Alone at last, Bette Davis reaches out for the object of her desire: a deliciously alluring mink coat. Caressing the fur, Davis envelops herself in its sensual embrace, looks longingly at her own reflection and twirls around the pokey living room. The screen suddenly blackens… Davis reappears exhausted, lying on the sofa, puffing on a cigarette. This absurd tryst (the cause of much laughter amongst the assembled audience), with its glamour, elegance and sense of fun, provided a fitting entrée into this year’s Fashion in Film Festival.
With a special focus on the links between fashion, crime and violence, the festival’s carefully selected programme provided a host of thieves, petty criminals and femme fatales fixated on acquiring the latest ‘it’ accessory. Forget feeble lusting over Manolo Blahniks, these formidable heroines took lusting over clothing to a dangerous and criminal extreme. In fact, watching the beautiful array of costumes, it was hard not to sympathise… just a little!
In Asphalt (1929) – a striking example of German Expressionist film – the beautiful actress Betty Amman played a glamorous kleptomaniac with an impossibly chic closet of stolen jewels and furs. Dressed in an array of stunning silk, lace and fur outfits designed by René Hubert (who worked for Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo), Amman used her sexual magnetism to distract the hapless owner of a jewellery store and a morally upstanding police officer. Shots of Amman’s stocking-clad legs provided a link between sex and crime, perfectly mirrored in other works showing in the Criminal Desire strand of the festival.
In The Pearl (1929), another seductive temptress used her charms to steal a piece of jewellery, in this case, a pearl necklace, from a young man hoping to impress his doting, innocent girlfriend. A game of chase ensues between the young man and the female jewellery thief, and he quickly becomes smitten with this conniving criminal. Screening alongside a number of silent shorts, this Belgian surrealist work, with its army of female robbers dressed in figure-hugging body suits, was a real visual treat. In The Kidnapping of Fux the Banker (1923), an early Czech crime parody that enjoyed its UK premiere at the festival, yet again, the male of the species is taken for a ride. Having already financially ruined one suitor with her clothing habit, the greedy flapper Maud hatches an elaborate plan to find a substitute, bringing about a farcical plotline with a cast of cartoon-like characters including the hopeless detective ‘Sherlock Holmes II’.
As well as giving audiences the chance to see these rare early films, the festival offered an array of talks and introductions. Those attending the special symposium ‘Taking Stock’ at the ICA soon learnt that Bette Davis wasn’t the only leading lady with a passion for mink. In a fascinating lecture, film noir expert Petra Dominkova revealed the mink coat to be a status symbol with much deeper cultural and social significance than a mere frivolous piece of fashion. Indeed, this was the beauty of the festival: it looked beyond the groomed surface and used clothes to discuss questions of power, status, sex and greed. With such intelligent curating and rich themes, we eagerly await the next instalment of the Fashion in Film Festival.