Hollywood loves a fashion film almost as
much as a makeover story and has a glossy tradition of cinematic fairy
tales à la mode, with a side of Cinderella. Give or take a totemic ball
gown and glass slipper. The latest is the Canadian film After the Ball, set in the garment industry of Montreal.
Change your clothes, change your fate. This is true from the makeover in Grease to the one Claire gives misfit Allison in the gym bathroom of The Breakfast Club or Cher taking Tai under her wing in Clueless.
The fashion before-and-after is a Cinderella story of humiliation,
recognition and social redemption. (Take the wicked stepsister stand-ins
that are the shaming co-hosts of What Not to Wear, a show with a sadomasochistic Cinderella impulse if ever there was.)
Clothes are the fairy tale’s natural
accessory and if they’re not persuasive, they certainly are consistent.
Disney’s upcoming live-action Cinderella, directed by Kenneth Branagh, has a co-promotion with J.C. Penney, who borrows the fairy tale lingo for its commercials.
“It’s a story about the power of transformation, and how Cinderella
found her inner confidence and self-esteem that enabled her true
potential to emerge,” the retailer’s chief marketing officer said in a February press release.
The campaign prizes, aimed at teens, include both confidence and
self-motivation workshops and, naturally, a shopping spree and a
The important step forward in happily ever after begins – and ends – with the right shoe.
reversal of wardrobe fortunes can be shorthand for a psychological
transformation, like Bette Davis from fusty spinster to confident
stylish woman in Now, Voyager. The “new you” often accompanies
the postwar American popularity of the Continent – specifically, Paris,
and Paris fashion’s transformative powers to turn an ugly duckling into a
swan. In Made in Paris, young fashion plate Ann-Margret is transformed by her first buying trip to the fashion capital, for example.
Men get to be cinderfellas of a sort: Leonardo DiCaprio’s suit in Titanic
enables him to hang with the swells; Gatsby is worthy of Daisy in part
because of his custom-made shirts (see also: William Holden taken
shopping in Sunset Boulevard). In all cases, for reasons of
social class and a scant closet, the protagonists cannot fulfill what
they deserve on their own. Despite plucky charm and virtue, their place
in society is signalled by clothes.
In fashion films, the runway défilé is a substitute for the palace ballroom scene in Cinderella, and an excuse to ogle fashion. “Have you ever been to a fashion show?” Gregory Peck asks during the fashion-salon set comedy Designing Woman.
“It’s sort of a pagan ritual … a ceremonial dance where the faithful
sit around sipping tea and worshipping clothes. There is a sacrifice,
too: $1,500 for a dress, $350 for a nightie.” The gold-digging trio of
Cinderellas in How To Marry a Millionaire attend a department store fashion show; the Easter Parade sequence “The Girl on the Magazine Cover” is a musical interlude of fashion models in magazine-cover tableaux; don’t forget Singin’ in the Rain’s “Beautiful Girl” or that Lovely to Look At
ends with a spectacular fashion show finale crafted by Vincente
Minnelli. And let’s not forget the Catholic church fashion show in
But the supreme of Hollywood’s Cinderella stories is Funny Face,
in which Kay Thompson’s daffy, effusive Maggie Prescott is the fairy
godmother of reluctant model Audrey Hepburn, stopping short of
“Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” (instead, her catchphrase is “think pink” – and as
a fun drinking game idea: every time she says “pizzazz”). She’s
modelled on Harper’s Bazaar editor Diana Vreeland. Hepburn gets her
prince, a fashion photographer.
much of a good thing leads to wickedness – whatever the adaptation,
Cinderella’s evil stepsisters are always exceedingly vain and
materialistic. Success in the decadent fashion world corrupts, as Susan
Hayward learns in both I Can Get it For You Wholesale and later in Back Street (1961), about the ill-fated affair between a fashion designer and a married department store owner (gowns by Jean Louis). In Lucy Gallant, Jane Wyman runs a dress shop and initially has to choose between her fashion career and her love interest.
still in the tradition established by the Brothers Grimm 200 years ago,
of rewards that come thanks to the illusory effects of clothing. The Turnip Princess,
a newly discovered collection of Bavarian fairy tales by a contemporary
of the Grimms, introduced and translated by Maria Tatar, chair of the
folklore and mythology program at Harvard, is all brisk, blunt economy
on the subject. Take the story The Belt and the Necklace:
“There was once a king with a daughter named Barbara. She was so ugly
that everyone made fun of her. She lived a lonely life.” What follows is
a retailer’s dream – she throws plums into the water in exchange for
dazzling mermaids’ beautifying props (a belt and a necklace – or, what’s
known as the power of a plot, well-accessorized), which make her appear
beautiful and, in so doing, is able to become queen. Shopaholic ties