PRINT February 1995


Ready to Wear

WITH HIGH-TESTOSTERONE ART STARS of the ’80s decamping to film, Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner forever being mentioned as prime parts yet to be cast, a gallerist smitten with gorillas and mambo kings, and the likelihood of Mike Ovitz holding sway at the Museum of Modern Art, a spate of films about the art world cannot be too far off. Let us hope that the art world is better served than fashion is in Robert Altman’s hateful Ready to Wear.

Altman’s contemptuous film lacks the expertise of his best works—when he skewers Hollywood in The Player, say, or analyzes country in Nashville. This time he hasn’t done his homework. As the opening credits roll, the names of his plethora of stars float down the screen as colorful designer labels—a vintage graphic of ’50s filmmaking. And Altman is still living in the ’50s as far as fashion goes. (As far as film goes too: how long can we continue to imagine that brusque cuts among multiple stories constitute advanced filmmaking?) He has the vague expectation that high fashion is sovereign and dictatorial—an idea that would have held some frisson of reality had he been working in 1954. But even in general terms Altman manifests no knowledge of fashion, blithely confusing haute couture (his ostensible subject) with the ready-to-wear of his title (originally the French Prêt-à-Porter, now in English translation for the least sophisticated audiences—precisely those most unlikely to be interested in Altman’s duplicities and banalities).

Altman’s fashion world is a fraud. His view of it, and of the world at large, is so sordid and sleazy that one leaves the theater feeling embarrassed and depressed. In supposedly exposing fashion’s sham, Ready to Wear never shows enough of fashion’s “system,” to quote Roland Barthes, to be its effective critic or censor. The film’s sensationalist dénouement, an emperor’s-new-clothes parable, creates not Garden of Eden shame but an awkward pity for a director compelled to cliche and easy uproar. Altman’s acid view mistakes the runway show for fashion’s complete pattern. Nobody really believes that art openings are about the art.

No designer, buyer, or journalist has conviction or integrity in Altman’s world. But fashion, though it may be driven by commerce (as art is to a lesser degree), is built on conviction. Thierry Mugler tosses off a bon mot in the film about clothing’s utility to the wearer to get laid, and Altman allows this bromide, with its vulgar directness, to linger in the film’s rankness; yet Mugler is expressing mainly his own preoccupation with up-front sexuality. Karl Lagerfeld or Issey Miyake would not say the same, and their clothing is fundamentally different from Mugler’s. Altman has chosen not to respect the creation of fashion as a cause, viewing it only as a dysfunctional éclat in a tumultuous public sphere filled with cynical manipulation. But artists and fashion designers share the onus of creative optimism, that inexorable impulse to make the work of art (or of design, if this is a necessary distinction), and to make it better than earlier ones.

Perhaps I’m cleaving to a romantic view of the artist with which, admittedly, some disagree. But Altman recognizes no scintilla of talent or creative affirmation in fashion. To him, Vivienne Westwood and Miyake represent a freak show of excess. Actually, Westwood’s historically resonant forms and Miyake’s kimono-inspired wrappings cannot be isolated into bizarre runway excerpts: they have a reason and an esthetic integrity that Altman cannot perceive. I’m not asking for an overwrought Ken. Russell biopic about a fashion designer, or for an Immortal Beloved of the fashion world, but for an understanding that a process, especially an esthetic process, cannot be judged solely by its moment of mediation, the point at which it enters the outside world. In fact that is the moment least representative of the art. I am not asking for a romantic view of esthetic worlds, just a decent one.

Resentment fuels Altman’s film. Although he sought out real members of the fashion world, the contempt he shows for them recalls those provincials who, on seeing the cosmopolitans they might like to be, dismiss them as ostentatious. In fact the interpolation of elements of the real into the film has a kind of ass-licking ingratitude about it. If Altman would show fashion week as insincere or hyperbolic, he ought not to be insincere and hyperbolic himself. Fashion in Ready to Wear is actually no more than a setting: the film’s real business is a cheap Decameron of love stories—Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni, Danny Aiello and Teri Garr, Julia Roberts and Tim Robbins, Forest Whitaker and Richard E. Grant (who, as gay lovers, are burlesqued, again with a sensibility we haven’t seen since the ’50s, through Altman’s spiteful and recurrent homophobia). But if one judges the film without the fashion, it is equally execrable, a disagreeable mess of dogshit and bedroom farce that a teenager would edit out of a home movie.

So: Danny DeVito as Leo Castelli, Joan Collins as Mary Boone, Tommy Lee Jones as Larry Gagosian, etc.—I leave you to this parlor game with the assurance that you’ll have more fun with your own imaginings about the art world than in an art-world movie as squalid as Ready to Wear. It’s not that it wouldn’t be fascinating to see the art world fictionalized, as if it could be any more fictitious than it is. But one would want the filmmaker to remember that the art world, for all its foibles, has art at its core.

Richard Martin is curator of the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York.