Designer Duds

basinger - ready to wear

In the 1995 Style Issue, Movieline editors Virginia Campbell and Edward Margulies reviewed movies about fashion designers.  Deeming the fashion industry too silly to be satirized or taken seriously, the writers declare these movies designer duds.

In many ways, the world of fashion is just like the O.J. Simpson trial: it’s a shameless spectacle of showboats and parasites, a half-tedious, half-fascinating circus of human quirks, celebrities-in-the-making and bizarre hairdos. And for the same reason you couldn’t make a coherent movie of the Simpson debacle–a documentary perhaps, a movie no–Hollywood has never managed to make a drama or a comedy about haute couture that wasn’t flat-out ridiculous. The proceedings are too outlandish to be taken seriously, and too whacked-out to begin with to be satirized. Now that supermodels are the movie-stars-without-portfolio of the ’90s and fashion shows are where actors go to be seen, high fashion would surely seem ripe for Hollywood pickings. How can one resist sending up the follies of the runway life? That’s what Robert Altman thought when he made Ready to Wear. We have not included his film in our discussion of fashion designer duds, because to do so would have required us to actually watch it a second time, which in turn would have required us to partake of illegal substances we swore off long ago. There are limits to what we’ll do to keep our jobs at Movieline. It is enough merely to recall the running gag Altman peppered his unhilarious condescension with: once in a while an otherwise dignified person stepped in dog poop. That may be an apt metaphor for Altman’s career, but it really didn’t say nearly as much about the sillinesses of fashion as several other films we know and love. Here are some knee-slappers that have valuable lessons for us all about the pitfalls of paying too much attention to materials made from stuff secreted by worms, and about the grievous danger of making films about people who are even more fatuous than the people who make films.

Designing Woman

Designing Woman (1957)

Our first glimpse of the lady fashion designer in this theoretically sophisticated comedy unwittingly prepares us for much of what is to come: Lauren Bacall emerges from a hotel swimming pool in a bathing suit so dubiously yellow it appears to be intended as a haute couture salute to hepatitis. Viciously hungover pool-side sportswriter Gregory Peck ignores Bacall’s jaundiced entrance, giving her time to cover up and thus preserve the meat-and-potatoes-guy/champagne-girl romantic possibilities on which this movie is anorexically predicated. Alas, the pairing of a rough-and-tumble sports scribe and a superficial fashion designer makes for a far more believable couple than does the casting of Lauren Bacall and Gregory Peck– these two stars have less chemistry on-screen together than Hillary Clinton and Arnold Schwarzenegger would in real life.

“We began to laugh, and three hours later we were still laughing,” Bacall tells us. but what feels like 10 hours after they begin laughing, we haven’t even smiled yet. Depending on your personal understanding of fashion designers, Bacall falls for Peck either because 1) they’re in, as he puts it, “California, the playground of the Western world.” Or because 2) he’s the only one wearing a tie at Marineland, or because 3) he doesn’t throw her off the terrace when she chews gum while drinking martinis.

Soon they’re married and on a plane back to New York. This is where the truth about Bacall, and, we must assume, fashion designers in general, comes out. Mid-flight Bacall disappears into the airplane bathroom and changes her clothes. We all know that it’s difficult to do anything in one of those teensy bathrooms without getting your hems soaked in urine, but Bacall not only manages to get out of one dress and into another, she comes out wearing a swank stole that ties in a bow in the back. Peck’s only excuse for not having the marriage immediately annulled is that he just doesn’t understand any activity that does not at some point involve guys scratching their balls in public, which fashion designing, despite many aberrant tendencies, does not.

When Bacall, safely back in Manhattan, sees the dump Peck lives in, she coos, “It just occurred to me I don’t know you very well,” then sinks her teeth into his ear and tugs on it in what must be a special fashion designer-favored mating ritual that inexplicably convinces Peck to move into her Upper East Side digs. The happy couple is immediately besieged by a gaggle of Bacall’s fashionable friends, who include “One actor, one playwright, one composer, two actresses, a television director…” and a producer/ex-boyfriend. (“How soon can I punch him in the snoot?” asks Peck. Answer: after we do.) Peck is justifiably flipped out by the airheads his new wife keeps company with. “I love designing clothes,” she explains. “It’s a silly and ridiculous business and it pays far too much money and you meet silly and ridiculous people and I love it. Not the people, the job.”

