Volume 1, Issue 1, Article 9 - 2018

The Intertextual Discourse of Funny Face (1956)





In this paper I mobilize Funny Face (dir. Stanley Donen, 1956) to examine the intertextual nexus between fashion, fashion photography, and film. Set in New York City and Paris, with costume design by Hubert de Givenchy and Edith Head, the film is a latter day telling of the Pygmalion myth, such that photographer Dick Avery (Fred Astaire) and Maggie Prescott (Kay Thompson), the dictatorial Fashion Editor of Quality, take up the challenge of converting Jo Stockton (Audrey Hepburn), whom they regard as an unprepossessing bookstore intellectual, into a top model. Thus I analyze how a film that is more generally regarded as a benchmark in the Hollywood musical for its exuberant use of colour and songs is, more particularly, a cinematic locus for both the mediation and mediatization of fashionable identities. To this end, I assess how the film elaborates the power of the fashion industry as a matter of social practice in regards to Foucauldian discourse and the related concept of the énoncé, or event/statement. Thus I evince I two events/statements — “Think Pink!” and “Bonjour Paris” — to discuss in particular the relationship of style to national identities and the need or desire for America to assert cultural leadership in fashion photography, art, and design over France in the context of 1950s Cold War politics. By comparison, I enlist the statements, “Take the Picture!” and “A Bird of Paradise,” to examine respectively the dynamic of looking/gazing between the fashion photographer and designer and their (in this case) female models, the nexus between star designing, clothing, and gender identity, and what Foucault calls assujetissement — subjection — which connotes the dual process of Jo’s subordination as well as the act of her becoming or “being made” a subject according to a system of power. 



  • discourse
  • intertextuality
  • style and nationalism
  • subjection

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Shortly before its premiere at New York’s Radio City Music Hall in early spring 1957 (New York Times 1957: 3), director Stanley Donen’s Funny Face garnered only tepid reviews — Variety on 31 December 1956, for instance, called it “a slightly diverting, modish, Parisian-localed tintuner” — and afterwards it failed to break even at the box office, grossing $2.5 million ticket sales against production costs of $3 million (Variety 1958: 30). Since then, it has come to be regarded as a benchmark in the Hollywood musical for its exuberant use of colour and songs, a sensual feast for the eyes and ears. Film critic John Russell Taylor included it in a list of ten great musicals, expatiating, “Funny Face carries sophistication, elegance and sheer visual flair just about as far as the cinema ever has: hardly a shot which is not breath-taking, not a number which is less than first-rate” (Russell Taylor 1970: 76-7).1 Filmed on location in the unseasonably wet and windy Parisian summer of 1956 (Granger Blair 1956: 69), Funny Face stars Audrey Hepburn as Jo Stockton, a bluestocking bookstore assistant in Greenwich Village, and Fred Astaire as debonair fashion photographer Dick Avery. Astaire had also headlined the 1927 Broadway musical of the same name alongside his sister Adele. Though the film includes four numbers from George and Ira Gershwin’s original score, its narrative drive bears no resemblance to the stage show, whose convoluted plot concerned the theft and recovery of a pearl necklace and had nothing whatsoever to do with fashion.2 Rather, Leonard Gershe’s screenplay is essentially a latter day version of the Pygmalion myth, such that Avery and Maggie Prescott, the dictatorial Fashion Editor of Quality played by Kay Thompson, take up the challenge of converting Jo, whom they regard as an unprepossessing intellectual, into a top model. Jo finally agrees to join them on a trip to Paris, after Dick persuades her it will be a golden opportunity to meet her philosophical hero, Emile Flostre. For Dick, however — and Maggie in particular — initially she remains nothing more than a reluctant, if expedient, clotheshorse, someone who will model on location new look outfits by Paul Duval (designed by Hubert de Givenchy for the film) in order to revitalize the fashion photography of fictive Quality magazine.

      And yet, this kind of spectacle and play on transformation are not just an escapist audio-visual fantasy. Rather, they are instrumental to the way the drama unfolds. Indeed, the role that clothing plays in the narrative and mise-en-scène of the film — or what Jane Gaines calls the costume plot — is imbricated with the main story rather than being unrelated to it, and contests the archetypal male director’s notion of “costume as servant of narrative ideas” (Gaines 1990: 16).3


To this end, the intertextual nexus between fashion, photography, and film elaborated in Funny Face hinges on how fashionable identities are not only performatively mediatized — in which sense fashion is communicated and experienced first and foremost as a mass-reproduced image4 — but mediated as well through a post-war discourse in America that enlisted art and design as a means of achieving cultural and political leadership on the global stage.

