Personality Drives Fashion

A character we can relate to brings fashion to life on film

Fashion documentaries, like fashion itself, are aspirational. They’re about getting special access to the people and processes behind a world we often experience only through very intentionally constructed visuals (editorials, clothing displays, staged blogger street style). A good documentary shows us how our fantasy fashion worlds are constructed, and forces us to think about them differently. But as our appetite for more access, more insight, more fashion grows, the quality of the offerings can suffer.

In Matthew Miele’s newest documentary, Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s, what we are promised is an insider’s look at one of the most famous high-end department stores to grace New York’s Fifth Avenue. What we get instead is over 100 interviews with designers, celebrities and employees espousing the store’s luxury and exclusivity for the better part of an hour and a half. Christian Louboutin calls it the epitome of luxury in a department store. Oscar de la Renta tells us there is no place better than Bergdorf’s to help a woman express her femininity. The idea that women can’t wait to become lawyers so that they can afford to buy a pair of shoes at Bergdorf’s is bandied about. Despite over a hundred years worth of history and personalities to choose from, Scatter My Ashes doesn’t do what is essential in storytelling: it doesn’t find a focus.

Interesting personalities are passed over for big names. In the fashion world, Linda Fargo, Bergdorf’s artistic director and head buyer, is as powerful as Anna Wintour. Fargo’s purchasing decisions can make a designer’s career and also decide for the public, via the trickle down effect of fashion, what the next big trend will be. With Fargo on board, Miele had the opportunity to show us how retail buying at such a high level shapes all tiers of the industry. Instead, we briefly see Fargo turn down an unimaginative line from Ally Hilfiger and are none the wiser as to what drives her decisions or how the whole process works.

Then there’s Betty Halbreich, one of the store’s top personal shoppers. A woman well past middle age, Halbreich tells it like it is, not hesitating to let million-dollar clients know when things look terrible. Bergdorf’s best personal shoppers, like Betty, draw in around $500,000 (USD) in commissions per year but we only get minutes to hear from her.

Finally, there’s David Hoey, Bergdorf’s senior director of visual presentation. Hoey spends the better part of the year choosing a theme, commissioning special designer dresses, and corralling a team of artists to create mosaic sea-life and jewel-encrusted polar bears, all to suit his vision for Bergdorf’s annual holiday windows. He is the interesting personality who can drive the story and guide the viewer behind the scenes of elite visual merchandising. Unfortunately Miele does not commit to making him the centre of the plotline, splicing his story in amongst designer cameos and depriving us of a character we can relate to.

In the movie, Hoey describes the task of window dressing for the masses: “you have to be very highbrow and silly at the same time,” he says, “so everyone will enjoy it.” Miele tries to apply the same formula to editing Scatter My Ashes, but with fashion documentaries, we don’t want the shallow overview we already have. We want flaws and toil and reality. We want someone whose shoes we could imagine filling.

Here are six fashion documentaries whose subjects let us dare to dream, in a way Scatter My Ashes never quite manages:

Boss Women: Anna Wintour – Magazine Editor
Anna Wintour is notoriously calculated and reserved. She has done more for the VOGUE brand than any editor-in-chief before her, but has shared very little about herself in the process. In this 50-minute long BBC documentary, we hear much more from Anna about her process, and even her family, than we ever see in The September Issue, reminding us that underneath the armour, a living, breathing human (albeit a very shrewd one) does exist.

Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel
It’s hard to tell how many stories are true and how many are made up in this 2011 documentary, but as fashion editor at Harper’s Bazaar, editor at VOGUE, and special consultant at the Metropolitain Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, Vreeland was an expert at turning fantasy into reality. Through interview clips and narrated excerpts from her biography, The Eye Has to Travel demonstrates how Vreeland personified fashion’s artistry and storytelling down to the very last fibre of her being.

Visionaires: Tom Ford
Tom Ford bluffed his way into a design position with Gucci on a Parson’s degree in architecture and worked his way up to the top job there, at Yves Saint Laurent, and eventually at his own namesake label. In an intimate piece for the OWN Network, Ford reveals his creative process (it includes taking three or four baths a day), talks about his childhood (“I remember telling my mother ‘your hair’s wrong, this is wrong, I hate those shoes, you shouldn’t wear that, that sofa’s ugly’”), and insists that he just has a knack for knowing what the next big trend will be. He is self-confident to the point that it is hard to like him, but he has such clarity of vision and is so accomplished that you can’t help but admire him.

