Film Stars as Fashion Icons

Book chapter

DOI: 10.2752/9781472572424/GIBSON0005
Pages: 53–68

The intense interest in Hollywood stars, which combines a wish to emulate their style and possess their perfect bodies with the desire to know as much as possible about their private lives, has lasted for a hundred years. In the last ten years, however, the particular focus of that interest has shifted, rather as if a kaleidoscope has been turned. The same elements are there but now are rearranged to form different patterns. Until the early 1990s, there was still an interest in what stars wore on screen, just as in the heyday of Hollywood. Now, of course, it is far more likely to be their off-screen attire that is admired and copied. More significantly, their popularity, in the twenty-first century, is seemingly unrelated to the commercial success of their films. In fact, some cinematic celebrities can currently generate intense media interest and function as fashion icons quite independently of their on-screen roles, whereas traditionally their fans would go to the cinema to watch their films. And the popularity of a star today, their presence in the press or on the Internet, may in fact have little relationship to their actual earning potential. The antithesis holds true—for among the highest-earning stars of the last few years are Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson of the Harry Potter franchise (2001–2011), which was aimed largely at children.

Watson, as mentioned in chapter 1, has been chosen for a prestigious Burberry campaign and indeed has been given a seat in the front row at some fashion shows, but there are many other stars whose celebrity status and impact on current fashion are far more significant. The ‘franchise phenomenon’ will be mentioned later.

All this constitutes a radical and recent change in the ‘star system’. The films themselves, formerly the site of study for both audience and academics, are now arguably less important than press and Internet coverage of the stars’ outfits and their personal lives, together with their commercial deployment within ‘the fashion system’, in fashion features and advertising campaigns.

A further departure from tradition is the emergence and the equal status of two quite separate but equally important types of photo opportunity for stars. On the one hand, there is their appearance on the red carpet, ‘dressed up’ in the clothes of a named designer at the Oscars, the BAFTAs, the Golden Globes or the Cannes Film Festival: on the other, there are the dressed down, off-duty and invariably off-guard pictures showing the stars dressed casually in jeans and a T-shirt en route to yoga class, or semi-naked sunbathing on a beach. Both are equally popular with the paparazzi; both influence contemporary fashion, perhaps in different ways.

Figure 8

The stars of the Harry Potter franchise pose outside the penultimate premiere.

Photograph by Anne-Marie Michel.

The red carpet event is, of course, the new catwalk of the twenty-first century; for many top designers it has as much if not more importance than their own couture shows, and the stars pose happily, endlessly, to show off their borrowed outfits to best advantage. However, the off-duty shots, particularly those on the beach, in the sea or on the sundeck, where their privacy is invaded as never before, serve to show off their bodies in more detail; these are often the pictures that most help to generate the anxieties around ‘body image’ discussed in chapter 1.

During the years when the Hollywood studios were in control of their stars, which lasted until the very cusp of the 1960s, beach photocalls were carefully controlled. In Europe, too, they were also used to maximize publicity for a new film or star, as with the famous photographs of Brigitte Bardot posing in her bikini on the beach at the Cannes Film Festival in 1956. These pictures made her a star and ensured the success of her new film, And God Created Woman, directed by her then-husband, Roger Vadim.

Figure 9

The beach at Cannes during the Film Festival today—no longer the simple stretch of sand where Bardot posed in 1956.

Photograph by Anne-Marie Michel.

As Vincendeau (2005) points out, Bardot had already featured in a dozen or more unmemorable films. More significantly for this particular book, these very pictures of this new celebrity made the bikini fashionable for the very first time. It was, in fact, created and publicized by a lingerie manufacturer in 1946 but had not achieved widespread popularity (see Vincendeau 2005: 136). The other effect of these particular photographs was the creation of an entirely new mode of female beauty which challenged the conventional glamour of Hollywood. Bardot’s hair was unstyled, even rumpled, her eyes heavily made-up but her mouth seemingly free of lipstick, and she preferred to go barefoot rather than totter to the beach in a pair of mules. Bardot’s style did not necessarily mean ‘the end of couture’ (Vincendeau 2005); it did, however, mean that traditional Hollywood glamour was now threatened and made to seem out of step with the youth and rebellion which Bardot seemed to personify both in that film and off-screen.

