Film, Fashion, and Prostitution
When loose morals and elegance meet on the big screen
Half a century after its release, Belle de Jour (1967) is still defiant and thought-provoking. The tale of an upper-class young woman who decides to become a prostitute is brought to life through not only Catherine Deneuve’s cold elegance, but also the costumes her friend Yves Saint Laurent designed for her.
The idea of a director’s priding himself in having an esteemed couturier in charge of costumes makes obvious sense. But (aside from the paycheck) why would a designer like Saint Laurent or Giorgio Armani or Hubert de Givenchy want his name associated with prostitution? Let’s consider at least four reasons.
A Hint of Scandal
One reason designers associate their names with prostitition is that, of course, scandal sells. A luxury House partnering up with a movie about this topic can cause surprise and disapproval, but more importantly, conversation.
American Gigolo (1981) centers on the highly confident Julian “Julie” Kay (Richard Gere) who sells his favors to lonely, well-born Los Angeles women until a murder investigation casts a stain on his reputation. Julian’s main asset is his impeccable style, which is both elegant and laid-back — and courtesy of Giorgio Armani.
When American Gigolo premiered in 1980, Armani was just another talented tailor whom John Travolta’s agent happened to spot (Travolta was initially cast as Julian). But thanks to the film’s success and its fetishization of Julian’s costumes, Armani became inescapable. Indeed, the visibility of his clothes is so prominent that some critics saw the movie as a two-hour advertisement for Armani suits.
Likewise, Belle de Jour was the perfect occasion to advertise—and thus strike up conversation about—Saint Laurent’s brand new, ready-to-wear line, “Saint Laurent Rive Gauche.” In the late 1960s, this concept was revolutionary in the fashion arena, and killing two birds with one stone, Catherine Deneuve became its first official face.
Different times but same tricks: just like today, there’s nothing like a hint of scandal to attract the public’s curiosity.
Second, as tools of communication rather than artistic objects, movies like Belle de Jour, American Gigolo, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s (considered below) allow prominent designers to break the rigidity of the luxury industry.
The aim of Saint Laurent’s ready-to-wear was to dress “all women,” not only the habitual patrons of Couture. How, then, can a single character speak to all women? Through a nuanced and layered personality, with more depth than one may initially assume.
There is a real duality in Belle de Jour’s heroine, which is exacerbated by her costumes: the use of fur and leather coats conveys an idea of luxury and quality, but it also hints at Séverine’s wild and animalistic dreams. By showing this woman who is at once a shy spouse, a haughty prostitute, and a feral lover, the designer smashes the image of the luxury consumer. Gone is the frigid trophy wife; Saint Laurent wants to dress her hidden personalities.
In parallel, Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) revolves around a rather frivolous-looking heroine who escorts (and sometimes brings home) rich businessmen in exchange of financial support. Call-girl Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn) hides her chronic despair behind an electric personality and Givenchy’s dresses.
Eternally described as a perfect gentleman, Hubert de Givenchy isn’t one to enjoy a scandal, but he did defy expectations by designing costumes for Hepburn’s charming gold-digger. After Hepburn sought the designer to dress her for the movie Sabrina (1954), an iconic friendship was born — as well as a lasting cinematographic and stylistic partnership. By dressing the diverse characters embodied by the actress (no matter their situation), Givenchy also called to a multi-faceted customer, preaching the idea of an elegance accessible to each and every woman as long as she desires it (and can afford it, undoubtedly).
Models of Freedom
Thirdly, the brands’ image strategy uses these controversial characters in the exact opposite way of their expected effect — by setting them up as icons, or even as role models. The three movies presented here treat prostitution in a fictionalized and idealized manner. The heroes do not practice the work out of need or despair, nor are they oppressed by procurers; they are men and women who have chosen their situation and represent a certain idea of freedom.
In Breakfast at Tiffany’s, instead of being caged by professional constraints, Holly turns down auditions and closes the door on the possibility of a career, preferring to live at the expense of men but following her own rules. She’s a young woman, moving in her vulnerability, just looking for meaning in her life.
In Belle de Jour, Séverine practices prostitution without any financial purpose, as a tool for introspection and exploration. By embracing her fantasies, she discovers herself.
Finally, in American Gigolo, Julian takes pride in his profession and his lifestyle. He frequently laughs off his pimps and puts them in competition with each other. He even boasts about his sexual abilities and his patience in bed with older women.
The hero in these films are not examples of vice, but models of freedom. The topic of prostitution is therefore compatible with luxury advertising — only if it is distanced from reality and implying a message of liberation.
A Character’s Essence
Finally, this liberation with which designers associate themselves is conveyed by the costumes themselves. Not only are they part of a movie’s general aesthetics, they also define a character’s essence.
Holly Golightly parted from her former identity as a farmer’s wife by changing her name — and her style. She went through a complete metamorphosis, trading a functional style made of plaid shirts and responsibilities for a high-maintenance elegance rich in long dresses, jewels, and heels (but in reality more insouciant). This new appearance of a worldly woman isn’t innate but curated and amplified, as suggested by the diamonds overstatement or the disproportionate cigarette holder. In short, the change in her situation took a lot of determination. She isn’t the woman she used to be, and her choice of clothing allows her to illustrate this evolution, this self-affirmation.
Thanks to his irreproachable style, Julian Kay gains access to the social circles where he considers he earned his place. Armani designed for him blazers free of shoulder pads, giving him a more natural silhouette, and shapes between formal and casual, endowing him with an undeniably “cool” image, despite his questionable activities. When a detective inquires about his secret to seduce women, Julian looks him up and down, and then answers, “First, obviously, you dress for shit.” The pillar of his success and, by extension, of his free and luxurious life is his style. It doesn’t matter that his clients paid for his suits, as long as they allow him to be accepted, envied, and give him a social position. Shallow, maybe, but happy.
Thus, it is not with prostitution itself, but with a precise image of prostitution that prominent fashion designers decide to associate their names: a fantasized, idealized image used as a vector of liberation for men of women against the constraints of conventionality. The controversial topic arouses interest; then, its treatment sells a positive message.
That said, prostitution is still a sensitive subject in mass media, and used in an overly realistic way, the message can repel the audience, as Love magazine painfully found out. By presenting the models from Louis Vuitton’s Fall Winter 2013 show as prostitutes hailing drivers in dark alleys, the magazine created a bad buzz, and was accused of plainly and unsubtly sexualizing women’s bodies in order to sell a product.
If the public is attracted to scandal, once its curiosity is aroused, it still needs to be seduced. Therein lies the role of cinema: telling a story that can make any character—with the help of carefully crafted costumes and a bit of imagination — a hero.