Marketa Uhlirova is co-founder and director of the Fashion in Film Festival, an exhibitions and research project which explores the common ground shared by fashion and film. In its programming, the festival draws on the rich history of the moving image, blending documentary and fashion films, cult classics, commercials, newsreels, early cinema and experimental film.
Festival themes have ranged from fashion as spectacle to violence in film; events have taken place in a host of prestigious venues including the Tate Modern and the Barbican in London, the Arnolfini in Bristol, MOMI in New York, and Cinema Svetozor, Prague. William Klein, Slava Tsukerman, Nick Knight, Alex Fury, Bella Freud, Caryn Franklin and many more from the worlds of film and fashion have spoken on event panels.
In March 2017, the project celebrates its tenth anniversary with a season exploring fashion’s relation to time and the moving image. ‘Wearing Time: Past, Present, Future, Dream’ is co-curated by Uhlirova and esteemed cinema historian Tom Gunning for venues that include the Barbican, Curzon Soho, Rio, Prince Charles Cinema and Central Saint Martins.
Wearing Time: Past, Present, Future, Dream will launch in March 2017. http://www.fashioninfilm.com/
On launching the festival: I set up the festival 10 years ago with Christel Tsilibaris and costume designer Roger Burton, director of the Horse Hospital. We wanted to avoid the predictable route, focussing on iconic stars such as Audrey Hepburn, or fashion designers’ direct involvement with film; it seemed to us the area had already been covered.
Instead, we wanted to provoke the very idea of what ‘fashion in film’ could be, how it could be conceptualised more interestingly. In our first season, we wanted to ask how film speaks about fashion, to see if certain patterns emerged. Neither Christel or I were film or fashion experts. Our approach was initially based more in art history and cultural studies. We looked at artist, avant-garde, experimental and underground film and still do; I think it makes the festivals more layered and interesting.
On the two sides of fashion in film: While working on our first season, ‘Between Stigma and Enigma’, we soon realised that there was a strange ambiguity in the relationship between fashion and film. Film often satirises or derides fashion, but on the other hand, it is attracted to its visual magic. Many great films have taken costuming and fashion seriously, treating is as an essential part of the overall sensibility. William Klein’s film Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? (1966) became the centrepiece of our first festival because it embodies this contradiction perfectly.
On fashion and violence: Our second festival, If Looks Could Kill, looked at how cinematic violence is styled through clothing. We looked at films such as Mario Bava’s and Dario Argento’s landmark ‘giallo’ horrors Blood and Black Lace (1964) and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) and Elio Petri’s über-stylish futuristic thriller The Tenth Victim (1965) – one of the cinematic precursors of The Hunger Games. We also looked at early cinema’s images of thieves and criminals, which have proved very influential in subsequent portrayals of anti-heros – such as Louis Feuillade’s series Fantomas (1913-14) and Les Vampires (1915-16). Tom Gunning gave a fantastic lecture about the black costumes of invisibility worn by René Navarre (as Fantomas) and Musidora (as Irma Vep in Les Vampires) who blends into the night. He linked these very elegantly to the use of darkness in stage magic and early cinema trick film.
On fashion as spectacle: Film has a long tradition of presenting costume and artifice as pure spectacle; costume is not necessarily always functional in the narrative. Take early films on dance with no narrative, the orientalist extravaganzas of the 1920s, or underground films of Kenneth Anger and Jack Smith. Costume can sometimes be the star in its own right. And even where it is functional, it also has this other quality, this overspill, of being a visual thing in its own right. It is probably most evident where film costumes are also fashion statements or in musical numbers in which song, dance and costume are unapologetically there to please the eye.
On video art: I wrote my MA dissertation on video art in the socialist context of the late 1970s and 1980s Czechoslovakia. As artistic practice, video art developed in the late 1960s and 1970s largely in opposition to cinema, especially commercial cinema. Its media specificity was sometimes made central to artists’ experimentations: the crucial difference from film is – was – that film was materially defined by celluloid, and by a sequence of frames, whereas video is electronic image, and so artists in the early years felt video art had a greater natural affinity to television or consumer technology like CCTV. Some artists used video in a similar way to how they would use film, others messed around with code and signal, exploring the material properties and visual potential of electronic image. Take Steina and Woody Vasulka, for example. A specific aesthetic emerged from such experimentations, which also happened through more commercial imagery aired on TV, especially music videos. There is a renewed interest in music videos now, and I am so pleased about that.
On the festival in 2017: The theme of next year’s festival is time. What’s fundamental to our perceptions of film costume is that it’s meant to be seen in movement, not on a museum mannequin (though of course, that is very important too). In our 2010 festival ‘Birds of Paradise’, I wanted to present examples from film history where movement was fundamental to the display of costume – mechanical movement like dancing but also the movement of the camera that creates optical effects on metallic fabrics, sequins, beads or jewellery. I loved that season but have always felt that we underplayed the other most important aspect of cinema – time. Cinema is moving image but it’s also time image. There are such interesting ways in which fashion/costume indicate time. In Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973), for example, the repeated use of red garments (and red colour in general) creates a masterful confusion about where you are in time. There are memories evoked by red, and you go back into the past, to the traumatic red coat image, but there are also premonitions, warnings, through which you dart forward into the future.
On clothing and memories: Clothing can be very powerful in taking you back to a particular moment. Memory, evocations, seeing ghosts – all of that is another strong area we want to explore. Perhaps the most eloquent example is Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), in which Scottie, played by James Stewart, uses fashion to recreate his lost love Madeleine.
On fashion and present: The idea of the present is probably the most tricky to deal with. How do you express the notion of time now – how do you even grasp it? We are hoping to approach this idea largely through work that has a strong element of performance, in which clothes, fabric, or fashion somehow emphasises aspects of time passing and duration. We really wanted to restage Annabelle Nicolson’s iconic performance Reel Time (1973) in which she stitched into a film reel being projected in real time – but, sadly, that has proven impossible. Instead, we are hoping to stage a performance with a young costume designer and choreographer which combines film projections with dance and sound, and uses costumes as screens. I can’t talk about this in more detail now because the project is still in development.
On ‘fashion film’: Last year’s festival was called Frame by Frame: Dissecting the Fashion Moving Image Now. I organised it with Hywel Davies who teaches Fashion Communications at CSM. We wanted to make a point that over the last 15 years the moving image has had a profound impact on the fashion industry, and is now fully integral, if not essential, to its workings – thanks to the Internet and, more recently, various social media platforms. We wanted to convey how the industry has dealt with the moving image, from backstage and beauty videos to Instagram journalism to what we call ‘fashion film’. What I find fascinating is that all these newly created platforms now have a need for ‘content’, or ‘assets’, around the clock. And I hate these words. They suggest you are merely doing something to fill in a hole that wasn’t even there a few years ago, that you are doing it not because you want to, or even have to – for the right reasons. Call me a romantic!