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Accordingly, in this article I want to contest one contemporaneous reviewer’s cavil — “It may seem extravagant to discuss a ‘musical’ in the terms proper to a serious creative work” (Times 1957: 3) — by framing the costume plot or fashion discourse of Funny Face as a series of Foucauldian énoncés, that is, as events or statements in and through which, Foucault argues, power and knowledge are both produced and enacted by institutions and professions, such as fashion, the law, and education, as a matter of social practice.5 For readers who wish to interact visually and aurally with the four events/statements I discuss below, I have also included the respective YouTube URLs.

      Foucault proposes, “In every society the production of discourse is at once controlled, selected, organised and redistributed according to a certain number of procedures” (Foucault 1981: 52), and in The Archaeology of Knowledge he enlists the énoncé as the principle element in how discourse functions on a particular level at any given point in time. He maintains that each event/statement has its own material and temporal “conditions of existence” to the extent “We must grasp the statement in the exact specificity of its occurrence; determine its conditions of existence, fix at least its limits” (Foucault 2002: 30). But he insists also that every statement relates to and coexists alongside others as it circulates and is formally reconstituted or reconfigured across space and time, and the challenge for us, furthermore, is to “establish its correlations with other statements that may be connected with it” (Foucault 2002: 31). It is in this way he ruminates, for example, on the discursive paradigm of the book as an intersectional material event/statement that not only has an external relationship to a network of writings other than itself but that also internally involves sentences in their own intertextual network: “The frontiers of a book are never clear-cut: beyond the title, the first lines, and the last full-stop, beyond its internal configuration and its autonomous form, it is caught up in a system of references to other books, other texts, other sentences” (Foucault 2002: 25).

      It is this idea of the intersectional énoncé and the social and material conditions of existence that give rise to and contour it that I want to elaborate in analyzing the fashion discourse of Funny Face in this article.


On this level, then, I have evinced a series of four intertwining events/statements from the script and musical score of the film that, while deceptively hollow or vapid on first encounter, inaugurate a deeper understanding of the costume plot and how it sutures together a multi-layered discourse about fashion and photography, and power and identity.


Accordingly, I mobilize two events/statements — “Think Pink!” and “Bonjour Paris” — to assess in particular the relationship of style to national identities and the need or desire for America to assert cultural leadership in fashion photography, art, and design over France in the context of 1950s Cold War politics. By comparison, I enlist the statements, “Take the Picture!” and “A Bird of Paradise,” to discuss respectively the dynamic of looking/gazing between the fashion photographer and designer and their (in this case) female models, and the nexus between star designing, clothing, and gender identity. By extension, both these statements entail the procedural relationship that Foucault argues the énoncé has to assujetissement. Although he dispensed with any notion of the author/subject as independent originator (Foucault 1970: 305-6; 1977: 21), nonetheless he conceded discursive events/statements are not just produced abstractly, avowing, “I wanted not to exclude the problem of the subject, but to define the positions and functions that the subject could occupy in the diversity of discourse” (Foucault 2002: 221). Thus he propounds that the discursive énoncé is a matter of assujetissement — subjection — which connotes the dual process of subordination as well as the act of becoming or “being made” a subject according to a system of power (Foucault 1977: 60).6 It is to this extent, for instance, that we witness not only the strategic use of two designers for Hepburn’s wardrobe — she is styled by Edith Head for her everyday existence as a bookstore assistant and by Hubert de Givenchy for her performance as a catwalk model — but also how in turn she is either held captive or liberated by the clothes she wears.


Event 1: “Think Pink!” The Magazine as a Machine for Making Fashion


The plot of Funny Face foregrounds the discourse of fashion publishing rather than of fashion design per se and concentrates on the interactive roles of the magazine editor, fashion photographer, and fashion model. From the outset, it chimes with Roland Barthes’ idea that the representation of Fashion is the reality of Fashion and that the magazine is “a machine that makes Fashion” (1990: 51). There are, of course, catwalk displays in the film and, even in the extended photoshoot sequence, the climax of the traditional catwalk is connoted by the fact that in the final tableau, shot at Chantilly, Hepburn models a wedding gown.7 Yet, from the opening title sequences to the final photoshoot, the film emphasizes the idea of fashion as an idealized media event rather than as a social reality and something that is discursively constructed by a cultural elite.