Bill Cunningham’s New York
In Bill Cunningham’s New York, we see how Cunningham’s weekly On the Street column is put together, going behind the scenes at The New York Times and with New York elite to dispel the fabricated fairytale world depicted in the final product. The former milliner’s child-like enthusiasm is infectious, and his unique photographic vision and unusual personality push the story forward and keep us engaged.

The September Issue
The September Issue is a look at the process behind putting together VOGUE’s famed September issue, the largest magazine of the year. Viewers get to see the incredible amount of detail it takes to put together a VOGUE editorial spread and what role a creative director like Grace Coddington plays. She doesn’t put on airs or shy from conflict, but remains perfectly likeable, and that makes her a star.

Valentino: The Last Emperor
We can’t help but be drawn into Valentino: The Last Emperor with its extravagance (palaces and yachts and thousands of hand-sewn sequins) and simplicity (a sketch of a gown drawn with a mere flick of the wrist). “This was the best thing for me to make dresses, I am a disaster in everything else,” he tells us. It seems unlikely. Watching him deftly maneuver his last collection is both fascinating and bittersweet and even though we may never imagine ourselves living his life, this film serves as a good reminder to value and nurture our talents, however limited we may believe them to be.

WHO WORE IT BETTER: Romeo and Juliet vs. Romeo + Juliet

Taking style—not relationship—cues from theatre's most iconic couple

A long, long time ago, musical duo The Everly Brothers recorded a song called “Love Hurts.” Now, history was never my strongest subject, but I’m 98% sure Billy Shakespeare had that song in mind when he wrote his tragic love story, Romeo and Juliet (his other point of reference was clearly the classic romance, Pretty in Pink).

To truly understand this tale of woe (this of Juliet and her Romeo), one must look beyond what one learned from their Grade 10 English teacher, and instead refer to the styling choices made in the two most iconic film adaptations. I’m talking, of course, of the 1968 Franco Zeffirelli and the 1996 Baz Lurhmann versions. Come join us in Fair Verona where we lay our scene.

ACT ONE: Just a Good Ol’ Fashioned Family Feud

If a picture is worth a thousand words, a well thought out costume is worth pages of backstory. Costume designer Danilo Donati won an Academy Award for his job on the 1968 film, and it’s easy to see why: what better way to convey the gang like confrontations between the Montagues and the Capulets than with colour-coded tights? The entire movie is like a 1960′s retrospective of the Renaissance, where even characters with violent tendencies are draped in lush fabrics and faded colours. This explains the following:

PINK TIGHTS!! Just hanging out in the background on a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it extra.

Luckily for us, the overenthusiastic viewers, Baz Luhrmann also just does not do subtlety. Romeo + Juliet was, believe it or not, the first movie for costume designer Kym Barrett, though as a surprise to no one she has an extensive background in theatre costuming. (She would later go on to work on the hacker-tastic Matrix). If you’re gonna have an out-and-out brawl at a gas station triggered by nothing more than some inappropriate thumb-biting, you’re going to need flamboyant looks including shocking pink hair and lots of leather. Is this movie timeless? Hell no. And that’s why we love it.

ACT 2: It is the East, and Juliet is the Sun

And so we come to our star-crossed lovers. Olivia Hussey as the 1968 Juliet was probably the mane main reason why I went a year and a half without cutting my hair. Every scene in which she wears it pulled back, her hair still dominates the scene with its glossy locks and center part. You know the girl was just waiting for any opportunity to shake it out like she was in a Herbal Essences commercial. In keeping with all the soft edges of the film’s aesthetic, is it any wonder that for Romeo they cast Leonard Whiting, who looks like he could be Zac Efron’s great uncle? Gotta love a dude who can effortlessly pull off two-tone tights while getting into a fight.

