The fashionista: Vapid and cruel, but oh-so beautifully dressed, they’re one of film’s most reviled characters. Set apart by their exceptional sense of style, they inhabit a fragile, fast-paced world where they’re constantly competing with other fashionistas – and they’re only as good as their next outfit. But there’s more to the fashionista than superficiality, meanness, and great style. Here’s our Take on what lies beneath the perfect veneer.
Vapid and cruel, but oh-so beautifully dressed, the fashionista is one of film’s most reviled characters. Set apart by their exceptional sense of style, they inhabit a fragile, fast-paced world where they’re constantly competing with other fashionistas – and they’re only as good as their next outfit. So what are some of the onscreen fashionista’s defining features?
They’re usually a woman, but sometimes a gay man. And this gendered aspect of the trope is by no means accidental. The link between fashion and femininity is used to make people who are interested in fashion seem stupid, and render fashion unimportant. Ultimately, making fashion empty, and something that belongs to women and gay men, is a slick way of undermining these groups. And the fashionista reinforces the idea that women’s interests don’t extend beyond buying clothes and looking pretty.
Carrie Bradshaw: I like my money right where I can see it. Hanging in my closet. -Sex and The City
So the fashionista is often superficial. They’re obsessed with physical appearance, and might have few firm inner values, deciding to broadcast their eco credentials one week, or helping needy kids the next. But it’s all surface-deep, because these characters only care about what they look like. The fashionista is frequently the definition of suffering to be beautiful, and in the superficiality, can lose their humanity.
They tend to be selfish and needlessly cruel, too. That’s partly because fashion depends on exclusivity, and the fashion industry is notoriously competitive and grueling to rise in. It’s striking that even to this day a large number of fashionista characters are villains. But there’s more to the fashionista than superficiality, meanness, and great style. Here’s our Take on what lies beneath the perfect veneer.
The fashionista is a largely unpleasant character we’re supposed to fear. She’s clawed her way to the top of a pyramid, and often punches down. In characters like The Devil Wears Prada’s Miranda Priestly, House of Gucci’s Patrizia Reggiani, Cruella De Vil, and much of the line-up of Ugly Betty, we’re shown that the pursuit of power and perfection in the fashion world can turn people evil (or attract people who already had those cutthroat instincts. Even when they’re not totally monstrous, fashionistas are often unkind, trying their hardest to keep others out by treating them badly.
This exclusivity inherent to the industry is extended to high-end fashion consumers onscreen – in shows like Gossip Girl, fashion is used as a short-hand for class as a means of elevating the characters to a position of superiority. The female characters are dressed by world-renowned couturiers like Oscar de la Renta and Elie Saab, which makes their existence on Manhattan’s Upper East Side seem even more inaccessible to viewers. And maybe that’s another reason we dislike the fashionista: her unattainability is something we’re a little envious of, so we tend to vilify her.
Blair Waldorf: Well, a lifelong relationship with Elie Saab does have its perks. -Gossip Girl
There’s also the misogyny that dogs the fashionista. Ilya Parkins writes that “fashion-consuming women appear as unstable… and ultimately women’s ardent relationship to fashion aligns them with irrationality”. Because fashion is seen as feminine, it’s treated like a low brow interest – and people of any gender who are involved with it are cast as stupid. So if a fashionista isn’t downright evil, they’re shallow, entitled, or an idiot, all of which makes it easier to laugh at them, and think of their interests as unimportant.
There is another type of fashionista character who doesn’t get the same level of vitriol: the designer. They’re often brilliant but aloof – defined by a true talent. They’re not as dismissed – largely because they’re less involved in the overtly feminine stuff like walking the runways and their creative dedication that goes beyond trend-fixation is more traditionally male-coded. Still, their eccentricities may be extreme bordering on pathological, like in Phantom Thread’s controlling Reynolds Woodcock.
Because of the associated vapidity, fashion is widely vilified onscreen and reduced to something ‘less-than’. A great example is in the 1957 Audrey Hepburn film Funny Face, where the character of Jo derides fashion because she wants to be taken seriously. When she’s scouted as a model – to front one of the world’s most successful fashion magazines – she’s anxious that the philosophers she respects will think less of her. Funny Face ultimately posits that, for Jo, both fashion and philosophy are too superficial – and that she better find herself a good man instead.