      At the outset, a pivotal event in Funny Face that performs this idea occurs when Maggie Prescott arrives at her office and pours scorn on the page designs for the next issue of Quality, dismissing them as “just paper … down, dull, dreary, depressing.” As she picks up a scroll of pink paper from her desk she pronounces that she wants to colour the whole issue — indeed, the entire country — pink and, unfurling bolts of cloth, launches into the colourful, if camp, song and dance routine “Think Pink!” The character of Prescott is a thinly veiled impersonation of the redoubtable Diana Vreeland, who took over the editorship of Harper’s Bazaar from Carmel Snow in 1957, the same year that Funny Face was put on general release. And though “Think Pink!” references her predilection for the colour, it predates her chauvinistic utterance, “I ADORE [that] pink! … It’s the navy blue of India,” which she initially made in an interview with the New York Times in 1962 (Donovan 1962: 30).8

      On a superficial level, then, this intertextual statement strikes us as crass and apparently enunciates nothing more than the idea that such transformations are trivial and real people and life exist beyond the world of fashion. And yet, Barthes maintains, “‘nothing’ can signify ‘everything’ … one detail is enough to transform what is outside meaning into meaning, what is unfashionable into Fashion” (Barthes 1990: 243). After all, “Think pink!” is not the same statement as the one he mobilizes in The Fashion System, “This year blue is in fashion,” and, as Foucault insists, no matter how banal an event/statement seems, discursively it “is really no more than the repressive presence of what it does not say” (Foucault 2002: 28).


Furthermore, a parodic event such as “Think Pink!” signifies the power fashion editors had in dictating entirely what should or should not be any season’s fashion and of gaining mastery through exclusivity.

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      Thus Carmel Snow herself was quoted in Time, on the 18th of August, 1947, saying, “The editors must recognize fashions while they are still a thing of the future. The dressmakers create them, but without these magazines, the fashions would never be established or accepted.”

      Prescott’s exhortation “Think Pink!” reminds us also that fashion spreads are intertextual on another level, relying on both words and images to convey meaning. For, just as the film is itself indebted to an earlier event — the stage play of 1928 — ironically, so too is the kind of page layout she disparages, related to the graphic modernism vaunted during the interwar period. Thus the New Vision discourse of European modernism, which entailed the creative integration of text and photographs, was “selected, organised and redistributed” (Foucault 1981: 52) as the basis of another publishing discourse after 1945, and was promoted extensively in the international design monthly Neue Grafik, published in German, French, and English between 1958 and 1965.

      Harper’s Bazaar, the title that the fictional Quality co-opts and mimics, was founded in 1867 and acquired in 1912 by the Hearst Corporation, which determined to transform the look of the magazine. In 1933, Carmel Snow was appointed Editor-in-Chief, and in 1936 appointed Diana Vreeland as Fashion Editor. The latter shot to fame with her monthly column “Why don’t you?” and eventually became Editor-in-Chief of Harper’s between 1957 and 1962, and afterward Editor of American Vogue.9 Between 1934 and 1936, the magazine also published pioneering Surrealist-inspired photographs by Man Ray, such as Fashion by radio (Harper’s Bazaar, November 1936). What is significant in this respect was that fashion photography during the early twentieth century seemed to become more important than the fashions themselves by playing on fetishized fantasies of desirability and beauty, achieved through a manipulative use of lighting, tone, and scale. Horst’s photograph of a Mainbocher corset for French and American Vogue, 13 September 1939, has become one of the most iconic forms of this type of representation. As Elizabeth Wilson (1985: 157) has appositely argued, “It was above all the camera that created a new way of seeing and a new style of beauty for women in the twentieth century. The love affair of black and white photography with fashion is the modernist sensibility.”


The camera’s love affair with fashion that she refers to was both disseminated and transformed after the Second World War by a new style of more wired, spontaneous fashion photography, embracing colour as well as black and white formats, that had begun to crop up in America. 


This is signalled in Funny Face by the way the fashion shoot predominantly takes place on location. It is also symbolized by Astaire’s character, Dick Avery, who is based on Richard Avedon.10 Alongside Carmel Snow, he acted as visual consultant for the film and was responsible for the photographic stills in the opening credits and photoshoot sequence.

