Representing the creative future

From the atelier to the big screen

Are clothes in film fashion or costume? We speak with one of the minds behind this year's London Fashion Film Festival to find out.

Fashion is never timeless – it is marked and torn by time. And time, in return, can be revealed or manipulated by fashion. Celebrating its tenth anniversary, this year’s Fashion in Film Festival explores the way film and fashion draw on one another to represent, embody and visualise time. From the 11th until the 26th of March, an ambitious selection of cinematic masterpieces, documentaries and fashion shorts will light up London’s oldest cinema’s and most prestigious arthouses. The accompanying exhibition opens this Wednesday in the Window Gallery at Central Saint Martins, which gave us the opportunity to talk to Tom Gunning, film historian and co-curator of this year’s festival.

You have said that you are interested in the way the past leads to the future, and I wondered where that leaves the present…

To me the present is the intersection of the past and the future, almost literally. There is a view that takes history as something fixed, something that has already happened, and the future is supposedly in the realm of change and transformation. But my position is that the past is always changing. Our role as historians is to rediscover the past and to find what speaks to us. Speculating on the future always gives me a headache. In fact I get more of a sense of what the future might be from seeing how our sense of the past has changed. One example – when I studied many years ago, film history was about storytelling, and the era of early cinema, particularly before 1906, was of very little interest – people used to say film didn’t get interesting until about 1908 when Griffith came in. But when I began watching these early films I realised they were of great interest, particularly because they began to raise questions of whether film was by nature a narrative medium, as had been argued by theorists like Christian Metz in the ’70s. These films were doing a lot of things but they certainly weren’t telling stories.

You have come up with the concept of the ‘cinema of attractions’ and written about it a lot in relation to early cinema. But you have also argued that it still exists, even if it has gone underground.

There is no question that cinema is a major storytelling mode, but unfortunately it is often assumed that this is its identity, its mission. I think the importance of narrative is often overstated and critics often prefer to analyse a story to visual techniques. Sure, the story is important and even Méliès understood that a series of attractions – or special effects if you like – needs a framework. Scripts to him were a framework on which to hang his various tricks, a kind of clothesline. By the way, attractions are not just special effects, they include things like costume and fashion, the beauty of stars. Obviously, stars are often terrific actors but some of them even if they’re terrific actors are visual attractions first of all. Take Marilyn Monroe or Marlon Brando… Brando was a great actor, Monroe was sometimes a great comedienne, but you are hardly listening to them on the radio. There’s a strong visual attraction there.

I often say that cinema of attractions was replaced by what they call a ‘cinema of narrative integration’, where narrative and attractions inter-relate. Attractions didn’t disappear but became part of the storytelling. So special effects weren’t just random tricks but became part of a world of fiction, sometimes playing a particular role like helping create suspense. So when I wrote that attractions went underground, I wouldn’t completely disagree with that statement, but would now emphasise more that they are very much above ground too. I wouldn’t want to argue which one is more important, especially because I actually think their interweaving is very important. When you have endless attractions, people actually get bored.  And I think sometimes the point in stories is to give you something so you can get to the next attraction, to get hungry for it again.

Talking of attractions, I want to ask you about the interaction between fashion and film. Firstly, do we speak of costume or fashion when we talk about film?

What interests me about the topic is precisely that fashion is an attraction. I don’t know if that’s all it is, but what I think was essential to film’s interest in fashion was that it was a novelty, it was all about display and grabbing attention.


As a film historian I mainly deal with costume. Fashion is trickier but what interests me in the concept is that it is based on constant change, although that’s primarily talking about modern fashion. I have recently been revisiting the work of my friend, the filmmaker Lewis Klahr. He made a film called the The Pharaoh’s Belt, which, he told me, was inspired by a passage in a book I gave him talking about a belt worn by pharaohs for state occasions, and this belt didn’t change for 3000 years… The idea of something not changing for that long seemed crazy to him. And then there is our strange relationship to fashions that disappear. On an immediate level clothes can evoke feelings of… well, I suppose the term is nostalgia… a term I am a little uncomfortable with because it keeps us from thinking through what the fascination with the past really is. It’s what Walter Benjamin meant when he was working on The Arcades Project, when he said he was interested in the idea of démodé, in what had just passed out of fashion. What sort of lure is that?

In one passage he said it was the greatest anti-aphrodisiac…

Right, in the sense of a woman dressed in last year’s fashion. But I think he also felt the opposite; he was also fascinated with what had just passed. Maybe not last year’s fashion but fashions 10 years ago. Today we have vintage clothing stores, they deal with old clothes as something special. And with the hippies there was a sense of slight satire to wear something démodé, and to juxtapose things improperly, in ways that wouldn’t work in the codes of the time.

And in this sense it is how fashion works to this day, it goes back to the past a lot but could never just repeat it. It always comes into new constellations and has a new meaning.

It’s again the Benjaminian idea that the past becomes a heap, a kind of uncategorisable or uncategorised group of things that then can become something new. And that out-of-fashion thing is of course in part what the surrealists were also interested in.

Tell me about your collaboration on the festival program.

