In her recent course at Rice's Glasscock School of Continuing Studies, "Fashion in Film,” designer Toni Whitaker examines 10 fashion-focused films that have become well-known standards for style. The two-night course, which wrapped up last night, explored films like Breakfast at Tiffany’s and The Great Gatsby and got Whitaker back in the classroom for the first time in almost a decade. It also served as a jumping off point for a larger discussion about the importance of fashion education. We asked Whitaker to tell us about her favorite fashion films.
PH: Toni, you have a long history as a designer as well as a fashion educator, but you’ve been out of the classroom for much of the last decade. What brought you back?
TW: Now that Houston is trying to put a stamp on fashion I have been trying to find ways that we can start to come up to the level of the other fashion cities around the country. They all have fashion incubators, they have fashion weeks, they do fashion and film seminars. Houston has no costume institute. So my goal has been to throw ideas out there to get people to start stepping up to the fashion game.
PH: Your class wrapped up last night. What genres of film did you draw from during the class and how far back does the connection between film and fashion go?
TW: The class started out with some vintage clips of Josephine Baker, and what people don’t realize is that she is probably one of our first fashion icons. People don’t always realize Josephine Baker lightened her skin to be a certain color, and then the women of Paris darkened their skin to be that color and this was back in the 1930s.
PH: You explore 10 different films in the class. Can you tell us which ones were discussed?
TW: We looked at Breakfast At Tiffany’s for starters. When you think of a fashion icon as it relates to this country everybody just says Audrey Hepburn. But there were people before Audrey Hepburn. We looked at Pulp Fiction, Annie Hall, Bonnie and Clyde, Great Gatsby, Marie Antoinette, and even The Wild One, because I just love that whole teenage biker movement. I focused on films that had a lasting effect on fashion.
PH: Any favorites?
TW: People ask that question all the time and I don’t have a favorite one. I have so many! One of my favorites has beautiful dresses and attitude and it’s not known to be a fashion film at all. It’s with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward—A Long Hot Summer. It’s just sort of that Southern genteel, classic sundress look, and there are certain scenes where rich and poor mingle, and every man has on a hat. It’s just one that I like to look at because of the detail, it’s not fancy couture clothing, but everyday clothing. I don’t think it gets the recognition it deserves. But if I had to say a fashion focused film it would be Breakfast at Tiffany’s, of course. That’s the one. Mildred Pierce is another great one. I looked at Evita and the Christian Dior influence. That’s a beautiful film. There’s so many.
PH: Do the best films for fashion portray it subtly or is fashion an obvious component of the film?
TW: I think it’s a little bit of both. With Breakfast at Tiffany’s, for example, it’s not subtle. It’s just there. If you look at American Gigolo, it’s there. That’s the whole Armani collection. That’s the movie, because the real movie isn’t worth two cents. But that was probably the best marketing for a designer ever. Think of Sex and the City with the Manolo Blahniks—it's in your face!
PH: Is the power of film to promote fashion as strong today as it was in past generations of film?
TW: As I kept telling my students, what makes a great fashion film is great fashion. And the thing about film that is different from the photograph is that you get to see exactly how that designer wanted that piece to be worn. You get the attitude of the clothing, the walk, and the movement. You look at Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction and her shirt and cropped pants and the way she dances and it’s the epitome of cool, and everybody wanted to have that look. On film you see it the way it was supposed to be.
PH: Are there any recent films that are notable for their fashion?
TW: Twelve Years a Slave. Not necessarily for fashion, but the period research that went into the clothing of the slaves, the use of textiles in the slave garments caught my attention. During that period of time, linen was not fabulous fabric. I would say American Gigolo is what brought [linen] into style and now to be able to see it again in its historical context is interesting.
PH: This was a two-night class. Should we expect to see another in Rice’s school of continuing education?
TW: This was a trial. It was an idea I pitched to Rice. Actually, I’m hoping it's something Houston Design and the Houston Greater Partnership would be involved with. I don’t know until we see the reviews and get a sense of how well-received it was. I’m hoping the city of Houston will embrace these sorts of courses because I think we need them.
PH: And how would you define the need exactly?
TW: I just don’t think there’s enough fashion education out here. People are into the hype of fashion shows and the hair and the makeup, but I’m talking about the real nuts and bolts. If Houston is in any way going to have a fashion voice—we’re trying to, but it’s not really happening—we’ve got to embrace emerging designers and provide opportunities for education. That’s why other cities have been successful, because they embrace their natural resource, which is people.