Fashion as a Functional Intermediary of Character and Narrative – Film Analysis by Yvette Villanueva

Yvette Villanueva

Professor Inga Pierson

Mid-Century Italy: The 50s&60s in Literature and Culture

Fashion and Cinema

Clothes are not mere accessories, but are key elements in the construction of cinematic identities (Stella Bruzzi).

Fashion plays a pivotal role in constituting a character’s make-up in film, functioning as an intermediary between character and narrative. In addition to the character’s cinematic presentation, fashion offers insight about the wearer, implying that the exterior façade offers enlightenment to the character’s emotional core. By facilitating this character revelation, the character’s fashion establishes connection between the character’s identity and the story of the film.

There has been a long-standing debate concerning fashion’s role in film on the grounds of purpose and art: whether clothes serve as mediators to narrative and character, or as an independent art spectacle (Bruzzi 8). Peter Wollen states that fashion caters to both sides, depending on the cinematic tradition: Hollywood has a “safe” approach to fashion while European art cinema valued fashion as “an integral part of the overall look of the film which was genuinely treated as another art-form in its own right” (13). The tradition of Italian cinema illustrates fashion fulfilling the requirements of plot and story.  According to Jane Gaines, clothing within this cinematic tradition has the power of empathy; in addition to script and settings, the concomitant use of clothing sustains the characters’ roles in the storyline (208).

Fashion and clothing not only serve as practical liaisons between narrative and character, but assist in the integration of psychoanalysis in its plot and story. According to Franca Sozzani, “fashion…is nourished on dreams, memories, fantasy, suggestions, and emotions” (22). Supporting this proposal, Sigmund Freud developed psychoanalysis, or Freudian Psychology, which consists of: a) the investigation of one’s mind and thoughts; b) the sets of theories about human behaviors; and, c) the treatment of psychological or emotional illness (Moore and Fine 78). Italian cinema has interpreted psychoanalytical components through means of the pleasure in looking and the fascination of the human form. A division of this pleasure entails of the phenomenon known as scopophila, which Freud proposes as “one of the component instincts of sexuality”; it consists of taking in other people as objects, subjecting them to a controlling and curious gaze (Mulvey 7-8). The gaze is focused on the form and the form’s actions, but the presentation of the form, facilitated by clothing, assists in capturing and maintaining this gaze.

Proposed by Laura Mulvey, women signify the image while men are the bearer of looks in cinema; women hold on to and play to the men’s look and their desire (9-10). Women are an essential element in narrative film, “yet [their] visual presence tends to work against the development of a story line, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation. This alien presence then has to be integrated into cohesion with the narrative” (5).  Visual presence has an authoritative command on the storyline, either supplementing the narrative or disassociating from it. Visual presence includes character portrayal—in this sense, fashion contributes to either the support or the frustration of the narrative by dictating the appearance of characters.

Frederico Fellini’s La dolce vita (1959) serves as a social critique on vogue and trends, fashion, love, the holiday culture, and desire. Described as a “‘portraitist’ of society, attentive and precise, Fellini said in an interview concerning Satyricon: “Rome in the age of decadence resembles our world today a great deal, with this dark craving to enjoy life, the same violence, the same vacancy of principles, the same desperation, the same fatuity” (qtd. in Sozzani 22). Not only did he choose costumes on the basis of historical periods, but also on the “psychology of the characters”, which parallel the deficiencies of Fellini’s view of Rome. (Sozzani 22). One particular aspect of culture that Fellini criticizes is the bourgeoisie world, which is represented by Maddalena. Maddalena (Anouk Aimée) is a wealthy heiress and represents the nouveau riche. The protagonist Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni) is in search for meaning and interacts in different environments throughout his quest; although Maddalena and Marcello are from different worlds, she is just as lost as he is.

As Marcello lights up a match to view details of paintings, Maddalena wraps her foulard around her mouth. When he asks her a question regarding the eyes of the paintings’ subjects, Maddalena quietly yet playfully responds with her eyes, which are accentuated by covering the lower half of her face in an orient-style with her foulard. Maddalena’s foulard serves as an opsign: on the surface level, it’s used as a means of fashion and play (Delueze 6). But her use of it is meaningfully symbolic; for example, Maddalena’s constant play with it, by putting it on her head, blowing it off, covering her mouth, substitutes conversational responses, which in turn, provoke responses from Marcello.