The relationship between early-teenager Juliet and nearly-adult Romeo probably would not be that palatable to contemporary audiences, yet Lurhmann was able to keep the age difference consistent but not skeezy by casting another baby-faced blue eyed actor named Leo (that’s DiCaprio. Keep up, now). Simultaneously non-threatening and able to piss off the parents of his amour, he proved to be the perfect Jordan Catalano for Claire Danes’s Juliet.

I believe the costume designer for this was given the assignment: “try to put everything about the ’90s into one outfit. Then amp it up by 11.” A shiny, button-up, halter wedding dress WITH a high ponytail and two skinny face framing hair wisps? Is she getting married or auditioning as an extra in a Smashing Pumpkins video? Next you’re going to tell me that the best man in this wedding is the guy from Bring it On.


ACT 3: Ain’t No Party like a Capulet Party

In a play filled with excesses, the visual cues come to a glittering pinnacle with a riotous masquerade. It serves as the backdrop for the first meeting between two of pop culture’s most melodramatic teenagers, so low-key it ain’t. Zeffirelli goes for a hazy nightmarish vibe with unsettling metallic masks, at once animalistic and skeletal.

Lurhmann skips the vague drug allegories and goes straight for an ecstasy high, creating a kaleidoscope of colours heightened by the surrealism of having his entire cast in costumes that mirror their personalities.

They can star in as many gritty shows and movies like Homeland and Django Unchained as they want, but will we ever see these two as anything beyond an angel and a knight, kissing by the book?

ACT 4: The Supporting Cast Needs Your Love, Too

Ice queen Lady Capulet (Natasha Parry in 1968) drapes herself in black, curtaining her perma-scowl. Even if the Montagues and Capulets weren’t feuding, methinks Romeo would still be nervous around his mother-in-law.

Whatchu brewing in that apothecary, 1968 Friar Lawrence (Milo O’Shea)? Could it be CINEMATIC ATMOSPHERE??? Somebody use this as the backdrop for a photo shoot, stat.

1996 Friar Lawrence (Pete Postlethwaite) has such an intense relationship with God he doesn’t even bother buttoning up his shirt, granting the Almighty a straight route to his heart.

1996 Nurse (Miriam Margolyes) looks like somebody to whom you could confide all your problems before raiding her accessories drawer. Those shades!

ACT 5: Call it Funeral Chic

This is a tragedy, after all. That ooey-gooey puppy love can’t compete with the power of deep rooted hatred, poison, fake poison, swords, daggers, and (if you’re Baz Luhrmann), pistols. Still, if you’re gonna fake your death, you might as well do it in style. Can we see some more gauze on that ensemble, Juliet?
That’s better. And how much do we love the girls of Capulet house, treating Juliet’s not-not-funeral as a place to show off their duds? We love them. We love them a lot.

Romeo and Juliet, together and colour-coded for eternity.

Not to be outdone, 1996 Juliet shies away from wearing black when depressed, opting instead for an equally moody midnight blue. I mean what are you going to do, not wear a velvet dress with a pointed collar and matching beret when planning to fake your own death? That right there is exactly why you’re single.

Finally, my favourite set out of both movies. LOOK AT ALL THOSE CANDLES! What I love about this is that Juliet’s family didn’t know that Romeo would break his way in, or that Friar Lawrence was planning to rescue her, and still they go all out in snazzing up her crypt. What does your job title have to be to ensure the lighting of dozens and dozens of ornate candles surrounding a dead body? And is there any room for advancement in that profession? Is the life expectancy at least better than a Montague in Verona?

Winner: I could waste my time trying to calculate which film had the better wardrobes, but really in both scenarios it is the audience that wins. Still, I have to give the “Best Dressed” title to anybody, we all know that 1996 Mercutio owns it.

Please don’t kill yourself in the name of romance.

Backwards In High Heels: A Fred & Ginger Supercut

A look at the classic Hollywood style of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire

When WORN held its redesign Indiegogo fundraiser last fall, the top perk for support was a film supercut of the bidder’s choosing. One of the supercuts was snapped up by Nathalie Atkinson, Style editor and culture columnist at the National Post. Atkinson’s choice was a supercut of every single outfit Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers wore when they appeared together on-screen in their ten musical pairings. Here, she explains why.

