Making Fashion: Humphrey Jennings, Norman Hartnell, and Fashion as Documentary

British documentary filmmaker Humphrey Jennings is perhaps best known for his wartime documentary short films such as London Can Take It! (1940) and Listen to Britain (1943). In 1938, he made a film quite different from those that typify his body of work. Making Fashion focused on the creation and presentation of leading British fashion designer Norman Hartnell’s Spring 1938 collection. This documentary, filmed in colour, shows how a high-end fashion show would typically be put together. An announcer gives the name and details of each ensemble as the model appears, and announces when the category of clothing has changed. It cycles through daywear, evening gowns, and finally a group of ‘outstanding creations’.

One of Hartnell’s ‘outstanding creations’ that is particularly eye-catching is a high fashion interpretation of the Queen’s Guard uniform. The model wears a long red military style coat over a white blouse and black leather skirt. The coat is covered in elaborate gold braiding on the shoulder, and gold embroidery on the upper arms. This outfit emphasizes Hartnell’s pride as a British designer (filmed by one of Britain’s best-known filmmakers). Jennings goes through the motions of a normal filmed fashion show, but adds his own documentary flair.

Hartnell

Jennings diverges from the typical fashion show by giving us a glimpse of both the creative process of Hartnell and the preparation of the models. Jennings mixes the modes of the traditional filmed fashion show and the documentary to create something unique. Black-and-white film was thought to be a more realistic form of storytelling, and as such was the standard for documentary films. On the other hand, fashion shows were often shot in colour, which both showed the clothes off to their best advantage, and created a world of fashion fantasy, into which the viewer could escape. The film begins with a voiceover describing the ancient Greek statues that served as Hartnell’s inspiration. Jennings gives us sweeping shots of the Greek statues, and then shows us Hartnell himself sketching in his workshop, thus linking Hartnell’s genius as a fashion designer to that of ancient Greek statues. While Jennings lifts Hartnell up, he focuses on his art rather than him as a heroic figure, by focusing most of the shots on Hartnell’s hands while he paints a watercolour design. The film then goes through the various stages a design goes through before it is finally sent down the runway. This segment leads into the fashion show itself, and thus Jennings sets the stage for the audience to have a greater appreciation for the designs they are seeing. Through his use of both familiar documentary and fashion show devices Jennings creates a unique look at a top designer’s process and its results.

By Olivia Chuba

LINK to fashion show: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g-7z2OiiqzA