Fabulous Fashion in Film

Dennis Harvey July 26, 2007

Before television there had never been a visual medium quite so “mass” as the movies — offering identical imagery (unlike once widely-popular theatre) to people throughout a country, even the world.

Clothiers quickly discovered what impact such power might have on their own trade. To cite just one famous example: In 1934’s “It Happened One Night,” Clark Gable is at one point seen not wearing an undershirt (then standard menswear) as he takes off his sleeved shirt. When the film became a massive hit undershirt sales took a huge dive nationwide. Reportedly some manufacturers tried to sue Columbia. (Yet this fashion fad was purely accidental: Gable’s had too much trouble removing his undershirt on-set, thus deciding to go without.)

Movie stars are our popular ideals, so it’s unsurprising that the way they dress, get hair-do’d, carry their body weight (now there’s a bottomless issue we don’t have space to get into here) has been a huge influence on popular culture.

In fact, from an early point, certain (almost entirely female) stars were expected to be exemplars of extravagant, elegant, even borderline-ridiculous fashion fuss. Gloria Swanson, Kay Francis, Joan Crawford and others were among those as famous in their heyday for luxuriant on- and off-screen wardrobes as for emoting.

Sex appeal, glamour and fantasy being integral to commercial cinema, movies from those ladies’ “golden era” onward have wrapped the female form in creations ranging from the apex of chic then-current style to outrageous, not-wearable-in-real-life extravagance. (That gamut is equally present in the actual couture fashion world.) Elegant screen sartorial highs and garishly campy lows alike will be well-represented in Fabulous Fashion in Film, an eight-day Castro Theatre series programmed and presented by local film/celebrity-event maestro Marc Huestis.

It kicks off Friday July 27 with a big nod to the continuing presence of gay men in women’s fashion. Billed as “Bad Boys of Runway,” the evening features flamboyant recent contestants from Bravo’s “Project Runway” series — Season 2 finalist Santino Rice and Season 3 winner Jeffrey Sebelia. They’ll be interviewed onstage, then join local society figurehead Denise Hale and no-doubt-enlivening lesbian comedy queen Marga Gomez in judging a “Project Fabulous Fashion” competition with a $500 first prize. (Why, that might almost cover some participant’s costume expenditure!) Drag splendor is presumably A-OK amongst contestants. In fact, I suspect “born women” will be much in the minority.

There will also be suitably flambé musical performances by Juanita More! and Arturo Galster before the Bay Area Reporter’s Tavo Amador introduces all-time Hollywood backbiting-dressy-dames classic “The Women.” This beloved 1939 MGM feature, directed by tres-gay George Cukor (who’d just been fired from “Gone With the Wind,” allegedly because he-man Clark Gable was uncomfortable working with the man he’d once orally pleasured as a struggling young actor) turns Clare Booth Luce’s stage play into a deluxe vehicle for the era’s art-deco designs and stereotypical “female” bad behavior.

The victim here is Norma Shearer (at her drippy worst), a socialite wife whose husband is stolen by vixen usurper Joan Crawford (at her steely best). Among the sharks and minnows swimming in this high-class, über-bitchy pond — where words overheard during a manicure or dress-fitting often prove seismic — are a rollcall of fascinatin’ wimmin including Rosalind Russell, Mary Boland, Joan Fontaine, Paulette Goddard, Marjorie Main (Ma Kettle!), Hedda Hopper, and “GWTW’s” Butterfly McQueen. They’re all stunningly attired by MGM’s house costumier Adrian, whose customary shoulder-pads for Crawford (he clothed her in 28 films) sparked a major trend.

Saturday offers a dizzying sweep through various forms of fashion-hyperconscious femininity: 1988 part-animation smash “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” features Kathleen Turner as the smoky voice of torch-songtress Playboy-style “bunny” Jessica Rabbit, whose ’40s-style gowns look (and literally are) “painted on.” Crawford returns as the stylish but stinging publishing-house boss-from-hell to several pretty young things including Hope Lange and actual former model Suzy Parker. Then there’s last year’s “The Devil Wears Prada,” with Meryl Streep playing essentially the same role. (She’s great, but if you liked her here, I’d call attention to an even more hilarious Cruella de Vil-meets-Barbara Bush turn in 2005’s underappreciated “Manchurian Candidate” remake.)

