The representation of fashion in the 2013 film adaptation of the novel The Great Gatsby, directed by Baz Lurhmann, has raised a number of significant questions with regard to both its role in the portrayal of key notions of femininity and fantasy, but also the tense relationship between the past in which the film is set and the present in which we view and interpret it. In her first scene, the character of Daisy Buchanan, played by Carey Mulligan, wears a cream sleeveless dress consisting of a structured lace bodice and full skirt of organza ‘petals’, cinched at the waist by a flowing beige tulle sash. Daisy’s portrayal of femininity, however, assumes a complex and problematic nature due to its play with the familiar binaries of feminine representation. The delicate elegance of her dress contributes to an ideal, or even potentially overly idealised, image of purity and incorruptibility yet its form-revealing bodice, fleshy tones and transparent panel are highly suggestive of a corporeal sensuality that does not correspond so comfortably with this ideal. The viewer is invited to realise Gatsby’s sexual attraction to Daisy while, simultaneously, fully comprehending her prevailing untouchable nature. Aesthetically, her presentation is undoubtedly beautiful, impeccably and ethereally so. Yet through an emphasis on a dreamlike fantasy of exaggerated femininity, the portrayal of her character is weakened and the audience’s view of her on the whole becomes, much like Nick and Gatsby’s in the narrative, characterised by a certain distance.
Conversely, the viewer’s introduction to the character of Tom Buchanan’s mistress Myrtle Wilson, played by Isla Fisher, is defined by a heightened fantasy of blatant and unashamedly erotically suggestive imagery, as she appears in her husband’s garage in a blur of glossy Bakelite bangles, heavy make-up, brightly coloured prints and fishnet stockings. Although the most significant and obvious function of this depiction is to offer further juxtaposition of the figures of devoted wife and wanton mistress, the viewer’s sensory perception of each operates very differently. Every element of Myrtle’s physical appearance, from her red lipstick to the vivid clash of green headscarf against tight, red curls of hair, visually magnifies her sexuality to the point that it begins to border on clichéd fantasy and even caricature. We can see how the fabric of her dress clings to and reveals her physical form, and a mass of red ruffles draws the eye towards a historically anachronistic display of cleavage. The notion of touch is only a secondary consideration in this instance since the flat, graphic lines of the dress and texture, which is suggestive of a cheap synthetic quality, is offset by the plastic sheen of her stacks of smooth, thick bangles.
By contrast, throughout the course of the film the presentation of Daisy’s dress is dominated by an engagement with touch, from her variously embellished dresses to the juxtaposition of a luxuriously soft fur coat and intricately textured lace dress, which are worn in the final scene. The use of conventionally feminine colours, such as cream, pale pastel and shades of gold, displace the sensual emphasis of sight and transfers it to touch, by allowing the muted hues to provide a foil for the textured fabrics, iridescent pearls and hard glitter of diamonds. These present an overall and lasting impression of luminous wealth and decadence rather than, as in Myrtle’s case, sexual availability and immediate sensual gratification.
The film’s emphasis on fashion, hairstyles and visual display can be considered an essential factor in the film’s overall audience appeal. The decorative excess of these visual codes, however, is also necessary in the formation of a feminized world in which extravagant and exciting performance predominates, thus creating a pleasingly disordered synthesis of historically conflicting styles and influences – all wholly appropriate, of course, to the original novel’s privileging of desire and escapism.