Two films authenticating fashion’s omnipresence in visual electronic media premiered this October: The September Issue, a documentary on Ana Wintour, American Vogue's Editor-in-Chief, and Coco Avant Chanel, a French biopic starring Audrey Tautou that depicts Gabrielle Chanel's life before she opened her iconic fashion house. Both films dig deep into an industry fuelled by superficiality.
The September Issue debuted on October 22 at LG Toronto Fashion Week. The film was advertised as a feature on the Machiavellian Ana Wintour, but it proves to go further than a real-life version of The Devil Wears Prada. While the dagger-eyes and excruciating curtness satisfy Wintour’s infamous “dragon lady” persona, they are far from the documentary’s only points of interest.
The film showcases the tumultuous relationship between Wintour and Grace Coddington, Vogue's Creative Director. In an almost Blakean way, Coddington is the Orc of the Vogue office. She is a fiery Romantic, addicted to beauty and imagination, while the Urizanic Wintour is about practicality and cutthroat efficiency. In consequence, she often undercuts Coddington. In the end, Wintour and Coddington realize Vogue’s bipolarity over the past 20 years has raised it to its fashion-bible status. Surprisingly, the film’s heroine is actually Coddington, whom Wintour refers to as a “genius” in her final interview scene.
Coco Avant Chanel picks up the narrative of another fashion heroine, the poor orphan Gabrielle Chanel in turn-of-the-century France. Struggling against gender and social prejudices, Coco prevails. Tatou gives a beautiful performance, shedding her trademark cuteness in favour of Chanel’s edgy quips and melancholy demeanor. The love interests are a little dull, but only because they are beside the point; the story of how Chanel developed the belief that there was a sexiness to simplicity, especially in an era of corsets and excess, takes precedence.
Paul Babiak, a professor at U of T's Cinema Studies Institute, explains that film and TV have always had an intimate relationship with fashion. He is quick to point out that the first stylists were on film sets. But TV was the real fashion catalyst. In Canada, this started with the Women’s Magazine Show on CBC in 1952.
"TV is unabashedly and straightforwardly commercial, and so is fashion," said Babiak. "People can get a more up-to-date sense of style from TV than from magazines. Last month’s Chatelaine isn’t current within a few weeks."
More recently, reality shows such as Project Runway and Canada’s Next Top Model have exposed the fashion industry. “TV brings things into the public sphere," said Babiak. "During the information boom in the 1990s, everything got blown wide open. There is an interesting tension in the way fashion on TV includes elements of covering and uncovering.”
Babiak further explains that the reality show trend stems from an increasing self-consciousness: “TV is communication, not just entertainment. We have a complete sensory engagement with what is broadcasted, it's part of our reality. When you’re watching TV, it's like you are wearing that dress.”
Once the backdrop to people’s lives, fashion has been projected into the foreground thanks to film media. We are more obsessed with fashion and its workings than ever before. Something has changed, but what? Either fashion has gained more depth, or our all-encompassing fascination with it shows that we live in a more superficial time.