Designer Duds

Now that unzipped, the film about couture with films about fashion designers. Here are five creature Isaac Mizrahi, is hitting screens, it's time to examine Hollywood's fascination of the looniest flicks about the problems of - literally - cutting a swath through life.

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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 (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 abberant 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. "Surety 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 Him will want to become, or at least marry, a CPA.

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 laugh 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 f 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."

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