Fashion Victim: The Modernization of Farce in Robert Altman’s Ready to Wear

Robert Altman has had his share of underrated and misunderstood films (A Prairie Home Companion had to be given some respect, however, considering it was his last movie). Ready to Wear a.k.a. Prêt-à-Porter is one of those distinctly Altman movies where you’re either in on the joke or you’re on the outside looking in.

Promotional poster for Ready to Wear
Promotional poster for Ready to Wear
Centered around the hype-laden entity that is Paris Fashion Week, Ready to Wear opens mysteriously at a Christian Dior location in Moscow, where Sergio (Marcello Mastroianni) buys a specific tie to send to Olivier de la Fontaine (Jean-Pierre Cassel), a major player and organizer in the world of fashion. The two arrange to meet to talk about de la Fontaine’s wife, Isabella (Sophia Loren), who, unbeknownst to de la Fontaine, used to be married to Sergio. Before the two meet, de la Fontaine steps into a pile of dog shit, a running gag throughout the film that other fashion bottom-feeders experience–an obvious metaphor for the fashion industry’s love of watching people step through shit in order to try to get what they want.
Loren as Isabella de la Fontaine and Marcello Mastroianni as Sergio, her estranged husband
Loren as Isabella de la Fontaine and Marcello Mastroianni as Sergio, her estranged husband
While driving with de la Fontaine, Sergio witnesses him choking on a ham sandwich and flees the scene. But not before de la Fontaine gets tossed into the river to cover up any sense of foul play–while also adding more foul play to the circumstances. Upon the news of his death, the fashion glitterati are up in arms about the pall that has been cast over Fashion Week, even though everyone resoundingly hated de la Fontaine. The most distressed is his longtime mistress, Simone Lowenthal (Anouk Aimée), a designer in her own right. With everyone trying to get in on the scandal of speculating about his so-called “murder,” Altman highlights the self-serving nature of everyone in the business, sparing no profession in the industry–from assistants to fashion photographers to magazine editors.
Left to right: Linda Hunt as Regina Krumm, Tracey Ullman as Nina Scant, and Sally Kellerman as Sissy Wanamaker, all major fashion magazine editors attending the shows
Left to right: Linda Hunt as Regina Krumm, Tracey Ullman as Nina Scant, and Sally Kellerman as Sissy Wanamaker, all major fashion magazine editors attending the shows
Considering the year the film was released, 1994, it’s important to recognize what a farcical level the fashion business had reached. Eventually, it was to be expected that it would have to parody itself in order to redeem its value. The business arguably plateaued in the 90s in terms of being taken seriously in mainstream culture–the most overt example of its castigation elevating to a climax with Bret Easton Ellis’ 1998 novel, Glamorama.
Julia Roberts and Tim Robbins play reporters to caught up in their own whirlwind romance to care about reporting on de la Fontaine's death
Julia Roberts and Tim Robbins play reporters too caught up in their own whirlwind romance to care about reporting on de la Fontaine’s death
The fact that Altman had the foresight to make fun of fashion and the monsters it frequently creates is one of many indications of his brilliance as a filmmaker. Plus, since he had already taken on the film biz with 1992’s The Player, ready-to-wear was only the next logical progression.