the transformative and terrifying role of gowns in film

The “makeover scene” scene is about more than heterosexual validation, it’s a chance to challenge identity, class, and reality.

by Mel Campbell
20 April 2017, 3:30pm

Kristen Stewart in 'Personal Shopper'.

Formal dress is designed to transcend the everyday. Worn on special occasions, luxurious gowns can transform us into our imagined ideal selves. But their sensuous femininity is also uncanny and disquieting. They don't just change a woman's outer appearance: they get inside, making her lose control, questioning who she is and what's real.

Beauty and the Beast is one such transformative story. Weighing the material trappings of social power against intangible virtues of trust and compassion, it suggests love is a magic spell we cast when we learn to value someone's inner worth. At the center of Bill Condon's live-action remake of Disney's 1991 animated musical, there's an enchanted ballroom and a twirling, spangled, buttercup-yellow silk gown.

"This is total, blissful escapism," the film's star Emma Watson told Entertainment Weekly. "You are transported to another world. The dress, and the dancing, and the candlelight, and the music." Escaping the drabness of the everyday is the fantasy of the "makeover": the pervasive idea that we can win love, power, or respect by changing how we appear to others. But a formal gown is much more than a happily-ever-after tool, a charm used to beguile a man. The gown allows a woman to turn her erotic gaze upon herself. Such transformations can be eerie, even terrifying.

Jean Cocteau's 1946 Beauty and the Beast expresses (where the Disney films don't) that this story isn't an escapist romance. It's about an intensely spooky interface between bodies and space. One of Cocteau's most gorgeous and unsettling sequences takes place before Belle (played by Josette Day) even meets the Beast. It depicts Belle wandering through empty halls past candelabra gripped by disembodied arms. Time seems to thicken, and the laws of physics slacken. Belle's cloak and dress swirl and billow in slow motion, and she glides supernaturally along the ground rather than walking.

Clothing does have a ghostly voice. It whispers in your ear as you knot a tie or slide a dress over your head. And the heavy silk coats and gowns of 18th-century France — where Beauty and the Beast is set — formed murmuring, invisible choruses around their wearers, telling secret stories as people sat and walked and danced. The Beast's castle may be staffed by whispering, invisible servants, but donning a forbidden gown allows a lowly employee to 'become' her employer — or, more accurately, to become that woman's ghost.

Listen to the rustle of an acid-green silk gown in Farewell My Queen (2012): a dress that allows loyal Versailles courtier Sidonie Laborde (Léa Seydoux) to feel spectrally close to Queen Marie-Antoinette (Diane Kruger). You see, this spectacular outfit belongs to Gabrielle, Duchesse de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen), the queen's intimate friend.

In the film's finale, Sidonie agrees to wear the dress so that she, and not the Duchesse, will risk being murdered by peasant revolutionaries as they flee the Palace. Sidonie — who's previously gazed at Gabrielle's sleeping, naked body, wondering how this woman has beguiled Marie-Antoinette — exults in the physical transformation of becoming Gabrielle's double, because in this magical gown, she's allowed a final, haunting intimacy with her Queen.

In Olivier Assayas's psychological thriller Personal Shopper, another young servant tries on someone else's clothes. Maureen (Kristen Stewart) is "waiting" in Paris for a message from her recently deceased twin brother Lewis. Both siblings were mediums with congenital heart defects, and had agreed that whoever died first would signal to the other from the afterlife.

Maureen is a personal shopper: she schleps between couture ateliers and luxury boutiques, buying and borrowing designer merchandise for her supermodel employer, Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten). Maureen herself dresses in plain, utilitarian layers of winter clothing: jeans, sweaters, sneakers, and battered jackets. Speaking to Women's Wear Daily, Stewart described Maureen as somebody with "mad identity issues"; Maureen confides to Kyra's lover Ingo (Lars Eidinger) that the clothes she shops for offer the tempting possibility of becoming "someone else." In real life, formal gowns seduce us with power fantasies: they promise to transform a poor, ugly or lowly person into someone rich, authoritative and beautiful.

Cinderella, the best-known fairytale makeover story, is satisfying because it rewards kindheartedness with status and love. And someone drifting through life's interstices, as Maureen is, might imagine finding fresh purpose, love, and respect in the right dress. Yet Maureen doesn't crave Kyra's worldly power. Instead, she seeks to escape her own grief and transcend her own mortal body.

Here, it's important to remember that Cinderella's gown is no mere social-mobility dress-up; it's a transcendent magic. Disney's 1950 animated Cinderella set an onscreen template that most of the company's 'princess' films — including the 2015 live-action Cinderella and now Beauty and the Beast — have since followed. Wreathed in her fairy godmother's glittery ectoplasm, Cinderella looks like a luminescent jellyfish as her dress breathes into life around her.

With each new Disney fairytale, these gowns are treated more fetishistically. Children learn to identify with their favorites. Cinderella's billowing tulle and glass slippers. Snow Queen Elsa, sparkling with ice crystals. Rapunzel's sheaves of golden hair, woven with flowers. The ritualistic reveals of Disney princess gowns have come to seem cozy, even silly. An early scene in 2009's The Princess and the Frog gently lampoons ballroom fantasies. But at the end of that film, it's the Creole weirdness of bayou hoodoo — not an ethereal European fairy — that turns two frogs back into a gorgeous attired prince and princess.

As Personal Shopper progresses, Maureen's own supernatural encounters dovetail with her increasingly urgent longing to try on Kyra's silver-spangled Chanel cocktail dress, and a tight-fitting harness bodice designed to be paired with a sheer evening gown. Formal gowns offer their wearers up to be caressed by the eyes and hands of someone special; but Maureen yields to this erotic magic furtively and illicitly. Gazing at herself, touching herself, photographing herself, her mirrored image becomes the twin she's lost.

The film elliptically suggests these gowns are amplifying Maureen's psychic powers. As if opening Pandora's garment bag, Maureen may be letting something malevolent escape into the world or inviting it inside herself. When we watch these films, what are we inviting in? Far beyond the cozy heterosexual goals of the 'makeover', these stories pinpoint something feral and hungry in our yearning for transformation through clothes. We don't just yearn to possess the perfect gown. We desire to be possessed — to surrender to emotions and physical sensations so uncanny and powerful that we can only imagine them as ghosts or as enchantments.


Text Mel Campbell
Personal Shopper still

Kristen Stewart
Emma Watson
Personal Shopper
beauty and the beast
make over
disney princess
farewell my queen
formal gown
the princess and the frog