      In 1944, aged 21, Avedon had taken up work as a staff photographer at Harper’s Bazaar under its legendary art director Alexey Brodovitch, who had been appointed by Snow in 1934 and remained at the title until 1958. Brodovitch, a white Russian, had emigrated from Paris to America in 1930, initially to direct the first program in advertising design at Philadelphia College of Art along the lines of European modernist principles. Inspired by seminal works like Moholy-Nagy’s Painting, Photography, Film (1925) and The New Vision: from Material to Architecture (1929), the new graphic style, with its reliance on uncluttered or white space, promoted the page layout as a creative and harmonious artwork — though art in a commercial context. In 1941 Brodovitch relocated his “Design Laboratory,” focused on the application of art to graphic journalism, to the New School for Social Research in New York City, and by 1945 he had sealed his reputation for innovative design with the publication of Ballet, a ground-breaking set of photographs of dancers in movement, produced in the 1930s. It was from this point onward that the relationship between Avedon and Brodovitch seriously developed, as evidenced in their layout, “Perugia’s bronze kid shoe edged with mink,” for Harper’s Bazaar August 1948, with its close-cropped photograph that bleeds across a double-page opening and represents the leg and foot of a model wearing the shoe as she strides in front of the Eiffel Tower.

      Avedon’s photographic style was also influenced by two other practitioners: German photojournalist Martin Munkácsi, who emigrated to New York City in 1934 and won favour with Snow at Harper’s for the way his work embedded fashion in the everyday world, and Helen Levitt, who developed an intense preoccupation with photographing street life in 1940s New York City. Many of Avedon’s images for Harper’s from the late 1940s and 1950s likewise put fashion into unexpected situational contexts and he exploits informality, drama, and playfulness to choreograph a sense of the ambiguity of the real. Striking examples of this duality are his respective photographs of Elisa Daniels modelling a Balenciaga outfit among street performers in the Marais district, Paris (Harper’s October 1948) and of Dovima in a Dior Dress, flanked by elephants at the Cirque d’Hiver, Paris (Harper’s August 1955). In both images, then, we witness a form of magic realism that expresses a collision between the ordinary and the extraordinary. Unlike the sporty, healthy models in Munkácsi’s fashion photos, however, Daniels and Dovima are emaciated, tense, and somewhat artificially posed. Indeed, Dovima and another model of the period, Suzy Parker, both make cameo appearances in Funny Face — the former plays Marion, while the latter appears in the “Think Pink!” routine.

      Avedon, of course, was not alone in the evolution of a new form of fashion photography in the immediate post-war period, and alongside him we have to credit other Brodovitch protégés such as Lillian Bassman and Louise Dahl-Wolfe, whose work also appeared in Harper’s, and Irving Penn, employed by Vogue (Arnold 2002; Harrison 1991: 25-88). The discourse and style of the “New American Vision” of fashion photography (Harrison 1991: 25) Funny Face authorizes, especially in the extended photoshoot involving Dick and Jo that takes place on location across Paris as she models Hubert de Givenchy’s new look designs and to which I return below, reveals an affinity with performance. For it is as if the models also double up as actors in Avedon’s photographs, as if we are looking at stills from a film rather than straightforward fashion photographs. This approach is connoted at the start of the extended photo shoot in the Gare du Nord when Dick barks at Jo, “You’re not only a model, you’re an actress!” Adam Gopnik has argued that “Avedon’s early fashion photographs use the models to attack a false mystique of femininity … The pictures are about the fun and pain and absurdity and tedium of presenting a perfect image to the world … Femininity, style, is something constructed — worked for, tweezed and modelled and highlighted into being” (Gopnik 1994: 110-11). In fact, it is this play on power and control that underscores the entire reconstruction of Jo from someone fashionistas such as Maggie see as a gawky bluestocking into an elegant swan, and that overlaps with the next key event Funny Face iterates.


Event 2: “Take the Picture!” In and Out of the Male Photographer’s Gaze


To a large extent, fashion photography has traditionally been a male-dominated profession through which the female body is objectified by the photographer, both for his own pleasure and that of the (male) spectator. First published in 1976, Laura Mulvey’s seminal essay about the objectification of women in 1950s Hollywood film, “Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema,” has shaped much subsequent writing about this dynamic of patriarchal power and control in regards to the male gaze. Mobilising psychoanalytical theory from a feminist perspective, Mulvey argues that, “In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is stylized accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed … Woman displayed as sexual object is the leitmotif of erotic spectacle” (Mulvey 1989: 19).

