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Is This Bitch For Real? Black And White Fashion In Cruella And Beyond
Soma Ghosh , June 4th, 2021 09:49

The release of Disney's Cruella offers another opportunity to examine a history of black and white fashion on film – and speaks to our neverending delight in wicked women, finds Soma Ghosh

Black marks dotting her headmaster’s register. Black-spotted white dogs arching murderously through the night. Even before Cruella encounters the black and white atelier of her brutal fashion boss, The Baroness, her story is written in harlequin monochrome. Cruella, Disney’s origin story for Cruella de Vil, suggests that we can write our own story by embracing our black spots. Born Estella, with a split head of black and white hair, she sews clothes alongside her struggling single mum, and this defiant little girl is given the name Cruella by her mother, for ripping up dress patterns and people she finds ugly and wrong.

When Cruella’s talent for disobedience leads to her mother being killed by the vicious dalmatians of a benefactor whose ball they crash, hoping to borrow money, Estella/Cruella pursues her dream of becoming a London fashion designer. Stowing away to London on a passing junk-filled lorry, she meets Horace and Jasper, two other orphans who adopt her into their thieving family. She tries honest means, cleaning the loos at Liberty’s as a means of entering fashion. Disregarded and mocked, she dazzles the reigning queen of fashion design, The Baroness (played with steely flamboyance by Emma Thompson), by redesigning Liberty’s windows with a vandalised elegance that will become her signature style. When The Baroness steals her ideas, Estella unleashes Cruella, her masked alter-ego, who takes boho 70s London by storm, her self-designed billowing gown unravelling, metre after metre, from a dumpster truck.

Cruella’s punk fashion, created by grand dame designer Jenny Beavan, is a tribute to Vivienne Westwood’s signature style of corsets, sashes, chains and black tartan. In the spirit of the film, imitation borders on robbery. The pagoda shoulders, military jackets and romantic skirts of Alexander McQueen, John Galliano and Balmain are ripped off, too

Like DC Comics’ Harley Quinn, the psychotherapist ex-girlfriend of The Joker who weaponises her own psychosis against those who have abused her, Cruella promises a badness that producers expect audiences to love. The big movie corporations are cashing in, right now, on dark femininity, at a time when our real world is run by patriarchal fuckwits. It’s an old studio move that doesn’t necessarily serve women. But it’s a general cinematic rule that heroines can only play nasty. In fact, its history predates The Witches, TheDevil Wears Prada and other post-millennial films in which women seize power, wearing black and white. Its pedigree goes back at least to Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Belle de Jour. And, despite its revolutionary visual tactics, the screen swirling with graffiti and cut-up newspapers and a punk and psychedelic soundtrack that never stops revving, Cruella is very old-fashioned. It’s the latest entry in a screen history of black and white fashion that expresses a schizophrenic delight in wicked women who must, ultimately, be brought to some kind of heel, preferably a kitten.

Emma Stone as Estella/Cruella performs a savage innocence, with the voice of a twisted debutante that’s closer to Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. And indeed, a prim cleanliness is traditional in the movie industry’s casting of wayward women in couture. When Cruella emerges as a fashion Goth, her white skin reading ‘The Future’ behind her sprayed black mask (conjuring Jack Nicholson’s Joker’s white face and his speech about “the future” in 1989’s Batman), we know that this is evil that washes off in the morning.

Like The Rolling Stones’ free Hyde Park concert in 1969 (actually financed via Granada television) which is referenced in Cruella’s fashion riot, director Craig Gillespie revels in bohemian swagger at exorbitant cost, the camera buzzing through long takes like a wasp on crack. Swerving over emerald countrysides and coal-black London, this is a luxury magazine take on British punk, addictively watchable and not as rebellious as it pretends to be.

The most exciting moment in a film where overthrowing your evil boss leads to confronting your lost birthright (patriarchal plot twist, anyone?), Cruella plucks a hairpin from her black and white crazed chignon. She advances on The Baroness, stalking her prey through a ballroom she has populated with Cruella clones in black and white suiting and matching hair that explodes from their skulls like monochrome question marks. The pin extends from her leathery sleeve like a skinny, piercing claw. Is she moving in for the kill? Have we been wrong to trust the lullaby of Emma Stone’s sad blue eyes in their silver saucers of eyeshadow? Is this bitch for real?