Jo: Dr. Post would never approve. She doesn’t approve of fashion magazines. It’s chi-chi and an unrealistic approach to self-impressions… -Funny Face
Fashion’s trendy nature also makes fashionable people easy to dehumanize, because they shift and change so quickly, constantly altering to stay up-to-date. This gives the fashionista the sense of being slippery – lacking serious, fixed values.
In the 90s and 2000s, there was a move towards humanizing the fashionista, to an extent. Cher from Clueless and Carrie Bradshaw are both fashionistas who have lives outside of their wardrobe, but who earnestly love clothes as a means of self-expression. Fashion is a vital part of their existence. When Carrie’s boyfriend Aidan asks her to clean out her closet so he can move in, it causes a major rift in their relationship. Carrie ends up instead with Mr. Big, a character who respects and nurtures her inner fashionista.
As a teen girl, Cher looks to her fashion to give her a sense of power and control in a confusing, disempowering world – and she takes pride in how her fashion is original, rather than just copying others’ trends.
Cher Horowitz: Like l would really wear something from Judy’s. Do you prefer “fashion victim” or “ensemble-y challenged”. -Clueless
In 2001’s Legally Blonde, Elle Woods is widely underestimated due to her California Blonde looks and love of cheerful, hot-pink fashion, but she spends the movie disproving assumptions that these things can’t go along with a sharp intellect. As she rises up through Harvard Law School, she maintains her signature fashion sense and shows that her lawyerly aptitude isn’t diminished by dressing to express her personality. Still, while these characters’ fashion is celebrated, there were limits to how much the fashionista was humanized in this era. Carrie can be an unpleasant character who behaves in antiheroic ways.
Cher, meanwhile, sheds at least some of her fashion obsession as she goes through an “inner” makeover to become more serious and starts dating Josh. It’s almost like, to be a better person, the fashion aspect has to give. So while fashionista characters were fleshed out more in this era, the passion for fashion still could come across as a weakness, or something to be kept in check. Meanwhile, there’s something about fashion that’s rarely touched on in film – and that’s how empowering it can be.
Cher Horawitz: I decided I needed a complete makeover, except this time, I’d makeover my soul. -Clueless
Fashion has the ability to empower people who feel disempowered. This is explored under the surface in Clueless. A lot of Cher’s life is controlled – by her teachers, her father and her peers – and she expresses herself through what she wears. Sadly, despite how much fun she has with this and how confident she seems, Cher’s fashion sense gets her viewed as ditzy by others, and in her most vulnerable moments she reveals this devastates her. At times Cher doesn’t seem to believe she has a lot of value outside her clothes.
But her environment reflects a pretty closed-minded and dismissive attitude toward fashion. While the fashion industry is exclusionary and money-centric, fashion in an individual sense is something anyone can have fun with, and can be a wonderful way of bringing creativity into your everyday life.
One amazing movie about the way that fashion can be a force for good is 1997’s Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion. Romy and Michele are immature and hapless best friends – and they don’t feel like they’ve made a success of their lives. They are convinced they need to dress in business wear to impress their former classmates at their ten year reunion. But after things don’t go to plan, they finally get dressed into their own clothes. The former popular-mean-girl who used to bully them begins ridiculing their looks but, in a moment that shows how power ebbs and flows out of high school, their outfits impress another ex-student who’s now a fashion editor. The film ends with Romy and Michele in a much happier place than they were at the beginning. They’ve used fashion to improve their lives. They’re fulfilled, because they now own a store where they are able to do what they love – spending time with each other and delighting in clothes – all day.
Michele: And to me, fashion is just, it’s like… everything. -Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion
So while fashionistas are often depicted with superiority complexes and innate cruelty, it’s important to reflect on the nuances of their characterization. Their looks may serve as a vehicle for their malice, but their wardrobes are often visual representations of other more defining traits. And rather than painting the less-vilified fashionistas with sexist strokes of vapidity and superficiality, it’s more productive to look at our own relationship with fashion, and the ways it can both empower and disempower us all. Ultimately, clothing is a form of self-expression, so it’s best to lace-up, respect each other’s styles, and read between the stitches.