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“What is important in a dress is the woman who is wearing it” – Or What Makes Fashion Iconic

Marilena Papalamprou breaks down the ingredients that give a piece of fashion lasting impact


Why do we care about fashion? Many answers have been given to this question. It represents the culture of a nation or a race, it can be used to communicate socio-political messages, it allows people to bond over similar tastes, it can be elevated to the level of art, and it can also become a means to express our ideology, state of mind, and emotions. Appearance is a powerful tool in navigating our way in society. What others see first, whether we like it or not, is our looks, and we are all judged based on them. Every piece of clothing has different associations. A person walking down the street wearing a classic three-piece suit will likely be considered to be employed, economically independent, and probably educated, even if in reality they are just a garage band member with a rented suit on their way to their first job interview after months of rejections. Fashion can fool, and that is why it can be used to one’s advantage. But all these reasons focus on why we enjoy dressing up and place meaning on why we engage with fashion in a practical sense. But fashion is also enjoyed from a voyeuristic point. Why do we take so much pleasure in contemplating it?

The simplest answer is because fashion can be beautiful. Of course, beauty is never simple. If it were, art critics and aesthetic scholars would be out of work. What each age, culture, or individual perceives as beautiful is perhaps arbitrary. It is this cloud of uncertainty surrounding the very concept of beauty, which makes its contemplation so fascinating. I do not dare to propose here an analysis of the subject; there are so many intelligent writers who have engaged with the subject, that my humble attempt to scratch the surface of what beauty actually is would, in truth, be kind of chucklesome. From Plato to Kant and Burke to Pater, the theories about aesthetics are numerous and are all equally seducing. To be sure, we also have Oscar Wilde’s, the “father’s” of British Aestheticism, various witty observations, which tend to express a more romantic outlook: “But beauty, real beauty, ends where an intellectual expression begins”, he has written in his masterful novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, implying that beauty is supposed to be felt, not thought of. But I want to believe that he would allow me some brief, modest analysis.

In order not to digress much, let us look back into fashion. Specifically, the fashion of certain films. Cinema is a wonderful place to turn to when examining fashion, for the simple reason that it offers visual examples that everyone with an internet connection can see. Also, cinematic characters’ styles are frequently a source of inspiration for us, even if we are not aware of it. Maybe we do not like to admit the influence films have on our taste, but it is substantial. That is the reason why blue and white striped shirts (or marinière, if we want to be fancy) are synonymous with France in mainstream media, but mostly for people who live outside of it. When I travelled to Paris, I did not witness a single French person wearing such a shirt, but still, the stereotype prevails. Popular films have had something to do with this.If beauty is not a concrete, universally acknowledged notion, made of some particular rules that we can all follow and then become beautiful in the eyes of everyone, but is, as they say, “in the eyes of the beholder”, it then becomes obvious that the fashion directors working in cinema cannot be certain about what will aesthetically please the public. Then how do some looks become iconic?

Well, the thing is that the looks themselves are not of that much importance. Do not get me wrong, many of the outfits that have remained in cinematic history, and have been admired by both the general public and fashion professionals, are truly magnificent. The amount of skill and imagination needed to create pieces such as Kiera Knightley’s phenomenal green dress in Atonement and Alicia Silverstone’s cult-classic yellow plaid skirt suit in Clueless is exceptional, and the creators deserve our artistic admiration. Yet, there have been numerous films with equally charming clothes that have not managed to gain the title of a “fashion classic”. Why is that?

I believe the answer is quite simple, so simple actually that writing a whole article about it appears a bit mundane: it is not the outfits that are iconic, but the characters. The more I read about fashion, the more this becomes clear. In cinema, an outfit is designed with the character it is destined to dress in mind. They are supposed to mirror their personality, their backstory, or the significance of the scene for their future development. A dress is never just a dress, it is a small piece of the large film puzzle. Plot, photography, colour-palette, soundtrack, lighting, and fashion, all work together towards the final, hopefully captivating, picture. This is most evident in films that are either artistic or deliberately extravagant, like Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. Everything in that movie is so impressively beautiful and so well thought of, that the result approaches aesthetic perfection. If even one of the aforementioned features was a bit off, it would have brought all others down, and none of them would eventually be deemed “iconic”. But I wish to draw attention to simpler fashion pieces, to outfits that are not extremely artistic, but nevertheless have left their mark in cinematic fashion history. Examples include, apart from those already stated, Marilyn Monroe’s pink dress in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Audrey Hepburn’s black dress, gloves, pearls and tiara in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Audrey Tautou’s red dress, black chunky shoes and quirky bob haircut in Amelie, Emma Stone’s yellow dress in La La Land, James Dean’s red jacket and white t-shirt in Rebel Without a Cause, Marlon Brando’s black leather jacket and tilted hat in The Wild One, and Christian Bale’s perfectly tailored suit and slicked-back hair in American Psycho.

I could continue the list for many pages, but I think most would stop reading the article. So, I think those few classic examples are enough to get the message across. For those of you who have watched the films, it becomes obvious what I mean when I say that it is rarely the outfit which is actually “iconic”, especially if we consider such simple looks as James Dean’s; yet sometimes perfection lies in simplicity. His outfit corresponds perfectly to the rebellious, confused, provocative, and deep-down innocent character Dean portrays. It would make no sense to have him dressed in something like tweed, and the artfulness of the film as a whole has elevated the simplest of outfits to a fashion ideal. I want to believe that little things like this can be taken as proof that beauty is hidden in everything; we just have to care enough to look for it and nourish it. Then it will shine on its own.


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