Cruella’s straining at her leash is hinted at by the dog’s chains at the neck of this jacket. Similarly, the problem of female bestiality sweats fragrantly beneath the satin collar of Catherine Deneuve’s iconic white collared black dress which closes Belle de Jour. Deneuve plays Severine, a porcelain blonde doll much given to playing frigid with her dreamboat doctor husband, Pierre (Jean Sorel). The dogs of Cruella are presaged, too, by horses, cats, hounds, and a sexually depraved stinging insect. Meanwhile, the humid reek of cattle haunts the Givenchy dresses of Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Women in black and white are neither straightforwardly evil nor virginal, but a speeding mix of appetite and purity, like the family dog gone wild. And, like a rabid pet, if they threaten the hallowed heteronormative norms of family, such as monogamy and motherhood, they will most likely be exterminated. It’s no wonder that, for example, in the horse race scene of Bernard Rose’s cumbersome Anna Karenina, Sophie Marceau’s adoration for Sean Bean’s Vronksy spills out of her diagonally-striped, pussy-bowed black and white dress with scalloped cuffs. This is the moment that Anna, publicly displaying her adultery, throws away her child.

Black and white should know their place. Get them mixed up and chaos ensues. Another on-screen horse race, Ascot, showcases one of cinema’s most celebrated black and white dresses. In My Fair Lady, with costumes by Cecil Beaton, Audrey Hepburn plays Eliza, a Covent Garden flower girl picked up by a phonetics Professor to be passed off as an aristocrat at an Embassy ball. Like so many cast-off whores – though she is bought for his pride, not his prick – all Eliza wants from this transaction is her own flower shop (“I want to be a lay-deee, I do!”). The fitted Edwardian gown of foaming white lace is bound at breast, waist and knee by black and white bows and topped with a black hat spewing black and white plumes. Adulated by costume archivists like U.S. Costume Designers Guild President Salvador Perez, the dress fetched over $3 million in 2011. The black betrays Eliza’s precarious social roots as much as Eliza’s real working class voice when she lustily lets rip across the hoity-toity course, “Come on, Dover, move your bloomin’ arse!”

Horses’ hooves, baying hounds and Tolstoyian train hootings similarly open Luis Buñuel’s Belle De Jour. Present-day bourgeois Paris mingles with her recurring dreams of a woodland country estate that’s controlled by rapist carriage drivers and sadistic masters. Severine is tempted by a Mephistophelean friend, Husson, into a double life as a prostitute in the afternoons. Some critics have claimed she’s bored, others that she’s ‘liberated’. But the film skillfully sniffs out more troubling erotic truths, such as not needing an explanation for desire. Buñuel hints that Severine is driven to whoring by childhood abuse by a workman, but no one is terribly bothered by her character’s abuse, which had a nasty counterpart in Buñuel’s real-life treatment of Deneuve. The actress revealed in an interview in her book, Close Up & Personal, The Diaries of Catherine Deneuve that “there were moments when I felt totally used. I was very unhappy.”

Buñuel, who interviewed women in Madrid brothels about their sexual fantasies for the film, pursues this very experience of being used. His camera delights in the contrast between Deneuve’s stiff white body and the demands made of her by gross, corpulent men. Severine herself tells her duped husband that she is working her way into accepting his sexuality, yet her attraction to whoring is ruined by the wild ardour of a crook she actually fancies. Perhaps, in S&M terms, she’s just a very willing bottom. Rigorously chic costumes by Yves Saint Laurent ground the film’s upturnings of ideas about female desire. Just as the black slippers of the brothel’s madam, Anais, are trimmed with fluffy white fur and a black button, it’s the white trimmings of Severine’s costumes that betray her fake innocence.

When Severine fulfils an aristocrat’s fantasy of wanking over his dead daughter, she is naked except for a veil of black chiffon crowned by white daisies. The silky white collar of the little black dress she wears during the final, sinister emasculation of her husband, will be copied, later, for Anne Hathaway’s look in The Devil Wears Prada, at the moment that Hathaway begins to emulate her vain, cruel boss, played by Meryl Streep. And for her trips to the brothel, Deneuve wears a lacquered black coat with woollen sleeves almost identical to Cruella, when she is ascending.

