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Threading Cinema and Fashion Together

Professor Marc Olivier presented on the history and intersection of fashion and film.

A women pins a fashion drawing to a board.
Photo by Ron Lach via Pexels

Fashion and film don’t seem to be a perfect pair at first glance, but they’re more interwoven than many people realize. Professor Marc Olivier (European Cinema) shared about the growing new genre of cinema known as fashion film during his International Cinema lecture on February 15.

Elements of film have evolved from fashion and vice versa. The first motion picture camera, designed by Auguste Lumière, adapted the foot threading mechanism from a sewing machine to run the film through the camera. Back when film editing meant literally cutting individual frames out of a reel, seamstresses would stitch the selected frames back together. These same women were also employed to paint on the delicate film to give certain frames color. Their small hands made them ideal for working with either film or embroidery, and these seamstresses would often have work experience in both fashion houses and film companies. As Olivier put it, “Sewing made cinema.”

Olivier defined a fashion film as “an art film of any length made in collaboration with a fashion design house for the purpose of furthering its brand identity and promoting its products.” Olivier showed a recent advertisement for Bulgari as an example of a fashion film. Even though the video was only thirty seconds long (with a two-minute behind-the-scenes video also available), it qualified as a fashion film since it focused on the clothes telling a story.

There are many different varieties of film that are related to fashion but that do not qualify as fashion films. Olivier said, “Films not commissioned by a brand are considered fan fashion films. Fashion-related films that are not fashion films per se include documentaries (e.g., The Disappearance of My Mother), biopics (e.g., House of Gucci), features thematically linked to fashion (e.g., The Devil Wears Prada), and narrative films that employ famous designers as costume designers (e.g., The Fifth Element, Elvis).”

Operating in a similar way to cologne commercials, fashion films use surrealist techniques to create a narrative from the clothes. The need for these films emerged from the pandemic when fashion designers had to find a new avenue to display runway shows with physical distancing. The fashion film was the solution, allowing artists to express the meaning and story behind their clothes in a more creative way that could be accessed by anyone at any time. The clothes act as the main characters who tell their own story. Olivier commented that this genre is still developing.

Couture fashion houses have paved the way, and more commercial fashion houses are looking to follow suit in creating their own fashion films. With all the experimentation and new discoveries that are going on within this genre, Olivier said that we are entering the golden age of the fashion film and that we will be seeing a lot more of this style in the future.

To learn more about film, attend International Cinema’s weekly lecture Wednesdays at 5:00 p.m.