Pedro Almodóvar’s Most Stylish Films

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Broken Embraces, 2009(Film still)

As a new book delving into the Spanish auteur’s archives is released, we explore his career-defining celebration of on-screen fashion

“For me, fashion in a film has two very important aspects,” Pedro Almodóvar told the New York Times in 1994. “On the one hand it establishes aesthetically the film, because colour is important. I establish a palette of colours like a painter, only I work in the three-dimensional. On the other hand, costumes give information about the character, the work they do, their state of being, how they feel. Costumes are anything but superficial elements of a film.” Indeed, there are few film directors who have formed such a symbiotic relationship between costume and cinema than the Spanish auteur, whose celebration of fashion on the big screen is rich with symbolism and visual stimuli in equal measure.

Almodóvar began his career as part of La Movida Madrileña, the social, economic and cultural movement that originated in Madrid after the death of Francisco Franco in 1975, marking the transition from a fascist dictatorship to a hedonistic and liberated Spain. Subsequently, much of his oeuvre reflects the bawdy sexual freedom that defined this era, his storytelling often investigating complex identity politics. The director formed long-standing relationships with the likes of designer Jean Paul Gaultier, whose surreal and maximalist clothes draw parallels with Almodóvar’s sensibilities, and actress Rossy de Palma, who, as a “living, breathing Picasso”, went on to become one of fashion’s most recognisable muses. As a new book titled The Pedro Almodóvar Archives is released next week, we take the opportunity to investigate five of his most fabulous films for costume.

1. Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, 1988

Black comedy Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown marked Almodóvar’s transition to the mainstream, earning the director his first Academy Award nomination in 1988. A wry comment on ‘female hysteria’, the film plays out through the eyes of heartbroken protagonist Pepa (Carmen Maura), on a quest to understand why her lover abandoned her in so abrupt a manner. Almodóvar said of its aesthetic: “I wanted a pop art kind of set, with pastel colours. If I’d had the money and the contacts, I would have asked David Hockney to design it.” A penchant for all things kitsch is mirrored in the costumes, too, with lead wardrobe designer Jose Maria de Cossío beginning Almodóvar’s move away from sourcing clothes in Madrid-based stores to commissioning them directly from costumiers. The clothes in question took the form of Escada-esque power suits, a wealth of polka dot blousons and oversized jewellery. One notable pair of plastic earrings appear as dangling miniature coffee percolators – a hint towards the rather over-caffeinated cast of characters, perhaps.

2. Kika, 1993

Verónica Forqué, who played the titular character in Almodóvar’s 1993 film Kika, was the second of his female leads to receive the Goya Award for Best Actress, solidifying the unusually empathetic relationship that the male director has with women. Kika, a cosmotologist, is summoned by American writer Nicholas to give the body of his dead son an open-coffin makeover. Remarkably, she brings the young man back to life, and the pair fall deeply in love. The film marked Almodóvar’s first collaboration with Jean Paul Gaultier, who designed the clothes for the role of Andrea Scarface, a sadistic television presenter who wears a love for gore, quite literally, on her sleeve. In an ode to Madonna’s cone bra, Gaultier dressed Scarface in a high-neck velvet gown, embroidered with bloody sequins, two plastic breasts bursting out of her chest. 

3. Broken Embraces, 2009

Penelope Cruz is reminiscent of a young Paloma Picasso in Broken Embraces, playing the actress Lena, destined for a tragic end. Starring Lluís Homar as blind screenwriter Harry Caine, recounting the story of how he lost his beloved leading lady, the film jumps through time from the 1980s to the present day. As a result, the costumes are often era-indicative, Lena appearing in a dove grey Alaïa suit from the late 80s in the first scene and a baroque Chanel ensemble for a later scene set in 1994. We also see Lena transform into a beguiling Marilyn Monroe-like figure in her dressing room mirror, replete with eyeball earrings and a platinum coiffure, as Caine exclaims: “Don’t smile, the wig is false enough!” 

4. The Skin I Live In, 2011

Psychological drama The Skin I Live In embodies Almodóvar’s thematic relationship with clothing and identity, and is Jean Paul Gaultier’s most recent collaboration with the director. Starring Antonio Banderas as maniacal plastic surgeon Dr. Robert Ledgard and Elena Anaya/Jan Cornet as Vera/Vincente, the victim of his macabre experiments, it investigates gender constructs, betrayal and loneliness through an eerily stylish lens. References to the work of artist Louise Bourgeois are made throughout the film, particularly in Gaultier’s nude body-stockings, which also nod towards the designer’s proclivity for corsetry. Later in the film, further luxe brand names make an appearance, with Ledgard presenting Vera with an unwanted gift of Chanel cosmetics and a floral Dolce and Gabbana dress. 

5. Julieta, 2016

Julieta is Almodóvar’s 20th feature, adapted from three short stories written by Nobel Prize winning author Alice Munro. The lead role is portrayed by Adriana Ugarte and Emma Suàrez as the younger and older versions of Julieta, chronicling a 30-year period of her life, and the abject tragedy she experiences within that timeframe. Much like Broken Embraces, the era is often denoted by the costumes, which were conceived by Sonia Grande. As a student in the 1980s, the 20-something Julieta wears mohair turtle necks and tweed pencil skirts, with her hair styled like a member of Bananarama. As a grown woman, she favours the chic French houses of Hermès and Céline, donning a pair of Phoebe Philo-designed frames as she greets an old friend of her missing daughter, who also happens to be incredibly fashion savvy, dressed head-to-toe in Dior. 

The Pedro Almodóvar Archives is available in the UK from October 22, 2017, published by Taschen.