Fashion in Pedro Almodóvar’s films

When I read that Pedro Almodóvar personally takes care of the decor in his films, I knew why his movies remind me so much of Alfred Hitchock’s: he too oversaw every aspect of his films, from drawing every single scene before the shooting began, to choosing the clothes for his characters. And just like Hitch, Almodóvar plans his each film to the tiniest detail. No dress, no painting on the wall, no colour is randomly chosen. Every element is a piece of the puzzle. His films communicate visually as much as they do verbally. He has created his own universe, a craftsmanship of his profession.

It’s not hard to guess that today I’m going to talk about fashion as narrative medium. Due to space considerations, I’ve chosen only two of his films, his latest two. The first one is the unsettling psychological thriller, The Skin I Live In, and the other one is Broken Embraces.
The beautiful Dolce & Gabbana dress Vera (Elena Anaya) La piel que habito plays a symbolic role. “What I like about the dress is the 1950s touch. It’s also quite appropriate because there’s a lot about this film that is very film noir, and the golden age of the film noir was of course the 1950s,” said Pedro Almodóvar in an interview for Harper’s Bazaar. The director wanted to have “a dress that should be the essence of femininity”, recalls costume designer Paco Delgado. “This dress had it all. It created a very feminine silhouette and embodied an idea of a woman newly reborn.” We first see the dress at the beginning of the film, in Vicente’s mother’s boutique, a premonition, if you will, of the gender he’ll be condemned to. He offers it to the shop assistant, but she refuses it. He insists, emphasizing the qualities of the dress. Cristina replies: “If you like it so much, you wear it.” He soon disappears under suspect circumstances and comes back six years later to the shop, as Vera, wearing that same dress, thus establishing his identity.

But there is another dress that Vera wears when she steps out of the house she has been confined to for the very first time, a wrap dress. I found it very beautiful, too, and, more importantly, feminine and appropriate for the narrative.
Although in The Skin I Live In the director used Chanel only in make-up (in a very unconventional way, for the female protagonist played to write on the walls), he and Karl Lagerfeld worked together on two other films: High Heels and Broken Embraces. Both men think very highly of each other and of their respective works.

The minimalist bodysuits, which had to give the impression of second skin, were designed by Jean Paul Gaultier, another fashion designer with whom Almodóvar has had a very good professional relationship, having worked together for Kika and Bad Education. Gaultier has designed for other films, too (The Cook, The Thief, The Wife and Her Lover and The Fifth Element are two of them) and he says it was the cinema that influenced him to become a fashion designer: “When I was nine or ten, I watched the film by Jacques Becker called Falbalas and I owe it my career. I was seduced by the atmosphere of the couture house during WWII. That was my ‘eureka’ moment when I knew I wanted to be a couturier and stage fashion shows.”

“His talent is alive and versatile, he can receive his inspiration from such different sources as the trash, the streetwear or the classic French designers such as Yves Saint Laurent or Patou,” says Almodóvar about the designer.

“The stitches and paddings in certain areas suggest Vera’s own scars. At the same time, when presenting Vera’s character in a general shot, I wanted to create the impression that she was naked, but also that her skin had a particular kind of glow, somehow artificial. Jean-Paul’s bodysuit manages to transmit all that.” It combines very well the concepts of nakedness, identity and defenselessness. Vera only wears these bodysuits and refuses to wear feminine clothes. “The asexuality is intentional. Her new sex transforms her almost into a robot, a new kind of creature that moves between both sexes without properly belonging to any of them. It’s not unusual to think of Fritz Lang’s iconic robot in Metropolis.”

Antonio Banderas’ costumes, on the other hand, are as formal as possible: dark coloured suits, trench coats, cardigans and polo t-shirts, nothing to attract the attention to his psychopath character.

In one of her most demanding roles, Penélope Cruz plays Lena in Broken Embraces. Almodóvar brings out the best in her. Her character goes through several transformations which require a great emotional strain from Penélope. Clothes help tell that story. “Her character had to be beautiful, without us forgetting that elegance can be a direct route to sadness”, costume designer Sonia Grande told Elle.
Penélope wears a simple, grey Alaïa suit from the late ’80s in the first scene she appears in. A suggestive means of telling us that she is a working woman and to delineate the difference between her character in this stage of her life and the life she will soon after start.
A Chanel dress introduces us to the new Magdalena. The opulent black dress with golden chains suggests the character’s new social and wealth status. The Chanel Museum of Paris supplied a few other pieces from their collection, including a classic black and white suit.

Colour, fashion and decor have their own language: Almodóvar is a great story teller. “I was a story teller before I was a filmmaker” is one of Harry Caine’s lines in the movie. I think the director is referring to himself.
Lena goes through one more transformation and her wardrobe once again reflects that: the carefree clothes she’s wearing evoke that she’s in love and that she’s found her freedom. “The beautiful flowered Loewe scarf reminded us of an antique embroidered Spanish shawl—which made me think of Carmen.” It’s interesting that the costume designer mentions Carmen, because it would be fascinating to see an opera directed by Pedro Almodóvar. Fashion-wise speaking, it would give him the chance to work with haute couture, which he takes so much interest in. “Couture is a great show. It’s the perfect artifice. It’s got nothing to do with a woman’s ordinary life. Those shows are just pure daydreams.” Imagine all the theatricality and drama of haute couture combined with his own artistic vision. He even has two names in mind: John Galliano and Jean Paul Gaultier.

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images: screen stills captured by me / 1-7: ‘The Skin I Live In’, production credits / 8-14: ‘Broken Embraces’, production credits
sources: Harper’s Bazaar / Elle / The Hollywood Reporter

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