In 2006's The Devil Wears Prada, aspiring journalist Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway) finds herself as the personal assistant to the editor-in-chief of a large fashion magazine, Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep). Andy, who purports to care little about fashion, is quickly put in her place by the cold, calculating and abrasive Miranda. Over the course of the film, Andy learns more about fashion and clothing, and squares off against the increasingly antagonistic Miranda. In essence, the film showcases the glamorous yet ultimately empty and emotionless life of the fashion world, and its costumes indicate the wild contrasts and extremes women have to go to in order to succeed in such a world. Andy is increasingly punished over the course of the film, being taught to become more fashion-conscious and is conditioned to prioritize romantic relationships by the end of the plot. Andy as career-woman remains a constant, but the changes are just enough to demonize the concepts of job dedication for women.
Andy, as the protagonist, is most definitely the punished character in the film, as the filmmakers (through Miranda and other characters) admonish her for not adhering to societal standards of female fashion, while at the same time trying to reign her in from becoming too assertive of a career woman. Andy's transformation from the meek, Hollywood-ugly journalist into a fashionista is dramatic and more than a little unrealistic, but eagerly gets across the point of a fashionless woman getting a crash course in what fashion is supposed to be (at least, according to the filmmakers). When Andy first arrives for work at Runway, she wears fairly dressed-down and professional clothes - a white button-down shirt, purple v-neck sweater, modest tan jacket, and slacks that cover most of her body. This is meant to portray her as a no-frills, lower-middle class woman who cares little for fashion. Her use of earth tones directly clashes with the cold, harsh contrasts of the fashions that other characters wear, creating a subtle implication that the world of fashion takes away warmth and leaves only robotic, cold competition.
Miranda, on the other hand, is an alternating assault of garish and professional clothing reminiscent of fashions from the 1950s and 1960s, meant to demonstrate sophistication and high social class. Her first appearance is in all black, providing similar contrast to her shock-white hair. She often wears a black fur coat, subconsciously showing one of the most stereotypical items of clothing indicative of high status. Other accessories indicative of her restrained yet high-class status include the frequent wearing of large hoop earrings, high-heeled shoes and blouses with higher shoulders, emphasizing her power, posture and sense of control. Her frequent wearing of black leather gloves also paints her as unapproachable, as even the sense of touch is closed off to others from her. Throughout the film, she avoids pastels and soft colors, wearing a lot of gold - another indicator of opulence.
Emily, Andy's chief rival in the film, is another calculating and edgy follower of fashion - using copious amounts of black eyeliner and sleek, dark clothes that accentuate her long neck and expose her arms and legs frequently, her outfits give off the impression of 21st century edgy and European eccentricity (certainly the attitude that is portrayed by Emily Blunt in the film). Her use of mostly black outfits which are almost always somewhat impractical creates a contrast with the down-to-earth Andy; she looks like an alien compared to her, and absolutely appears less in touch with her feelings. She is at first punished by the filmmakers for her hubris and ambition, then privileged by making us feel sorry for her after Andy completes her transformation into Miranda 2.0.
The use of fashion as a metaphor for the inherent "unhappiness" women experience in the career world is what eventually defangs Andy, curbing her ambition for more modest journalistic pursuits, while still keeping the feminizing sense of high fashion she learned from Miranda. Andy is first defanged of her distaste for high fashion by Miranda, noting that Andy is "trying to tell the world that [she] takes [herself] too seriously to care what you put on your back," when the high fashion industry in fact created that wardrobe. This shows the filmmakers claiming that all women secretly care about fashion, and that any impression to the contrary is a false ironic distance. Miranda is both privileged and punished in the film - privileged for having a keen sense of fashion, yet punished for having those things cost her a happy marriage and inner happiness (as in the scene where Miranda, makeup-less, laments her distant marriage with her husband). This contradiction is at the heart of the film's distaste for strong, unfashionable career women. When Andy becomes the strong, fashionable career woman that Miranda is, the film presents this as a bad thing, and punishes her by making her responsible for the loss of people's jobs, and implies through her affair with Christian that it makes her adulterous. Andy soundly rejects these things as they are presented as heartless, cementing the demonization of career women as cold, calculating and ruthless.