It is important to remember that not only has film had a greater influence on fashion than any other form of visual culture, but, as we shall see, the very shaping of consumer culture as we know it depends upon the cinema and its unique power to generate both demand and supply. Consequently, this chapter needs, at first, to look backwards in order to comprehend the full significance of the cinematic image and the uses to which it has been so profitably put. For the period following the First World War saw not only the birth of the star system, but also radical changes in advertising and spending patterns (Addison 2000: 3–10; also see Addison 2006). As industry developed and production intensified, consumption was encouraged: ‘in pre World War I America the Puritan values of hard work and thrift predominated’ (Addison 2000: 4). These same changes were gradually reflected across Europe, where ‘Puritan values’ were not part of the ‘prevailing ideology’.

Film production in America began on the East Coast: the move across the country to Los Angeles and its environs was made not only in search of clement weather but, more significantly, in order to buy up the tracts of land still available there at very low prices, where studios might be built.

So the ‘system’ so familiar to film students was crystallizing in 1918 and was ready to harness not only the changes in the climate of consumption, but also the emergence of totally new styles of dress and modes of behaviour:


During the 1910s and 1920s, the American motion picture industry flourished. Production became centered in and around Hollywood, California: the vertically integrated studio system emerged; and by 1928 attendance at movie theatres had reached sixty-five million people per week.

 (Addison 2000: 8)

The building of studios was followed by the building of homes for the stars themselves in the Hollywood Hills, carefully publicized when the studios realized the strength of public interest. The first celebrity couple of cinema, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks Jr, christened their splendid new house ‘Pickfair’ (see Charles and Watts 2000); this mixing of names has recently been revived, with the use of the nickname ‘Brangelina’ to describe the union of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt and the soubriquet ‘Posh ’n’ Becks’ given by the media to England’s former football captain and his wife. Pickfair, designed and decorated by the newly married Fairbanks and Pickford, was the first of the new star homes in Hollywood. Then, as now, the houses swiftly became a feature of any visit to Hollywood; maps were produced, as they still are today. The many pictures taken of Pickfair, and the publicity given to ‘Mary the homemaker’, took the sting out of the fact that their relationship had actually begun as an adulterous on-screen romance (see Anger 1975/1981). Again, there is a contemporary parallel, for the swift proliferation of children around Angelina Jolie’s skirts possibly lessened the media accusations that she was predatory and destructive in her behaviour.

In 1920, Hollywood had its very first full-scale celebrity scandal. Olive Thomas, star of The Flapper (1920), was married amidst great publicity to Mary Pickford’s brother Jack, so creating yet another popular celebrity couple: she was the first Hollywood star to be taken up by Condé Nast and featured in Vogue’s fashion pages. Very soon after the release of The Flapper, she was found dead on the floor of the royal suite in the Hotel Carillon in Paris; she was only twenty years old. Wrapped in a lavish sable opera cloak, she held a bottle of bichloride of mercury granules in one hand; it subsequently emerged that she was a heavy user of both cocaine and heroin. Ironically, the slogan of Selznick studios was ‘Selznick pictures create happy homes’ (Anger 1981: 151).

Whether ‘happy’ or not, the homes of the stars in the silent era fascinated their followers; they make today’s Malibu Beach houses and even Mulholland Drive itself seem positively restrained. The public delighted in reading about the newly built swimming pools, maybe spanned by a marble bridge or even forming part of a living room, and the vast bathrooms, which might be made of black marble and onyx or perhaps crystal and glass. Some featured a sunken Roman bath, others a solid golden bathtub with matching taps. Outside the houses, in the formal gardens with their elaborate terracing and fountains, the shiny new motorcars were parked; these might be canary-yellow, purple or even upholstered with leopard skin like Gloria Swanson’s Lancia (see Anger 1981: 73).