Peck’s friends are an earthy crew of sandwich-gnawing sports nuts who predictably do not mix with Bacall’s macadamias. But that conflict cannot rival the ex-girlfriend problem. Before finding Bacall, Peck was carrying on with Dolores Gray, whom we meet as she does her musical number before television cameras on an over designed set the color of tooth gel. She’s wearing a wide-brimmed hat that resembles the frilly toilet lid covers they used to have in the ’50s, and though she has formidable legs, her face is such that you could believe Eve Arden and Secretariat were her parents. Why Bacall, who waltzes in wearing a fire-engine red pup tent, gets jealous, we are never clear on. In any case, Bacall ends up doing the costumes for a show that stars Peck’s ex-girlfriend and is produced by her own ex-boyfriend, which eventually gives her the opportunity to throw shoes at Peck and deliver a speech to his ex. “I’d like to apologize for the way I’ve been acting,” Bacall begins. Apology accepted. “Surely you must have noticed that twice during the last week while pinning material on you I jabbed you in the derriere,” she continues. “I did it purposely. I’m sorry and it won’t happen again.”

Soon the movie blathers to its happy ending in which all the “silly” people Bacall hangs with wind up fighting alongside Peck’s Neanderthal pals, to defeat some vicious gangsters who must be stopped, as they have no respect for legitimate boxing or idiotic fashion design. By that time, Bacall has worn 20 different outfits and we are exhausted from not laughing. This film, directed by Vincente Minnelli in an awesome slump, was scripted from a “suggestion” made by Helen Rose, the film’s costume designer. The original “suggestion” apparently was: Depict the life of a fashion designer so that everyone who sees this film will want to become, or at least marry, a CPA.

She's Dressed to Kill

She’s Dressed to Kill (1979)

“People today have no taste,” observes one world-weary fashion business insider to another in this film. “They want schlock.” In other words, they want movies like She’s Dressed to Kill, a made-for-TV rehash of Agatha Christie’s too-oft-filmed Ten Little Indians, tricked up with supermodels, a mad fashion show and–thankfully–plenty of sex.

In the opening scene, jaded fashion photographer John Rubinstein urges aging neophyte model Connie Sellecca to show “‘energy,” so she goes hog-wild demonstrating her killer karate moves while Rubinstein snaps away ecstatically. Out of control, Sellecca throws the lensman to the floor and pins him down, panting, “You wanted energy, right?” “Yeah,” Rubinstein admits, “but I don’t want to be raped!'” Au contraire: seconds later, they’re making out like the fashion industry sluts they are and, so we’ll understand they reach simultaneous orgasms, Rubinstein presses his finger to his camera button, causing strobe flashes to go off again and again and again!

Her modeling career thus made, Sellecca signs up with top model rep Jessica Walter, who includes this promising supernova in the select group of models hired to stage a by-invitation-only fashion show at the remote mountaintop hideaway where washed-up Eleanor Parker, once a great couturiere, is planning a comeback. Walter gushes to Parker, “You were always the reigning queen!” and–though fully half the cast seems to be fighting for that particular sobriquet–Parker’s performance is so far over the top, it’s a tough call whether she’s impersonating Cruelta De Vil or a female impersonator. Dressed in god-awful gold-encrusted outfits, drinking heavily, laughing madly, waving a three-foot-long cigarette holder about, and saying things like, “The gifted designer does not create for ready-to-wear pigs” Parker fails to convincingly portray a has-been fashion great, but gives us ample evidence of why she’s a has-been actress.

Among those who try in vain to compete with Parker in the scenery-chewing department are the two gay male characters: Peter Horton, the fey designer forced to secretly create Parker’s new line, seethes at her, “If the booze doesn’t kill you, I’m sure I will,” white fashion gossip columnist Clive Revill bitchily intones. “Ugly women should be destroyed at puberty!” (“Most of them are,” ripostes Rubinstein, “by their mothers.”) The lesbian contingent chimes in during this hamola sweepstakes, too, represented by model Catheé Shirriff, a “big game hunter and… full-time skirt chaser” who, hilariously, defends the former preoccupation to Walter thusly: “Those shoes you’re wearing? Made from dead animals. Your handbag? Dead animals. Your dinner? Dead animals.” (To which we add: “This cast? Dead animals.”)

With quips, queers, a female female impersonator, and a raft of aging performers pretending to be decades younger than they are, She’s Dressed to Kill accurately captures the fashion biz, as well as the movie biz and, for that matter, the movie magazine biz. By the time the film’s crazed murderer begins to strike, one hopes the entire cast will be quickly offed. Instead, they go slowly: one model expires from killer lip gloss, another is done in by killer hair spray, and–in our opinion, anyway–several die when they appear in the fashion show, prancing down the runway in trashy, flashy disco-era outfits courtesy of Travilla.

