Juanita Stein On Fashion In Films

Howling Bells write for Clash

Ramble, rant or reminisce, this is an artist’s opportunity to pen their own Clash article.

Juanita Stein, from brooding Aussie rockers Howling Bells, on the inspiration of fashion in film.

“A little over a year ago I started a blog, titled ‘100 Films In 100 Days’. The idea was to get through the AFI (American Film Institute’s) hundred greatest films of all time, in a hundred days. I got through about ten, in six months. Admittedly, I underestimated the task at hand. However, the experience proved no less inspiring.

Watching these majestic works got me to thinking: what is it that truly makes a film great? Not unlike that perfect pop song, some kind of divine intervention, or aligning of the planets had to order itself for something to work this magnificently. I believe the answer lies in the film’s protagonist. They must simply personify the film and all it represents.

From the moment I laid eyes on Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, I knew I was about to be utterly captivated by this enthralling and strange woman, with her leopard print turban and tortoise-shell shades, and her myriad of expensive, costume jewelry glistening with shadowy motive. The way she swam in those silken gowns, up and down the curvy staircase. All of this, ladies and gentleman, is fashion at its most opulent.

The way Gloria dresses says everything about her character, Norma, as well about the times in which the film is made. Sunset Boulevard was released in 1950; women were exiting a post-war era of stiff decorum and feminine composure. I can only imagine how utterly inspired they would have been by Norma’s noir-esque and sinister glamour.

When I look back to those first films that took my breath away, they’re the motion pictures which celebrated individual style and character. Films which made me want to be that person, live in their town, experience their world.

The 1970s pose as a particularly striking fashion era for me. And there are some extraordinary films, which stand testament to my adoration. The entire cast of Robert Altman’s Nashville made an early impression. Boy, did I fantasize about being country star Ronee Blakely, with her doe-eyed beauty and country girl stylings. Jane Fonda, in Klute, provided a different kind of inspiration; strong willed and sexually empowered as a savvy NYC prostitute. With her sky-high leather boots, minis and trench coats, she kick-started my early affair with hooker get-up.

Then there was quite the love affair with Faye Dunaway in, well, mostly everything. In Bonnie And Clyde, robbing banks without so much as crumpling her flawless Parisian gangster chic get-up. Dunaway plays Evelyn Mulray in one of my all-time favourite films, Chinatown, where she carries off crimson-stained lips and pearls with envious finesse. In ’76 she does it again, in the brilliant Network, where she plays a classy television executive, smashing that glass ceiling with her fashionable burgundy pumps. I bought all the skinny belts and turtle neck sweaters I could lay my hands on. I desperately wanted to be living in NYC in the ’70s, if you couldn’t tell already. And lastly, there can be no mention of late-’70s fashion without referencing the invincible Diane Keaton in Annie Hall. What a vision!

Her ingenious masculine poise, her fragility, her goofiness and intellect, all reflected in those memorable outfits. I believe more of my friends are influenced by Annie Hall than any whimpering and over-sexed Hollywood starlet today. For me, great, memorable fashion, the cult status type fashion, is clever and unique, not over-sexualized and vulgar. All these critical film characters teach us that a woman’s sexuality is more likely synonymous with her humour and intellect. Does she dress only for men? Does she dress to humor herself? Is she referencing something with the slightest irony? These women were bringing the films to them.

However, it wasn’t all New York glamour for me!

I loved the indies. The great, crucial, slacker-driven indie films, which informed so many of my adolescent years. The way I dressed, wore my hair, even the guys I dated, were informed by my indie on-screen heroes.

Fairuza Balk in Gas Food Lodging, or the baby-faced Renee Zelwegger in Love And A .45., each played significant roles in my aesthetic development. Not to mention the soundtrack to the latter film being a staple on my stereo for years. The Meat Puppets, Mazzy Star and The Reverend Horton Heat, tattooing memories of Route 66 fashion meets drug-addled antics. Classic.

We don’t always realize how powerful a spell film casts on our own aesthetic vision. It is the only medium where fashion breathes. We can watch a model strut the length of a catwalk, sporting another YSL-inspired tuxedo. However, it’s only when Diane Keaton puts on that mismatched men’s suit with a skinny tie that the outfit comes to life. She gives it a pulse. All of a sudden the men’s suit becomes a cheeky nod to all those who paved the path before her.

So, in the great words of Keaton herself, in that great film, I say, La-di-da, la-di-da, la la.” Howling Bells’ new album, ‘The Loudest Engine’, is out September 12th.

Join the Clash mailing list for up to the minute music, fashion and film news.