“Cinema and Haute Couture: Sabrina to Pretty Woman, Trop Belle pour Toi!, Prêt-à-Porter” Reading Summary

- Barbara Leung

(Images can be found in the SlideShare presentation above, as well as brief recap)

Published in 1997 by New York and London based company Routledge, “Cinema and Haute Couture: Sabrina to Pretty Woman, Trop Belle Pour Toi!, Prêt-à-Porter” is the first chapter in University of Warwick professor Stella Bruzzi’s book Undressing Cinema. Bruzzi currently holds the position of professor of film and television, and specializes in the research of fashion and costume, gender and identity in film, and documentary film and television.

This chapter seeks to address the questions of exhibitionism and art (Bruzzi 8); the attempt to determine if clothes can and should perform a spectacular as opposed to a “subservient visual role in film” (Bruzzi 8), as well as if these costumes can and should remain functional intermediaries to narrative. While it is perhaps not seemingly clear if Bruzzi targets these questions with each example, there are certain passages worth highlighting and extracting from.

The approach of the chapter is one that is analytical; taking into account the viewpoints of other authors, such as Roland Barthes and Peter Wollen. While there is the presentation of historical facts, it focuses mostly on the theory of presentation and identity.

Distinguishing the old and new is necessary, as it is noted that clothing is prioritised over narrative (i.e. new), and that the traditional ethos (i.e. old) of costume design was meant as a means to create looks complementing the narrative, character, and stars (Bruzzi 3). The introduction of fashion into films provides an interesting look as to how it has since developed; the earliest films to feature fashion were what called “cinematic fashion shows,” in which the story lines were built around the display.

Soon to change, however, was the significance of the costume designer, who was once considered to be the “dictator of fashion” (Bruzzi 5). The new relationship formed between stars and clothes, via the French couturier, could be observed through one of the best examples of the era, Sabrina. What resulted was the symbolic divergence between the roles of the costume designer and of the couturier; more specifically in this case, between Edith Head and Hubert Givenchy.

It is not to say that the end of the costume designer was met with Sabrina. The circumstances in which the movie was given, lent itself more to the importance of the couturier. The relationship between identity and costume is something that must be clearly realized. According to Roland Barthes, there are three different structures with regards to fashion: technological, iconic, and verbal. To be clear, the term “iconic” refers to the idea that there is an independent and prior meaning.

The discussion on costumes, though, does not only limit itself to women. Men, too, find themselves in this realm of discussion, although in a more recent frame. Where men were once expected to bring their own clothing to sets, the idea of fetishism opens with Richard Gere’s role in American Gigolo, and the focus on his clothing, which communicates identity and messages of male sexuality.

While the films are somewhat outdated, there is still relevance in the article in terms of the theories and ideas presented.