      This is not an exaggeration, particularly if we consider how, since the 1920s at least, gala fashion shows were conceived more like spectacular theatrical productions “attended by vast audiences,” as Caroline Evans argues (2013: 117-8), and how the discourse of fashion photography has nearly always involved men as producers and women as objects of desire. Jean Patchett — one of Avedon’s favourite models in the 1950s — commented, for instance, how Avedon “jumped around too much” and made her “feel inadequate” (Gross 1995: 79). Similarly, the first time we witness Dick Avery in the studio, we see he has complete control over the model Marion, represented as a mindless cipher who can’t give him the “long look” he demands as she concentrates instead on reading her novel, Minute Men from Mars.11 For the most part, Jo is also the object of Avery’s gaze. Thus in his darkroom she bewails the fact that she is too unconventional and plain to be a fashion model, whereas he freezes her in the glare of the spotlight and echoes her assertion to him in the bookstore that she finds trees more authentically beautiful than fashionable women, quipping, “When I get through with you … you’ll look like a tree.” As well, when he demands she should pretend to be tragic “like Anna Karenina” as he photographs her at the Gare du Nord, he fails to notice she already has tears in her eyes. But there are telling moments when Jo resists being pinned down by her role as a fashion model and the power of the male photographer’s gaze; in the bookstore Dick defines his job as a case of “beautiful dresses on beautiful women,” while Jo parries it is more a matter of “silly dresses on silly women.”

      In particular, the tension between the passive object and active subject is performatively deconstructed in the film’s prolonged photoshoot sequence, which acts as an event to showcase Hubert de Givenchy's eight stunning outfits for Jo and inverts the normative logic of the costume plot whereby, “the actress should be dressed down for the high emotional scenes and dressed up for the less significant moments” (Gaines 1990: 205). At the same time, the dynamics of the gaze complement how assujetissement, the process of subjection and becoming a subject in discourse that Foucault elaborates in Discipline and Punish, is enacted in Funny Face. At this stage in the narrative, having been plucked from obscurity as a gamine bookseller by Dick and Maggie to model outfits in Paris, Jo fledges into a confident young woman, while she also begins to fall in love with Dick, and he with her. In an earlier catwalk scene, wearing a sack-back dress by Givenchy, she remarks, “It doesn’t feel like me” after the fashion designer Paul Duval (played by Robert Flemyng) calls her a “bird of paradise,” whereas in the fashion shoot she progressively asserts herself and takes control of the situation. At the start of the sequence, photographed in front of the Arc du Carrousel in the Tuileries Gardens, Jo is still the inert ingénue, learning how to strike the right pose in her black New Look day dress as she clutches on to a bunch of balloons. Dick entreats her to run as fast as she can but she exclaims, “I don’t know which way to go. I’m sorry, I’m terribly nervous, I’ve never done anything like this before.” In the penultimate shot, however, she resists the normative power dynamic of the male gaze. Spontaneously marching down the steps of the Louvre in a stunning red New Look evening gown, therefore, she raises her arms and pashmina to mimic the pose of the “Victory of Samothrace” behind her and enjoins Dick three times to “Take the picture!”


This statement of intent clearly subverts the discourse of patriarchal domination that Mulvey describes and troubles the idea that the female model is merely the male photographer’s captive muse.

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To a large extent Jo is a fashion model by default and by no means is she just the docile discursive body that typifies the “aesthetic blankness” of the interwar modernist mannequin, as expertly assessed by Brown (2009: 42) and Evans (2013: 245-6). Rather, she is someone whose status hinges on the “double impetus of pleasure and power” that Foucault argues the act of making visible and spectatorship entail (Foucault 1990: 47 and 1977: 187).

       Thus Jo’s speech act also intersects with another aspect of her personality as an intellectual woman and reminds us that her original motive for visiting Paris is to engage with Professor Emile Flostre (played by Michel Auclair), in the cult philosophy Empathicalism. In fact, Jo’s infatuation with Flostre — she declares to Dick she “worships everything he stands for” — alongside the influence of France on American cultural politics in the 1950s, are the key themes underpinning the next statement I want to explore, “Bonjour Paris!” 


Event 3: “Bonjour Paris!” American Cultural Hegemony and Fashion in the Context of Cold War Politics