When an electric storm causes a power failure, the cast must spend the night in Parker’s chateau, which leads to some philosophy (“Old models don’t quit,” aged supermodel Joanna Cassidy announces, “they just wrinkle up and fade away”), some wisdom (“[Parker] may have been a genius once,” Revill says, “but now she’s a dreary old drunk who couldn’t design a garbage bag”) and some threats (“I know a rip-off when I see one.” Parker hisses when she discovers Horton photographing the dress patterns in order to steal them. “Who are they for? If you don’t tell me, I’m going to expose you as a deserter–a pretty boy like you should have an interesting time in an army stockade!”).

Later, the murderer is unmasked, but the real fatal blow comes when Parker learns her comeback fashion line received no orders from those “ready-to-wear pigs.” An abject failure, Parker bids adieu to one of the few surviving cast members, Revill, who sums up the film perfectly when he says, “Darling, you do give a first-class show. Macabre–but memorable.”

Back Street

Back Street (1961)

If Disney animators had ever wanted to create a booze-guzzling, nympho-maniacal chipmunk with a nasty temper and a taste for crying binges, they could have based her directly on Susan Hayward. Hayward was, as far as her presence on-screen went, about as chic as a 24-hour-a-day cocktail lounge. That’s why it’s such a surprise to see her cast here as the world’s most sophisticated fashion designer. And even though Hayward’s character, Rae Smith, is the mistress of department store magnate John Gavin, in which capacity Hayward is better equipped, Rae is supposedly a reluctant, a selfless, a saintly “other woman,” one who wouldn’t go near Gavin if his wife, Vera Miles, weren’t an alcoholic bitch on expensive wheels. We don’t know of any saintly fashion designers, but if we did know one, we wouldn’t have Susan Hayward play her. Then again, in a movie about fashion designers, you’re just naturally going to be faced with things that, like the comings and goings of shoulder pads, have no logic to them.

When we are first introduced to Hayward, she’s just a Nebraska girl with an itch to sketch dresses, but when she falls for Gavin only to find out he’s married, she takes off for New York to make it in serious couture country. Her big break comes from a famous designer who, in addition to making her his partner, says everything about her we’re thinking: “Stop bubbling like a breathless ingenue. You don’t fool me. You’re a shrewd, conniving, opportunistic female and you give me nightmares.”

Just as Hayward’s career takes off, Gavin, still stuck in his marriage, shows up in New York and comes to her glamorous apartment. Decked out in a floor-length tunic with metallic polka dots that matches the drapes in her living room, Hayward announces, “I’m not cut out to be the Other Woman!” Unable to resist Gavin, she must exit the city, the country and the continent. Her boss won’t allow her to simply quit–“Who were you when I met you? A nobody! You couldn’t design a shroud!”–so he opens an office in Rome, which turns immediately into a huge success.

Soon Hayward is a chaste workaholic, just like most fashion designers. But then Gavin shows up again. As he runs to scoop up the tipsy Miles, who’s done a drunken pratfall and landed face-first on the stairs of a ritzy restaurant, he looks up to see a good Samaritan who’s also helping to raise wifey off the floor–yes, it’s Hayward, who in any other movie would be the boozer who’d done the belly flop. This time the Fates mean for them to get together, which they do repeatedly at a seaside retreat where Hayward’s series of icky chiffons can waft in the breeze while carefully matching the scenery. Miles figures out Gavin’s got someone on the side and tries to kill herself, prompting a move to their Paris home. But Hayward is now hooked on Gavin, and we see her–in her office, where her suit subtly matches the color of the chairs and the candelabra–getting one of many disappointing phone calls from him canceling plans. Finally, she opens an office in Paris so they can really be together. Gavin pulls up to pick up his illicit ladylove (her gray suit perfectly matches his Chrysler) and takes her to the house he’s bought for their trysts (her suit matches the stone exterior, too). And so the seasons pass, with many a night spent alone in bed next to the telephone (which matches her nightgown), many a morning spent standing in an airport (in a suit that matches the entire waiting area), and many an evening at home in her empty living room (where her dress matches the wastebasket).

Vera Miles takes forever to figure out who Gavin’s mistress is, but when she does it’s worth the wait. The big moment occurs when Hayward is presenting her Fall Fashion Preview of Rae Smith gowns to the rich ladies of Paris. At the end of a long procession of fussy dresses, each one something Shelley Long might wear to the Oscars, Hayward comes out to personally present her favorite of her own designs and offer it for a charity auction. The dress is called, she explains, “Wedding in June” (gowns had names in the ’50s), and as the model twirls in her pristine white dress, a voice booms from the back of the room to bid “$10,000.” Yes, it’s Miles. Hayward graciously agrees to have the dress fitted and sent to the new owner. “It’s not for me,” snarls Miles. “It doesn’t matter how it fits–she’ll never get to wear it.” The audience is rapt. “You’ve all tried to guess who is the woman, or I should say, the Other Woman in my husband’s life,” Miles continues. “That mysterious creature who turns up in London, Zurich, Rome. The one he hides away on some back street. I’d like the gown delivered to Miss Rae Smith, in care of my husband!”