Two scenes in particular show the transformation from frumpy, practical Andy to fashionable but virtuous Andy. The first scene that shows Andy's status as an unfashionable (and thus failed) woman is the opening credits sequence. As the credits roll, the filmmakers cut between several women who are waking up and going through their daily routine; all but Andy are glamorous, gorgeous women with impeccable fashion sense. In the shots of the other women, we see them in stylized close-up, with unique framing and color correction to make them look much more attractive; shots of Andy doing the same thing (putting on lipstick/lip balm, getting dressed) are given more muted colors, and the camera shows her at a greater distance. This makes her seem much more undesirable filmically, and also culturally (she is unattractive, so the camera does not want to look as closely at her). The cinematography never lets us see more than a hint of the other womens' feet/faces/hair, to abstract them further, while Andy is given to us in full to be scrutinized. This clues us in slightly to the more abstract nature of fashion, while still fetishizing it.
The second scene, in which Andy's transformation into the film's idea of a narcissistic, power-hungry and opportunity-craving career woman comes during the scene where she tells Emily that she is not going to Paris. The scene takes place in a hospital, with Emily in a hospital gown and bandages and Andy in one of her most fashionable outfits yet. This automatically places Emily in a vulnerable position, with Andy standing above her almost in callous victory. The camera has Emily constantly in close-up, with only sparing closeups of Andy, thus making the audience sympathize more clearly with the less-fashionable woman (who is currently crying out in jealousy about the clothes that Andy will get to wear in Paris). This cements the cultural code that being hospitalized is bad and unflattering, and therefore should be unfairly judged at all costs. What should be a terrible moment for Emily is turned comedic through Emily Blunt's broad performance, as she shoves food in her face, and Andy is presented as calm and rational, while at the same time heartless and unsympathetic. That the hospitalized character views her injury through the perspective of fashion is another instance of women being portrayed as being stereotypically fashion-conscious.
The suitability of women in positions of power is at the heart of The Devil Wears Prada, as was the early 20th century's increasing focus on fashion as a high-class woman's trend. Shows such as Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Sex and the City and others glamorized haute couture culture, as well as culturally coded cattiness and competitiveness between women. Shoes and clothing brands become status symbols, and if you cannot afford to wear them (or do not want to), you are labeled as being a 'weaker' woman. At the same time, overly powerful women are shown to have to be ruthless and calculating in order to succeed, at the expense of their overall happiness - the stereotype of the powerful woman executive, who has to be more masculine to gain the respect of her male peers, is very much in play with the Miranda character (Brett, Atwater and Waldman, 2005). Image is shown to be absolutely important to women, whether it was through their physical appearance or their reputation: "We are in the midst of a violent backlash against feminism that uses images of female beauty as a political weapon against women’s advancement: the beauty myth" (Wolf, 2002). In essence, women are stymied by the threat of unattractiveness, ugliness or old age from career advancement.
This inordinate pressure to be attractive in order to succeed as a woman is exemplified in the clothes and attitudes of the characters in The Devil Wears Prada. Showing Andy's contrast of frumpy and shapeless clothes with Miranda's and Emily's varying levels of fashion consciousness depending on their age and social status - Miranda as a high-class sophisticate and Emily as a trendy, out-there it-girl - denotes the various worlds of fashion, and the cold distance that such outlandish clothes can often demonstrate in such people. Andy is punished both for being unfashionable and too ambitious - her behavior is corrected by making her more fashionable, while her assertiveness and gumption are tempered by the threat of becoming "evil" and lonely like Miranda. By the end, Andy is taught to be ambitious, but only modestly so, and she still becomes more modestly fashionable than she was before. The illusion the film provides is that of moderation: Andy starts the film as one extreme, goes the other way around, and then finds a happy (yet problematic) medium by the end. This strategy sends the message that, as long as women do not try too hard to succeed on their own terms, they can be happy.
Brett, Joan F., Atwater, Leanne E., and David A. Waldman. "Effective Delivery of Workplace Discipline: Do Women have to be More Participatory than Men?" Group Organization Management 30.5 (October 2005): 487-513. Print.
Frankel, David (dir.) The Devil Wears Prada. Perf. Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway, Stanley Tucci. 20th Century Fox, 2006. Film.
Wolf, Naomi. The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women. Harper Collins, 2002. Print.