As the pandemic means our outfits are also finding themselves confined, fashion is blooming in a new direction: TV series.
A leopard print fascinator, its matching fur collar, and crimson gloves effortlessly spinning a vintage steering wheel: it is with sartorial details spread like a spider’s web that the intricate persona of the Netflix series Hollywood is introduced. Set after the second world war in California’s movie scene, the multilayered affair meticulously explores tensions between generations and genders. Throughout the series, costume designers Sarah Evelyn and Lou Eyrich add density to each role with their intricate clothing choices – all of which are also, of course, drop dead chic.
The retro drama is one of many new programs where fashion is a central if not vital ingredient. The recent. Netflix hit Emily in Paris, starring cover star Lily Collins, follows an aspiring Parisienne cavorting through the French capital in layers of color-block Chanel and Kenzo, finished with Louboutins.
The production’s star stylist, Patricia Field – the master behind the Sex and the City wardrobes – has imagined not so much a realistic Parisian look but, rather, what a thoroughly American woman might deem an appropriate outfit for the City of Lights.
“The goal was to convey Emily in her Parisian experience and how she adapted to the fashion in Paris as she was able to absorb French culture,” shares Field, who describes her method as “coordinating classics in a new way.” Think plenty of berets, houndstooth, thick golden buttons for an Eighties touch, and heavy prints. Nicknamed a fashionista by some, a ringarde (passé or old-fashioned) by others, Emily has been making waves, and placing fashion at the core of the filmic discussion.
Clothes build on visual language to reflect the complexity of each character. The idea of fashion as vernacular follows a tradition underscored by legendary contemporary costume designer Edith Head, who won eight Academy Awards for best costume design throughout her career.
From her early days in 1920s Hollywood to working on Sunset Boulevard (1950), Funny Face (1957), and Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), she envisaged clothing as a narrative force of its own.
Each outfit was layered with hushed meaning, filled with symbols, echoing the storyline and giving density to on-screen personas. In Hitchcock’s 1958 thriller Vertigo, Head opted for a heavily contrasted palette for the lead, Kim Novak, as a metaphor for dark and light.
History shows that costume design has existed since ancient Greeks, when playwright Aeschylus created the costumes for actors to wear when performing his tragedies. The practice continued to expand throughout the Renaissance in Shakespearean plays, although actors were mostly instructed to provide their own clothes to wear on stage.
In the 16th century, the Italian traveling troupe Commedia dell’Arte started to fill trunks with clothes for stock characters. Harlequins, servers, and street children were immediately recognizable for the visual language expressed. As the theater industry continued to mature, so did the desire for accuracy in costume design to reflect cultures and epochs. While historical precision was one side of the costumer’s coin, the other was vision, as clothes brought a mood to a scene void of factual time and place. César-nominated costume designer Catherine Baba is one creative who maintains this way of thinking, explaining that she aims “to convey the director’s global vision first. Then, I propose a vision of each of the characters through deciphering their personal story, psychologically as well as physically, introducing aesthetics true to the narrative with details to enhance the emotional and visual persona.” She illuminates, “The visual aesthetic is ultra-important, but it means nothing if it does not lift the character and story to its ultimate and highest form.”
Contemporary series are reaching a comparable level of stylistic complexity. Another example of clothing-as-spectacle is the film noir-inspired Netflix series Ratched, which traces the origins of the Nurse Ratched character from the 1962 novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. In the show, Sarah Paulson plays the titular nurse in a psychiatric ward dressed in impeccable 1950s garb, with monochrome vintage chic running through the series like a (muted) golden thread. Her ensembles sit somewhere between a power suit and a uniform, suggesting responsibility and strength. In contrast, the over-the-top cliched outfits in Emily in Paris reflect the protagonist’s failure to fit in, and the gap between her fantasy of the city and the reality she discovers. In building the character, Field shares that she first follows the script, then the character description, before delving into the wardrobe choice; always keeping in mind character, body type, and an actor’s personality.
Today, as the world still reels from lockdown, with fashion sales tumbling and life on the street – selfies et al – becoming a distant memory, these shows are playing an increasingly important role: watched at home, inching through the unnerving amount of free time behind closed doors, they fill the empty space with visual amuse-bouches. “Series have become an inspirational platform; they enter our personal lives. Unlike movies, they speak directly to you; they take up the space fashion editorials once did, and display an extended amount of characters offering different options, styles, lifestyles, and take up the space of magazines,” says Alice Litscher, a professor at Paris’s Institut Français de la Mode.
Like the previous decades’ Sex and the City or Gossip Girl, the fantasy personas offer lifestyle alternatives that have simultaneously become an inspiration, an aspiration, a coach, and a best friend. For those living life in pandemic-enforced isolation, this bedside sartorial cure is (almost) what the doctor ordered.
Originally published in the November 2020 Issue of Vogue Arabia