Maddalena’s foulard is the prototype of a specific type of opsign, the reports or constats, which give “a vision with depth, at a distance, tending towards abstraction” (Delueze 6). While the foulard may be a plaything accessory, it also illustrates Maddalena’s inability to communicate with Marcello. Like Marcello, she is trying to find and decipher meaning in her life, which could potentially be found in Marcello, yet Maddalena has difficulty establishing this connection. She uses it to cover her mouth, keep it shut, mask her face, and veil her head to shelter herself from the potential seriousness of the situation. The transparent and delicate foulard acts as a screen that filters the thoughts Maddalena wants to keep in, and the expressions she chooses to release. According to Wollen, Maddalena’s foulard is “incorporated into the cinema but not reduced to an ornament or an accessory”; although the foulard is technically a fashion accessory, it has a significant purpose through its demonstration of failed connection between meaning and reality (13).

Through this coquettish play with her clothing, Maddalena establishes her visual presence with Marcello, which demands his attention on her. According to Budd Boetticher:

What counts is what the heroine provokes, or rather what she represents. She is the one, or rather the love or fear she inspires in the hero, or else the concern he feels for her, who makes him act the way he does (qtd. in Mulvey 5).

Supporting Mulvey’s significance of visual presence to the plotline, Boetticher proposes the idea of the female as the “provoker”, the character who instigates an emotional response from the male protagonist. Marcello’s quest for fulfillment throughout La dolce vita is denied gratification through Maddalena’s obscurity with her authenticity, in terms of being serious. Even before Maddalena’s confession of love, Marcello has had affairs with her despite having a fiancé, denoting sexual desire and preference for Maddalena. When Maddalena confesses her love to Marcello, a revelation occurs, creating a possibility that will halt and answer Marcello’s search for meaning. Although Marcello is denied visual presence of and access to Maddalena, she is auditorially there. A connection has been established; therefore, an arrival to an answer to Marcello’s search.

But because of the physical separation, Maddalena confirms the hypocrisy of her fidelity and being a whore by kissing another man while Marcello reciprocates her love for him. In lineation to Mulvey’s proposal of visual presence causing narrative paralysis and contravention, Maddalena’s betrayal of feelings thwarts Marcello’s search and integrates her false claims as part of Marcello’s constant deferment of finding meaning. Furthermore, her actions alienate herself from Marcello.

Analysis of Maddalena’s dress and physical portrayal provides insight of her character. Although she criticizes the negative aspects of the bourgeoisie culture, she’s still a participant in it, which makes inconsistent her perceptions of reality and her actions. This dissonance is also applicable to her relationship with Marcello. Her streamlined, all-black clothing (which is reminiscent of Balenciago’s sack dress; the difference lies in the clearly defined waistlines) emphasizes how thin and sharp she physically is. Compared to her, the other characters in La dolce vita such as Sylvia and Emma have fuller bodies than her. In addition to her sense of displacement in reality, her fashion exhibits her physical vacancy. Her clothes are simpler in look, suggesting Maddalena’s uninhabited state, a lack of fulfillment. Like Marcello, she is lost.

Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’avventura (1961) portrays tragedy and its’ ensuing distorted and diluted recognition of the tragic event. Antonioni incorporates the element of mental cinema, or the characters’ discourse, in which there’s a disconnect between the environment and the character as well as a disconnect between behavior and the character’s internal state. Claudia (Monica Vitti) exemplifies this loss of connection through her lack of continuity in her behavior. Through her search for her missing friend Anna (Lea Massari) and her turbulent relationship with Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti), Anna’s fiancé, Claudia becomes restless and moody as she struggles between the two opposing desires.

When Claudia meets with Anna and Sandro’s friends and acquaintances, a discussion of Anna’s recent disappearance begins. This social circle indifferently states the statistics of people missing in Italy and makes assumptions of Marcello’s participation in the situation, comments that are void of emotional affect, pain, and consideration. Their insensitivity of the significance of this loss indicates their distorted and faltering sense of the reality of Anna’s disappearance.

Fashion is implemented as a strategy to distinguish “types” of characters, and in L’avventura, fashion creates the distinctions between different classes (Street 17). Claudia wears modern clothing that have clean lines and are similar to Balenciaga’s sweater dresses; Anna and her friends wear Dior’s New Look which consists of hourglass figures with pinched waists and floaty skirts. Claudia’s clothing not only distinguishes her societal class, but also signifies her struggle of aligning her mental state with reality. Although tenuous throughout L’avventura, Claudia’s grasp of reality is tangible: her recognition of the audacity of the comments made in the conversation is depicted through her shocked expressions and disbelieving turns towards the conversation, cognizant of the others’ indifference regarding Anna’s disappearance. Her simple outfit consisting of a black sweater and a tan skirt, in comparison to the flowy and decorative dresses of the other women, visually separates her from the group. Being identifiably different, Claudia’s clothing emphasizes her noninvolvement in the group as her back is turned to the group. Her attire indicates her personal disconnect from the group, depicting the lack of connection between her and other individuals.

