Horror is undergoing a renaissance in contemporary culture. After the dreary, self-aware schlock of the nineties and early noughties, a new era of striking, clever and artistic indie horror is emerging. In recent years, challenging political films like “Get Out” and stylish retro thrillers like “It Follows” have raised the profile of the once-maligned genre in public consciousness.
The relationship between horror and high fashion is a long-established one, but it seems that the recent horror renaissance has put horror back on major designers’ radars. Rodarte have been championing the horror genre for years, and recently premiered their own entry into the genre, “Woodshock”; Louis Vuitton SS18 sent models down the runway in “Stranger Things” T-shirts. Perhaps the most high-profile example is the Calvin Klein SS18 collection overseen by Raf Simons, which drew inspiration from “cinema, from the dream factory of Hollywood and its depictions of both an American nightmare and the all-powerful American dream.” Yet in spite of the All-American rhetoric, the basis of Simons’ horror aesthetic — and indeed, the basis of many horror-tinged fashion shows over the years — finds its roots outside of Hollywood.
In the late sixties and early seventies, horror was undergoing another boom. The works of directors like Hitchcock, Romero and Polanski were redefining a genre that had almost died under the restrictive Hayes code. Meanwhile, over in Italy, a burgeoning film industry was establishing itself. Buoyed up by Hollywood investment and eager to throw off decades of fascist and religious repression, Italian auteurs began to look across the sea for inspiration. What emerged was the era of “Giallo”: Italian thrillers and horror films that oozed style and weren’t afraid to break taboos. Films like “Blood and Black Lace”, “The Bird With the Crystal Plumage”, “What Have You Done to Solange?” and “Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key” established a whole new genre of Italian cinema (as well as a tradition for having incredible names).
The pulp cinema of Italy was a crazy funhouse mirror held up to American pop-culture. To Italian film-makers, America was a land of colour, excess and erotica, unbound by the centuries of tradition that had restrained Italian society. Giallo’s take on horror was stylish and bold to the point of surreality. Every woman was glamorous, and every man bold and boldly dressed. Every American was a rockstar, a famous author or a fashion mogul. Unlike the more realistic American films of the genre, the directors of Giallo weren’t afraid to mix high and low culture in their films, especially in regards to fashion.
When it came to this blend of high fashion and pulp culture, no one did it better than the two masters of the Giallo: Mario Bava and his student, Dario Argento. Mario Bava’s seminal murder mystery “Blood and Black Lace” established the trend, setting its gruesome tale of dark secrets and deadly killers in the lurid world of a fashion house. It was a slick, beautiful film, filled with vivid lighting, decadent set-design and elegant outfits. With “Blood and Black Lace”, Bava established the visual template for Italian horror — but it was his protege Argento who took things to the next level.
Argento understood that clothing and interior design were integral to the mood of a horror film. In his influential contributions to the genre, Argento worked closely with designers and fashion experts to construct the bizarre worlds of his films. The reality of Argento films is a heightened one, where even the extras seem dressed straight off the boldest catwalks of 70’s fashion. Just look at the opening scene from his famous witchy horror film “Suspiria”.
Argento’s links to the world of high fashion only deepened as the years went on, culminating in his 1980’s horror film “Phenomena”, a film famous for its sumptuous costuming, as well as having a knife-wielding ape as an antagonist. Argento worked directly with Giorgio Armani to create the wardrobe for “Phenomena”; perhaps the most well-remembered garments are the crisp white outfits worn by a 15-year-old Jennifer Connelly. Following the film, Argento was approached by the small Italian fashion label Trussardi to direct their 1986 catwalk show. The show still stands as one of the most ambitious and fascinating approaches to fashion show choreography. Argento incorporated horror aesthetics, micro-narratives that established stories for each group of models that walked the catwalk, and even an on-stage (fake, obviously) murder, complete with the body being rolled up in polythene and dragged off stage by the next set of models.
Like a blood-stained phantom, Argento’s legacy of design and horror continued to haunt the world of high fashion. Like a blood-stained phantom, Argento’s legacy of design and horror continued to haunt the world of high fashion. Nicolas Ghesquiere shared images from Argento movies “Tenebre” and “Suspiria” before debuting Louis Vuitton S/S15. In some cases, Argento’s filmography literally became a part of designer’s work, as was the case in the Thomas Tait Autumn/Winter 2015 collection, where stills from “Suspiria” showed up as fabric prints. In other cases, such as the work of Rodarte, his work is more indirectly referenced. The sisters admit that many outfits in their collections were inspired by his slick, brightly coloured costuming, as well as his meticulous and unsettlingly patterned set-design. Their 2016 show even featured music from “Suspiria”, his terrifying film about madness, witchcraft and ballet. “Suspiria” almost certainly influenced Rodarte’s famous costume designs for “Black Swan”, bringing the trail of influence back full-circle to cinema. It’s hard to look at the simple, virginal white outfits Kirsten Dunst wears in “Woodshock” and not be instantly reminded of Connelly’s wardrobe in “Phenomena”.
Calvin Klein SS18 may have been influenced by American horror and American dreams, but there’s an unmistakable undercurrent of Argento and the Giallo running throughout the show. Bold, brash takes on Americana, shiny rain-slickers and oversized suits recall not the suburban normality of Craven or Carpenter, but the absurd, surreal world of Italy’s take on Hollywood. Much like Giallo, Simons’ vision was a funhouse nightmare informed by American cultural exports — and perhaps, too, by Italian cultural exports based on American culture. Perhaps next time, a better slogan would be “Italian Horror. American Nightmares.”