I already contributed to Marketa’s 2008 season If Looks Could Kill. It seemed a little ironic to me because I’m not someone who thinks a lot about my own clothing. I mean, once I was asked to apply for the position of the head of the film department at MoMA and I said, ‘But I am sartorially challenged!’ (laughs) I wasn’t sure I could handle it… But the issue of clothing in film has always fascinated me. I am interested in the ways fashion relates to issues of display and novelty that are really essential to the way I think about film. But I also had a sense there is a compatibility between mine and Marketa’s interests in the history and in cinema’s inter-relation with other arts and other forms of popular culture. In part I was just curious because I hadn’t done anything with fashion before. And to be able to work with someone who knows more about something than I do is always interesting. When I collaborate I think, ‘what am I going to learn from this’?

Is it because collaborations let you test the edges of your field?

Exactly. I am against the idea of defining something in terms of its core or purity. I am more interested in its intersections and frontiers, that’s where it almost always is. The way that different art forms intersect feels exciting. As a theoretical or historical principle it can become deadly when you say this is cinema and nothing else. When André Bazin, perhaps the greatest film theorist, gathered his essays on film together, he gave them the title What Is Cinema?, not ‘What Cinema Is’. To me, to try to answer things in any definitive way is a horrible prospect.

What have you learnt from this experience?

My first collaboration with the Fashion in Film Festival in many ways lead to a project I am currently working on, with the theatre director Travis Preston at CalArts. Not exactly in a cause and effect sense but… For the festival I gave a lecture about the suit of invisibility in French crime films of the 1910s such as Fantômas and Les Vampires. When Travis approached me some years ago about collaborating on a project, I wanted to revisit Fantômas and I sent him an article that I wrote for the festival’s 2008 catalogue If Looks Could Kill.

And the project Marketa and I are currently working on, ‘Wearing Time’, looks into the temporality of film and fashion. The idea of time has always been an issue for me, for my looking at film, and it has also been an issue for fashion. But to think about the two of them together, to come to a point where clothing and time could truly interact has brought up different ideas. It’s not that they have nothing to do with the more general considerations and theories of time within the two fields but they become more specific. The term ‘wearing’ we are using in the title has an interesting double meaning; it means being dressed but it can also mean something that wears you out. I was not just interested in fashion as a marker of history or a sign of novelty, zeitgeist, a temporary feeling… but also in instances where it’s taken out of time, where it’s transported into a realm of speculation and dreaming. For me Elizabeth Wilson’s book Adorned in Dreams has always been a great title. Perhaps to her it was more of a metaphor, but thinking about films, it suddenly becomes very specific.

How important is research to you?

Essential. On a basic level, researching film is looking at films, and there were generations of historians who didn’t necessarily do that. Partly because it wasn’t that easy, archives had not always existed in the same way… Still, I was amazed to find how many historians before me would go to a library instead of a film archive. But research to me also immediately implies the idea of the archive. Archives are hugely important in the sense of preservation and cataloguing. And going back to the reassessment of the importance of early cinema, there was a crucial moment with the International Federation of Film Archive conference in 1978 where we got a chance to look at a number of early films made before 1906.

These were films that historians before us hadn’t really been looking at, so just to have people look at those films, take them out of the archive, look at them with fresh eyes, was really important. Nobody is without preconceptions but with research comes a desire to find something new.

What is the most exciting thing you’ve ever found in an archive?

This is a bit of an oddity. When I was writing a book on Fritz Lang, a director I greatly admire, I was looking at reproductions of his notes in the Cinémathèque française. There were notes on one of his late Hollywood films, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, in which he was analysing the structure of the screenplay in terms of what the audience knows and what they don’t know, a kind of typical mystery construction. And then there’s this note, in his handwriting, obviously, that says ‘the dead are always with us.’ And although it related to the film’s plot it also seemed to me to be a pre-occupation that was personal to him, it was like discovering a personal note, a moment of communication.

The entertainment industry is so powerful at the moment, everything seems so geared towards the mass market. Can we ever go back to a purer form of theatre and cinema?

If you think about the term ‘theatricality,’ it is often thought about as display. In theatre once you’re on the stage you are displaying yourself, and this is related to the idea of attractions. Clearly, there are various techniques that work against this, like the idea of the ‘fourth wall’ in naturalist theatre, the notion that actors ignore the audience, but historically that’s a fairly recent concept. The basic gesture of the theatre had always been display. In cinema, moments of theatricality are sometimes criticised for not being filmic, which I think is nonsense – nothing should be that pure. The musical genre is very attractional. Actors and dancers acknowledge the camera, they sing and dance to the camera. I’m very much against the dichotomies or the idea of purity. Cinema and theatre may be very different, but they do mix, and mixing them can be very exciting. I would include the world of entertainment and popular theatre in that too – rock star concerts or Las Vegas acts also relate to the avant-gardes. And at the same time, the Brechtian alienation device in theatre is, in a way, a form of attraction because it distracts from the realist illusion it has the role of puncturing it. In fact, Brecht was very interested in popular theatre, street theatre and Asian theatre. Kabuki, Kathakali, or Chinese Opera all have a very strong element of attraction.