The fashion industry, simultaneously glamorous and cutthroat, naturally lends itself to onscreen intrigue: There’s a distinct pleasure to be had in watching characters wear opulent costumes we wouldn’t dare try on ourselves in real life. Phantom Thread, Paul Thomas Anderson’s emotionally prickly tale of a mid-century London couturier, has emerged as the most recent arrival in the cinema’s pantheon of fashion-world allure. With the movie now playing at Brooklyn’s Alamo Drafthouse in glorious 70mm, staff programmer Cristina Cacioppo has assembled a characteristically playful companion lineup of nine other films that also represent the vast potential of fabulous outfits to captivate audiences. (The series began earlier this month and continues through the end of January.)
The offerings include both depictions of the industry itself and films that are just plain fashionable. The oldest title here, Stanley Donen’s Funny Face (1957), proposes one of the movies’ classic fashion-narrative templates, with Audrey Hepburn embodying the arty gamine turned glamour girl. (A whole separate series could be dedicated to fashion in film before the Fifties, what with the famous designers and glorious gowns of the studio era, but hopefully Alamo’s inspired slate will inspire moviegoers to do some stylish digging of their own in that department.) Phantom Thread borrows elements from Funny Face’s Pygmalion formula and dramatically subverts them with the push-and-pull between the excellently named, finicky designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis, in his reported final role) and the rosy-cheeked waitress Alma (Vicky Krieps), who becomes his muse. The power dynamics on display veer toward kink as Alma and Woodcock push each other’s buttons, leaving the audience unsure who has the upper hand until the blackly comic final moments.
These dynamics recall a later film in the series, New German Cinema master Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s gloriously stylized all-female chamber piece The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972). This tale of a fashion designer (Margit Carstensen), her silent, enigmatic assistant (Irm Hermann), and her new muse (Hanna Schygulla) makes fine use of fashion to elevate the drama, with a bevy of wigs and metallic fetish wear; the combination of the charged atmosphere and obsessive protagonist seems an influence on Thread. In interviews, Anderson has also cited gothic romance as an inspiration, and a few of the titles playing in this series probe this vein of the psychologically rich marriage of fashion and horror. Peter Greenaway’s scandalous 1989 drama, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, features Helen Mirren in a decadent assortment of Jean-Paul Gaultier getups and builds to an unforgettably sinister denouement. The wardrobe, perfectly coordinated with the boldly colored sets, is both elegant and undeniably sexual, and helps give Mirren the advantage over her despicably criminal husband (Michael Gambon). Of course, there’s Blow-Up (1966), in which Michelangelo Antonioni casts an ambiguous eye on a swinging-Sixties London fashion photographer (David Hemmings) who believes he has inadvertently captured a murder, and Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace (1964), a proto-slasher film set in a fashion house.
Fashion lends itself to horror with the way it can both conceal and reveal, and Phantom Thread explores this dark concept tantalizingly, with Woodcock sewing hidden messages into his designs and even, in one sequence, encountering a ghostly apparition. That being said, Alamo’s program does feature more lighthearted offerings. Troop Beverly Hills (1989) stars Shelley Long as a shopaholic soon-to-be divorcée who trades poufy-sleeved, peplumed dresses for a Girl Scout uniform (which she, amusingly, has tailored) as she becomes a troop leader in an effort to prove she isn’t selfish. The costumes are the least predictable part of the film: Each look offers a bit of Eighties garishness more playful than the last, including but certainly not limited to a blazer with a giant sparkly bird affixed to its shoulder and a billowing gold cape worn with a scout uniform. Disco Godfather (1979), a blaxploitation film screening in a new restoration, combines an anti-drug message and fight scenes with sundry, extravagantly stylish disco sequences. While Woodcock would surely scoff at the frippery of Seventies and Eighties fashion, these two films fit comfortably within the theater’s enduring embrace of camp.
The most recent movies screening, Zoolander (2001) and The Devil Wears Prada (2006), are both standard-bearers for the depiction of the fashion industry of the Aughts. In Zoolander, Ben Stiller created an absurd, endlessly quotable parody that the industry badly needed: Part of loving fashion is coming to terms with the follies that surround it. And, indeed, in an interview with Vulture, Anderson explained that he chose the name “Reynolds Woodcock” precisely because of how funny it was — practically an old-timey cousin to “Derek Zoolander.” The Devil Wears Prada gives us the platonic ideal of the bitchy fashion magazine editor as brought to life by none other than Meryl Streep. Woodcock’s dismissal of “chic” as a “filthy little word” has an acid tone that would make any fearsome fashion editor, yesterday or today, crack a rare smile.
Fashion in film, as seen in this wildly varied series, can be sexy, forbidding, funny, or some perverse combination of the three. Phantom Thread may be mysterious, with so many mind games and literal cover-ups, but the costuming purposefully takes a little bit from each category. (A deep purple velvet dress is invitingly sensual, while the lace Woodcock uses in his designs seems too delicate to touch; meanwhile, in the wardrobe of the designer himself, brightly colored knee socks add a dash of humor.) Anderson has ultimately created one of the more potent fashion films of recent years, setting the stage for a host of colorful, fruitful comparisons.
‘Fashion in Film’
Alamo Drafthouse Downtown Brooklyn
Through January 29