“Sharp on the movie-wise banter between Bob and Charlotte, she’s equally sensitive to the film’s unspoken, unresolved feelings: in Ferriss’ reading, Lost unfolds like a pop song, its fragments charged with lingering feeling.”
The Journal of Dress HistoryVolume 5, Issue 6 (Winter 2021): 173-75
by Carlota Hernández
The Cinema of Sofia Coppola: Fashion, Culture, Celebrity offers an exhaustive and multi–disciplinary study of Coppola’s oeuvre, revealing how fashion—understood in its wider sense—not only shapes the unique and distinctive aesthetic of this American auteur, but also plays a key role in her relationship with artistic, social, and cultural currents. The author, Suzanne Ferriss, is Professor Emeritus at Nova Southeastern University, United States. She has published extensively on fashion, film, and cultural studies, co–editing Chick Flicks: Contemporary Women at the Movies (2008), Footnotes: On Shoes (2001), and On Fashion (1994), among other titles. She has also co–authored An Alternative History of Bicycles and Motorcycles (2016) and Motorcycle (2008).
The book is divided into four parts, arranged as chapters, which together focus on different aspects of Coppola’s film practice (film narrative, costume, set and sound design, cinematography, marketing, distribution, and “auteur” branding and the relations between them), exploring, as she sets out in her introduction, key questions that are crucial to our understanding of how the director and her work has become a brand. From character development to the worlds Coppola creates, her film style and positioning in the industry, Ferriss weaves the different threads that make up the Coppola brand mythology—helping us to appreciate how Sofia is not just her father’s daughter, but a unique force of creativity in her own right.
As Chapter 1, “Self–Fashioning,” explores, all of her film characters find themselves at key moments in life such as adolescence, midlife crisis, marriage, or
divorce, experiencing the dynamics of identity—self–definition or redefinition—and how we are defined by others, especially by our appearance, from historical personages like Marie Antoinette to contemporary celebrities. For Ferriss, fashion becomes central to shaping identity and communicating with others through self–display, although it can lead to manipulation and misreading by onlookers as well. As the author highlights, in Coppola’s universe, fashion acts as a nexus between “the crafted public self and intimate personal identity. These insights into human nature are the depths visible through the surface of Coppola’s aesthetic” (p. 54).
In the second chapter, “Fashioning Worlds,” Ferriss focuses on the creation of Coppola’s worlds. This fabrication employs material objects—costume, set, decoration, sound and lighting—carefully studied and designed by the director and her creative team in order to fashion her own universe exactly as she has it in mind, no matter if it is an existing world from the past, or the present, or both. Her knowledge of fashion understood in this wide sense allows her to build a “transhistorical” world, “connecting contemporary viewers to the distant past or exposing resonances of past fashions in the present” (p. 98).
The third chapter, “Film Style,” delves deeper into Coppola’s signature aesthetic at the same time as it shows us how her cinema engages with fashion, culture, and celebrity. Effectively, characterising Sofia Coppola, an auteur strongly wedded to images, could be difficult due to the variety and amount of references in her practice, but Ferriss has selected brilliantly those that help the reader understand the complexity and symbolism in her films, including the most iconic works from the history of fashion representations in visual media. William Eggleston, Bill Owens, Guy Bourdin, or Bruce Weber, to name a few, are present in Coppola’s world, but not as empty recreations of still images. As Suzanne Ferriss points out:
They are reproductions in the broadest sense of the term, simulations that place her images in dialogue with their original source, invite reflections on the difference between still and moving images, and often, as in this instance, offer a critique of photographic conventions, here the objectification of the female form in the service of foregrounding fashion and voyeuristic pleasure.
One of the reasons why Sofia Coppola has been dismissed, apart from being her father’s daughter as we mentioned before, is because of the stylish visual surface in her films. Numerous critics have claimed that her work was frivolous, even “apolitical,” as Rosalind Galt notes, when it is in fact exactly the opposite. Style is, effectively, the substance in her films, serving as a catalyst through which Coppola
serves narratives that dramatize “internal processes of identity formation and external practices of surveillance and judgment” (p. 11).
The fourth and final section of this book, called, “The Fashion–Fame–Film Industrial Complex,” untangles the threads of fame, film, and fashion surrounding Coppola and her work. Separating three strands, Suzanne Ferriss extracts the key elements of Coppola’s success: a fashionable self–image defined apart from her film’s style and aesthetic; a carefully constructed status as a fashion icon and self–crafted auteur “at the nexus of film and fashion” (p. 12); and her own visual style, Coppolism, which elevates herself and her work to a coherent recognisable brand. The chapter also analyzes her presence in the fashion industry, making commercials for fashion houses such as Chanel or Marc Jacobs establishing an interesting relationship, a quid pro quo with both couture houses whereas Sofia Coppola nurtures their status and elevates her association between them and Coppola’s persona into that of director–star.
Suzanne Ferriss presents us with an indispensable study that effectively captures the complexities of Sofia Coppola’s universe through the lens of fashion, culture, and celebrity. Analyzing key dimensions of Coppola’s oeuvre through four fascinating chapters, the author invites us to consider the elements present in these dimensions which illuminate her body of work and help us to understand the bridges between Coppola’s filmmaking and film theory, material culture, gender and fashion studies, indeed, even art history. Ferriss makes a convincing argument that fashion is the prism around which Sofia Coppola dissects contemporary culture, questioning our participation in a mainstream culture that gives exaggerated power to image construction through the exalted display of amassed consumer goods.