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Giving Style Makers a Screen Test

Television: 'The Hollywood Fashion Machine,' an original series from American Movie Classics, shows the inner workings of beauty in the industry. And it's not all pretty.

April 23, 1999|VALLI HERMAN-COHEN | TIMES SENIOR FASHION WRITER

If it seems as if hairdressers, makeup artists and clothing designers are getting as famous lately as the stars they enhance, a new American Movie Classics original series shows that it's not that new. The forces that turn hairdresser Frederic Fekkai into a brand name or that put Oprah Winfrey and Jewel on the cover of Vogue haven't vastly changed from those of the early days of filmmaking.

AMC's "The Hollywood Fashion Machine" aims to show how ego, ambition and talent create Hollywood's enduring brand of mystery and allure. The series, which premieres Monday at 4:30 p.m. with an episode on legendary costume designer Edith Head, sets a tone that's become rare in most televised fashion coverage--it's thoughtful and even respectful.

Unlike the fawning publicity pieces that often pass as fashion coverage, the AMC series scrubs the varnish off of the tales that surround people like Head. In documentary style, the episode reveals that Head employed lies and flattery to earn her eight Academy Awards and to create an exalted reputation (she, too, turned herself into a brand name for patterns and the like). Head owned up to many of her tactics, according to associates who describe her in the show.

The use of experts like biographers and costume designer peers lends the series credibility, along with dazzling film clips that telegraph that Hollywood magic. The 30- and 40-year-old clips also illustrate how fashion can be more understandable in a historical context. Fashion frequently benefits from the neutralizing effects of time and distance: The shock that comes with new styles fades and is replaced by a nostalgia for honest-to-goodness beauty and grace.

Fortunately, the series' second installment on May 3, "The Star Makers," bursts the bubble of our self-deception about the good old days of glamour. The episode asks if glamour is dead or merely refigured. The control-freak methods of the studio system are familiar territory in telling the story of manufactured beauty. But testimony from contemporary image makers, such as stylist Phillip Bloch and photographer Greg Gorman, both of Los Angeles, shows that the studio system hasn't disappeared--it's been decentralized. Enterprising individuals do what the studios once did.

The series continues with 11 other half-hour installments such as "Paris Goes to Hollywood" about the American film industry's love-hate relationship with Paris fashion, and a show on photographer George Hurrell, master of the Hollywood publicity portrait. The programs repeat at 10:35 p.m. on the evening they air.

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