Film and Fashion: Just Friends? You be the Judge…


JEN KAO has seen “Avatar” — twice. Ms. Kao, a New York designer known for filmy knits and aggressive black leather, plans to infuse her next collection, in September, with some of that movie’s violent colors and savage frills.

Well, Ms. Kao, get in line. Jean Paul Gaultier was feeling an “Avatar” moment way back in January. Just a month after the release of the James Cameron blockbuster, he injected strains of its Edenic imagery into his couture collection.

Nor did the editors of Vogue waste time paying homage to that movie’s blue-skinned tribes. A 10-page fashion feature in its March issue is photographed in a mossy forest, the models stamped with fierce tattoos. “Avatar,” prompts the accompanying text. “You can’t miss the sci-fi angle.”

Few films in recent memory have had such a vivid and instantaneous impact on the world of style. So it seems perverse that last month, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced the nominees for best costume design, Mayes C. Rubeo and Deborah Lynn Scott’s luridly exotic designs for the film were not in the running. Come Sunday, when Oscars are bestowed, the award will go to one in a lineup of more reliably conventional period fare, films that include “Bright Star,” “Nine” and “Coco Before Chanel.”

In earlier eras, such a slight would have stung. Film and fashion, after all, once enjoyed a relationship so intertwined as to border on incestuous. Today, among style-world insiders at least, the insult scarcely registers. Clearly a long and fabled love affair has lost its heat.

Movies and fashion? “I don’t think there’s a connection,” said Simon Doonan, the creative director of Barneys New York. Despite the cultural frenzy surrounding fashion in the last decades, “it’s very rare,” Mr. Doonan said, to find real fashion in the movies or, more tellingly, to see current films that “create much of an impact on the world of style.”

A generation ago, Mr. Doonan would have had to acknowledge an influence so powerful it drove merchants and garment makers to rush line-for-line knockoffs into production. As recently as the 1970s and ’80s, stores and catwalks teemed with adaptations, mostly literal, of Hollywood’s greatest wardrobe hits.

Faye Dunaway’s Depression-era glamour girl in “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967) spawned a raft of slinky midi-skirts, twin sets and jaunty berets like those that lent her character a vixenish appeal. Diane Keaton’s tomboy regalia in “Annie Hall” (1977) prompted legions of fans to adopt Ms. Keaton’s signature tweeds, khaki trousers and slouchy fedoras. Since the release of “Out of Africa” in 1985, the ivory-tone hacking jacket and khaki safari looks that Meryl Streep wore on the savannah have been a recurrent theme on Ralph Lauren’s runway.

Not to leave out John Travolta. In his white disco suit and open-to-the-navel black shirt in “Saturday Night Fever” (1977), Mr. Travolta inspired scores of would-be hipsters to scour stores across the country for sexy facsimiles, the better to show off a slab of bare chest.

But in the ’60s and ’70s, only a handful of trendsetting stars — the likes of Audrey Hepburn, Ms. Dunaway and Ali MacGraw — were idolized by moviegoers. “We didn’t have tweeters, bloggers and legions of minor celebrities to challenge their influence,” said André Leon Talley, Vogue’s editor at large. Had “Coco Before Chanel” been released in those heady days, he said, “it would have inspired fashion in a great way.”

Today the impact of Ms. MacGraw’s sophisticated preppie in “Love Story” (1970) would likely be lost in the flurry of outsize personalities flaunting their wardrobes on the concert stage and television, and on popular blog sites like The Sartorialist, which routinely anoints raffishly garbed, anonymous young urbanites as the latest arbiters of taste.

“These days the inspiration of film on fashion is never very apparent,” Mr. Doonan said. “You might tell yourself, I want a leather jacket like Marlon Brando wore in ‘The Wild One’ or a woolly hat like Ali MacGraw’s in ‘Love Story.’ ” Films retain their emotional impact on viewers, he acknowledged. “But what those viewers take away is often a single wardrobe item, a talisman. It’s like they’re getting a holy relic.”

The influence that film wields now is often oblique, registering as no more than an impression, a color or mood. In his spring 2007 collection, Marc Jacobs acknowledged “Marie Antoinette” and his friend, its director Sofia Coppola. But the feeling of that giddy costume extravaganza came through only in an airy cream and ivory palette and in shapes suggesting trim court breeches and dainty fichu collars.

Obscure vintage films and art house flicks — or those that failed to find a mass audience — also fuel imaginations. Cynthia Rowley alluded, albeit subtly, to the intricately interwoven textures of the costumes for “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” in a fall 2010 collection that was partly constructed from feathers and fringe. Films move her emotionally and aesthetically, Ms. Rowley said, but like many of her confederates on Seventh Avenue, she turns her back on crowd pleasers in favor of movies “whose costumes are part of a self-contained universe, one that looks as if it sprang full-blown from the director’s imagination.”

In previous decades the symbiotic relationship between Hollywood and Seventh Avenue was largely the product of strenuous marketing. Stores rushed to reproduce memorable costumes like the pouf-shouldered organdy gown Gilbert Adrian designed for Joan Crawford in “Letty Lynton” (1932) or the breezy white sundress Edith Head confected for Elizabeth Taylor in “A Place in the Sun” (1951).