For historical fashion researchers like Eric Wilson, the fashion industry is more than runway models and high-profile designers. It also includes “designers, stores, factory workers, seamstresses, tailors, embroiderers, the press, publicists, salespersons (or “garmentos”), fit models, runway models, couture models, textile manufacturers, pattern makers, and sketch artists.” In other words, there are myriad career paths.
How does the industry manage to stay relevant? According to Wilson, these four dynamics are critical:
• Fashion must anticipate consumer taste.
• It must continually adapt to cultural change.
• A solid infrastructure must exist so garments go from sketch to store racks seamlessly.
• And fashion must adhere to mass production demands.
Where’s the glamour? There’s plenty of it within the films on our list, but beyond the superficial, the movie industry has done a herculean job over time by relentlessly chronicling and revealing the truth behind the fashion houses, runway shows and personalities. Each of these 10 films offers a unique perspective that gives viewers an unvarnished look at the world of fashion.
Movies About the Fashion Industry
1. Funny Face (1957)
The word joyous appears in reviews written about this Audrey Hepburn/Fred Astaire box office smash that chronicles the tale of a shy bookshop clerk who dreams of studying philosophy in Paris. She goes to Paris and becomes a famous fashion photographer’s muse — all of which takes place in typically Hollywood style. What the story lacks in substance it makes up for with a lush Gershwin soundtrack plus exquisite original clothing for which legendary Hollywood costumer Edith Head received an Oscar. Hepburn had enough star power to enlist her favorite Paris designer, Hubert de Givenchy, as the film’s “advisor.” If only haute couture was this easy to break into!
Duration: 1h 43 min
2. Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? (1966)
It didn’t get lots of press but this satirical French film, says producer William Klein, “pokes fun at the excesses and frivolities of the fashion industry in a way that manages to be both glamorous and grotesque.” Brooklyn-born Polly Maggoo goes to Paris to seek notoriety but winds up the subject of a “Qui êtes-vous?” documentary that is far from the runway career she sought. A must-see for fashion design students who appreciate the craziness of the 1960s haute couture culture (e.g., Cardin, Courrèges, Cashin, Givenchy, Yves Saint Laurent, Pucci, et al), this movie is the definitive look at that era’s most notable fashion trends:
Duration: 1h 42 min
3. Prêt-à-Porter (1994)
When Robert Altman produced this film, there was controversy over whether it should retain its original name or bear the translation – Ready-to-Wear – as the title. A raw look at exploitation in the name of looking au courant, Roger Ebert wrote that the industry exists by “making billions by convincing most of the human race to dress interchangeably and the rest to dress like the victims of a cruel jest.” Nevertheless, this movie celebrates the annual French fashion industry ritual of gathering in Paris for runway shows. A great example of Altman’s mocumentary style, Pret-a-Porter didn’t win awards, yet reviewers conferred the ultimate recommendation: “As a document of the thrilling heights of the 1990s runway show, there’s no better film to watch.”
Duration: 2h 13 min
Rating: R for language and nudity
4. The Devil Wears Prada (2006)
Despite the flippant nature of the title, few movies have been as successful at showing the secretive world of fashion media where a handful of dominant women rule by intimidation and fear. As the newest and most naïve editorial assistant to join the magazine staff, Andrea Sachs (Anne Hathaway) refuses to be bullied by Miranda Priestly, played brilliantly by Meryl Streep. Critics rave about the “endlessly quotable and uproariously funny insight into the obsessive nature of those who work in fashion,” but Andrea’s character and humanity make this film a delightfully compelling look at how guts and tenacity pay off:
Duration: 1h 49 min
Rating: PG-13 for some sensuality
5. Coco Before Chanel (2009)
So much more than a rags to riches story about a poor orphan achieving success beyond her wildest dreams in France, Coco Before Chanel takes viewers back in time to young Gabrielle’s abandonment when she developed an indomitable will to survive against all odds. Viewers meet the men in her life – especially the married man who inadvertently helped her break into fashion. Audrey Tautou is sympathetic, authentic, and dazzling as the tenacious Chanel who helped liberate 19th century women with her brilliant and unique designs. For viewers hungry for insights into the stellar designer, this film does not disappoint in either English or in French!
Duration: 1h 50 min
6. The September Issue (2009)
No fashion follower could mistake the presence of Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour. Her reserved seat at runways show paid homage to her stature. R.J. Cutler followed Wintour for months to capture behind-the-scenes footage as the publication’s most important annual issue goes to press. Revelations are enough to discourage anyone eager to break into Vogue or other fashion magazines for that matter, and while Roger Ebert called Wintour “the single most important person in the world of fashion,” the question remains: Does anyone stand up to her? Viewers learn that former British model Grace Coddington, her closest colleague, does. This is as much an homage to this relationship as it is mesmerizing peek into the world of Vogue. See if you don’t agree:
Duration: 1h 29 min
Rating: PG for strong language
7. L’Amour Fou (2010)
Debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival, L’Amour Fou is a remarkable biography of Yves Saint Laurent’s foibles and the idiosyncratic behaviors that made this French fashion legend one of the most fascinating designers on the fashion scene. When he died of AIDS in 2008, massive amounts of fine art he left behind shocked the world as did details of his downfall after Saint Laurent — the former heir apparent to the House of Dior — was summarily fired. Saint Laurent’s business and life partner Pierre Bergé is prominently featured by director Pierre Thretton who “stunningly blends Bergé’s interviews, rare archival footage, and incredible access to their homes to make what amounts to more than a biography. He captures a love story—-a so-called crazy love—-of art, fashion, and the two men who loved both and one another.”
Duration: 1h 40 min
8. The True Cost (2015)
This documentary eschews the glamour, glitz and personality-filled tales that pervade this list, but for anyone seeking a career in fashion it’s a mandatory peek at the unvarnished truth about the people behind the factories producing new garments overseas. Interviews with factory workers and designers paint a portrait of sweatshops and slums where fires, disease, building collapses and other frightening circumstances plague the daily lives of garment workers in Cambodia, Bangladesh and other third world nations. Not for the faint of heart nor moviegoers who prefer to go blindly into the future oblivious to mass production demands by retail giants, this documentary is the product of a small group of talented, truth-telling filmmakers you’ll come to admire:
Duration: 1h 42 min
9. Phantom Thread (2017)
Daniel Day-Lewis portrays a fashion designer whose personal quirks are so bizarre, his performance earned rave reviews and an Oscar nomination. Day-Lewis portrays a post-WW II couturier who meets a young woman at a café and obsessively pursues her as his muse. She has secrets to hide, and viewers are captivated by everything from the haunting background music to the language accents that keep viewers wondering about things unspoken. One reviewer proclaimed this film a “window into the world of post-war fashion [that] is an intoxicating, beautifully woven fairy tale — but one that ultimately feels closer to a nightmare.”
Duration: 2h 10 min
10. Halston (2019)
Halston — born Roy Halston Frowick in Des Moines, Iowa in 1932 — was a renowned designer, “who not only understood women’s bodies,” but honored their modern-day priorities through his effortless and free-spirited design esthetic throughout the late-1960s, 1970s and beyond. He dressed Jackie Onassis and enjoyed international fame, but insecurity and hubris triggered his downfall, in part due to his decision to produce ready-to-wear clothing for J.C. Penney. This film captures the Studio 54 vibe with its drugs, risky sex, and disco beat, but in the end, Halston’s insecurities consumed him. The fashion world lost a giant when he died of AIDS:
Duration: 1h 45min