Like Cruella, Severine does not really want to be bad, just experience the feeling. It’s an animalistic privilege denied to women, but offered to men and to dogs.

There is a dream in Belle de Jour when Husson plays her husband and splatters her in mud. Deneuve, in a white gown suggestive of a martyred saint, is tied to the rafters of an animal barn. Husson chucks spadefuls of slop at her, sculpting her abject form in black and white. “Old whore!” Splat. “Maggot!” Splat. “Sodomite!” The cows low. Deneuve’s lips part in an oxytocin rush, rapturous.

Buñuel’s lowing cows, the feculent soil and the black-splatted urge to be a filthy woman have for their surprising Hollywood cousin the most glamorous film in history about a $50 escort. Never did unblemished flesh whore itself so virginally, in black with white trimmings, as Hepburn playing Holly Golightly in Breakfast At Tiffany’s.

Instead of a loyal dog, there’s a cat, but either way, animals are never far from Holly’s mind. Even the theme tune, Harry Mancini’s ‘Moon River’, bears a cowboy’s harmonica. Born on the prairie and married at 13 (another hint of child abuse) to a horse doctor, Holly juggles the sexual demands of creepy plutocrats who are “quell beast” or “quell rat”. Lastly, there’s the ranch-owning Argentinian playboy she plans to marry, until her career is ruined by her criminal involvements.

Like Emma Stone’s Cruella, Hepburn plays at being bad. Truman Capote’s intriguging original story is sleazier, but both the book and film versions of Holly, despite their diet of alcohol and fags, exude a “breakfast cereal air of health”. The movie, starring George Peppard as the writer who narrates the original tale, is a clean-up job. One can’t imagine Hepburn’s Holly revealing, as in the written story, her nakedness under her bathrobe, branded with a bite from another rich John. But though we never hear of Holly’s sexual proclivities as written by Capote (“I must be a bit of a dyke myself. Of course I am. Everyone is, a bit: so what?”), Hubert Givenchy’s costumes for Hepburn assert her slinky deviance.

In the lonely, post-party dawn of the opening scene, Holly’s black column dress is so tight at the ankle that she semi-hobbles, like a Chinese concubine, around the windows of Tiffany’s. This is a ritual she uses to escape feeling blue. And today she is, literally, escaping from another hairy tycoon. Givenchy’s original dress was lengthened by designer Edith Head, a closeted lesbian who, like Capote, understood the sexual power of repression. Generally considered the godmother of Little Black Dresses, it’s in fact weightily subdued. The blackness takes bites of white flesh. The demi-lune cut-out back exposes the wing-tips of Hepburn’s shoulder-blades. She’s an angel who cannot fly. Holly Golightly’s fluttering virtue is in these white details: the pearls, the white chiffon wrap and, later, on her visit to a mob boss in Sing Sing Prison, the ivory ribbon in her vast black hat.

Holly Golightly, like Cruella, displays eccentricity to cope with social disapproval. “There are,” as Hepburn says, feather-lightly, “Some advantages to being top banana in the shock department.” Ultimately, black and white bitches return, in their way, to the family fold. After all, the black stripes on their white bodies often signal a Gothic family tragedy – as also seen on Miranda Richardson and Christina Ricci as a bad and good witch respectively in Tim Burton’s Gothic comic horror Sleepy Hollow. When Ricci carries her black and white occult stripes back from her depraved Gothic countryside to New York, she can do so because she’s on the arm of a respectable man (Johnny Depp, an unfortunate choice, considering he was recently found guilty of marital assault).

Cruella, too, claims her sweetly criminal chums as her “family”, as part of her healing process. Much like a powerful dog, black and white bitches must be loyal, ultimately, to the values of family. If not, imagine the menace. The greatest visual stunt in Cruella, a film bristling with photographic showmanship, sees giant moths swarm in batlike confusion from a vault of couture clothes. Like the blood-drawing insect brought by an incomprehensible Asian customer to penetrate Severine in Belle de Jour, here is the hint of the exotic sting that might shred Western repressed femininity. It’s a glorious, flickering slashing of the screen. And then, like a dream of evil, it’s gone.