Since the city’s stay-at-home orders took effect this March, I’ve watched no fewer than six (six!) fashion-related reality competition shows: Project Runway, Next in Fashion, Making the Cut, RuPaul’s Drag Race, Dragula, and Glow-Up. A major part of these shows’ appeal to me during the pandemic has simply been the pleasure of watching someone routinely complete an artistic project from start to end without taking a second’s pause. Meanwhile, I’ve been wasting a lot of the downtime I’d usually dedicate to writing & illustrating by staring slack-jawed at my phone, endlessly scrolling through the same three or four apps long after I’ve drained them of their entertainment or informational value. These runway competition shows would have eventually snuck into my media diet with or without a global pandemic, however, since fashion is an artform I’ve been trying to pay more attention to in general. It’s probably the most vital artistic medium I’ve overlooked & undervalued throughout my life – an oversight I’ve been actively striving to correct in recent years. After tiring out on podcasts & documentaries, fashion competition shows have been an excellent crash course in the terminology & history of fashion as artform, but they aren’t the only resource that have guided me through this personal journey in recent months; they had a little help from a mid-00s romcom.
The Devil Wears Prada is more overtly about the fashion industry as a business rather than fashion as artform. Based off the memoirs of a disgruntled former assistant to longtime Vogue editor & industry tastemaker Anna Wintour, the film is presented as a behind-the-scenes tell-all about how stressful & cruel the industry can be for unsuspecting artsy types who get sucked into its orbit. It’s hardly the tear-it-all-down exposé that dating competition shows like The Bachelor got in the similar tell-all series Unreal, however. Instead, its peek behind the Vogue Magazine curtain is utilized as a backdrop for some fairly straightforward romantic comedy storytelling, which both helps & hurts its value as fashion-world insight. To its detriment, The Devil Wears Prada suffers the classic romcom problem of cornering its lead (Anne Hathaway, playing a fashion-ignorant academic who improbably lands a job at the fictional Vogue surrogate Runway Magazine) into choosing between two dweebs who don’t deserve her (a snobby line-cook who believes fashion is for vapid rubes and a publishing industry bigshot who believes she’s outgrown her former social circle). However, since the film mostly focuses on her terrified admiration of her boss (Meryl Streep as the tyrannical Anna Wintour avatar), it more or less gets away with that cliché. This is mostly a story about a woman falling in & out of love with fashion itself; the men she dates along the way are just accessories.
Hathaway may be the least convincing dumpy-nerd-next-door casting since Sandra Bullock play a l33t hacker in The Net. She’s a perfectly cromulent choice for a romcom lead, though, especially as the fashion-ignorant academic turns up her nose at an entire artform for supposedly being beneath her intellectually. By contrast, Streep is without question perfectly cast as a tyrannical auteur who barely speaks above a whisper but still has an entire industry groveling at her stilettoed feet. There’s rarely a crack in her emotional armor that reveals any vulnerability or trace of humanity, but she’s consistently the film’s most useful keyhole into the power of fashion as an artform (in her confident editorial eye) and its destructive nature as an industry (in the fear-based environment she runs as an employer). Streep is fascinating to watch, so much so that you never question why her least fashion-aware employee would stick around for the daily abuse – even when her closest friends do. In the film’s best scene, Streep delivers a distinct, cutting monologue about the couture to ready-to-wear pipeline that influences Hathaway’s dumpy lead’s daily life while she naively believes fashion to be an inconsequential frivolity that does not affect her personally. It affects & influences us all, maybe more so than any other modern artform, and the journey Hathaway goes on here is mostly in learning how to accept that inescapable truth and use it to her full advantage.
There’s nothing especially novel about The Devil Wears Prada in terms of craft; it looks & acts like almost any post-80s studio romcom you can name (which is especially apparent in its refusal to challenge the fashion industry’s addiction to weight-shaming). Its earned foundational respect for fashion as an artform is what really saves it from falling into total tedium, an accomplishment it could not manage without Streep’s steely presence as an industry figurehead. Hathaway holds her own as an audience surrogate despite her naturally glamorous beauty (in a role that makes her image-subverting turn in Ocean’s 8 even funnier in retrospect), as does Stanley Tucci as the fashion insider who teaches her that clothes equal confidence (a role that feels like the birthplace of Modern Tucci). This is somehow still Streep’s movie, though, even if she barely ever lifts a finger or speaks above a whisper. I’m not well-versed enough in fashion industry lore to comment on whether she captured Wintour’s specific persona accurately, but she’s effortlessly electric throughout the picture the way all enigmatic auteurs are within their own artistic fiefdoms. If nothing else, that monologue about the ready-to-wear pipeline really is an all-timer, maybe the most succinctly insightful summation of fashion’s undetected importance I’ve come across so far in my scramble to play catch-up.