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.
“To the feminine mind nothing appeals quite as strongly as clothing, hats, or shoes – in fact finery of any kind,” opined Moving Picture World in 1916. Gentlemen spectators apparently preferred films with fighting in them. On finishing this fascinating survey of how the fashion and film industries met and grew together in the early 20th century, I’m inclined to excuse MPW’s sweeping generalisation.
Clothing, and fashion, are at the heart of everything that Hollywood has ever done. All film is spectacle, early film unambiguously so – and nothing epitomises the excesses of La-La Land more than the view of preening, primped movie stars lining up on the red carpet draped in borrowed couture and jewels. Baffling then, to remember that the first film actors were required to supply their own costumes. Turning up well-dressed to an studio (as the supremely stylish teenage Gloria Swanson did at Essanay) could secure you a chance at stardom. Even when studios had appointed a seamstress, numbers were so short that they would frequently be called upon to play roles on screen. In fact, Hollywood wardrobe departments would be staffed by many a former actress. And because few people kept proper records of who did what in the early studios, it is the memories of stars such as Swanson and Lillian Gish that often provide the clearest picture of how the costumes were supplied, chosen and recycled in-house.
To begin with, Michelle Tolini Finamore’s scholarly illustrated book examines fashion trends that made for great movie subject matter, from the exploited women working in sweatshops that churned out shirtwaists for America’s increasingly well-dressed urban working-class, to the extravagant picture hats that caused havoc in Nickelodeons, to the risque Paris styles that marked a lady out as a vamp. The idea that US fashions were practical and democratic and French ones outlandish and revealing kicks off a major theme in this book – the battle for fashion supremacy between first New York then LA with Paris.