Spanish Director Pedro Almodóvar has been making movies for over 30 years. Picking up 2 Oscars, 5 BAFTAS and scores of nominations, Almodóvar is one of Europe’s finest directors. His movies amuse and provoke, with controversial themes and a distinct colourful style.
Many ingredients go into making a successful Almodóvar movie. Shocking and venomous dialogue reveals character, close ups express intimate moments of passion and music heightens emotion and drama. But what part do clothes and fashion play? This is a question that Almodóvar has asked throughout his career, addressing in many significant and diverse methods.
Take his debut feature Pepi, Luci, Bom (1980) for example. Here we see style on a budget, but glamour no less. Sophistication and clothing separate the three characters who lend their names to the title and express their disparate personalities and social diversity.
Bom wears Vivienne Westwood inspired DIY punk fashions, Luci a middle class house wife wears expensive lace dresses, while Pepi falls somewhere in between, preferring high street fashions. These characters find their lives intertwined through circumstance and tragedy and Almodóvar has employed fashion as a uniform, to present their separate lives, distinct styles and social background.
Dark Habits (1983) continues Almodóvar’s distinct use of fashion. Yolanda (Cristina Sanchez Pascual) is a provocative night club singer, who joins a covenant after her boyfriend dies of a heroin overdose. Even though she is in a nunnery, Yolanda does not conform to their uniform and instead continues to wear a bright red glittering ball gown. Previously Almodóvar utilised fashion to express social status, but here psychology is apparent. Yolanda is her own woman, non-conformist in attitude and style. Dark Habits is also of great interest when looking at Almodóvar’s use of fashion. A priest in the covenant is obsessed with English costume designer and photographer Cecil Beaton. Famous for his Oscar winning designs for My Fair Lady and his fashions shoots for British Vogue, Beaton is an interesting obsession for a Priest and Almodóvar knows this. The covenant has its rules and regulations and each of the Nuns rebel in their own way (one is a cocaine addict, another a writer of erotic fiction), but the Priest rebels through fashion. His obsession with Beaton is his method off breaking free from the uniform and illustrates that clothing can be expressive and powerful in revealing the true character behind occupation and beliefs.
Almodóvar’s fashion obsession was apparent in his break through movie, the chilling thriller Matador (1986). Starring a young Antonio Banderas as Angel, a trainee Matador who obsesses over his Maestro’s girlfriend Eva. Here a fashion show displays absurdity and is utilised for comedic effect. The victimised Eva is a model and Almodóvar exposes the exuberant and indulgent world of fashion. When a nameless model vomits over a colleague (after explicitly shooting up heroin), the flamboyant designer at the helm (played by Almodóvar himself), proclaims “Don’t worry, it looks great on you”. Maybe not fashion expressed as a uniform, but definitely as a means to offer relief from a movie that expresses sex and desire through a lack of romance or passion.
After the success of Matador, Almodóvar had the budget to employ the services of big name designers such as Jean Paul Gaultier, Karl Lagerfeld and Giovanni Versace.
These collaborations are particularly intriguing when looking at how Almodóvar employs style to express psychology and story. Lagerfeld and Gaultier are auteurs in their own right, however in the world of fashion. On one hand you have a director whose objective is to tell a story and convey various provocative themes and on the other you have a fashion designer whose objectives may not be to tell a story, but to make the actor look good with garments designed by The House Of Chanel or The House Of Gaultier.
With Kika (1993) Jean Paul Gaultier worked with Pedro Almodóvar on his first of three collaborations, partnering again with Bad Education (2004) and The Skin I Live In (2011). For Kika, Gaultier designed the costumes for the intimidating and boisterous Andrea “Scarface” (Victoria Abril). Kika‘s themes include sex, death and most prominently voyeurism. Gaultier clearly embraced the latter and created a costume that not only explicitly conveys voyeurism, but removes the character from the reality of the movie and heightens her to an other worldly being, who spies on individuals and attempts to undercover the truth.
