Viewers of the literary program Between the Lines on ABC TV may well remember the sight of Caroline Baum attempting to remain cheery while she moderated a discussion on fashion between two cultural theorists whose views were so incompatible they may as well have come from different planets.
One speaker emphasised a classical sense of fashion as a shared, even mythic language of the masses, an everyday negotiation with the world. Her interlocutor was more of a new-style social constructivist; she stressed the ever-changing, political meanings of what we wear – and how the fashion industry moulds our individual bodies with its preferred signs.
The experience of watching Catwalk, a documentary on supermodels and the world of fashion, has propelled me more towards the latter, new-fangled viewpoint. There is certainly nothing natural or everyday about the clothes we see paraded here. The spectacle is more akin to a deranged piece of performance art – styles and references from many nations, historical periods and aesthetic movements in a desperate mix-and-match.
No one needs a cultural theorist to label this display postmodern. In fact, all this documentary needs is a representative from Interview magazine, who is more than happy to declare that the designs of John Galliano or Jean-Paul Gaultier are "post-post-postmodern". But, under this mad scramble for newness, the fashion industry is an institution that runs on a time-worn ritual: sticking supposedly ideal women on catwalks at the same time each year in Milan, Paris and New York.
Robert Leacock's film shows well the mundane, workaday aspects of this glamour industry. There is scarcely a peek of Melrose Place-style bitchiness or competitiveness among designers and models in this cinéma vérité document. Candidness is conspicuously absent, and celebrities including Christian Slater flee Leacock's camera. One gets a sense of why Robert Altman's fictional recreation of this milieu in Prêt-à-Porter (1994) was so flat and uninspired: perhaps an outsider cannot easily see in.
In many respects this is an extremely conventional doco, fit for television rather than cinemas. Leacock constantly switches from black and white (for private moments) to colour (for the public whirl), but the effect is rather negligible. It is ostensibly an intimate portrait of this world as viewed over the shoulder of Christy Turlington – who certainly comes across as a smarter, better adjusted personality than most of her supermodel sisters. Yet the intimate material never really emerges.
Even for a viewer like myself who is not exactly enraptured by this subject, Catwalk gradually becomes lightly hypnotic. The film manages to capture the superficial, playful dance of fashion, thanks to Malcolm McLaren's breezy pop score, the procession of big, beautiful cities, and the delightfully different personalities of luminaries from Armani to the artist Francesco Clemente.
And, in a film generally bereft of zingy one-liners, there is a deathless testament – when a pundit of the scene patiently explains that fashion is all about trying to attain that single, supreme moment of drama in a lifetime, whether it involves entering a room or walking out on a lover. She calls this the "fuck you moment".
© Adrian Martin May 1996