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Fashion in Horror: An Examination

by Midnight Movie Guy

For as long as horror has been a genre, it has also touched upon nearly every aspect of humanity in one form or another. The world of fashion, though an unlikely coupling, has not been spared. It seems recently though that the realms of fashion and fear have been colliding more frequently, forcing us to take notice that the two worlds can, in fact, coincide and leave a lasting artistic impact. With these new instances, we’re also able to recall the movie maniacs that came decades ago, dressed to kill.

The Sensual and Demonic Sixties

Though the bombshell scream queens of the 1950’s were often clad in bust-enhancing dresses and sexy swimsuits, the sixties were a bit more iconic and memorable when it came to the noticeable fusion of horror and fashion. In fact, most genre fans can even pinpoint the film of the era that embodies this notion; Rosemary’s Baby.

The classic horror film is a superb execution of being bold and chic, yet subtle, much like the fashion of the time. Style in the early sixties, in a few words, was popularized by loud colors and prints painted onto simple, rigid silhouettes. Rosemary Woodhouse, the bedeviled NYC housewife, was a poster-child of this aesthetic. So much so that her character is almost more iconic than the film itself. Her pixie cut (done herself, Mia Farrow once claimed on Twitter, not by Vidal Sassoon) and collared baby-doll dresses are as memorable and signature as the film’s shocking “This is no dream!” revelation. It’s really no wonder that Rosemary’s character has been mentioned and discussed again and again in fashion publications like The Gloss, InStyle, and Vogue.

Rosemary's Baby
Rosemary’s Baby

 
Unsurprisingly, Roman Polanski’s earlier 60’s thriller, Repulsion, also gets some respect for its stylish leading lady. In it, Catherine Deneuve portrayed Carol, a disturbed manicurist living in London. While she evoked a soft style we’d see later on in Rosemary Woodhouse, she was also a visual representation of the blossoming “groovy” era many were embracing. A woman who, despite her sexual repression and self-isolation, symbolized a world that was cracking with sexual tension.

Another iconic horror look from the 60’s comes in the form of a simple green dress-suit, created by the famed costume designer Edith Head, and destroyed by a fury of black plumage. Tippi Hedren, already an established fashion model, played socialite Melanie Daniels in Hitchcock’s classic, The Birds. However, she should not be lumped in with the past two examples of this period’s fashion, as she represented the more structured and polished aspect of the decade’s style. Elegant, powerful, and serving a little ice queen coolness, Melanie’s style throughout the film is in stark contrast to her surroundings in casual, coastal Bodega Bay. Her chilly, affluent style and composure is crucial though, as it’s what sets us up for the visual shock that is Melanie at the close of the film, completely exhausted and disheveled, but alive.

Bloody Revolution of the 70’s

While every following decade seems to differ from the one before it, the 1970’s were in very stark contrast when it came to the ideals of modern fashion. Molds were broken and silhouettes were distorted. It was an evolution into edgy looks and violent fashion, born from the sexual revolution of the 60’s. When it comes to the horror films that represent this, you’ll find that they now not only use fashion as part of their storylines, but even have female protagonists who are actively involved in the fashion world.

The Eyes of Laura Mars as the first example should come as no surprise. The story of a chic NYC fashion photographer, played by Faye Dunaway, who begins having psychic visions of her friends as they’re being stalked and murdered, is easily most memorable for its “fashion world” set pieces. In one scene, fish net and fur clad women brawl as crashed cars burn behind them. Another finds a man dead, shot, as women in gold and champagne gowns surround him. Neither is dream sequence or surreal cutaway, though. Instead, both are fashion editorials, shot by Laura Mars.

Eyes of Laura Mars
Eyes of Laura Mars

Shockingly, the film’s message about the fashion world back then is still relevant and discussable today; the thin line many fashion photographers must walk when their artistic vision happens to involve violence. Is it tasteless and advocating violence? Or, is it just art, meant to make you feel something, anything, about it? Laura Mars and her real-world inspiration, Helmut Newton (who lent his photography talent to the film’s sets), must defend these points of view they have, and those working in fashion today are still battling against such concerns of censorship.

The second film I alluded to is the low-key thriller The Sentinel, by Roman Polanski, who had already made his mark in the horror-fashion world with Rosemary’s Baby. In it, worrisome model Alison moves into a Brooklyn brownstone that naturally, in true Polanski form, is a gateway to Hell. While most of Alison’s story ignores her professional life, and she spends most of the time in her sheer bedtime nighties, there is some subtext to be gained about making a somewhat depressed fashion model the main character of a horror film. An allegory about how even the most beautiful among us aren’t safe from a variety of horrors. In fact, this “model in danger” notion is almost a modern cliché now, with films like Captivity, Starry Eyes, I Spit on Your Grave 2, American Horror Story: Hotel, and the upcoming The Neon Demon all including it as part of their stories. But there should always be room for the originators of classic tropes and cliches and, in this instance, The Sentinel stands out.

