July 29, 2011 10:05 pm

Fashion’s latest blockbuster

‘Cowboys & Aliens’ borrows from the industry not when it comes to costumes but rather its baseline concepts, which could have arrived pretty much direct from the catwalk

I admit it: I love a summer blockbuster. I can appreciate the allure of Eric Rohmer-school art-house talkies but, if I’m really honest with myself (and with you, too), it’s the explosive megaliths that get me every time. These are some of the few productions that still justify the whole big-screen-movie-going experience, as opposed to the relax-in-the-comfort-of-your-living-room experience. Surround sound! Flashing lights! The end of life as we know it!

Netflix is just not the same.

So you can imagine how my heart leapt when I heard about Cowboys & Aliens, which opened on Friday and will attempt to take on the Harry Potter weekend box-office record. After all, it has not one but two components of a blockbuster, united for the first time: zap guns and rifles; Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig. Hubba hubba.

Why am I telling you this? Have I forgotten what part of the newspaper I am writing for after my nice vacation? No, it’s because I think Cowboys & Aliens is the first big fashion film of the season.

We have a tendency to think that “fashion films” have to be either 1) films about fashion (Coco Chanel biopics), or 2) films that feature fashion (Tom Ford’s perfectly observed outfits for Julianne Moore in A Single Man). But neither of those kinds of movies are actually fashion movies; they are movies that use fashion to tell a classic rags-to-riches story about love or entrepreneurship and to sketch a character. Cowboys & Aliens, however, does something different with fashion: it borrows from the industry not when it comes to its costumes (which are best described as dusty couture) but rather the baseline concepts, which could have arrived, if you distill them to their essence, pretty much direct from the catwalk.

Consider: what is the premise of this DreamWorks blockbuster but the idea that one hoary old cliché (the western) plus another hoary old cliché (the alien invasion) can be recombined to equal an exciting new whole? And what is the premise of fashion every season but the idea that the hoary old building blocks of a wardrobe (shirts, dresses, trousers) can be recombined into unexpected and thrilling new products that we will all want to rush out and buy?

This is why designers decade-hop with such alacrity, marrying 1970s flares with cropped little 1960s boy jackets (Theyskens Theory); 1940s New Look skirt suits with towering platform shoes (Dior); trapeze jackets with techno fabrics (Jil Sander). They mix and mash storylines and references according to the taste and with no regard for the original, and the end result often makes you think about the ingredients in entirely new ways.

More to the point, the end result – the total look – is often a form of escapism too: from your usual visual identity, and all the assumptions attached therein. And as we all know, escapism is a defining characteristic of the $100m club of summer films: from the usual rules of reality, and all the complications (such as gravity) attached therein.

. . .

Perhaps the most fashion-related aspect of Cowboys & Aliens, however, is reflected in a story that I came across online while looking for information on the film. Apparently the movie started life as the cover of a comic book that was pitched to studios without much luck, but then became a comic book proper (or a “graphic novel”, as they are called these days). It was marketed to booksellers to practically give away to their customers in order to pump up its numbers and, because so many issues were shifted this way, it then became the hottest book of the month. This meant – guess what? – that Hollywood optioned it and we now have Cowboys & Aliens the movie. That’s strategic planning.

And that’s also very much how fashion works and thinks. Just consider, for example, your own enthusiasm about, say, the return of court heels or the ascent of the box bag or the striped boys’ jumper. One season they hold absolutely no interest, and the next – well, you just can’t get them out of your head.

Because by then, of course, you will have seen them a lot in various magazines, and heard about them a lot, and noted somewhere that they are the new “it” item. Before you know it, they have crept into your subconscious and made themselves at home in that part of the brain where desire resides, and you have worked them into your autumn budget.

This is what fashion figured out and codified long ago: you can proclaim something to be true and some of the time – not all of the time, but a surprising amount of the time – it will work. You can manipulate people into thinking something is hot, and then buying it, which in turn makes it more hot. Which raises the question, fairly asked both in film and fashion: does that make us suckers, or simply part of the cycle? I’ll tell you after I see the movie.

vanessa.friedman@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/friedman

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