When Claudia and Sandro are in Sicily in their search for Anna, Claudia encounters personal uneasiness, which is brought upon by the environment. Contradicting the theory of physical contiguity, in which the characters function as “organic parts of the landscape” and “the objects of the landscape and its general atmosphere expresses the same emotional meanings as the character’s behavior”, Antonioni provides no reconciliation between the individual and the environment; this disagreement outlines “a strong contrast between the characters’ desolate psychic state and the diversity and beauty of the world around them” (Kovács 150-151). The men in Sicily all look at her because she’s different: tall, blonde, fair-skinned, and professional and fashionable in attire. Claudia’s physical appearance alone clashes with the Sicilian atmosphere, where the natives are darker, shorter, and lower in socioeconomic status. Because of this incongruity, Claudia’s physical features and clothing capture the visual attention of the native men. The large number of men participating in the scopophilia pronounces their gazes targeting Claudia. There is a duality in these men’s gazes: while their gazes express sexual interest and desire, Claudia perceives it as a condemnation of her affair, exemplifying the disconnect between Claudia’s mentality and her environment. The magnitude of desirous concentration on her heightens her awareness of her transgression against Anna, enabling Claudia to infer that her actions are apparent to the external world. Whereas she was indulgent in her feelings for Sandro one moment, she now feels deprecatingly guilty, providing the basis of her inconsistency of her behavior.

Examination of Claudia’s physical presentation and attire provides indication of the incongruity between herself and the environment as well as the dissonance of her behavior and thought. When interacting with the landscapes of Southern Italy, Claudia is physically out of place because of her appearance and dress—even the environment responds to this discrepancy, which makes her feel alienated from the atmosphere. Her uneasiness and uncertainty is also evident in her relationships with others. Although she is the most in touch with reality, demonstrated through her oscillating recognition of her actions, her restlessness prevents her from remaining with either perception of reality, while the other characters are stuck in their disconnected states. Her professional and modern clothing physically distinguishes her from the other women dressed in the New Look. Claudia’s fashion distinguishes herself and her social reality, enabling her divergent perceptions of reality from others.

Antonioni’s La notte (1961) is the second film of his “Alienation Trilogy”, with L’avventura as the first installment, and L’eclisse (1962) as the last. Like its predecessor L’avventura, La notte concerns the alienation of man from reality. Furthermore, there is a lack of contiguity, or lack of connection, between not only individuals, but also between individuals and their environments (Kovács 150). Lidia (Jeanne Moreau) and Giovanni (Marcello Mastroianni) are a middle-aged couple; Giovanni is bored with and disengaged from his marriage while Lidia struggles to search for any remnants in their relationship to rekindle connection and intimacy. Giovanni and Lidia’s separate mental states strengthens the disconnection between them, gradually validating Lidia’s justification of not loving her husband anymore.

When Giovanni asks Lidia about her new dress, Lidia confirms with a look of satisfaction in his recognition of her attire. Lidia momentarily peacocks her all-black Prada dress and sashays before him with her beaded tulle capelet, sparkling with her every step. After her mini-exposition, Lidia turns around and immediately becomes distressed and disenchanted from the pride she just exhibited. She has captured her husband’s attention, but not in the manner she hoped she would.

In terms of psychoanalysis, the woman represents “the icon, displayed for the gaze and enjoyment of men, the active controllers of the look” (Mulvey 11). In La notte, Lidia’s struggle encompasses her failure to be the icon of her husband’s gaze. Her new dress signifies attempts to not only capture Giovanni’s attention, but to captivate his feelings for her. Lidia’s efforts for bewitchment fall short: Giovanni initially takes notice of the new attire, yet his gaze of her bears passivity and boredom. Where she wanted to command a look of longing desire, she received a look of stale interest. This attempt of the evocation of Giovanni’s stirrings for her illustrates Lidia’s instrumental use of her clothing to re-ignite and reconnect with her husband.

The failure to attain the husband’s gaze denotes the lack of connection between Lidia and Giovanni. Unlike Maddalena in La dolce vita with Marcello, Lidia’s visual presence doesn’t encapsulate Giovanni and garner his attention at all. Lidia’s attempts for control of Giovanni’s gaze usually results in either complete disengagement or shallow interest, suggesting his slight investment and boredom in the marriage. According to Mulvey, the male’s gaze of the female brims with pleasure in looking at the object of desire, enabling “sexual stimulation through sight” (9). However, Lidia consistently fails to incite Giovanni’s longing for her, and his responses are deficient in sexuality. In this scene, Lidia makes herself sexually accessible through her self-exhibition of her dress, yet Giovanni indirectly refuses her advance.

Although Giovanni’s disinterest frustrates Lidia’s attempts for contiguity, this impediment contributes to the narrative of humanity’s alienation of one another. This scene serves as just one demonstration of Lidia’s failed efforts for closeness in her marriage; the accumulation of these setbacks results in her conviction of lost love.