I’d be remiss though if I didn’t point out another great 70’s horror that owes much of its visual allure to the fashion used within the film, despite it being more refined and mature than past examples. That film would be Don’t Look Now. A slow-burning story with a shocking ending, our two main characters, a couple still mourning their drowned daughter, are dressed throughout in tweed, wool, and trench coats. Together, wandering through a muddy-toned Venice, the pair mimic their surroundings in a wardrobe of brown, navy, and dull autumn colors. However, a memory from the past and a violence in their future demands their attention in the form of a striking red coat, similar to the one their daughter once wore…

The Slash of Fashion in the 80’s

The 80’s continued pushing the envelope when it came to fashion identity and self-expression. Stylish, colorful clothing was now mass produced, and the trends were being spearheaded by pop stars and actors. No longer was fashion a “thing” that was reserved for the affluent or those within the industry; it was now in the suburbs, high schools, and shopping malls of America.

Horror was similarly being mass produced, with new slashers and zombie hordes tearing up the screens more rapidly than ever before. But in a time when horror films aimed for shock more than style, how hard would it be to recall the movies that not only entertained, but embraced and embodied the fashion of those eclectic years?

Let’s step back to those shopping malls I mentioned. Those who grew up in the 80’s and 90’s will often remember them as the frequent gathering spots for America’s youth, offering them all the music, food, and fashion their little hearts could handle. So when the sisters from Night of the Comet talk about their complexion, boys, and then head to the mall for some retail therapy to stave off their apocalypse blues, it resonates today as much more than just a flashy, filler sequence from a scary movie. It becomes a commentary of the time, reminding us of the importance of fashion and expression in these girls’ lives. To Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” they dance around a department store in furs, heels, sequins, and scarves that will “…stay in style longer.” And then they prepare to shoot their way out past some sunglassed punks.

Night of the Comet
Night of the Comet

Despite the transition of fashion into the smaller cities and towns, the major metropolises of the nation still demanded glamorous and couture designs, mostly in an effort to embrace materialism and status which had evaded (or been actively avoided by) large chunks of the population in past decades. Though not very “in your face,” evidence of this can be found in films like the horror-comedy Once Bitten, where Lauren Hutton’s The Countess embodied 80’s Hollywood glamor, and in Dressed to Kill and The Hunger, both of which communicate the more rigid and sleek styles popular outside of the mall. This can be noticed briefly as well in the late-80’s favorite, Bettlejuice, when the Deetz family from New York City takes over the Maitland home in Connecticut, discovering the modest, simple fashions the deceased couple once embraced. Interior designer friend to the Deetz family, Otho, perhaps summed their reactions up perfectly – “Ugh. Deliver me from L.L. Bean.”

The 1990’s also had their moments in horror fashion; from the “gothic” teen witch look that The Craft amplified to the haute-horror couture of The Cell and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. However, by the late-90’s and through the 2000’s, the mingling of the fashion and horror worlds had become less atypical and rather, a new and common avenue for horror – possibly a side-effect of this modern time’s social justice movement, in which women and LGBTQ (among others) are speaking out against being left on the back burners of American culture. The past couple years alone have seen fashion take the forward lead in several horror projects, like television’s American Horror Story: Coven and Scream Queens, and there just seems to be more to come. Scream Queens is set for a second season, The Neon Demon is ready for a June release, and the Broadway stage is currently being slashed up by the musical version of the retro slasher opus, American Psycho.

SCREAM QUEENS: Pictured L-R: Abigail Breslin as Chanel #5, Billie Lourd as Chanel #3 and guest star Ariana Grande as Chanel #2 in "Pilot," the first part of the special, two-hour series premiere of SCREAM QUEENS airing Tuesday, Sept. 22 (8:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. ©2015 Fox Broadcasting Co. Cr: Steve Dietl/FOX.
SCREAM QUEENS: Pictured L-R: Abigail Breslin as Chanel #5, Billie Lourd as Chanel #3 and guest star Ariana Grande as Chanel #2 in “Pilot,” the first part of the special, two-hour series premiere ©2015 Fox Broadcasting Co. Cr: Steve Dietl/FOX.

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