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Clothes Encounters


There is a pivotal moment in Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde, when Reese Witherspoon as Elle Woods stands before a mirror in her dream wedding gown, frustrated that the scalloped hem she wants simply won't work using the fabric of the dress.

She pouts and whines before it occurs to her -- "If the fabric doesn't work with you, then don't work with it. ... Don't fight the fabric!"

The scene fleshes out Wither-spoon's spunky, clothes-obsessed character, pushes along the plot and encapsulates fashion's growing status in 21st-century moviemaking. Once largely in the background -- except for the occasional couture tale like Robert Altman's Ready to Wear or the forthcoming Garmento -- fashion has started to share top billing in all sorts of movies.

In the new Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle, the gals' 40 costume changes are, in many scenes, vastly more interesting than their heroic antics.

The sleek black trenchcoats and must-have shades were such a big part of the Matrix movies they've been talked about as much as the actors themselves. Next month, Le Divorce (starring Kate Hudson) is set to hit big screens with an Hermes Kelly bag playing a cute role in the movie.

Designers and cosmetics companies have wised up to this, latching onto movies like never before, using them as vehicles to not just promote products -- but also develop them.

Like Cameron Diaz's Angel shades? No problem, Ray-Ban ads let you know how to get them. Loving Elle Woods' nail polish? It's a line of colors O.P.I. created just for the movie that is now available in salons across the country.

"There's been more attention paid to fashion by the general public, and anybody who works in a visual medium is aware of that," said fashion historian Valerie Steele, director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. "From Down With Love, which had very cute and retro fashions, to The Matrix to Moulin Rouge, there are a lot of movies now that have a very strong costume presence. People are becoming visually more literate, and they can appreciate this."

Seeing fashion in film

Fashionable characters in movies aren't new. Cary Grant always cut a stylish swath in film, and Grace Kelly and James Dean both set trends in the roles they played. And companies have been outfitting characters since Audrey Hepburn donned a pair of Ray-Ban Wayfarer Cats in Breakfast at Tiffany's.

A change became apparent, however, with the advent of style-driven TV shows such as Sex and the City. With viewers flocking to the HBO series for clothing cues, designers and beauty companies began the hard sell to land their products in fashionable movies. In Legally Blonde 2, it's not just Versace that is plugged -- the fashion house's U.S. publicist gets a shout-out when Elle says, "You can contact Billy Daley, head of Versace customer relations!"

"Movies used to be sacrosanct -- you did not have commercials in movies," said Gary Edgerton, co-editor of the Journal of Popular Film & Television.

But then E.T. was lured out of the closet with Reese's Pieces candy, and companies from Coca-Cola to BMW began lobbying for placement in film. (The deals vary -- some companies pay to have their products included in movies, while others supply the goods for free.)

"But it wasn't done in the aggressive way that it's done now," Edgerton noted. "One of the reasons for that is, network viewership is down and two-thirds of the audience for movie theaters are 12 to 29, so you have a young, captive audience that has an expendable income. This is the kind of audience that advertisers are aggressively looking for."

Bridal designer Reem Acra said she was thrilled when Legally Blonde 2 approached her about using her dresses.

"Having a celebrity wear your dress at the Oscars affects your business -- this is the same thing," said Acra, who provided a bridal gown and three lavender bridesmaid dresses for the film. "People are looking more and more to Hollywood for fashion trends, who got dressed in what and what was

on the red carpet. Hollywood is becoming a big advertisement."

Suzi Weiss-Fischmann, O.P.I. executive vice president and artistic director, said she pushed to work on Legally Blonde 2 after the first movie made $137.7 million worldwide at the box office.

"The salon is so important in that movie," she said. "When (Elle) breaks up with her boyfriend she goes to get her nails done and the nail technician becomes her psychoanalyst. It was just the perfect association."

More of these companies are creating products especially for movies. Besides the O.P.I. nail colors for Legally Blonde 2, Stila has created eye shadows and a cheek color for the movie and Sephora has a book teaching women how to look like Elle. And designers whose outfits are used in a movie are making sure the clothing and accessories are available in stores as soon as the film opens, noted Tom Julian, fashion trend analyst for Fallon Worldwide in New York.

"There is more immediacy, whereas four years ago when Heather Graham wore those crochet shorts in Austin Powers, the manufacturer took three to four months to get it into stores," he said.

Products affect the shot

There are drawbacks to this trend, however. In Legally Blonde 2, there is a scene in which Sally Field's character touches up her makeup, holding up a Stila compact in a way that prominently displays its logo.

"I'm sure that's not an accident," Edgerton said. "You have to wonder, is it affecting the aesthetics, the quality, the integrity of the movie? Once you start thinking in terms of, 'I gotta get that Coke can in or the sneaker in the shot,' it alters and corrupts the process."

For costume designers, the job has gotten harder because of these developments.

"I've been doing this for over 25 years," said Joseph Aulisi, costume designer for both Charlie's Angels movies. "The fashion hype and the amount of pressure that fashion designers are putting on celebrities and actors to wear their clothes and wear them in movies has increased tenfold. Before, you were into designing the movie and I don't think actors were that conscious of brand names. Maybe in their own life, but they left it up to their (costume) designer to select clothes that were appropriate regardless of what the brand was.

"At one point, the design machine came in with Armani and Versace cultivating friendships with stars," added Aulisi, who created more than 1,000 ensembles for the sequel. "It makes my job just much more difficult because sometimes actors have deals with companies where they can only wear one kind of sneaker and they ask if I can put them in that kind of sneaker."

Products in movies can be distracting. When Elle bounds into a room wearing a velour sweat shirt in Legally Blonde 2, for example, it's hard not to notice the bright, silver "J" on her zipper, trademark of Juicy Couture.

This is part of the reason Aulisi called product placement one of his "pet peeves." As a result, for both movies, he ended up creating many costumes himself -- whether it was a black leather jacket Lucy Liu wore that was inspired by ancient Chinese warrior armor or an ethnic Mongolian dress Drew Barrymore dons in the opening scene.

From the sporty jumpers the Angels wore for a carwash scene to the sharp black stiletto and pant ensembles that were their fighting uniforms , one thing was clear in Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle: The girls were fashionable, sexy and, mostly, logo-free. A small detail that feels refreshing, different ... and, if we're lucky, trendsetting.

Starface: Put it on like a celebrity

Wanna look like a movie star? These days, it's easier than ever to buy purses or makeup with starring roles on the big screen. Check these out:

What: New O.P.I. nail polish shades -- Blonde Date, Elle's Pearls and Red-y for Anything

Appears in: Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde

Price: $7.50 at salons and spas

What: Set of Stila lip, eye and cheek shades

Appears in: Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde

Price: $45 at Sephora

What: Ray-Ban Rituals sunglasses

Appears in: Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle

Price: $79, call 888-LUXOTTICA for purchasing information

What: Hermes crocodile Kelly bag

Appears in: Le Divorce

Price: $14,600 at Hermes stores

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