Female fans enjoyed even more the detailed information about the clothes, hairstyles and dietary regimes of the stars, provided in the new fan magazines quickly rushed into print by the studios (Fox 1995; Berry 2000b). It emerged that Gloria Swanson spent ten thousand dollars a year on lingerie and a further six thousand on her flaçons of scent (Anger 1981: 76).

Obviously the public did not want to match these excesses; but they certainly wanted to read all about them, and possibly to make their own modest, linked purchases. The sight of lingerie and negligées in the movies surely stimulated the growth of an entirely new market, while the average bathroom, though not black marble or onyx, became marginally less functional and possibly more pleasant. The bedrooms of the stars, as featured in these same magazines, together with those actually seen on screen and inhabited by the fictional characters they played, were invariably very lavish: canopied beds, vast gilded headboards, mirrored doors. These might be beyond the means of filmgoers, but the kidney-shaped dressing table with a triple mirror and possibly a flounced fabric skirt became a feature of many suburban homes in the interwar years. Anne Massey (2000) has written about the influence of the cinema on décor in the interwar years. However, she confines herself to the rich, who built extensively in the ‘moderne’ style so popular on screen. We should remember that the homes of the less fortunate could nevertheless in small ways try to reflect what their owners saw on screen, just as they might emulate the ways in which the characters dressed or combed their hair. The book on the full influence of the interior décor seen on screen across the years has yet to be written.

However, there is now a small but significant body of literature around the relationship of film and fashion in the narrower sense of the word, which began with the anthology Fabrications: Costume and the Female Body (Gaines and Herzog) in 1990. Here, the editors republished the seminal essay of 1978, ‘The Carole Lombard in Macy’s Window’, in which Charles Eckert famously argued that ‘cinema gave consumerism its distinctive bent’ (1978/1990). The essay describes the loaded trains which snaked across America, loaded with clothes, cigarettes and cars, soon to be seen on screen and then made available in stores and garages—to coincide precisely with the release of the films in which they appeared (Eckert 1978/1990: 115).

I would suggest that these changes in the economic climate and spending patterns, encouraged by cinema itself, could in fact account for some of the ambivalence around the onscreen consumption of fashion in early Hollywood cinema by characters portrayed as foolish or misled. An overly developed interest in fashion may threaten to destabilize an individual or a marriage in long-forgotten films such as Mary Pickford’s film The New York Hat (1912) or Fools of Fortune (1923), where a married couple are reduced to penury through their desire for the latest clothes and décor. Recently revived, Howard Hawks’s Fig Leaves (1929), lavishly costumed by leading studio designer Adrian, makes the heroine solely responsible for the temptation; her desire for the latest outfits leads to her employment in the fashion industry and so threatens her marriage. But she comes to her senses and accepts the more modest life her husband can provide.

This ambivalence did not disappear completely. In 1956, Grace Kelly in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window has stylish, even stunning clothes and accessories to suit her employment in the fashion industry, while her Mark Cross overnight bag famously contains only an amazing negligée. Kelly told the designer of the garment, Edith Head: ‘It makes me look like a peach parfait’ (see Head 1959). However, if her character is to prove worthy of the rugged traveller-journalist hero, James Stewart, all these must be abandoned; her dresses become simpler as the film progresses, and her role more serious. Even then, we are shown that she is not fully redeemed; in the closing moments, sure that her fiancé is asleep, she opens Vogue in preference to the book on Patagonia she is dutifully reading. Such is the legacy of the Founding Fathers. In fact, the idea that fashion is still somehow synonymous with the frivolous and the feminine (see Church Gibson 1998; Wilson 1985/2005; Buckley and Fawcett 2002) is perhaps universal. Nevertheless, the screen became the place to find fashion and the means of facilitating, perhaps even dictating, changes in style. The literature in this new area of scholastic enquiry is still growing (see Gaines and Herzog 1990; Radner 1995; Bruzzi 1997; Desser and Jowett 2000; Bruzzi and Church Gibson 2000; Street 2001; Moseley 2005; Jeffers McDonald 2010; Gilligan 2000, 2009b, 2010a).

Moreover, the traditional role of the film star as image-maker and style icon is extensively discussed in less academic works—see in particular the recent books of Patty Fox (1995) and the classic Engelmeier and Engelmeier photo-essay of 1984 (revised 1997). It also forms a significant part of academic work on the phenomenon of stardom (Dyer 1978/1998; Stacey 1994). Rachel Moseley has not only written on the iconic potency of Audrey Hepburn (2002) but has edited an anthology covering a wide range of stars across different national cinema, all of whom have influenced mainstream fashion (Moseley 2005). This last anthology, together with the work of Stella Bruzzi (1997) and a few others (see Bruzzi and Church Gibson 2000; Babington, Davies and Powrie 2004; Reich 2004; Gilligan 2009b), has tried to redress the balance and to investigate European films, contemporary cinema and masculine dress; much of the new scholarship is still concerned with the feminine and with classic Hollywood.

The ‘Hollywood effect’, and the influences on mainstream fashion of stars working within other national cinemas, has also formed a staple part of fashion journalism across the decades. It features in published work on fashion (Breward, Evans and Ehrman 2004) and more recently in publications on glamour (Gundle 2008; Dyhouse 2010).

But while the academy took its time to understand and articulate the links between Hollywood and consumer culture, it must be noted just how speedily those with things to sell took advantage of this new relationship. This explains Eckert’s observation (1978/1990). To see an image on screen was to create instant desire, for an overall image of beauty or for a single object: a car, a particular brand of cigarette, a dress, a hairstyle. The new cinematic close-up, the careful lighting, the generous costume budgets and the opulent sets all reinforced the glamour. Most of all, the appeal was in the presence of the stars, wearing these clothes, smoking their cigarettes, driving the new cars. They were, as celebrities still are, much more appealing to mass audiences than the haughty models who stared out from the pages of those glossy magazines which many of them would never read. Hollywood films actually had ‘male models’, too, in the form—or forms—of their leading men. The fashion industry would not follow suit until much later in the century, while full magazine coverage of men’s fashion would have to wait until the 1980s (Church Gibson 2004b). Here the male stars, like their female counterparts, could showcase style to maximum effect, making it something to covet and emulate (also see Church Gibson 2005a; Gilligan 2009a,b).

Something not always acknowledged is the way in which Hollywood cinema and celebrity could and did make new silhouettes and other innovations of high fashion desirable at a mass market level, thus spurring both manufacturing and retailing into action. Eckert initiates this particular debate. However, he does not discuss the way in which, for women from lower socio-economic groups, cinema both compensated and acted as surrogate for the glossy high-fashion magazines read by the middle classes and so alien to their own lives—as Patty Fox puts it, ‘the women who don’t read Harper’s Bazaar … the majority of women’ (1995). Instead, for lower-middle-class and working-class women, an expedition to the cinema was possibly not unlike consulting their very own fashion magazine, in a number of different ways.

Firstly, the trip might showcase actual Paris couture through the medium of the short documentary fashion films shown before the main feature (see Bruzzi 1997). These formed a staple of cinematic fare across America and Europe from the first years of the twentieth century until well into the 1960s. They are often overlooked (see Pathé shorts for many examples, now digitized and so easily accessible). These short films also featured new accessories—gloves, shoes, furs, hats—and helped to make lingerie and nightwear decorative and desirable rather than merely functional. They showed off new hairstyles—one of the very last instances to be found on screen is a British documentary showing how the Vidal Sassoon ‘five-point’ bob was created in 1964.

