Interview - Marketa Uhlirova

by Alex Fury .

Still from Alfred Hitchcock's 'The Lodger'

Anyone who’s got any visual sense, whether it’s Argento, Bava, or Hitchcock, they are extremely controlling of the costuming that takes place. Costume can make it or break it.

Alex Fury: How did the idea of the Fashion In Film festival first come about?

Marketa Uhlirova: The very start of it was at The Horse Hospital, when [founder and Director] Roger K. Burton and I were watching a bootleg copy of William Klein’s Qui etes-vous, Polly Magoo? from 1966. At that time, it hadn’t been released in the English-speaking world and wasn’t very well known - Roger had two copies, one in French and one with subtitles. The one in French was okay, but my French is not so good, particularly with his film, which is quite complicated and full of references to French contemporary culture and William Klein’s little ‘in jokes’, so it was really difficult. The English subtitled copy was pretty impossible to watch, so I really didn’t know much about the film. I knew it was amazing and visionary and Roger loved it too. Roger and I started a conversation, and said wouldn’t it be nice to do something about fashion and film? I then asked Christel [Tsilibaris] to come on board as co-curator. When I started to talk to people like Caroline Evans and my other friends and colleagues at Central Saint Martins, everyone said 'Oh, so-and-so always wanted to do an exhibition about fashion in film!' So I went to these people who had wanted to do something and they became our first guest curators.

Alex Fury: The programme for this, the second ‘Fashion in Film’ festival, seems far less ‘fashion’ - the films last time, such as Qui etes-vous, Polly Magoo? and Liquid Sky, are kind of trademark fashion films. They are often discussed in fashion texts, fashion articles, they’re reference points for designers, whereas I feel the films in this festival are a little more abstract. What was the thinking behind this festival compared to the previous one?

Marketa Uhlirova: Our films this year are not fashion films, you couldn’t term them "fashion films” - with the possible exception of Blood and Black Lace and Mannequin in Red, which are two films that are set in the fashion environment and are all about fashion models getting murdered one by one. In the last festival we posed ourselves the question “how is fashion represented in cinema?” We went for both ‘fashion films’ - narrative and documentary feature films about fashion - or newsreels, commercials, artist films and other shorts. We had a whole programme on newsreels during the Second World War, which really illustrated how fashion at the time was shown as a form of cheering up women, but also giving advice about how to preserve their clothing. These were very important concerns, but there was always this underlying thing about showing them something fluffy and beautiful to take their worries away. Then there was the programme trying to link avant-garde films with adverts and artists’ films. There was this preoccupation with the fashion object, and that’s what bound all this programme together. We had case studies last time - this time it is less so. The whole programme is much more focussed on a number of questions that interconnect into one, which is basically the relationship between crime and violence and fashion. Within that, we were interested in several aspects, such as how film uses fashion to glamorise violence and crime, although it’s much more nuanced. It’s not just glamorisation actually, it’s other concerns within there, such as making crime even more brutal by using obsessive fashion detailing. When I explain this idea, I usually go to Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, because that’s when it’s most blatant. When the anti-hero obsessively lists the labels that he and the others are wearing, it’s just as perverse as his violence, it’s just as morbid as his violence, and it’s such a fantastic connection. I think we were looking for some of this in film.

Alex Fury: Did you know the films you wanted to show in the Biennale, and they in turn suggested the theme - or did you devise the theme first and then try to fit films into it?

Marketa Uhlirova: I don’t honestly think you can curate like that. Maybe that’s just the way I’m used to working, but I think you have to have something that you really love to have an axis that you build around. If you can’t have that centrepiece, you might just find that you’re making something up or have a theme that doesn’t quite fit the work. I could think of three films and a person that I wanted to work with before the project existed, and I was almost tailoring the project to these. I knew Tom Gunning had done research into early detective films and I knew I wanted to show some genres of this cinema. I wanted to show Blood and Black Lace, so that’s how it started. I spoke to Christel about it and she could immediately think of others. Then we both went away and did our research and started asking people to contribute, and that’s how it snowballed.

Alex Fury: 'Fashion’ implies immediacy, and of-the moment. These films, are all of the moment and contemporary to their time. Do you feel that the idea of a ‘costume’ film negates it being a ‘fashion’ film?

Marketa Uhlirova: I think it takes a true visionary to make a costume drama into a fashion statement. Costume is not fashion, and vice versa. To be strict, the only way fashion, or clothing, in film can be fashion is when fashion is a theme there. There’s a Czech film we’re showing as part of the festival called The Kidnapping of Fux Banker, which featured a fashion show (unfortunately lost) of Paul Poiret presenting his own collection to a character. That’s fashion. It was fashion of the time, he brought it to Prague, it was actual dresses that he was presenting in shows at the time. And this little fashion show was included for many reasons, but from his perspective, it was promotion. From the Czech filmmakers’ perspective, Poiret was obviously a huge name and a huge attraction for women. They would immediately get a massive audience with him, so that was part of the reason that they decided to include him. So this is how clothes in film can be fashion, otherwise it is always costume, because it has to create a character and that’s a slightly different thing. Whether it’s fashionable costume or whether it’s actually fashion of the time is a whole other story, but it does transform into something called ‘costume’.

Alex Fury: Fashion can be so anti-intellectual - whereas you’re saying ‘Look at the clothes in this film and look at the way they’re driving the plot,’ whether that’s within a fashion setting or incidental.

Marketa Uhlirova: Sometimes the incidental is the most interesting actually, and this goes back to what you asked about this being different to what we’ve done in the past, because we were not looking at ‘fashion’ films but at instances were clothing was either driving the narrative or stopping the narrative to reveal something quite other. It’s absolutely fascinating. The more you study some of the work of directors and cinematographers, if you think about the actual process of the making of the film, fashion is absolutely crucial to them. Anyone who’s got any visual sense, whether it’s Argento, Bava, or Hitchcock, they are extremely controlling of the costuming that takes place. Costume can make it or break it - it really can! It’s almost subconscious, but if you get it wrong it’s noticed. If you get it right, it isn’t noticed as much, and that’s the beauty of it. And if you get it really right, it can be just so brilliant it’s unbelievable.

Alex Fury: In both festivals there has been academic discussion in seminars and symposiums - how important do you think it is to balance the academic and entertainment elements?

Marketa Uhlirova: I don’t see a huge difference between the screenings and seminars at all. They are part of one and the same thing. I think going to see a film is totally educational. Whatever way you describe or define it, seeing or experiencing something is always an education. The only reason we have a symposium ['Taking Stock', a day of talks by critics, designers and academics at the ICA on themes raised by the festivals' films] is because there was no way for me to structure five of the speakers in a way that would make sense practically. I was scared of the idea of doing a symposium because it sounds so academic, but actually I realised that was the only way to do it well. Part of the reason we have a symposium is that it was the only way we could give the guest curators a platform to explain why they nominated that particular film and why they felt it was right to show that, but also it’s about enriching the experience of seeing a film. You can look at a film through a thousand different lenses. We choose to look at it through the lens of the clothing. It’s a unique experience in that way, because people will be focusing a more on the clothes. It does wonders.