The Perils of ‘Dressing Dangerously’

[29 April 2014]

By Subashini Navaratnam

Above: Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman dangerously dressed in Casablanca (1942)


In Dressing Dangerously: Dysfunctional Fashion in Film, Jonathan Faiers attempts to formulate a theory of what he calls “the negative cinematic wardrobe” as seen in English-language American and British films, most of which can be considered mainstream movies or films with a general theatrical release. Faiers’ focus on the negative cinematic wardrobe means training an observant and critical eye on clothes in film that are “unguarded, unwatched and unregulated”. These are clothes, accessories, and jewelry out of place, and perhaps even out of time.

The dysfunctional wardrobe exists in a cinematic space where the heightened or excessive affect is used to either manipulate or direct the gaze of the spectator toward the resolutely abnormal facets of life. As Faiers shows us throughout the text, using detailed examples—many accompanied by full-page images—the negative cinematic wardrobe exists in a negative cinematic space of the dysfunctional human condition. Crime, jealousy, infidelity, destruction, and death—as seen through American and British film—are thus the central focus of much of this book.

The book is divided into six sections, although there’s no formal structure to this arrangement. Each section has several chapters that deal with elements of style and presentation, be it accessories like gloves or hats, outerwear like trench coats, raincoats and mink fur coats, jewelry, or elements of a wardrobe like the colors white and red, or, in the case of crime and horror films, fabric stained by blood. Faiers, a Reader in Fashion Theory at the University of Southampton’s Winchester School of Art, knows his fashion theory well, and names like Roland Barthes, Georg Simmel, Jean Baudrillard, Thorstein Veblen, and guy Debord make frequent appearances throughout the pages.

His explanations for the use of the trench coat in Western cinema, and its history, for example, is particularly interesting. The trench coat, according to Faiers, is imbued with “intrinsic restlessness”, and its incorporation into civilian life from its origins as military wear does not erase its “vestiges of combat, implied tactical know-how and, if necessary, aggression”. Faiers is astute in showing what the trench coat comes to represent when worn on different characters—its tough, masculine sense of latent aggression comes through particularly viscerally when, as Faiers puts it, the trench finds “its most appropriate resting place on the shoulders of [Humphrey] Bogart’s assorted cinematic anti-heroes” in movies like The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, and The Big Sleep.

When the trench coat is seen on a character who is meant to represent the law, however, Faiers notes that it becomes “distinctly more problematic and dysfunctional”, such as bumbling Inspector Closeau’s stolen trench coat in The Pink Panther, which underlines Closeau’s ineptness and his unworthiness as a male law enforcer in wearing a coat that is meant to convey machismo and potentially-simmering aggression. It’s only fitting that his trench, a representation of a form of masculinity that Closeau constantly fails to achieve, is stolen by a far more efficient embodiment of masculine aggression, the jewel thief known as the Phantom.

In other chapters, like “Trophies” and “Talismans”, Faiers sketches out forms of gender difference and representation through women’s clothing and accessories. Pointing out that “from Hollywood’s infancy, kept women are best kept by jewels and furs”, Faiers looks at films like Possessed and The Lady Wants Mink to show how female characters are policed and disciplined for showing excessive desire for shiny, luxurious things. He emphasizes the erotic charge brought about by the presence of normatively-attractive feminine-presenting bodies decorated with jewels, and the contrast between the hardness of the rocks and minerals against desirable soft flesh.

That women are draped in jewelry to titillate the male gaze but are also punished for it is also tied to how women are portrayed in these movies as more feeling than reason; if, in certain movies like The Locket and Whirlpool, gems and jewels function as “traumatic lodestone” for the emotionally unstable female protagonist by unleashing a whole host of psychological issues, in movies like Casino, the jewel-adorned female body is coded as potentially penetrable by the right (well-off, powerful) man.

However, another chapter titled “Exchange Mechanisms” suffers somewhat from a reductive application of Marxist theory of exchange value onto changing identities. At its very basic, fashion is a performance and conception of one of many selves—and exchanging one set of clothes for another to alter one’s “look”, and thus, personality, is a common enough trope that warrants further, or more creative, investigation—one that Faiers does not give us.

Faiers also shies away from digging in too deep when his survey takes him outside of the realm of whiteness, as in the chapter on the color red and its ability to code different readings of femininity that nimbly skirts around the intersections of race and gender of Queen Latifah’s character’s red dress in Last Holiday, or how Cleavon Little’s character in Blazing Saddles is coded as out-of-place not merely owing to his sense of style, but the color of his skin. It would have been a much more interesting book, one presumes, if Faiers had been half as attentive to the figurations of race in Western mainstream cinema as he had been to gender.

Part of the problem is the structure of the book—not quite a coffee-table art book, not quite an academic text. As such, it settles for being something in-between; a large, substantial hardback that is too big and bulky to hold comfortably and with each page divided into two columns so that it appears crowded with small print. Structure informs the content, and Faiers has sketched out a large area of research for himself—for when it comes to dysfunctional fashion in film, you can start anywhere and never stop—and as such, the end result is a curiously superficial book that surveys a large number of films but is unable to commit itself to any. If it did, perhaps richer readings of the films would have yielded more depth and possibilities.

Dressing Dangerously seems like it would have been a project of immense enthusiasm for the author, but as it stands, the end result if a little bit tedious and rote, amounting to little more than one example after another of a negative cinematic wardrobe that seems to want to take you somewhere, but isn’t sure where it wants to go.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/181073-dressing-dangerously-dysfunctional-fashion-in-film-by-jonathan-faier/