And when the main programme of feature films began, women could then see exactly how attractive all these new fashions could look, through studying the newly created and highly appealing stars, whose dress, hair and makeup tricks, the work of the studio experts, so excited them. Star emulation and worship pervaded not only the new forms of journalism initiated by the studios; existing magazines, too, began to show off the stars’ clothes, makeup, and homes (Berry 2000b; Stacey 1994; Moseley 2002; Möttölä 2007; Sheridan 2010).

Some cinema foyers even featured actual fashion-related products in glass display cases: perhaps cosmetics, scent or scarves. All cinemas would certainly have, hanging on the walls of the entrance hall and propped in their corridors, those large backlit studio portraits of the stars which epitomized the glamour of Hollywood (focus group work, Church Gibson 2008–2010; Stacey 1994). In the special displays sometimes seen in larger cinemas, which changed as did the programmes, the leading ladies in feature films could be seen wearing clothes which might take their inspiration in overall outline from Paris but which could be currently found in department stores as part of the ‘tie-in’ retailing campaigns, developed in the 1920s, arranged to coincide exactly with the opening of particular films (see Eckert 1978/1990). Men, too, were involved in this process; the portraits included the male stars of the moment, all looking very suave in their suits with the sharp white handkerchiefs folded carefully so as to be visible in the top pockets, and their beautifully coiffed hair.

The 1920s and later the 1930s brought new magazines, targeted at the lower-middle-class housewife, in which there were features showing ways to achieve fashionable styles and Hollywood looks on a limited budget (see Ferguson 1983). Here, we should remember, if we are fully to understand how celebrity style was circulated and copied in the twentieth century, that the majority of women across all social classes could sew properly and so were able, if they wished, to make their own clothes (see Ewing 1997). While women with higher incomes did not, of course, do this, and local dressmakers were used even by those of more limited means, most women were nevertheless taught to sew and could thus copy Hollywood looks for themselves, using paper patterns: these were often especially issued as part of the studio licensing processes (see Turim 1984/1990).

Many women continued to make their own clothes until the 1950s and 1960s, when radical changes in women’s education meant that sewing skills were no longer an automatic part of the average school curriculum. So when the women interviewed by Jackie Stacey for Star Gazing (1994) and Rachel Moseley for her work on Audrey Hepburn (2002) talk of wanting and therefore copying a suit or dress, they mean, of course, that they made it for themselves (also see Moseley 2001). And since fashions became far simpler in outline and structure from the 1920s onwards, they were not only easier to copy at home but also to mass produce in emulation.

So couture designers were—in some ways—indebted to the designers and stars of Hollywood cinema. Many Paris-produced silhouettes were translated by studio designers and then ‘modelled’ by the stars on screen, so that film, in fact, acted as a form of international fashion show. Thus, the new styles became first desirable and then accessible as copies at different market levels were produced. Chanel herself famously said, ‘What Hollywood shows today, you will wear tomorrow’ (Bruzzi 1997: 3). She showed her appreciation of this new force within fashion when she accepted studio boss Sam Goldwyn’s invitation to work in Hollywood, even though their liaison was short-lived (Bruzzi 1997).

She was thinking of clothes when she talked of the power of Hollywood; but there were other things to be copied. Sarah Berry describes the way in which the new market for cosmetics and other beauty products was totally dependent upon Hollywood celebrity; makeup, of course, owes its very ubiquity to its use onscreen (2000a,b). Chanel’s observation also ties in perfectly with the studio designer Adrian’s seemingly self-deprecating remark that ‘Hollywood cannot create: it can only imitate’ (see Simms 1974; Esquevin 2008; Gutner 2001). This statement can be fleshed out; imitate could be replaced by popularize. For instance, Adrian was responsible for taking the bias-cut evening gowns of Madeline Vionnet, something mass audiences would never have seen, and using them as inspiration for the dresses worn to such effect by Greta Garbo and Jean Harlow in, say, Dinner at Eight (1933) and Grand Hotel (1934). Meanwhile, costume jewellery, marabou-trimmed slippers, new kinds of hat, all were now paraded before ordinary women for whom high fashion was inaccessible and inconceivable. Not only could they now see it for themselves, but the studios would help them find it (Gaines 1990; Esquevin 2008).