Hayward is ruined and cannot show her face in Paris (although if the French are good for anything it is to applaud exactly the sort of behavior Hayward has been engaging in), so she vows never to see her beloved again. “Everyone’s laughing. Other people’s love affairs are always funny,” she tells him. Whereupon Gavin declares he’s had it with Miles and will return to Hayward to be with her forever, no matter what. Then he jumps into Miles’s moving car to demand a divorce, and she drives them both off the road to their deaths.

Left alone in her stone house, dressed in an off-white bathrobe (that matches her face), Hayward is visited by Gavin’s two children. Presumably these dubious remnants of her love life will inspire her to design yet more over-the-top gowns in the future, as a kind of memorial to her passion for Gavin. Perhaps that explains the garish colors fashion took on in the early ’60s–one imagines they matched the wallpaper and ceramics in the London flat Hayward moved to with Gavin’s children.

Grey - If The Shoe Fits - 1990

If the Shoe Fits (1991)

“Not since Mahogany!” That’s how movie theater ads for If the Shoe Fits would have read if the film had ever made it into movie theaters. One of several jaw-dropping, ever-heard-of-’em? clunkers Rob Lowe made in the wake of his impromptu move into the home video porno market, If the Shoe Fits is every bit as hilariously inept as Mahogany, and Lowe surpasses Diana Ross to become the least-believable person to ever play a fashion designer. A preening runway model, maybe, an inanimate dress mannequin, yes indeed, but a person capable of running a billion-dollar French couturier empire? How you say… mais non. It must have been some consolation to Lowe–if not the audience–that he is not the only stupendously miscast performer in this lamebrained retooling of Cinderella; co-star Jennifer Grey is only half-equipped to play an ugly duckling transformed into a swan.

The plot kicks in when Paris’s celebrated, influential, “genius” designer–Lowe, as the movie’s self-enchanted Prince Charming– bids his minions to “scour the city” and find a gorgeous new face to launch his next collection. Lowe’s own remarks about the women paraded before him as possible new faces serve as a running commentary on his own mannered and decidedly effete performance: “No soul! Shallow! I’m finished!”; “Only a miracle could save me now!”; and–no doubt the very words that the likes of Kurt Russell, Andrew McCarthy and Richard Grieco presumably uttered when this part was offered to them before Lowe–“No! No! No!

Wandering the streets of Paris, starving shoe designer Jennifer Grey is the only person who stops to help a homeless lost soul. The old bat turns out to have magic powers and casts a spell over a pair of shoes Grey has designed, saying, “With wings on your feet, dreams can come true.” You could put B-57s on Grey’s feet and she still wouldn’t be a stunning beauty when she steps into the glittery pumps to make her entrance at the grand ball Lowe has thrown in a last-ditch effort to find his dream girl. As part of a hopeless attempt to put Grey over as a dazzler, the other women present are Fellini-esque Euro-uglies, but when Lowe, who, we suspect, would rather be searching for a man to don his creations anyway, eyes Grey and gasps, “Bella! You are a miracle,” Grey voices our thoughts exactly: “I am?” It’s mind-bending that Lowe doesn’t recognize Grey for they’d met when she worked as a dresser backstage at his fashion show; after all, the only difference between the plain Grey and the “bella” Grey is some mousse in her hair. As the two of them take to the dance floor, and we see Lowe’s chiseled good looks next to Grey’s implacable plainness, the movie seems less a retelling of Cinderella than an inversion of Beauty and the Beast. In fact, when Grey flees the ball, one assumes she’s just seen the dailies. Then again, maybe she’s shocked by what Lowe has just whispered: “I’m only half a man without you.” We certainly are. Indeed, when Lowe–whose own outfit suggests he is Michael Jackson’s favorite designer–comes upon Cinderella’s pump, we expect him to put it on.

Grey eventually figures out that to ever get her big break designing shoes for Lowe, she must return, put on those magic heels and accept her fate as his new traffic-stopping supermodel. Because she is beautiful but empty with those heels on and unattractive but gifted without, she is run ragged pretending to be Lowe’s muse–posing in his couture–as well as being an invaluable aide with constructive criticism when she’s shoeless. Grey, exhausted by the endless changes back and forth, wails to a pal who’s helping with the deception, “We’ve created a Frankenstein”–a remark we’ll let pass without comment.