My taste—and to a degree, what I do for a living—was shaped in my teens, by whatever TVO’s Saturday Night at the Movies host Elwy Yost felt like watching every weekend.

Elwy loved old movies and particularly the RKO musicals of the ’30s, and as a consequence so do I. I love the costumes in many of his favourite Silver Screen classics—Rosalind Russell’s striped topcoat and hat from His Girl Friday, everything Myrna Loy wears in The Thin Man, by costumer Dolly Tree, the pre-Code bias satins and boas of Dinner at Eight. But the grace, elegance, and wit of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’ costumes in their musical comedy pairings remain my favourite. Their panache not only affected dance: it popularized the American songbook (Berlin, the Gershwin) not to mention a fantasy world of stark black and white Art Deco interiors and beautiful evening attire. “The Continental” from The Gay Divorcée won the very first Academy Award for best original song.

The legendary dance duo spent eight hours a day for six weeks rehearsing and perfecting choreography with Hermes Pan prior to shooting a film (which they did, in long takes, on perilously glossy floors). Note that as a 1982 “Frank & Ernest” newspaper comic strip by Bob Thaves later coined, Ginger did everything Fred did, only backwards. And in high heels.

They were the perfect complement for both banter and ballroom: Fred’s dancing is debonair and classy; Ginger’s is graceful but sassy (or as Katharine Hepburn put it: he gave her class; she gave him sex appeal.) Did they or didn’t they? Reading Rogers’ 1991 autobiography, Ginger: My Story, you’ll learn that while both were performing in separate Broadway shows before she was lured to Hollywood (when they made their first picture together, it was her 21st and only his 2nd), she and Fred had been more than a little warmly acquainted. They’d been on a few dates and even shared a real clinch or two (which is more than they ever did on film, given the newly cordial and reserved relationship with Astaire, by then married and, according to Ginger at least, his wife Adele was jealous and possessive).

Fred is known for the white tie, black tie, and tails, and Ginger’s loveliest bias-cut ballgown costumes are those made in collaboration with Howard Greer, a fashion and costume designer who stayed on in France after the Great War to work at Molyneux, Lucile, and Poiret before returning to Hollywood. (Fun fashion fact: Rogers didn’t make her first trip to France until 1952, but she made up for lost time. In Paris she stayed at Le Meurice, where Earl Blackwell squired her to a fashion show and later, numerous private fittings with designer Elsa Schiaparelli. And in the 1970s, Ginger collaborated on a capsule collection for J.C. Penney!)

Carefree’s “The Yam” dress by Howard Greer is one Rogers describes as “chiffon panels of red flame and steel gray.” In this film she also wears a bold original dress design of appliquéd arrows piercing a heart by costume designer Howard Greer and Edward Stevenson (you may recognize it from its recent contemporary copycat: a few years ago New Zealand designer Karen Walker did a very, very similar frock she called “Cupid”). There’s “Change Partners,” also by Greer: “a beautiful black marquisette gown, with a picoted bodice with silver threads, which caused a slight glimmer of reflected light as I danced around the floor.” The dress for “Color Blind” made her feel “like the fairy godmother in Cinderella.” For The Barkleys of Broadway, the first number in the film was the “Swing Trot” and costumer Irene made her a gold lamé dress to contrast with the purple chorus gowns. “My dress had a very full skirt and when I whirled, it filled with air because of the way it was sewn—balloon-style at the hem.”

It’s in 1949′s The Barkleys of Broadway, their final film together—in Technicolour—that you see the beginnings of Astaire’s more casual personal style, later recognizable in films such as The Band Wagon and Funny Face: the necktie as belt, the kerchief, the brightly coloured shirts paired with shortened trousers that showed off his intricate footwork (which inspired Michael Jackson to crop his trousers the same way). Here, the menswear is by MGM costumer J. Arlington Valles.