The precise emulation of star behaviour was not, of course, confined to women. In 1933, as most readers will probably know, American men famously abandoned their vests after seeing It Happened One Night. Clark Gable was, it seemed, bare-chested beneath his shirt (Richards 1973: 232; Lehu 2007: 146).

Chanel’s loose dresses and short skirts of the 1920s were translated into the clothes worn by the screen flappers such as the ‘It Girl’, Clara Bow (Ross 2000). She did far more to popularize bobbed hair, the cupid’s-bow painted mouth and short skirts than any Paris fashion plate. Meanwhile, it was, of course, Marlene Dietrich’s and Katherine Hepburn’s wearing of trousers on screen (and off) that led to their widespread adoption. At first they were worn only by the rich and fashionable in the late 1920s and early 1930s—see for example the pictures of Chanel and her friends at the Lido or of society belles in their ‘beach pyjamas’ (Charles-Roux 2009). Their place within the wardrobe of the ordinary young woman was ensured during the Second World War, when women, now working in large numbers, found their comfort and practicality invaluable. In 1945, Nancy Mitford could write spitefully of her fictional character, the Bolter, seemingly frozen in time with her ‘shingle’ and her 1920s slang that ‘she wore trousers with the air of one flouting the conventions, ignorant that every suburban shopgirl was doing the same’ (Mitford 1945/2000: 134).

So the screen succeeded where journalism often failed; it made many designer fashions into global styles, simply through the medium of screen celebrity. Dior’s New Look of 1947 might never have succeeded at a mass market level without its swift adoption by Hollywood costume designers. Edith Head helped to make the New Look popular for so long that a modified version of it, with longish pencil skirt, remained fashionable throughout the 1950s (Bruzzi 1997). The studios of Hollywood and their global reach took unattainable images and styles; not only did the studios place these where everyone might see them, but Hollywood provided—directly or indirectly—ways in which they might, to use Simmel’s expression, ‘trickle-down’ (Simmel 1904).

The star celebrities may have acted as conduits, making high fashion interesting to the mass market and stimulating the industry into making copies; but they also started other more home-grown fashions, popularizing garments which, like Hepburn’s trousers, quickly found their way into stores. Betty Grable’s endless legs, famously insured for thousands of dollars (Wanamaker 1984: 76), made shorts fashionable for young women while Lana Turner, after her first film They Won’t Forget (1937), was instantly christened the ‘Sweater Girl’, so making this simple garment newly fashionable. It was worn to great effect in the next decade by Marilyn Monroe, who like Turner showed that it could be sexy; Audrey Hepburn, by contrast, made the bohemian black turtleneck (see Koenig 1973: 198) seem both elegant and extremely versatile.

Hollywood stars had a consistent signature style; it was expected. When studio designer Edith Head took the traditional sarong of the Polynesian islands and adapted it for the exotic-looking Dorothy Lamour, she inadvertently trapped her forever, whilst also creating a staple part of beachwear then and now. In 1937, Lamour hopefully asked her fans, ‘Wouldn’t you like to see me in a film that wasn’t a sarong film?’ Sadly for her, they replied overwhelmingly that no, they would not (Chierichetti 2004; Calistro 2004: 284).