Her nerves frayed, Grey wants to be loved for her ugly “real” self, and insists Lowe choose between her and, well, her: who does he want to work with, the bitchy beauty or the talented shoemaker? Lowe selects the ratty Grey, natch, and though this pretty boy and his plain gal kiss happily at fade-out, they must have been wondering if they would ever work again. The moral of the film seems to be: be nice to homeless strangers–you never know who they could turn out to be. We say, be nice to homeless strangers–after making movies like If the Shoe Fits, they could easily turn out to be Rob Lowe or Jennifer Grey.

Lucy Gallant

Lucy Gallant (1955)

Movies about fashion designers are usually set where you’d expect to find these exotic creatures: Paris, Milan, London, Manhattan. Hollywood. Refreshingly, Lucy Gallant shows how a couture queen survives in the wilds of uncivilized Texas in the ’40s. The art underneath the titles–a cowboy boot decorated with a camellia blossom–pretty much sums up the plot: anything, even Texas, can be accessorized correctly.

Stars Charlton Heston and Jane Wyman meet when the thirtyish hunk catches sight of the fortyish matron aboard her stranded-in-the-middle-of-nowhere train, and he climbs aboard to introduce himself: “I just wanted a chance to look at something pretty for a change.” Now, we know how arid Texas was back then, but surely even a man dying of thirst would know the difference between champagne and a glass of tap water, Wyman “pretty”? As if aware of what we’re thinking, the filmmakers present us with fiftyish Thelma Ritter, who calls Wyman a “girl.” No dice–even a plain-Jane like Ritter cannot make plain Jane Wyman look young or “pretty.”

Nevertheless, Wyman no sooner lets Heston escort her into a nearby boomtown than strangers assume she’s a hooker come to work in the local whorehouse. Other townspeople merely eye Wyman’s demented getup–a tailored suit, white boots, a furry mink hat, and a matching mink purse that’s the size of a briefcase–and ask, “Where’d those clothes come from?” as well as our question, “Where’d she come from?”

Justifying her existence. Wyman explains to these nouveau riche hicks, “Women can’t wear derricks!” and makes a bundle selling off her own wardrobe to local ladies. Concluding that what the Wild West needs is a luxe dress emporium, Wyman decides to open one. Soon she’s sizing up Heston’s fashion faux pas: “If you must wear boots.” she comments disdainfully, “wear black with dark gray, not that color. It’s just not done!” When he mentions he owns a little ranch. Wyman says, “I didn’t know there was anything little in Texas” and he replies, meaningfully, “I guess we do talk sorta big–mostly true, too.” With a come-on like that, Wyman hurries over for a visit (wouldn’t you?). Ever accessorizing the world around her, she views the oil derricks on the horizon of Heston’s spread and remarks, “You know, I could see one right about here–trimmed in chintz!” Daydreaming aloud about how fabulously wealthy Heston will be when he starts drilling his land. Wyman fingers a large thermos bottle and sighs, “You’ve got it made.” Daydreaming about other kinds of drilling, Heston replies, “Not quite, Lucy.”

Despite their difference in age, relative attractiveness and cultural background, it’s clear these two are meant for one another, but because the film would only be a half-hour long if they got together at this point, they’re soon torn asunder. Heston wants a traditional wife while Wyman wants to be a career gal. The remainder of Lucy Gallant asks the question, “Can a woman have it all?” and then answers, as movies back in 1955 did, “No, no, a thousand times no!” Heston returns from WWII to Find Wyman’s chichi store a giant success yet, when he proposes marriage, he’s galled that she plans to go on working after their honeymoon. “You can’t ask me to throw the store out the window!” argues Wyman, but Heston storms off, determined to forget her. In Paris, Heston views the Eiffel Tower–and we can’t help thinking it looks exactly like another oil derrick in need of Wyman’s chintz trim!

It all ends, as you’d hoped it might, not with a wedding, but with a big fashion show for which legendary Tinseltown costume designer Edith Head–who actually created the appalling clothes on display in Lucy Gallant–introduces the fashions supposedly whipped up by Wyman. Watching Wyman view the parade of gowns, you’d never guess she’s meant to be the couturiere–as usual, she looks like a frumpy, middle-aged housewife. As the show ends, Heston happens by to propose wedlock again, and because the movie’s over, Wyman says yes. Just so we’ll know she’s no longer interested in her career, when Heston asks, “Who’ll mind the store?” Wyman replies, “What store?”


Virginia Campbell and Edward Margulies are the executive editors of Movieline.


Posted on September 9, 2016, in Movieline Articles, Movies and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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