The best fashioned films aren’t haughty about the couture

by Christobel Kent

The success of Halston on Netflix, starring Ewan McGregor, is down to “the designer’s soft, sexy silhouettes”

The trouble with dramas about fashion is that show business never knows how seriously to take the multi-trillion-dollar fashion industry. Netflix’s latest gleeful triumph, Halston, a riveting fiveparter dealing with the life, loves, addictions and dazzling talent of the American designer Roy Halston (who dressed Liza Minnelli, Jerry Hall and everyone else who attended Studio 54 in its ’80s heyday) provides some nice insights into this.

Halston isn’t couture’s first time at the Hollywood rodeo, of course. Fashion and film have enjoyed happy marriages, turbulent love affairs, and plenty of friends-with-benefits arrangements for a century and more, but as they’ve grown old together they’ve also trashed the marital home once or twice. There’s Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2017), where the first frock we see designed by Daniel Day-Lewis’s tortured designer Reynolds Woodcock appears both hideous and uncomfortable. Interestingly, both the modest little black dress “uniform” and the quiet performance of Lesley Manville as Woodcock’s sister/vendeuse in this film, act Day-Lewis and his neuroses off the stage. There’s The Devil Wears Prada, (2006), where the uneasy treatment of the industry – is it art? is it idiotic? is it a moneymaking machine? – has to be saved by the bravura performances of Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt and Stanley Tucci.

Biopics, fashion has got ’em too. 2014 alone saw two films of the life of Yves Saint Laurent, and there have been at least five screen portraits of Mademoiselle Chanel, portrayed by stars from Audrey Tautou to Shirley MacLaine. Robert Altman took his walk-through technique to the industry in the hot, unholy mess that is Prêt-à-Porter (1994), starring absolutely everybody. Yes, everybody: Marcello Mastroianni, Anouk Aimée, Sophia Loren, Julia Roberts, and a dozen more at least, and that’s before we get started on the walk-ons by real-life designers.

In the honeymoon period the relationship was one of near-perfect symbiosis. It is impossible to imagine the golden age of Hollywood without the designers – Gilbert Adrian, Orry-Kelly, Irene, Edith Head – whose job it was to make the leading lady (and sometimes the leading gentleman, if you can picture Cary Grant in a swansdown negligee in Bringing Up Baby) look like a star. The centrepiece of George Cukor’s delicious The Women (1939, with an all-female cast including the greatest stars of the day from Norma Shearer to Joan Crawford to Paulette Goddard) is even a fabulous real-time fashion show that slips into dazzling colour, and so many films of the age are remembered chiefly for their parade of outfits. There’s Bette Davis in Now, Voyager (1942), transformed from spectacled frump into femme fatale by the genius of Orry-Kelly; Audrey Hepburn prancing in Paris in the latest “Think pink!” fashions in Funny Face, where Fred Astaire plays a version of the great fashion photographer Richard Avedon (Avedon himself took the backstage shots); Grace Kelly in Rear Window playing a fashion model and treating James Stewart’s bachelor pad as her catwalk for Edith Head’s designs.

In the end, as these golden age movies show, films about fashion work when the clothes are allowed to speak for themselves, not scolded or ridiculed. This is the trick Halston pulls off by virtue of fine acting enhanced by the designer’s soft, sexy silhouettes, impeccably channelled by Jeriana San Juan. And whether Capote likes it or not it’s why Breakfast At Tiffany’s (1961) is still everyone’s favourite fashion movie: because the genius that was Hubert de Givenchy was given his head and his favourite model.

Halston (2021), all episodes now available on Netflix

Christobel Kent is a Gold Dagger-nominated author. She has lived in Essex, Modena, Florence and Cambridge and has written seventeen novels, ten of which are set in Italy. Her latest novel “The Widower” came out in May

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