Have You Seen This Iconic French Arthouse Fashion Film?

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Who Are You, Polly Maggoo?, 1966(Film still)

Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? is a 1966 satire poking fun at the fashion industry, and it is sublime

William Klein, the director of 1966 French satire Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? (Qui êtes-vous, Polly Maggoo?), was well placed to make a film parodying the idiosyncrasies and excesses of the fashion industry. Despite the fact that he had no formal training as a photographer (Klein actually studied as a painter under Fernand Léger), he launched his career at American Vogue in the 1950s, witnessing first-hand the whimsy of editors, designers and models alike. 

The black and white arthouse film stars model Dorothy McGowan in the titular role, who was already in the midst of a booming career, shot by the likes of Irving Penn and Richard Avedon, for the cover of glossy magazines. Academy Award-winning actress Grayson Hall was cast as Miss Maxwell, a Diana Vreeland-esque character whose discerning eye and sharp tongue makes or breaks careers. For his A/W18 Haute Couture collection, Jean Paul Gaultier celebrated the era in which Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? was made, referencing the work of his mentor Pierre Cardin with monochromatic prints and false eyelashes in abundance. Here, we examine what the film can teach us. 

1. Fashion can be cutting

The film opens at a fashion show, which is taking place in an Escher-like concrete structure. The audience sit in tiered stalls, waiting for the collection to be revealed. “There’s Miss Maxwell – what a bitch!” the crowd whisper, as Hall’s character makes an entrance with her posse of bouffant-sporting influencers. Backstage, models are being dressed in garments made from sculpted sheet metal – “uncomfortable, but what can you do?” murmurs the front row. So uncomfortable, in fact, that one of the sharp edges of a steel bodice lacerates the arm of one of the models, drawing blood and giving a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘a cutting remark’. 

2. Blink dramatically 

As was the fashion in the mid-1960s, Polly Maggoo does not make light work of kohl eyeliner, thickly applying graphic lines that accentuate gamine features and lining her waterline with white pencil. Naturally – or not, as the case may be – what appears to be 900 pairs of false lashes are glued to her lids, with additional drawn-on strokes making for some highly dramatic blinking. One imagines that standing face-to-face with Polly would have caused a wind-machine effect, her eyes creating an air current of their own.

3. Beware princes

One of Who Are You, Polly Maggoo?’s most striking scenes occurs when seven models, including Ms Maggoo herself, all dressed in matching monochromatic ensembles, sit applying their make-up at an illuminated vanity mirror. Each has an inky black bowl haircut – the kind that saw a popular resurgence in the indie clubs of 2006. The women bond over strange anecdotes about a tomato seed sprouting in the mouth of one of their acquaintances, and gossip over the dashing Prince Igor, who – rumour has it – wants to marry a model. “I knew a girl who married a prince. Then she found out he had 85 wives,” says one of the girls.“You’ve got to be careful with princes,” they all chime, in unison. 

4. You categorically and imperatively must buy those shoes 

“I read in the paper that the imperatives of fashion are even more categorical than those of philosophy,” says Polly into a dictaphone, riffing on an ethical theory founded by Immanuel Kant. To summarise, when a ‘categorical imperative’ is established, it becomes a duty to carry out the moral action under any circumstance – no matter how bad the result might be. An excellent rule to apply when buying pairs of shoes one really cannot afford, but simply must have. 

5. Take writing tips from Miss Maxwell  

Later in the film, we see Miss Maxwell in her office, declaring the aforementioned sheet metal collection a resounding success. “Headline: ‘The great Isidore Ducasse has killed fashion! Fashion is dead! Long live fashion!’”, she booms down a telephone receiver. “New Paragraph: ‘The Newton of the knee; the Houdini of the hips; the Bartok of the bosom; the Picasso of the pelvis; the Frank Lloyd Wright of the female body: Isidore Ducasse has RE-created woman. His electronic brain has fathered the EVE of the atomic age. From France’s incomparable soil, has sprung a metal wardrobe for Joan of Arc. Steel Girdles! Loins! Flexible! Featherweight! Stainless!’” What a way with words.