Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock has left its mark on fashion throughout eras - we look at where, how and why
Recent runways would have you believe everyone’s soon going to look like a vengeful 19th-century teenybopper who comes to terms with the fatalistic power of her burgeoning sexuality against the backdrop of a lush southern gothic-tinged bayou.
From Fendi SS17 and Rodarte SS17 to Just Cavalli AW17, catwalks have been all about high collars, erotic asphyxiation by ruffle, and venomous pastels. The vibe is hazy and romantic, but also slightly sexy. There’s a recurrent prairie chic/Victoriana trend, only the prairie girl is Rihanna as directed by Harmony Korine. And none of it would look out of place in The Beguiled, Sofia Coppola’s buzzy reboot of a 70s Hollywood classic about a Confederate boarding school for girls and what happens to the wounded Yankee soldier who dares disturb their greenhouse-like world.
Actually, reverse that: the film’s costumes – artefacts from a south that never existed, conjured up by costumer Stacey Battat from pretty anachronisms – would look right at home on this season’s runways with a few altered hemlines. And while promoting the film, the stars have been dressing like their characters in Fendi, Rodarte and Alexander McQueen digs evocative of Battat’s imaginary south.
Knowing fashion’s longstanding, codependent relationship with Coppola, The Beguiled will be referenced by designers for years to come. And it’s all thanks to another visually stunning slow-burner about schoolgirls decked out in white from 42 years ago. Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock is one of fashion’s favourite movies. This isn’t shade or speculation: The Beguiled’s director of photography, Philippe Le Sourd, has said it was the main inspiration – alongside Polanski’s Tess – for the distinctive look of Coppola’s film. What’s more, Gia Coppola just channelled Weir’s film for her Gucci collaboration. “I put that on and it kind of blew my mind,” she told Dazed. “It deals so much with female sexuality and figuring out who you are, dealing with this in sort of an invisible way.”
Picnic at Hanging Rock did for koalas what Twin Peaks would later do for owls. And, like in Lynch’s cult series, young girls go missing, setting off a domino-effect of ugliness among the locals. On Valentine’s Day, 1900, three students and a teacher at an Australian boarding school disappear while on a field trip to a volcanic rock formation in the bush. The girls are last seen disappearing into a thin crevice in the rock, Amigara Fault-style, but instead of emerging from the other side reshaped into grotesque noodle-men, two stay gone and one returns with her memory wiped. Weird details turn up – the lone survivor’s missing corset, a witness claims to see the missing teacher scaling the rock face with no skirt – but are not pursued. Lies and secrets start floating, belly-up, to the surface. The rock claims other victims. The wrong bodies turn up. We watch the town eat itself trying to solve the mystery and then the film simply ends.
“Other trademarks of the Picnic at Hanging Rock aesthetic: Children of the Corn-esque configurations of blonde girls; shiny hair showing off shinier ribbons, faces hidden for emphasis; sunstroke; a menacing, possibly sentient, desert”
The film’s most famous signature is, of course, the white Edwardian dresses designed by costumer Judith Dorsman. She strayed from historical accuracy where necessary to create its fever-dream state, and there are similarities with other hallucinatory 70s movies about the sexuality of Victorian-slash-Edwardian women – Jean Rollin’s Fascination, Cries and Whispers, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders. There’s also a kinship with The Source Family, the 2012 documentary about a glamorous cult that seduced 70s Hollywood with its health food shop, rock band, mansion, and gorgeous, mostly female, followers. Realism isn’t the aim. Rather, it’s the weird hypocrisy of Victorian sexuality as interpreted by a deeply stoned, polyamorous sex guru doling out acid in the summer of love. Other trademarks of the Picnic at Hanging Rock aesthetic: Children of the Corn-esque configurations of blonde girls; shiny hair showing off shinier ribbons, faces hidden for emphasis; sunstroke; a menacing, possibly sentient, desert.
Picnic At Hanging Rock carries an instantly recognisable look that the fashion world has returned to again and again. It’s one of Chloe Sevigny’s favourite films, for one. Then, in 2004, it served as the main inspiration for the Alexander McQueen spring 2005 ready-to-wear show, whic combined menswear and womenswear for one of the designer’s best collections. The following spring, Vogue UK, Nippon and Russia all did photoshoots reminiscent of the film. The editorials and collections began to pile up: Rodarte in 2010. Vogue Korea the same year. Vogue India in March 2011. Vogue UK again in 2013. Vogue China in 2014. It all culminated in 2015, with the 40th anniversary of the film and the announcement of a TV remake setting off spring 2016’s biggest trend, according to The Guardian’s Alyx Gorman. Starting with a Picnic at Hanging Rock photoshoot in Vogue Australia, brands from Etro and Alexander McQueen to designers such as Raf Simons for Dior flocked to the film for their spring collections. (“What happens to those girls when they disappear? Where do they go? There is something sexual and something timeless about it,” Simons said at the time.) Then Sofia Coppola did it for Marc Jacobs’ Daisy campaign. Beyoncé did it in Lemonade (kind of).
But that’s not counting all the collections and editorials that reference The Virgin Suicides and are really referencing Picnic at Hanging Rock at one degree of separation. Although she hadn’t seen it at the time, Sofia Coppola cited Picnic as the biggest influence for her ennui-chic magnum opus, which has itself since become one of fashion’s most oft-cited films. It’s elegant in a supremely nerdy way, directing a film in the late 90s about the 70s by copping the style of a 70s film about the 1900s.
Yet 20 years later, Sofia Coppola still hasn’t seen the film that’s arguably behind her famous aesthetic. You wouldn’t be able to tell, though, for all the eerie similarities onscreen – the oppressive buzz of unseen insects, the constant feeling of walking in circles; the slow, menacing pace. The Beguiled, though, is louder and flashier than its spiritual predecessor. It takes all the things that made Picnic at Hanging Rock such a hypnotic experience and replaces them with something prettier, more seductive, and more palatable: explosive heterosexuality in the place of queer undertones; close-ups on snapped bones instead of the terrifying power of nothing; walking girl-power moodboards instead of powerful women. More than four decades later, Peter Weir’s seminal coming-of-age movie continues to leave it its mark on fashion and film.