The connection between fashion and death is an old one: Italian poet and writer Giacomo Leopardi wrote in 1824 the “Dialogo della Moda e della Morte”, a short dialogue in which Fashion and Death are portrayed as sisters, born of transience and intent on transforming human beings, the former only exteriorly, by applying her skills to hairstyles and clothes, the latter radically, by killing them.
In more recent years, designers seemed to have strengthened this connection between fashion and death by portraying models as corpses on the catwalk or as victims of murders, while using death as a symbol of mutability, change and instability. Italian director Dario Argento, one of the masters of the modern horror genre, even directed the A/W 1986-87 Trussardi fashion show in which the opening from his film Suspiria (1977) was re-enacted and the event culminated with a maniac killing the models right on the runway.
Spreads in fashion magazines or controversial shots on television programmes such as America's Next Top Model often portrayed women in beautiful dresses lying dead in the middle of a street, in seedy toilets or in abandoned buildings, the beauty of the model and of the dress contrasting with the horror of death, but also hinting at the strange and disturbing eroticism found in death.
There was a time when the favourite topic of Italian thriller film directors seemed to be stories in which models got horrifically killed. This “tradition” started with Mario Bava’s Sei donne per l’assassino (Blood and Black Lace, 1964) in which six models working for the Rome-based Christian Fashion House, run by Countess Cristina (Eva Bartok) and her lover Massimo (Cameron Mitchell), are murdered by a mysterious masked figure. All the models - Isabella, Nicole, Peggy, Greta and Tao-Li - are killed in different ways, as if their deaths represented different sartorial creations presented during a catwalk.
Among the various thriller films that took place in the world of fashion I particularly love the ones in which the director asked a famous fashion designer to collaborate with him and produce the costumes for the film. One of these films is Emilio Miraglia’s La dama rossa uccide sette volte (The Red Queen, 1972). The film is set in Germany and revolves around a curse involving two sisters. As little girls, sisters Kitty and Evelyn learn from their grandfather about a family legend that said that every 100 years one sister would murder six innocent people before finally killing the other sister.
As a young woman, Kitty (Barbara Bouchet) becomes a successful fashion photographer working for the prêt-à-porter German fashion house Springe, but she lives hiding a dark secret: during a fight she accidentally killed her sister Evelyn, who now seems to have risen from the grave and, wearing a red cape and a white mask, is killing the models and the staff at Springe with a dagger.
The film has a strong connection with the fashion world as all the clothes for the main characters, both men and women, were supplied by Mila Schön. The designer - who at the time was at the pinnacle of her career - was approached by production designer Lorenzo Baraldi who gave her the film synopsis.
Schön liked the movie and appreciated the chance it was going to give her to publicise her clothes, so she accepted the offer. The designer was also enthusiastic about the fact that some of her creations were going to be worn in the film by actress Barbara Bouchet .
Schön even placed at the disposal of the film crew a van with a driver and an assistant. The vehicle became the set for a violent scene in which designer Lenore is stabbed by the Red Queen.
As the red is a fundamental colour in the film, being the colour of blood and of Evelyn's cape, one of the best outfits Bouchet wears towards the end of the film as tension climaxes and the truth is going to be revealed, is a red skirt suit, with a diagonal jacket fastening that is also used as decorative motif for the skirt.
I guess nowadays designers only want to see their creations featured in Hollywood blockbusters à la Sex and the City rather than in independent thriller or horror films. I think the only creations by an Italian designer that recently appeared in a mildly disturbing film were a pair of Diego Dolcini's shoes featured in one of the Cremaster films by Matthew Barney.
Still, I long for the day an important fashion designer will be once again as keen as Schön was to collaborate with a master of the horror genre and will be willing to see his or her creations smeared with blood. It would probably be more symbolical than seeing them just worn by stunningly glamorous women.