Lidia’s attire (literally) embodies her character. Although she consistently attempts to capture the sexual interest of her husband, Lidia often contradicts herself. For example, when Giovanni tells her of his excursion with the disturbed girl in the hospital, Lidia appears indifferent. At Gherardini’s party, Lidia almost seems to encourage Giovanni’s flirtation with Valentina (Monica Vitti). This inconsistency between her emotional need of connection and her distancing and defensive action applies to her relationship with her husband: she tries to entice him, yet ignores and encourages his infidelity. According to Molho, Lidia’s thin-strapped and flimsy Prada dresses serve as “aesthetic analogies” to La notte’s narrative: the diaphanous structure of her dress parallels the vagueness and ambiguity within Lidia and Giovanni’s relationship (45). Opposite to Lidia’s intent, her dress facilitates the deferment of her husband’s sexual gaze. The deconstruction of Lidia’s new dress at the end of La notte, with her natural hair and the removal of her capelet, emphasizes Lidia’s acceptance and honesty of the vacant state of her marriage as she tells Giovanni she does not love him anymore. The uncovering of herself allows for the brutal recognition of her marriage.

Fashion serves as a functional mediator between character and narrative of the film, enabling insight to the psychology of the characters; in turn, fashion inserts that awareness as a component of the story and plot. In Fellini’s La dolce vita, Maddalena’s streamlined dresses emphasize how thin she is, paralleling her empty body to the vacancies in her search for meaning in life. In addition, her foulard play indicates her inability to communicate.  In Antonioni’s L’avventura, Claudia’s modern clothing not only sets her apart from the other characters in the film, but also signifies her alienation from reality. Her modern clothing indicates that she is most in touch with reality compared to the other characters, but her inconsistent behavior suggests her wavering views between herself and other and views in both reality and emotion. Lidia’s thin-strapped attire in Antonioni’s La notte represents weak responses and the lack of capacity to engage her husband’s interest. Contiguity is deficient between them, and it is only when Lidia is in the most basic form of her attire, she acknowledges it.

In addition to serving both character and narrative, fashion allows for the psychoanalytic incorporation into the plot and story. The male gaze is prevalent across the three films, although its presentation slightly varies in each movie. In La dolce vita, Marcello’s gaze was commanded by Maddalena’s presence; in L’avventura, scopophilia targets Claudia as a sexual object while she interprets it as scrutinizing and shameful; and, in La notte, the lack of gaze signifies the emptiness in Lidia and Giovanni’s marriage. In addition to performing as a cinematic component that satisfies aesthetic requirements, fashion is a creator of cinematic identity, mitigating to the purpose of story and plotline; thus, affirming itself as an integral component of cinema.

Works Cited

Bruzzi, Stella. Undressing Cinema Clothing and Identity in the Movies. New York: Routledge, 1997. Print.

Deleuze, Gilles. “Beyond the Movement-Image.” Cinema 2: The Time Image. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989. 1- 24. Print.

Gaines, Jane. “Costume and Narrative: How Dress Tells the Woman’s Story.” Fabrications: Costume and the Female Body. Eds. Jane Gaines and Charlotte Herzog. London: Routledge, 1990. 196-208. Print.

Kovács, András. Screening Modernism: European Art Cinema, 1950-1980. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008. Print.

Mafai, Giulia. “A Director and an Image.” Fellini: Costumes and Fashion. Ed. Ida Panicelli. Virginia: Charta, 1996. Print.

Molho, Renata. “La Notte Chosen by Prada.” Fashion/Cinema. Electa, 1998. Print.

Fine, Bernard D. A Glossary of Psychoanalytic Terms and Concepts. Michigan: American Psychoanalytic Association, 1968. 45. Print.

Moore, Burness and Bernard D. Fine. A Glossary of Psychoanalytic Terms and Concepts. Michigan: American Psychoanalytic Association, 1968. Print.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen 16.3 (1975): 6-18. Web. 23 Apr. 2011.

Sozzani, Franca. “Fellini, Women, and Fashion.” Fellini: Costumes and Fashion. Ed. Ida Panicelli. Virginia: Charta, 1996. Print.

Street, Sarah. Costume and Cinema Dress Codes in Popular Film. London: Wallflower Press, 2001. Print.

Wollen, Peter. “Strike a Pose.” Sight and Sound 5.3 (1995): 10-15. Print.

One Response to “Fashion as a Functional Intermediary of Character and Narrative – Film Analysis by Yvette Villanueva”

  1. Narratives, Films and Fashion | khushwadhwani Says:

    […] between character and narrative. In addition to the character’s cinematic presentation, fashion OFFERS insight about the wearer, implying that the exterior façade offers enlightenment to the […]

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