If a book absolutely, positively, had to be judged by its cover, then Birds of Paradise: Costume as Cinematic Spectacle would be just fine. This anthology of academic writing comes encased in black, and the cover features a shimmering Serpentine Dancer, her skirts twirling over her head and with her arms outstretched. We know this is a frame enlargement because the rainbow inks daubed on to the frame transform her rippling dress into the wings of a butterfly, or an exotic bird. She is framed by the darkness of the blank stage around her: a woman in a white dress, made into a spectacle by the twin arts of fashion and film. The cover is utterly appropriate and ravishingly gorgeous.
Before you even reach the title page, there are more dancers, swishing their skirts and pointing their toes, reproduced in silvered, coloured inks on matt-black paper. This is an academic book masquerading as a coffee-table tome. You could flick through it for hours (and I did) marvelling at these silver and full-colour illustrations, weighing the heavy paper in your fingers.
But at some point, one must stop flirting and dance with the one that brung you. That is to say, read the darned book. The good news is that that divine creation has been brought to us by the people behind the Fashion in Film Festival and as such it is comprises an intelligent and slightly idiosyncratic approach to its subject. This is not a simple skate through film-costume history. The several contributors are mostly academics and curators, in the fields of performance, design, fashion, literature and film, and their essays are arranged in three groups, relating to different eras.
It’s the first two sections that interest us – the third is on sound cinema, specifically queer underground cinema from the 40s to the 70s, with essays on Kenneth Anger, James Bidgood’s Pink Narcissus (1971) and “Fashion, thrift stores and the space of pleasure in the 1960s queer underground film”. Pleasingly, in the last mentioned (PDF), Ronald Gregg explores the work of film-makers who created their own “cinema of attractions” by appropriating the excesses of Hollywood and in so doing “became the alluringly exotic, wild and trangressive Scheherazades and Cobra Women”.
So let us meet the Cobra Women. In Part One of this slinky, smart book, there’s a collection of writing on “Costume brought into focus: from the nineteenth-century stage to early cinema.” Three essays here tackle the hypnotic power of the Serpentine Dance – on stage and on screen. Jody Sperling, for example, writes about how Loïe Fuller, who popularised this twisting, twirling routine, experimented with colour and projection herself, training lights and lantern slides on to her dancers’ dresses. These “women-screens” pre-empted the Serpentine’s fate as an early cinema favourite, not that Fuller thought her dances would, or could, be captured on camera. As Giovanni Lista explains, she felt that the theatrical experience could not be rendered on screen – she wanted to incorporate film into her act, rather than the other way around. Much as we love those famously kaleidoscopic hand-coloured films of Serpentine Dances, might the original have been even more spectacular, even more cinematic?
The final essay in this section, by the book’s editor, Market Uhlirova, also stars Fuller, but broadens its scope to “opulent” costumes in early cinema – the fairies, devils and butterflies that cavort across the “vues fantastiques” produced by “trick” film-makers such as George Méliès. Uhlirova first delineates how the extravagant costumes and complex stage effects of Victorian “fairy plays” found a natural home in early cinema, then delves into what meaning these bewinged, flaming, unpredictable female characters bear:
It is the splendour of costumes that often helps these women not only to dazzle but also to stun, in order to renegotiate existing power relations … these are the first cinema woman to purposefully employ artifice in order to ‘cast the glamour’ as a dual form of witchcraft and physical allure, to enchant and deceive the senses.
There is a more glamour to be cast in the middle section of Birds of Paradise, titled “Performing costume in the silent cinema of the 1910s and 1920s”. Silvered frame enlargements featuring Gloria Swanson, Mae Murray, Theda Bara et al usher in a collection of essays on silent cinema’s special obsession with gorgeous gowns.
Eugenia Paulicelli considers the Italian “masterpiece” Rapsodica Satanica (Nino Oxilia, 1915), and the way in which the heroine, Alba, reveals and disguises the layers of her character through costume, including the use of veils: “a porous screen that keeps porous the borders of what is inside and outside, conscious and subconscious, private and public.” For Paulicelli, the veil figures the woman wearing it as a kind of femme fatale – and it’s little surprise that Albas appears as Salome at a costume ball within the film. It’s not the last reference to Salome in a chapter that investigates costume design alongside performance and sexuality.
Similar themes emerge in Inga Fraser’s study of “The significance of costume of the silent cinema vamp.” In a hugely enjoyable essay, Fraser traces the pre-cinema influences – from Salome to Orientalism – the hints of the morbid and the animal symbolism that contribute to the construction of the vamp “look”. The latter manifests itself in Theda Bara wearing a serpent bra and a peacock gown to play Cleopatra – outfits that to our eyes waver between alluring and ludicrous, but once wielded uncommon power. Fraser concludes that the vamp’s costumes are part of a display tactic – a pose that retards the momentum of the film:
The slowing or embalming of time lends cinema a somewhat ghoulish quality and the vamp, who so beautifully and devastatingly articulates such moments, gains her power from this sense of the macabre.
Fraser also notes that the vamp’s appeal to female cinemagoers can be credited to her extreme embodiment of the “new woman” type: she is a consumer of high fashion, and of men, both.
In the “marriage films” that Gloria Swanson made with Cecil B DeMille, the star took that idea and ran away with it, creating the notion of the film actor as fashionista on the way. In her essay on these films, Sumiko Higashi notes in passing the attractive idea that: “silent film actresses enjoy an advantage as the beautiful sex because the authoritative male voice has yet to be heard on the soundtrack.” That may or may not be so, but Higashi’s wise conclusion is that fan worship comes at a cost. Swanson’s films appeared to empower female viewers by imprinting the idea that one could inhabit a different, better self by dint of changing one’s wardrobe, but the reality could be damaging: “As fans identifying with stars who personified modern lifestyle, women seemed more than willing to pay the price of narcissistic, and fractured selves.”
The two concluding essays in this section examine dance and costume in tandem. Lucy Fisher explains how the revue-style spectacle, incorporating elaborate, expensive costumes, was transferred to the screen in the silent films of, for example, Mae Murray, before finding its full expression in the sound musical. Karl Toepfer examines dances scenes in European cinema, from Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927) to Piccadilly (EA Dupont, 1929), while pausing to bemoan the “constraint of the cinematic imagination of the 1920s”:
Filmmakers want to display women in spectacularly decorative, utterly impractical costumes that reinforce the impression of femininity as a purely theatrical phenomenon, but increasingly they can’t find a compelling reason to do so unless the women perform a dance as a music hall or nightclub or are cast in a fantastic ‘oriental’ milieu.
For Toepfer, sound cinema liberates dancers to move more freely, and liberates dance to function as part of the narrative itself, as opposed to the stilted silent shimmy – which sets up an interesting opposition with Fraser’s explorations of the power of slowness and display. The era of the vamp was over, once the chorus girls took to the stage.
Birds of Paradise: Costume as Cinematic Spectacle was edited by Market Uhlirova and published by Koenig Books, RRP £45. It was designed by Laurenz Brunner Studio. You can order a copy for £40, including P&P here, at the Fashion in Film website.