who characters are and where they come from, whilst also making a statement about the world we live in.

Fashion and movies are coming together more than ever, with designers and filmmakers teaming up to create amazing experiences for viewers. Big fashion brands like Chanel and Gucci are making short films and ads that feel like mini-movies, blurring the line between art and advertising.

Final Note

Fashion and film have always had a close relationship, and that’s not going to change anytime soon. Whether it’s celebrating diversity, telling stories, or just showing off amazing clothes, fashion films will continue to be a source of inspiration and creativity for audiences around the world. 

As designers and filmmakers keep working together, we can look forward to even more exciting fashion moments on screen in the future.

Katie Davies

Katie Davies lives in Gloucestershire with her two young children. Katie juggles working life alongside duties at home but has found an escape through the world of clothing. She thoroughly enjoys sharing her thoughts on the latest in womenswear.

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