nogoodforme Cinema: Top Six Off-the-Radar Fashionable Films, Katwise

There was a fun question over at lovely Bunnyshop about favorite “fashionable films,” and it got us thinking. It’s a tricky business with fashion and film: having just served as costume designer on something, the job of clothing in most films is to serve the overall vision of the film by offering insight into the character and often the world of the movie — without horribly dating the film in a painful way. (I often think that you can get a sense of fashion trends better from television — witness Sex and the City, Buffy, Friends, The O.C. and now Gossip Girl, etc. — but a better look at the overall ideas and concepts of a fashion era from film, which often distills the effluvia of style into a few, clear ideas serving a linear story.) Yet it’s clear that everyone from designers to everyday peeps loves to watch film for ideas on style. (The many times Anna Sui has referenced Performance, for example, is kind of astonishing.)
In terms of enduring fashion/film favorites, Audrey Hepburn’s entire oeuvre shows up, as do lots of Faye Dunaway movies (Chinatown, Bonnie & Clyde, Network — all great films, of course.) Sofia Coppola’s films make the cut and Annie Hall is an eternal favorite, as is In the Mood for Love for its incredible beauty. And of course Catherine Deneuve films like Belle du Jour rank up there. But these are my own slightly-off-center choices, informed by equal amounts fashion love and cinephilia:
1. Gas Food Lodging, directed by Allison Anders
This underrated film is a finely observed coming-of-age story about two sisters and their single mother. It takes place in the middle of the deserts of New Mexico, and there’s something really worn yet beautiful about the clothes, especially those worn by the two sisters played by Ione Skye and Fairuza Balk, one sexually adventurous and rebellious, the other a dreamy misfit. The whole “floral dress with cowboy boots” thing makes a showing, but it illuminates women characters finding strength within themselves and fits the overall story of the nooks and crannies of feminine existence. I wanted to show you the clip where Fairuza Balk gets dressed up to seduce the Donovan Leitch character where she has amazing silver-y old-school matinee idol makeup on, but you’ll have to settle for a shot of the movie poster here and a cheesy movie trailer elsewhere. (Ignore the music in the trailer, the music in the film is ten times better!)
2. Smithereens, directed by Susan Seidelman
I thought about whether it would be this film or Desperately Seeking Susan that would make it on my list, and despite Madonna and “Into the Groove,” I ultimately chose Smithereens. Seidelman’s film is like a French New Wave take on a very particularly milieu — punk rock New York in the early 80s — and the costumes are like a time capsule into the era. (Love the checkerboard sunglasses!) What makes this film more than a fashion relic, though, is how the main character Wren uses fashion to try to fit into the world — so the clothes are intimately tied to her desire to “make it” as a punk rocker. (The idea of “making it” being slightly ludicrous in punk ideology, of course, is part of Wren’s pathology in the film.) The film is definitely one of Seidelman’s best — it has verve, affection and energy, not to mention a young, gloriously vacuous Richard Hell. And the music completely rocks, which you can tell from the trailer below:

3. 3 Women, directed by Robert Altman
Those used to a certain ranginess and level of talk in an Altman film might be surprised by this movie of his. 3 Women is one of Altman’s genuinely experimental films, with its dreamlike feel and elliptical, offhand narrative, concerning an unusual friendship between two women that turns eerie and bizarre. The main character, Millie, played by an amazing Shelley Duvall, is a strange bird, a determinedly optimistic girl who tries to breeze through an arid existence armed with ideas gleaned from women’s magazines and popular culture. She tries hard to be sophisticated and impress her naive roommate, played by Sissy Spacek, but the relentlessly girlish dresses she wears let us as viewers know that something is a bit off between the real person and the persona. The use of the color yellow in the film’s costumes and props is beautiful and aggressive: the color starts off as spots of cheer within a desert setting and slowly becomes oppressive, like a warning signal that something strange will happen.

4. L’Eclisse, directed by Michelangelo Antonioni
Many noted European art films of the late 50s/early 60s endure not just because there were amazingly innovative during a particularly fruitful age in cinematic/modernist history — but because everyone in them looked so gorgeous. There’s the iconic Parisian gamine played by Jean Seberg in Breathless, the evening dresses in Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad, and the beautiful suits on Marcello Mastroianni in just about every movie he’s been in. And of course there’s Antonioni, who made films like L’Avventura and Blow-Up. I chose L’Eclisse over a more obvious film like Blow-Up not because it’s a better film (even though it is, with one of the most remarkable endings in a modernist film) but because Monica Vitti’s clothes were never more simple — or elegant. (The presence of a genuinely beautiful Alain Delon doesn’t hurt, either.) Vitti wears mostly a series of simple, slightly loose shift dresses — a perfect analog to a bourgeois, straitjacketed existence that provides protection but no real emotional expression. Anyway, here you can listen to Martin Scorsese discuss L’Eclisse and see some of its remarkable images; Uncle Marty explains way better than me what’s so beautiful about the film:

5. Jesus’ Son, directed by Alison Maclean
There must be some unwritten rule out there that movies about drug culture must feature grunge-y, 70s-influenced fashion. Certainly that’s the case with Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy, and that’s the case with this little-seen gem of a film, which gets it right in even more subtle ways. This movie made me love Jack Black, squeaky shoes, Samantha Morton and that song “Sweet Pea” (And I’m honestly surprised that there seems to be no clip out there showing her booty-shakin’ down to this song yet.) What’s great about the look of the costumes in the film is how beautifully integrated it is with the overall cinematography and setting: there’s something timeless about it, befitting a story about one man’s subjective experience about fucking up and redemption. (And don’t miss the appearance by Miranda July as a nurse during a trippy drug experience.) There’s a fan-edited clip out there that shows a wider variety of shots from the film, but I’m way too irked by the Kid Rock song they chose to edit it to so you’re getting this scene instead:
Jesus’ Son – Billy Crudup meltdown

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6. How to Marry a Millionaire, directed by Jean Negulesco
I used to watch this movie every time it came up on the Sunday afternoon movie slots during my childhood, and I loved it every time for its total silliness and “girls in the city” aspect. This light, diverting comedy gets on this particular list for you vintage fashion fans out there. It’s a movie about three models looking to snag rich husbands (but of course finding true love in the end, which is what you should do in movies, of course.) The nice thing about movies about models is that it’s a legitimate excuse to stop the movie for a fashion show and take a good look at the dresses. Nicole Kidman is currently developing a remake of this film, so get in the know now: