Fashion is one of life’s great mysteries. It has the power to transform the wearer, for better or for worse. It has made some very rich, and others the victims of ecological and ethical disasters. And aside from the nudists, it’s something everyone participates in.

As another Met Gala comes and goes (the Costume Institute’s theme is “In America: An Anthology of Fashion”), this mystery proves as alluring as ever. Luckily, film and fashion have quite the flirtation. In fact, some of Hollywood’s biggest stars are serving as co-chairs of this year’s event: Regina King, Blake Lively, Ryan Reynolds and Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Here are the 11 best documentaries that pull back the curtain on the multi-billion-dollar industry, the land of editors and designers, the catastrophic ecological disaster, and the life-affirming art that is fashion.

11. The First Monday in May (2016)

Met Gala

The First Monday in May takes a deep dive into the preparations for putting on the biggest party of the year: The Met Gala. It takes a full year to plan the event and create the exhibition, from conceptualizing to curating to executing, all of which are depicted with a kind of admiration and awe in this film. The major benefits of this documentary are that we get to see the biggest players in action: Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, museum curator Andrew Bolton, and glitzy celebrity cameos, all appear in a behind-the-scenes format.

The film does little more than actually document the series of events, and could have benefited from taking a deeper dive into controversial subject matter that surrounded the event, like the Met Gala theme of the year (China: Through the Looking Glass). While it lacks a little of the critical meat one would hope for with a subject so captivating as the most exclusive event in the fashion industry, its charms are still apparent; it’s worth it just to watch Wintour work.

10. L’Amour Fou (2010)

Met Gala

Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé shared a life for decades. In L’Amour Fou, we see the aftermath of this deep, decades-long love, one which was troubled by Laurent’s emotional fragility. The film does this by telling the story of Bergé’s role in the auction of Laurent’s treasured artwork and home items after his death in 2008.

The film is narrated by Bergé, and throughout we see the homes that the two shared, all of which are filled with the most exquisite treasures of the world: priceless paintings and architectural furniture and ancient decor abound. Bergé grapples with his loss and with the idea that Laurent would not have been pleased by this posthumous auction. Possessions have great power in this melancholy documentary, which touches only lightly on the titular crazy love the two shared. And though it celebrates the genius of Laurent, it is the reckoning of genius lost that takes the spotlight.

9. Unzipped (1995)

The reason to watch this short documentary comes down to two words: ’90s supermodels. Unzipped is a behind-the-scenes look at Isaac Mizrahi’s 1994 collection, and comes with a healthy serving of famous faces, stressful outbursts, and backstage fun starring models like Kate MossNaomi Campbell, and Carla Bruni. It’s a lighthearted, visually stimulating look at how the sausage is made (the sausage being fashion shows), and provides bite-sized insights into some of the most recognizable faces in fashion. Its bouncy, upbeat approach to a designer and his work in a climate of tortured artists is the ultimate palate cleanse.

8. RiverBlue (2017)

Met Gala

Taking worldwide environmental issues and relating it to the average person’s experience is no small task, but that’s exactly where RiverBlue succeeds. And it does so by taking on a Goliath of the American wardrobe: blue jeans.

Narrated by Jason PriestleyRiverBlue follows a three-year journey by water conservationist Mark Angelo as he courses some of the world’s most-polluted rivers and examines how the production of blue jeans (and leather and our clothing systems in general) is an act of “hydrocide,” harming countless bodies of water and the communities in which the garments are made. Devastating testimonials, passionate pleas from expert interviewees, and hauntingly beautiful cinematography propel this touching film past a one-dimensional critique of Western consumerism.

7. Valentino: The Last Emperor (2008)

Met Gala

I love beauty. It’s not my fault.” This is Valentino Garavani in a nutshell.

The celebrated designer created one of the most famous luxury brands in the world, Valentino, and Valentino: The Last Emperor takes a look at the life of its namesake, with a focus specifically on his retirement from fashion and the changes in the industry as a whole. Through the eyes of interviewees, like his decades-long collaborator Giancarlo Giammetti, and from years of illuminating backstage videography, one feels the full impact of the man that is Valentino. It’s more candid than some other documentations and accounts of world-class designers, capturing both the brilliance and the ugly moments that inevitably humanize and isolate him.

As he faces the pressure of a final show and the acquisition of Valentino by a larger company, the film illustrates the artistic highs and personal lows of a great artist. After watching, one cannot help but feel that calling Garavani the last emperor is only fitting given how the footage portrays him: demanding, passionate, and utterly captivating.

6. Bill Cunningham: New York (2010)

Met Gala

Anna Wintour said, “We all get dressed for Bill.” The “Bill” she is referring to is Bill Cunningham, who was a fashion and a street style photographer for the New York Times from the 1970s until his death in 2016. Existing somewhere between a fashion editor and a historian, Cunningham was famous for taking the pulse of fashion from the ground up, and capturing New York society at its most unguarded. The documentary explores the eclectic life of Cunningham’s as New York’s most unexpectedly influential photographer, and bounces between interviews with his colleagues and subjects throughout the years, and slice-of-life depictions of Cunningham’s day-to-day. We get to watch him biking through Times Square, chasing after fleeting muses, at fashion shows, and everywhere else where fashion reveals itself in the city that never sleeps. At the heart of this documentary is the story of the solitary, impactful lives of those with vision. As plainly dressed as he was, the film makes clear the tremendous influence an old man on a bike had on a city of 8 million people.

5. Fresh Dressed (2015)

Met Gala

Hip hop, rap, and fashion have never been more closely intertwined than they are now. This 2015 documentary explores the roots of the hip hop fashion movement, talking with a variety of hip hop fashion icons; from those deeply entrenched in high fashion, like Andre Leon Talley, to the celebrity influencers and muses like Kanye West.

Music, fashion, and social movements all collide here, to provide one of the most relevant windows into the current fashion landscape that a documentary can deliver. A passion for the subject matter is palpable in the interviews, and fun cartoons and throwback clips help illustrate their points beautifully. Fresh Dressed succeeds because it covers the “by the ghetto for the ghetto” style movement with joy and authenticity.

4. The September Issue (2009)

Met Gala

The most powerful woman in America, for decades, was Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue. This documentary captures the year-long creation of Wintour’s annual Magnum Opus: the September issue of Vogue.

During the production of the 2007 issue, before social media and the internet had taken a large chunk of Vogue’s influence, this film makes it clear that much of what we see in The Devil Wears Prada is a faithful depiction of the office climate. The story is largely told through capturing the workers in their natural work environments (hiding behind clothing racks, discussing spreads in Wintour’s office), and thrusts the viewer into one of the most culturally significant publications ever made, with Wintour’s shrewd, discerning disposition on full display. It’s true that she rarely acts with overt warmth or excessive politeness — but that’s exactly the point. The September Issue lets us finally ask the question: if the most powerful woman in America isn’t allowed to be cold and exacting, what woman is?

3. The True Cost (2015)

Perhaps the most famous entry on the list, The True Cost is a devastating look at the consequences of our current fashion system.

The documentary interviews experts on how fast fashion systems work (or rather, don’t work), juxtaposing the flashy Western world of fashion (giant models on billboards, swarms of customers flooding stores on Black Friday) with the factories and living conditions in the places that make the clothes. The findings are, undoubtedly, hard to watch: children sleep on factory floors, local workers walk through chemical gunk, gallons of toxic mystery fluids are poured into local bodies of water. The documentary succeeds in comparing the superficial, materialistic satisfaction of the fast fashion market with the survivalist necessity that the workers face when forced to create these products. In the end, it inspires change above all by demonstrating that the true cost of our current fashion diet, is indeed, far too high.

2. Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel (2011)

Met Gala

If you can get past the voiceover, which at first comes off a little over-acted, this film about the legendary Diana Vreeland is one of the most celebratory documentaries of a fashion icon.

Diana Vreeland was a pioneering fashion editor of Harper’s Bazaar and editor-in-chief of Vogue in the 1950s and ’60s, transitioning the publications away from reading like codes of conduct, and into provocative, artistic, forward-thinking magazines. The documentary flips between interviews with famous and influential collaborators of Vreeland, like Angelica Houston and Richard Avedon, to old interviews with Vreeland herself. These are strung together by a voiceover, wherein Vreelan’s old memos are read to create her narrative arc, from Belle-Epoque-baby to a French-speaking teen in roaring ’20s Harlem, all the way through her stints as editors and beyond. The film is pint-sized, clocking in at just under an hour and a half, but the revelations are massive. Vreeland was responsible for the first published photos of a bikini and of Mick Jagger, and we clearly see her influence in elevating fashion photography to an art. She talks style — “It’s a way of life. Without it, you are nobody.” — and proves one woman’s life can tell the story of generations of fashion.

1. Dior and I (2014)

Met Gala

This compelling documentary spins the tale of Raf Simons’ first haute couture collection for Dior. Dior and I is told, refreshingly, mostly through footage of the subjects in their natural habitats — couturiers working late into the night, Simons conceptualizing, company bigwigs talking business — and is supported by a haunting voiceover of Christian Dior’s memoirs.

The film documents Raf’s race against time, as he and his team have only eight weeks to complete an intricate debut collection in Paris. There is a ghostly quality to the film; Dior’s voice-over is played while the camera travels through sheets on mannequins in the middle of the night, discordant notes permeate the delicate score, and the seamstresses claim to feel Dior’s presence in the atelier late at night. The name Dior and I may refer to Raf and Dior, or Dior the person and Dior the designer, as his memoirs illuminate the fascinating duality of persona he felt. Although we do get to see the collection, in the end, this is a documentary of a never-ending journey, not a destination.

To read more, click here.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *