Paris, the legendary fashion capital, is also a favorite fantasy of film makers. Many films have been set in the French capital (and some were actually filmed there, on location), but Paris on the silver screen is at its most fantastic when the plot encourages a costume designer to create dream clothes. Hollywood’s version of Paris fashion is even farther removed from reality than the genuine Haute Couture visions. Very few bona fide couturiers have succeeded on the screen. Coco Chanel tried, but her elegantly restrained style was deemed too ordinary. Only Hubert de Givenchy’s inspired designs for Audrey Hepburn seamlessly intersected Hollywood and real Parisian style. Most fashionable films were entrancing flights of fancy created by screen designers including Adrian, Travis Banton, Orry-Kelly, Edith Head, Bernard Newman and Cecil Beaton.
One of the earliest Paris fashion films was The Dressmaker from Paris (1925), a silent romantic comedy starring Leatrice Joy with the first cinematic costumes designed by Travis Banton. Orry-Kelly designed Fashions of 1934 which cast Bette Davis as a fashion spy in Paris to steal designs. It was billed as a “Fashion Extravaganza with Music.” That scenario resurfaced in 1960 when Joanne Woodward had the same job spec in A New Kind of Love (1960). Her wardrobe was by Edith Head. Both films bear little resemblance to genuine “knock-off” copycatting, a practice now made redundant by the web’s instant global exposure. Several films offered a Hollywood skewed view of the business behind running a Couture House in Paris. One such film is Roberta, the 1935 Cole Porter musical starring elegant Irene Dunne and featuring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The storyline is simple. A failing fashion house is inherited by a brash American (a musician) who saves the salon from financial ruin with a spectacular musical fashion show. A platinum blonde Lucille Ball is one of the models, a non-speaking role. The film was remade as Lovely to Look At in 1952 and again featured an even more spectacular musical fashion show finale created as a comeback gesture by designer, Adrian, who had retired from M-G-M in 1941.
Paris in the romantic past, especially the Belle Epoch, has been a recurring inspiration for films with period costumes that recall the historic importance of French fashion. Gigi (1958), the Lerner-Lowe musical, depicted the Pygmalion transformation of Leslie Caron to courtesan, costumed by Cecil Beaton. Can-Can (1960), Cole Porter’s tribute to turn-of-the-century nightlife in Paris, starred very UN-French Shirley MacLaine and Frank Sinatra. Also conjuring the same artistic decadence were two films set in a legendary nightclub in Montmartre. Moulin Rouge (1952) told the story of artist Toulouse Lautrec while the 2001 musical of the same name (but with an exclamation mark!) showcased Nicole Kidman in a dreamlike extravaganza envisioned by director Baz Luhrmann. Coincidentally, both productions received Oscars for Best Costume Design.
The iconic intersect of Hollywood pizazz and Paris chic was the relationship of elegant, elfin Audrey Hepburn and classy couturier Hubert de Givenchy. The aristocratic designer first dressed Audrey in Sabrina (1954) when the storyline needed to show a chauffeur’s daughter transformed into a creature of stupefyingly high style. Funny Face (1957) is inarguably the very best movie ever made about fashion. Another transformation for Audrey, this time from bookworm to swan. Fred Astaire’s character emulated photographer Richard Avedon and Kay Thompson impersonated extraordinary fashion editor, Diana Vreeland. The film’s most famous production number is “Think Pink,” a term that has become a fashionese cliché. Audrey was subsequently dressed by Givenchy in Charade (1963) and Paris When It Sizzles (1964).
Even when the plot is not set in the world of French fashion, the magic of Parisian chic permeates the ambiance of every film set in the City of Lights. And always, the stars are costumed in the supposed height of Paris fashion. In The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954) Elizabeth Taylor wears an exaggerated version of grandiose Haute Couture. An American in Paris (1951) featured a lavishly costume ballet finale, the height of sophistication. April in Paris (1952) puts Doris Day in a setting of badly painted Paris backdrops. Midnight in Paris (2011) gave director Woody Allen the opportunity to recreate Jazz Age Paris. Paris fashion is sometimes seen as more than a bit silly. Fashion photographer William Klein created a spoof of Paris high fashion in 1966 with Que Etes-Vous, Polly Maggoo? (Who Are You, Polly Maggoo?), featuring a very avant garde fashion show of impossible metal contraptions. Another satirical look at Paris fashion was Robert Altman’s Ready-to-Wear (Pret-A-Porter), a 1994 fiasco filmed during Paris Fashion Week with a host of cameo appearances by big stars including Sophia Loren (breathtaking in the biggest red hat, ever!), Lauren Bacall and Julia Roberts. The fashion show finale featured totally nude models. While The Devil Wears Prada (2006) only had a few scenes shot in Paris, French fashion and status labels were the focus of the drama in this unflattering but satirical portrayal of Vogue editor Anna Wintour, brilliantly played by Meryl Streep.
Most of the recent films pertaining to fashion have been serious documentaries. No longer does Hollywood dare to push Paris fashion to the entertaining extremes of the past when film fashion was pure entertainment...and absolutely enchanting.