The Normalisation of a Fast Fashion Mentality in Films and Television

A famously extensive wardrobe in Clueless. Costume design by Mona May. Paramount Pictures, 1995.

During the earliest years of the film industry, actors would generally wear their own clothes as costumes. In short films set in the present-day and centred on only a few locations and story days, numerous specially designed costumes were simply an avoidable expense. Furthermore, actors’ everyday clothes complemented the ‘naturalistic’ elements of those films which sought to create the illusion of reality for cinema’s largely working-class audience.

By the late 1910s, the draw of extravagant costuming had become apparent, and films, now increasingly aimed at a middle-class audience, began to place greater emphasis on the consumption of clothing. Developments in the technical and narrative complexity of films also demanded more specialised costumes in greater numbers, and sartorial excess – in both design and quantity of costumes – became crucial to the film industry’s role as producer of fantasy.

The growth of the continuing television series from the mid-twentieth century onwards necessitated a similar abundance of costumes on screen, but with the need for frequent costume changes intensified by the high episode count and rapid turnaround time of many series. Moreover, seasonally scheduled series could keep abreast of fashion changes in their costuming to an even greater extent than films.

Viewers have consequently become accustomed to unique costumes for each story day of a film or television series, especially in those produced for a middle-class and/or female audience. Multiple costume changes within a story day are also common, and characters do not often wear the same costume twice in a given production (excepting ‘hero’ pieces worn throughout). This is sometimes true even when an extensive wardrobe cannot be justified by, say, a character’s socioeconomic circumstances. Subsequently, whether they are bought, made, or hired, single-use costumes normalise the fast fashion mentality that clothes should be acquired more frequently than they can be worn.

Costume and fashion are not entirely comparable, of course, but they do impact each other both stylistically and commercially. The practice of using a costume only once in a production thus appears dated within the context of recent discourse on fast fashion. Yet, the effects of this practice on the consumption of fashion, and vice versa, remain undertheorised. The challenge lies in critiquing certain industry customs whilst respecting costume design’s status as art, business, and significant appeal of films and television.

Fashioning the Dangerous Woman in ‘Killing Eve’

Villanelle wearing a Molly Goddard dress. Costume design by Phoebe de Gaye. BBC America/Sid Gentle Films, 2018.

Killing Eve’s female-led approach to the spy thriller reverses a number of gender stereotypes. However, reversing a stereotype is not always the same as challenging it, and one which the series struggles to challenge is the trope of the dangerously fashionable woman.

In Killing Eve, this woman takes the form of sharply dressed assassin, Villanelle. Her passion for her work is matched only by her passion for designer clothes, and she stalks the streets of Europe in an array of the latest fashions. A hit in Tuscany requires a lace-trimmed Burberry dress, for example, while one in Bulgaria calls for a satin Miu Miu bomber jacket. In Berlin, she dons a frilly JW Anderson top to hide in plain sight as she spies on MI5 agents, before changing into a brocade Dries van Noten suit to stab one of them. Then, of course, there is the striking Molly Goddard dress and Balenciaga boots ensemble that she wears to visit her psychiatrist in Paris. Villanelle’s fashionable clothes are both her tactical wear and markers of her confident, fearless character.

Crucially, Villanelle’s fashionable appearance also contrasts her with Eve, the unassuming MI5 agent tasked with hunting her down. Eve favours ill-fitting suits and anoraks, and is so decidedly unfashionable that Villanelle feels compelled to send her a selection of designer clothes. Eve cannot let herself enjoy them, though, for they represent all that she feels she is not. Over the course of the series, her unfashionable appearance thus becomes associated with a certain rationality and self-control, thereby distancing her from Villanelle both visually and characteristically. As such, Villanelle’s fashion sense might appear confident and fearless in and of itself, but it can also be read as unruly and ostentatious when contrasted with Eve’s appearance.

Eve. Costume design by Phoebe de Gaye. BBC America/Sid Gentle Films, 2018.

In some respects, it is exciting to see a woman as fashionable as Villanelle on screen. Fashion and costume are so often viewed as mutually exclusive, but Villanelle’s costumes show how fashion can be utilised in costume design without appearing distracting. Furthermore, it is unusual for a female character to embrace fashion without fear of being perceived as frivolous or overly feminine, and to completely own her appearance. In turn, Villanelle’s costumes are refreshing because they allow both her and the viewer to unashamedly indulge in fashion.

However, this also makes it all the more frustrating that Killing Eve then associates Villanelle’s fashionable appearance with wrongdoing, for the trope of the dangerously fashionable woman is as old as the moving image itself. More often than not, the fashionable woman is also confident and assertive, independent and liberated, and her fashion sense, as a visible manifestation of modernity and change, comes to symbolise these characteristics. There is a reason that the vamp always wears a short dress and bobbed hair, and that the femme fatale has a fondness for shoulder pads and red lipstick; her fashion sense others her, often prefiguring her downfall.

Villanelle’s fate may not yet be known, but positioning her as the dangerously fashionable woman nonetheless renders her character as dated as it is enjoyable. Might the characterisation of Killing Eve’s leads feel different, perhaps, if Eve were the fashionable one?