As early as 1923, Salvatore Ferragamo, founder of the family shoe firm, realized the potency of this new medium as a means of advertising his own products on a grand scale. He provided, free of charge, the sandals for every single man and woman who appeared onscreen in Cecil B. de Mille’s version of the Ten Commandments. That meant the shoeing of hundreds of extras for the lavish crowd scenes, with no mention, as might be negotiated today, of his name in the credits (see Ferragamo 1987: 27; Pedersen 2005: 66). However, the thought of the word-of-mouth publicity that would be generated was presumably enough, and indeed his name has been linked with film stars and celebrities ever since, his shoes very often their brand of choice, until the recent advent of the shoe-designer-as-celebrity, as discussed later in the book. In the 1950s, Ferragamo named a strapped ballet pump after Audrey Hepburn, and they are still available in stores such as Saks. He made over forty pairs of shoes for Marilyn Monroe, including a famous pair of red rhinestone pumps with stiletto heels; these were sold in 1999 for $42,000 at Christie’s and then bought in 2010 for an undisclosed sum by Johnny Depp as a present for his partner, Vanessa Paradis (Barron 1999; Lomrantz 2010).

The naming of accessories after superstar celebrities still continues; contemporary shoe designer Jimmy Choo named a grosgrain loafer ‘Diana’ after the late princess, who was fond of this style off-duty (Brown 2007). In 2010, Ferragamo launched the ‘Elise’ stiletto-heeled shoe, named after the character played by Angelina Jolie in the film The Tourist, released in the same year. And, of course, most people with any interest in fashion will know that the Hermès handbag used by Grace Kelly to hide her pregnancy was christened for her, starting a trend within the firm that has continued up to the present day (see Tolkien 2002: 44; Haughland 2010: 78).

As the film industry developed, the stars of Hollywood films could and did help to sell anything and everything, at home and abroad. This was noted at the very highest levels, not merely by the studio moguls. In 1945, when the US Department of Commerce was looking for its chance to dominate global trading activity as it renewed itself in the post-war era, it chose to commission a series of studies on viewing habits worldwide in order to understand putative spending patterns in different countries across the globe. These reports included the analysis of differing tastes in film genres across the world, whether romantic comedies, musicals or melodramas. They also examined existing national patterns of spending, consumption and taste. This was not, however, solely confined to fashion purchases, although these featured prominently in the survey. Handbags were the subject of one report, with plastic popular in China, while crocodile skin was preferred in Argentina (see the Congressional Economic Reports analysed in Church Gibson 2007).

But the remit of the reports and the surveys involved went much further and looked at very different ways of using Hollywood cinema in a post-war economic climate ravaged by six years of war, with so many industrial infrastructures in ruins and much of Europe dependent on the American financial aid provided by the Marshall Plan. There was an investigation into how to use the cinema in order to sell the new fitted kitchens, while another looked at how to manipulate film narratives so as to showcase farm machinery for use in developing economies (Church Gibson 2007).

But if film actually helped to democratize fashion in the past, today the new relationship is partly that between the screen celebrity and the luxury brand. Once, the studios of Hollywood and their global reach took the unattainable images and styles of haute couture and placed them where everyone might see them. They acted as a showcase for ‘alternative’ styles, too, through a different, less conventional type of cinematic celebrity, before the appearance of television and the growing power of popular music in the 1950s. Black leather jackets and white T-shirts, originally marketed for and worn only by aircrew and GIs, were made desirable for young men by James Dean and Marlon Brando in their screen roles of the 1950s. They have remained wardrobe staples for the past sixty years (Springer 2007: 45). Brando explains in his autobiography that the origins of what he calls the ‘slob look’ were in his own preferred personal style of dress. He sought out workwear and army surplus stores for reasons of comfort and economy; he rather begrudges the way in which the iconic image of Dean has in fact taken the credit (Brando 1995).

Although cinema may have created new styles and helped to make high fashion less frightening, this was, of course, not done through some kind of altruism. In fact, some designers elected to become directly involved and so benefit financially, rather than simply have their styles copied. So they dressed the leading lady—and later on, like Armani and Cerruti in the 1980s and 1990s, the leading man—using films to show off their clothes, just as Ferragamo had done with his shoes. The first fashion designer to create a star wardrobe was, in fact, Paul Poiret, in 1912; he was invited by Sarah Bernhardt to dress her for her role as Elizabeth I. But it was in the second half of the last century that the relationship really developed—Bruzzi has a comprehensive chapter on this in Undressing Cinema. Since its publication in 1997, however, things have changed and new ties have been created; we will examine the new ‘fashion films’ in chapter 5. But it is enough here to remember that film can actively parade high design as well as serve to demystify.

