I am quite a clothing addict, and according to my unimpressed friends, a major snob to boot. So naturally when I Am Love came out in 2009 - Italy, Tilda Swinton, fine dining, stirring violins and Jil Sander! - I wanted to dive headfirst into its depths like it was a swimming pool full of milky ricotta. (Not to mention that super-fine Sikh dude from all the Wes Anderson movies made a little cameo at a dinner scene.)
Directed by Luca Guadagnino, I Am Love relates the dissolution of a wealthy family of Italian manufacturers. The blonde protagonist is Emma Recchi, the younger, Russian-born wife of Tancredi, who is preparing to assume the reins of his father's industrial empire. By marrying Tancredi she has given herself completely over to the Italian bourgeoisie way of life: its culture, emphasis on conformity and tradition, painfully formal relations and calm, unchanging superiority to the modern world without. Her grown children are less impermeable, and they become unwitting gateways to Emma's eventual discovery of love and self.
The beautiful costuming was accomplished by Antonella Cannarozzi, who worked with Fendi for the men's attire and Jil Sander for the women's. There is a lot of signalling performed by the colour and style of Emma's various outfits, but I just really enjoy their beauty and sharp tailoring. In a world where more is more and the neon-glowing 80s' are back with a vengeance, the quiet confidence of Emma's red shift dress really does stand out. Unlike the frantic fuss and feathers of the Sex and the City movies and television series (I never liked that awful dreck) I think I Am Love will hold up in decades to come, alongside Maggie Cheung's silk cheongsams and Uma Thurman's blood-red lips and vampish black bob.
Here's the shift dress, in a clear orangey (?) red that I can never find at Sephora - you try being partially colour-blind and explaining to the bored salesgirl that the lipstick you're searching for absolutely has to be this particular shade:
I love shift dresses when they're made out of good cottons or silks. (Not those dull, cheap-looking polyester ones in black or grey that you see office ladies sweating through on the MRT.) A well-tailored shift dress shouldn't require a stupid skinny belt - it should be perfect as it is. I actually look pretty good in them (yay, a pleasant surprise) but I've given up hope on ever finding something as amazing as this one. The closest I've come is a stretchy coral cotton shift from Esprit, of all places, and a double-faced pale yellow Hussein Chalayan that I scored on clearance. On the hanger it looks a bit like a maxi pad with wings (it's Chalayan, not Cavalli) but when I put it on, it has the same spirit as Emma Recchi's: feminine without being ostentatious, powerful in its simplicity.
(By the way, hers is red because it's meant to signal that she's falling in love. But I'm sure you knew that.)
Speaking of love, here's Emma at a bar in a small town with her paramour, the chef:
This is casual wear for her. I love those perfect marigold tailored pants (also looking for them, but mine will have to be altered by about six inches). All of Emma's belongings and clothes are wonderfully put together, but they also signal that she is an outsider in the world of regular people, even as she battles old feelings of inferiority to her wealthy (second mention, but necessary) Italian in-laws. You can look good, but you can't win.
I love that clothing can mark you out as an alien, even when you don't intend to signal your status as one. I attended a friend's fancy wedding at the Shangri-la recently and wore bright silver stilettos, orange silk ankle-length pants from J.Crew Collection, a white Lela Rose asymmetrical-neckline top and Elizabeth Cole hematite-and-mint earrings. It was very 80s', especially since I wore my hair long and pushed to one side. I thought I would blend right in with all the middle-aged aunties, but I was the only female wearing pants that evening, and everyone below 50 was chasing youth in halter tops and short dresses. It was quite a sight.
While the bright colours signal Emma's slow awakening to love, early on in the film she is subdued in dense, dark blues and shadowy maroons. This is, again, another stunning example of Jil Sander's tailoring:
The high neckline is what really makes the dress. It exposes a sliver of collarbone, but is almost puritan in its restraint. Ditto the sleeves, which are just a little longer than expected. Yet the dress is not deliberately baggy or frumpy - it's confident enough to step back and showcase the person wearing it. Also, I can't think of any other colour more suitable for it. Black can be very severe, but not formal enough, ironically. Navy blue is serious, profound. Black says you're either an art gallery employee, or still listening to the Smiths. Nobody's sure.
This is where tailoring and material really count, and you won't find anything resembling this dress on the high street. They'll have high-collared navy blue dresses by the carton, but they won't be thick pure cotton. They might have it in rayon, if you're lucky. It's beating a dead horse, but these days when I walk by Zara I have nightmare visions of the entire place going up in plasticky-acrid flames, because everything is 100% polyester. I don't know how women can wear so much of it in our humid, hot climate. Apart from the environmental concerns, how can anyone be comfortable wearing plastic when the thermometer's creeping past 30 degrees?
Talk about an uptight family portrait (check out the loyal retainer seated on the right - all that's missing is the Italian purebred hound). Emma's daughter is in virginal blush pink and navy blue, with a very nice pair of loafers. I like how the look is tomboyish but not childish, which again signals a good deal about the film's storyline. Notice the slight flare of the men's jackets and the traditional tailoring of their pants - these days suits are a lot more slim-cut, but then again these guys aren't big fans of change. They look rich, powerful, complacent, yes - but also a tiny bit ridiculous, in a world that is moving on without them. In her red shift (named for the post-war shift in culture), Emma is at the defiant forefront of both the picture and a brave new modernity.