Andrea wears a dark green uniform with military undertones and a large cumbersome, evocative camera on top of a helmet that tightly encases her head. Within the context of the film she brazenly stands out, with the male lead of the movie, Nicolas (Peter Coyote) proclaiming “I thought you were a Martian”. However this is the only reference to her obvious and unique visual singularity. Almodóvar has ensured she is treated like a human through the respect other characters show her, via dialogue and attitude, and the lack of reaction they have to her appearance. Gaultier has countered this by making her visually stunning.
But does this method progress the story or go against the grain of the dark comedy of Kika? In balance the technique works. The audience is in no doubt of the intrusive nature of Andrea. Just her being explicitly conveys voyeurism and intrusion and effortlessly advances the character through the movie, where she reveals the twist in the plot that exposes Nicolas’ dark secret.
Significantly the other costumes in Kika were supplied by Giovanni Versace, another renowned fashion designer. Versace took a subtle approach with less prominent designs, however Kika has one key scene that is a major topic for debate. A rape occurs between the character of Kika (Veronica Faroque) and an escaped convict and sex craved porn star Pablo (Santiago Lajusticia). It is important to note both characters are wearing red, a colour associated with danger, anger and lust. The rape scene itself is controversial. Lasting several minutes, where Kika’s protests and outrage turn to resolution as she accepts the sexual assault. Here Versace’s stylings clearly reflect the complex predicament and the bright red clothing foreshadow the horrific ordeal Kika is put through.
Gaultier himself does embrace subtlety in his approach to The Skin I Live In. Here plastic surgeon Robert Legard (Antonio Banderas) performs sex reassignment surgery on a young man named Vincente, transforming him into Lagard’s attractive but deceased wife Vera Cruz (Eleanor Anaya).
The Skin I Live In is a change of pace and style for Almodóvar. A psychological horror film at heart, the movie feels more placid visually, with the bright colours of Kika and Pepi, Luci, Bom replaced with delicate tones. Gaultier’s approach is masterful, dressing Anaya in tight body suits that explicitly present her feminine body (even though a hidden masculinity lies underneath) and actually refer back to the movie’s title. The body suits have skin like tones alluding to nakedness and expressing the skin that she now lives in is actually separate from herself. This presents a complex psychology via a bold yet subtle uniform.
High Heels (1991) employs another well known fashion designer to dress Victoria Abril, here playing the vulnerable character of Rebeca Giner. Karl Lagerfeld (Head Designer and Creative Director for Chanel), takes a more distinct approach, dressing Abril in glamorous and distinguishable Chanel suits, accessorised by the iconic Chanel hand bag.
The story revolves around the news reader Rebeca, whose alluring mother Becky del Paramo (Marisa Paredes) is a popular singer in South America. She returns to Madrid to find Rebeca married to her former lover Manuel (Feodor Atkine). Manuel is murdered and Rebeca dramatically confesses to the act while reading his obituary live on air.
Here costume not only progress the story, but reveals character traits and society, particularly when we are first exposed to Rebeca. As she sits in the airport waiting for her mother, we clearly see the Chanel label on Rebeca’s hand bag. Moments later Becky del Paramo (dressed not in Chanel but in Giorgio Armani) compliments her daughter’s “Chanel Suit”. Despite just being introduced to the characters, clothing has presented them as affluent individuals, expressing wealth through fashion labels and showcasing prosperity like an expressive uniform for all to see.
Cynics could say the blatant Chanel references are advertisements or product placement, however as Chanel is synonymous with fashion, it is unlikely a Fashion House of such grandeur requires the films of Almodóvar for promotion. Therefore in conclusion the clothing choices of Rebeca allow us to make assumptions about how she perceives herself. Also the fact that the mother wears Armani and the daughter Chanel, presents a conflict through opposing styles. This conflict continues as mother and daughter fight over the affections of Manuel and debate who is really responsible for his murder.
Throughout his career Almodóvar has employed fashion in various degrees, with themes and character expressed through style. With Almodóvar’s new movie I’m So Excited due to hit the screens and being based around an airline flight crew, it will be interesting to see what themes will be conveyed and how he takes fashion, and a literal uniform in this instance, to new heights.