The History of Fashion Film

Films first started to be shown to the public at the end of the 19th Century, with the development of film technology by the Lumiere Brothers, and the first film to be shown to a paying audience in the UK was shown in London in 1896. These early films quickly became popular, with cinemas being opened across the country in village halls and shops. Early films were taken outside and were of everyday events, showing ordinary people, and it was the first time people were able to look at fashions in this way, previously relying on printed media, such as newspapers, magazines and postcards.

Probably the first actual ‘fashion film’ shown in England was made in late 1909 and screened in February 1910, called Fifty Years of Paris Fashions 1859-1909. Bioscope, the trade magazine at the time, wrote …. ‘magnificent examples of the art of the dressmaker and milliner, and a lady sitting in the picture theatre where this is being shown can imagine that she is in the showroom of a fashionable modiste with the mannequins walking round for her inspection’. Such films allowed ordinary people to see into the world of fashion designers and high fashion, with shops such as Liberty and Swan and Edgar being happy to allow the film makers to show their clothes.

Newsreels were an important part of early cinema showings, and by 1910 companies such as Pathe and Gaumont were including films of just a few minutes showing the latest fashion from Paris. By the end of 1911, Pathe were producing short fashion films in their own right. It was reported in the October 1911 issue of Bioscope that ‘To meet this desire and demand for fashion films, Messrs Pathe are commencing a series showing the coming models from Paris. The present one gives coloured pictures of hats, dinner gowns, tailor-made costumes, walking gowns, negligees and teagowns.’ It was quite usual for the fashion films to be in colour, as being only short they were ideal for experimenting with colour techniques. The main feature films at this time were relatively short, so film makers were keen to make films such as fashion films to pad out the cinema experience. With the outbreak of war in 1914, fashion films became less popular, as the news companies had more serious news to concentrate on, but as late as 1915 Pathe were still showing fashion films under the slogan ‘Despite the War, Paris still leads the world of dress’ and fashion films continued to be shown in America, which didn’t enter the war until 1917. In 1915 Jacob Wilk of World Film Productions filmed a fashion show which was touring the States, making a fashion film which for the first had a definite storyline, emphasising the importance of a lady choosing the right beautiful clothes and that ‘Clothes make the woman’.


PATHE, B., 2014. More Fashions – Filmed In Paris (1926) [11 October 2015]. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ru1S3YUeWDg

Examples of early fashion films from Pathe
In 1916 there was a new development in fashion films, which had gone from simply displaying clothes, to including a simple storyline, and then were made into an American serial called The Adventures of Dorothy Dare. The idea was that the heroine, Dorothy Dare, would rescue a lady wearing beautiful clothes, with the action being suspended to allow the fashion items to be described. This was not a successful format, but in 1917 the American part of Pathe started producing a series of 31 short fashion films called Florence Rose Fashions which it originally released every fortnight, with a number of newspapers running information on the clothing items to be featured prior to each film’s release, so that potential customers could read about fashion items in their newspaper and then go to the cinema to see them being modelled. These films had very simple storylines, with titles such as Weekend House Party and A Day in New York with Betty, and the later ones were released weekly, reverting to being more like their original newsreel format, with titles such as A Glance Ahead and The Season’s Novelties.

After the end of the war in 1918, British news companies started filming less serious short films again and Gaumont, for example, produced a weekly newsreel called Around the Town, which included interviews and information on various topics, including sport, plays and the latest fashions; by 1919 Around the Time had become just about fashion.

In 1925 an American company the Educational Film Exchanges released a new series of fashion films called McCall Fashion News, using an improved technique called the Eastman Colour process, which gave more natural colour tones. The next development in fashion films was in 1938, when Fox Studios in Hollywood started producing a series of eight short films called Fashion Forecast, which ran until 1942. This series was filmed in Technicolor and had a soundtrack, so that cards did not need to be used to give information about the clothing items.
Screen Shot 2015-12-11 at 19.04.10
Hope Hampton in McCall Fashion News
LEESE, E., 1976. Costume Design in the Movies. 1st ed. UK: Bcw Publishing Ltd

Whilst not strictly pure fashion films, a number of the feature films produced at this time had dresses supplied by Couture houses, especially those based in New York. The fashion designers did not originally receive a credit in the film, but the extravagant gowns were an important part of the films and publicity about the films often told potential consumers where the gowns could be purchased. Some studios also employed their own designers, many of whom had previously worked for upmarket fashion houses, such as Bernard Newman (RKO Studios) who had worked at Bergdorf Goodman.

During the Second World War it was difficult for film companies to obtain the coupons and materials necessary to produce their own clothes, so it was particularly useful for them to continue their association with fashion houses. Short fashion films were still being made after the war, such as Fashion Fantasy (1946), a 35 minute (unusually long) supporting film which showed a newly demobbed Wren fantasising about being employed in a fashion house and showed its audience the creation of a gown from its first rough design to being modelled on the catwalk, when a selection of Norman Hartnell gowns were displayed.

Givenchy was another fashion designer closely associated with Hollywood films, as he had a close association with Audrey Hepburn, becoming her favourite designer, dressing her in films such as Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). This relationship was beneficial to both of them; Givenchy had enormous publicity for his work through her very successful films and Audrey Hepburn was helped to become such an fashion icon by the beautiful way in which Givenchy designed for her. Such a film is not perhaps strictly a fashion film, but has nevertheless had a major influence on fashion; the little black dress has become a classic.
audrey-hepburn-dress
Audrey Hepburn Wearing the Iconic Little Black Dress
THE SOUTHERN HIPPIE, 2013. Little Black Dress. In: The Southern Hippie. 11 September 2013 [11 October 2015]. Available from: http://thesouthernhippiefashion.blogspot.co.uk

In the 1960s newsreels, fashion films and other short films stopped being shown around the main feature film in cinemas, partly because news and other documentaries were becoming widely accessible on TV. As a result fashion films promoting clothes became less popular; however more recently, with the development of the internet and the influence of social media, short fashion films are once again being used to promote fashion and publicise fashion events, such as fashion shows. For example, Vogue, which has long been a leading source of fashion information, now has an American VogueVideos website showing ‘The best of the web’s short fashion films, courtesy of our favourite clothing and accessory labels’ – Vogue, 2015. In the UK it also has VogueVideo showing its own fashion films and beauty tutorials, such as a series by Alexa Chung called ‘The Future of Fashion by Alexa Chung’. The development of digital technology has made these films cheap and easy for anyone to produce and easy to distribute via the web to a worldwide audience.  As a pre-recorded show, these films are a reliable form of promotion and a cheaper way to promote clothes than performing to a live audience, where there is also the risk of something going wrong. These films are far more creative than the early films in cinemas, with digital technology allowing a wide range of visual effects, soundtracks and manipulation to connect with the audience. I will look at some of these more modern fashion films in my later blog posts.

Resources:
LEESE, E., 1976. Costume Design in the Movies. 1st ed. UK: Bcw Publishing Ltd

VOGUE, 2015. Style.com Fashion Films [11 October 2015]. Available from: http://video.vogue.com/series/fashion-films

VOGUE, 2015. Vogue Video [11 October 2015]. Available from: http://www.vogue.co.uk/voguevideo/latest

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