The traditional relationship between designer and star—including, of course, the famous pairings of Givenchy and Hepburn, Yves St Laurent and Catherine Deneuve—was replaced by the proliferation of ready-to-wear on American screens from the 1980s onwards. The opportunity for fashion ‘product placement’ has been used in many different ways (see Church Gibson 2004b; Gilligan 2009a,b).

But cinema did not merely serve to show off products and generate revenue. From its beginnings, film also helped to create or reinforce dissatisfaction with self. Many cinemagoers were all too aware that they did not have the ‘face of Greta Garbo’ that so intrigued critic Roland Barthes, nor the long slim legs of Betty Grable and the tiny frame of Clara Bow. The perfect close-ups on screen and the carefully backlit pictures in the foyer also helped to fuel dissatisfaction, just as the results of digital manipulation and airbrushing may demoralize women today.

Heather Addison describes quite graphically the way in which the new advertising techniques of the 1920s coincided with the growing power of cinema to create the industry that she calls ‘body shaping’, which was of course predicated upon self-doubt, as it is today (Addison 2000). Eighty years on, ‘body shaping’ requires measures that are much more drastic; nevertheless, she shows us some worrying advertisements for thyroid pills, stout rubber garments and contraptions which include a ‘chin reducer’ available for six dollars (Addison 2000: 13), all marketed in the early years of the ‘reducing craze’ (27).

Figure 10

Catherine Deneuve, a star since the 1960s and famously dressed for forty years by Yves St Laurent.

Photograph by Anne-Marie Michel.

The New Relationship?

Cinema’s new ‘celebrity’ stardom, within a Western context, is qualitatively different from previous forms of fandom or star emulation. In consequence, the existing theories of stardom (Stacey 1994; Gledhill 1991), sometimes co-opted from film studies to explain modern celebrity culture, are not really sufficient, although, as this book will suggest, Richard Dyer’s idea of ‘the ordinary’ has a new relevance in this rather different context (1978/1998). Film studies within the academy must somehow address the very different circumstances of film production and its reception in the new century.

Today, when fans admire a star’s style, they will usually be talking of the clothes that he or she wears off screen; in the past, they would be referring to what the star wore on screen, within the diegesis, the fictional world. Christine Geraghty (2000) has referred to the phenomenon of the ‘star-as-celebrity’ when writing about Keira Knightley’s role in Pride and Prejudice (UK, 2001, dir. Joe Wright). This is a start; since then, that phenomenon has developed at an alarming rate, certainly within Anglo-American cinema. Today, the presence of the star-as-celebrity arguably determines whether or not a film can actually get made at all, and certainly whether or not it will receive proper distribution.

Figure 11

The commercial sponsors of the Venice Film Festival get their prominent billing.

Photograph by Anne-Marie Michel.

The use of stars, or possibly celebrities-who-act, within fashion shoots and on magazine covers complicates things still further; it increases the flattening-out effect, the interchangeability of images that I have mentioned as a central feature of contemporary visual culture. Images already segue seamlessly from cinema screen to magazine cover to advertising campaign; now, with the recent move towards employing well-known film directors to make commercials, and the subsequent emergence of the celebrity-as-director, cinema itself is changing swiftly. This we need to address in subsequent chapters; it cannot simply be described as ‘intertextuality’. We need, also, to address the ways in which this is driven directly by the desire to sell fashion through celebrity, something not yet discussed or even acknowledged.

Within the case studies that make up the following chapters, some of these questions will be raised; finding answers is much more difficult.