Bearing no resemblance whatsoever to real-world clothing are the fanciful designs (by Catherine Martin) in Baz Luhrmann’s short-attention-spanned musical pastiche “Moulin Rouge.” Let alone the outer-space fetish wear worn by a pre-political Jane Fonda and others in Roger Vadim’s 1968 erotic-comic-book adaptation “Barbarella.” The latter features some good fantasy male “looks” in John Philip Law’s ravishing blind winged-angel and Ugo Tognazzi’s hot, hairy daddy-bear. Jane is very funny as well as sexy — though later she seemed embarrassed by this career chapter, her ability to delightfully elevate such high-end softcore cheese remains impressive.

Adrian (born Adrian Adolph Greenberg to Jewish immigrant parents) also designed the equally fantastic costumes for “The Wizard of Oz,” Sunday’s early matinee. Later, it’s all Audrey Hepburn — meaning high-couture non-vulgarity, as defined by glossy musicals “Funny Face” (1957) and “My Fair Lady” (1964).

As it goes on, the “Fabulous Fashion” series strays farther from classic Hollywood glamour. Monday features major fashion “don’t‘s” Little Edie and Big Edith Beale in ’70s train-wreck cult documentary favorite “Grey Gardens,” followed by Jennie Livingston’s brilliant 1990 “Paris is Burning,” about NYC’s pre-Madonna voguing scene.

Tuesday’s double bill is gender-bendingly glamalicious: Todd Haynes’ 1998 imagining of the ’70s English glitter-rock world, “Velvet Goldmine” — an ambitious movie whose dispirited feel makes sense when you know they lost one-third of the production budget just before shooting commenced — plus John Cameron Mitchell’s writing-directing-starring vehicle as transsexual “Hedwig & the Angry Inch.” (The latter has many fans, but I much prefer Mitchell’s non-musical subsequent feature “Shortbus,” which is well worth rental dollars if you haven’t seen it already.)

Wednesday goes classic Hollywood again with two screenings of 1950s evergreen backstage slapfest “All About Eve,” the 7 p.m. show featuring onstage guests paying tribute to Edith Head’s designs. Between them is the 1932 “Blonde Venus,” a typically sumptuous and nutty collaboration between Josef von Sternberg and his protégé Marlene Dietrich, who at one memorable point emerges from a full-body gorilla suit to sing “Hot Voodoo.” And later, we get Columbia Pictures noir classic “Gilda,” in which Rita Hayworth dazzles (and provides the model for Jessica Rabbit) as a stunningly sexy nightclub singer in strapless gown and full-length white gloves. She’s the Jeanne Moreau coming betwixt the Jules et Jim of Glenn Ford and George Macready — except this 1946 noir melodrama improbably finds homoerotic tension absent from Truffaut’s later, theoretically more “frank” vision.

Finally, the “Fabulous Fashion” series devotes two last days to the extreme glitter-gown flash of African American girl groups of the ’60s. Both nights feature 7 p.m. screenings of last year’s Broadway-to-screen “Dreamgirls.” I can’t be alone in thinking that Oscar-wise, Eddie Murphy wuz robbed. (Nor did he handle that burglary gracefully.) Of course, Beyonce looks fabu throughout — though her singing clotheshorse is consistently overshadowed by Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Holiday, and Murphy. The second feature on Friday the 2nd is “Sparkle,” a 1976 B-flick that disappoints in its cruder low-budget dramatization of a Supremes-like career trajectory, though Lonette McKee does shine as the ousted “bad girl” member.

On Saturday it’s 1975’s “Mahogany,” not a musical yet a truly supreme expression of Diana Ross’ ego, bad acting, and image-mongering by Motown mentor Barry Gordy. Like another famously terrible soap-opera-movie, “Valley of the Dolls,” this one also has a pretty great pop-existential theme song, “Do You Know Where You’re Going To?”

Cast as a struggling fashion designer from The Ghetto — from which also springs eventual activist-savior-lover Billy Dee Williams — Ross allegedly designed her character’s own career-making fashion triumphs. They will leave you howling. As will the performance of Anthony Perkins as a “Psycho”-tic fashion photog whose impotence (as far as heterosexual acts are concerned) doesn’t stop him wigging out full-on when girlfriend has had enough of his shrill tantrums.

Overdressed and overcooked, “Mahogany” is the very definition of so-bad-it’s-good. Or at least so bad it can’t be forgotten — not exactly a pleasure, but a first-class trainwreck you can’t turn away from.