Dressing Dangerously: Dysfunctional Fashion in Film

When Marlene Dietrich makes her entrance in Alfred Hitchcock’s Stage Fright, the Dior dress she wears immediately draws the viewer’s attention – not because of its designer label, but owing to the dramatic blood stains ruining its stylish surface. Fashion in film goes far beyond glamorous costumes on glamorous stars, as Jonathan Faiers proves in Dressing Dangerously, a pioneering study of the “cinematic negative wardrobe” revealed in mainstream movies. The book emphasizes how problematic, even shocking depictions of dress, until now largely overlooked, play pivotal roles in shaping film narrative.

In this exclusive article, Jonathan Faiers lays the foundations for Dressing Dangerously, introducing the meaning of the term and tracing the outlines of his book from start to finish.

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“Most writers would maintain that there is often a nugget of information, unsettling fact, or coincidental date that serves as a form of irritant that bothers and demands attention and which must ultimately be scratched. So it was when I first saw the opening scenes of Alfred Hitchcock’s film Stage Fright. After the curtain goes up at the beginning of the film on a vista of post-war blitzed London the audience is shown what might have been the sequence of events leading up to the explanation given by Richard Todd playing Jonathan Cooper to Eve Gill (Jane Wyman) in his speeding sports car as it hurtles both the protagonists and us, the viewers, headlong into the complexities and dead ends of the ensuing drama. But the moment, or should I say more accurately image, that reached out to me from the screen the first time that I saw the film and which started the itch that developed eventually into Dressing Dangerously was the entrance of Marlene Dietrich playing the entertainer Charlotte Inwood. Dietrich is initially seen as a fragmented, and crucially for the subject of my book, a dysfunctionally dressed body. The bell rings, the door is opened and the screen is filled by the unforgettable sight of her impossibly shapely legs and unmistakeable accent demanding of Cooper “Johnny… Johnny! Do you love me? Say that you love me!” We then witness the skirt of her pleated chiffon dress billow out to reveal a hideous stain, which even though the film is shot in black and white we know indubitably to be blood. This sequence disturbed me, as no doubt Hitchcock intended it should, but what continued to unsettle me long after the labyrinthine plot of mistaken murders and multiple identities is played out was that stain sullying the image of Dietrich as the perfectly fashioned screen goddess – she should not be wearing stained clothes, especially not stained couture (her clothes for the film were from Christian Dior, insisted upon by Dietrich and their cost bargained down by Hitchcock!) – Dietrich was dressing dangerously.

Stage Fright’s stains continued to nag at me, their worrying contours leading me towards other such stains in other films, and to consider how the experience of stained clothing was something both universally understood and shared and yet strangely unexpected on screen; too real to be fully contained within the confines of conventional cinematic narrative. It is these eruptions of  stained, torn, incriminating and shameful clothing that refuse to ‘make any sense within the frame of the idyllic scene’ as Slavoj Žižek expressed it, which are fundamental to my book. These simultaneously shocking, yet familiar experiences of clothing caused me time and again to wonder why most studies of clothing in film concentrate on the ‘set piece’ outfit, the dress or suit that projects unachievable glamour and instils aspirational longing, when film is in fact far more often filled with items from what I have termed the negative cinematic wardrobe, a closet full of unworn, lost, stolen and damaged items familiar to us all.

I began to suspect that when looked at in conjunction with one another these dangerously excessive moments taken from mainstream films of different genres and eras offered a way to understand how clothing in film engages us emotionally (haven’t we all suffered the embarrassment of the inappropriate fashion choice, the uncomfortable garment…?) as well as symbolising more complex states concering loss, trauma, retribution and destruction. Having started on my search the dysfunctional images came thick and fast; the satin mule wedged under a piece of frayed stair carpet as a catalyst for attempted self-destruction in Leave Her to Heaven, the stained glove surfacing from the impenetrable darkness of The House on Telegraph Hill – evidence of guilt or dysfunctional clue and which became the book’s cover image, the incandescent whiteness of the hate-mongering William Shatner in The Intruder, or the shade of shame chosen by Bridget Jones for her spectacular wardrobe malfunction at the Law Society dinner, are just a few of the examples of dangerous dressing discussed in the book.

Given the wealth of such images to be found within popular film one of the main challenges for me was to devise some method of discussing them that would acknowledge their visual singularity and yet attempt to establish some form of classification, not of form so much as effect and so the book follows a fluid trajectory from ‘outer’ to ‘inner’ both in terms of the type of garment and where it is worn on the body but also as a journey from outward bodily appearances to inner psychic conditions. Commencing with overcoats and the assumption of new or false identities, raincoats as unworn commodities, and furs and jewellery as the outward trappings of economic success and emotional instability, the book the considers accessories as both incriminating and as false evidence, as murder weapons and supernatural objects that take centre stage. Menswear in the form of the suit is analysed as an indication of criminal tendencies, too excessive, too co-ordinated, too-white or something beyond the control of the wearer. Examples of bad fashion advice, inadvisable colour choices or frankly bizarre clothing experiments feature large in the dysfunctional cinematic wardrobe and these are considered as a method of understanding cinema’s uneasy alliance with the fashion industry itself. The latter sections of the book delve deeper into the emotional fabric of the wearer and the desire to brand the body through the use of monograms and initials, to expose the body through torn and ripped clothing and eventually to penetrate the body as evidence by the wealth of blood stained clothing brings Dressing Dangerously to its natural conclusion.

Any such study that uses the enormous amount of material available within the history of mainstream cinema must inevitable be partial, and for every example I have found especially absorbing another will no doubt spring to the mind of the individual reader. But this is as it should be, film after all as Raymond Bellour suggested ‘never stops saying something’ to each of us, and what we choose to hear and remember is entirely up to individual choice and experience and it is my hope that the book will act as a point of entry into each of our individual cinematic memory museums of dangerous dressing.”

– Article by Dr. Jonathan Faiers

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Faiers 23-10-13

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