The Fred and Ginger movies follow a loose formula—a meet-cute dance number, a solo, a casual one, a romantic seduction dance (such as “Cheek to Cheek”), and one grand production number to close. And while they’re elegant, my favourites of their 1930′s costumes aren’t the formal suits and gowns but their more playful, casual attire. Fred was daring, for his day and American audience, because he emulated the English tweed sport jackets and Savile Row suiting style of the Prince of Wales (he traveled to London himself to be fitted by purveyors Hawes & Curtis or Anderson & Sheppard). Ginger wore witty, sometimes goofy costumes like satin sailor suits (Follow the Fleet), like jodhpurs and roller-skating skirts, in the looser numbers. There is also, of course, some dish about the infamous costume at the heart of the legendary fight she had on Top Hat with Astaire and their longtime director Mark Sandrich, the director on five of their nine RKO musicals together (their 10th was in colour, at MGM). Rogers had specifically asked for a pale blue dress with front and back neckline trimmed in long ostrich feathers. Fred didn’t care for it, especially since with every movement and quiver, it shed feathers—all over his tuxedo, for example.

She got her way and the dress—and all its feathers—floats languidly and sensually through the number; it now resides in the Smithsonian, along with her glittering dress from The Piccolino. The dance partners reconciled and from then on, his nickname for her was ‘Feathers.’

And if you look closely, around the 50-second mark you’ll see the high-gloss dance floor littered with the ostrich feathers that have slowly drifted over the course of their dance.

text // Nathalie Atkinson
video // Daniel Reis

Every one of the costumes they wore on-camera together during their partnership, in chronological order:
Flying Down to Rio
The Gay Divorcee
Top Hat
Follow the Fleet
Swing Time
Shall We Dance
The Story of Vernon & Irene Castle
The Barkleys of Broadway

further reading >
Astaire & Rogers by Edward Gallafent
Fred Astaire by Joseph Epstein
Puttin’ On the Ritz: Fred Astaire & the Fine Art of Panache by Peter J. Levinson
Ginger: My Story by Ginger Rogers
Fred Astaire: His Friends Talk by Sarah Giles
The Astaires by Kathleen Riley

Three Short (and One Longer) Reviews About Documentaries

We loved Bill Cunningham: New York. We are ridiculously excited for the Advanced Style film. However, we don’t limit ourselves to only critically watching documentaries explicitly about fashion. When Toronto’s Hot Docs fest rolled around a few months ago, the Wornettes took to the theatres. We noticed that there were documentaries on a variety of subjects in which either clothing played an integral role to the subject being explored, or the underbellies of parts of the fashion industry were exposed. Here are a few short reviews—and one longer one—about docs that got us thinking.

She Said Boom: The Story of Fifth Column
Dir. Kevin Hegge (2012)

Hegge combines present day interviews and archival footage to tell the story of the most badass lady fronted art-punk band Toronto has ever seen: Fifth Column. For those not familiar with the post-punk, pseudo psych group that featured a cast of rotating musicians, as well as three solid members (GB Jones, Caroline Azar, and Beverly Breckenridge), they fused art, music, and zines to create a style that was truly their own. Fifth Column came before riot grrrl, and Kathleen Hanna speaks in the film about what an inspiration the band was to her. Kathleen may have written “slut” on herself, but Fifth Column first insisted that “All Women Are Bitches.” Band members GB and Caroline explain in the film their philosophies on fashion: the faker, the better. The bigger the hair, the heavier the make-up, the more “ladylike” you were. As Judith Butler says, all gender is drag, and the girls in Fifth Column seem to really understand this. // Jenna Danchuk

GLOW: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling
Dir. Brett Whitcomb (2012)

Flower-adorned, dressed in a sequin bikini, and riding in on a horse. No, this woman is not on the beach—she is entering the wrestling ring. GLOW: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling tells the story of the first all-female wrestling program that aired from 1986 to 1990. Each actress turned wrestler had a persona assigned to her and a dazzling ensemble to match: Americana was decked in stars and stripes and Amy the Father’s Daughter in a crop gingham top, Daisy Duke shorts, and pigtails. They were expected to stay in role 24/7 and developed their character by adding to their original costumes with corsets, accessories, fake accents, and even live animals to reflect their own personal style. When a wrestler of GLOW slipped on her leopard gloves or crimson cape, she took on a persona that gave her presence, confidence, and the strength to dropkick and put her opponent in a nelson hold, and look glamorous while doing it. // Jill Heintzman

Continue reading