The Devil Wears Prada, released in June 2006, is now the age of a grade-schooler: If it were a human, it would be a 10-year-old scuffling along in her mother’s Manolo Blahniks or seeing her future inheritance reflected in the subtle calfskin gleam of a Birkin bag. The picture was a hit upon its release—it was the 17th-highest grossing movie that year, which isn’t bad for a PG-13-rated comedy of little interest to ticket-buying teenage boys—and in the years since, it has become a comfort-food movie, the kind of thing women (and surely some men) like to watch over and over again.
That’s partly because the appeal of watching put-upon underlings triumph over haughty higher-ups never loses its gloss. In this case, it’s Anne Hathaway’s Andy, personal assistant to tyrannical fashion-magazine czarina Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep), who emerges, slightly scarred but undaunted, from the battleground of her first magazine job. (The movie, directed by David Frankel, was based on Lauren Weisberger’s 2003 novel, which drew from her real-life experience as the assistant to Vogue magazine’s notoriously demanding editor Anna Wintour.) The movie’s pleasures are hardly negligible: A montage showing Streep’s Priestly heedlessly tossing her coat-and-handbag combo onto Andy’s desk, morning after morning after morning, is partly a clever pantomime of the monotony of being a wage slave and partly a grand eye-roll at the sort of person who has so much great stuff to wear that she can just fling it around without a thought.
But even though The Devil Wears Prada is set at a fashion magazine, and hits hard at the foibles of fashion people, it isn’t really a fashion movie—if anything, it’s a movie that hates fashion. Over and over again, Andy laments that what she really wants to be is a journalist—the subtext, so hamfisted it barely qualifies as a subtext—is that she’s too good for fashion, with all its idiocy and frivolity. Streep’s Priestly has the movie’s smartest line—one that the film, ultimately, betrays. Surveying one of Andy’s impossibly dowdy, pre-makeover work outfits, she says, in a cool and level voice, “You’re trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care what you put on your back.”
In the end, this movie is the ultimate fuel for people who think that not caring about fashion automatically grants them superior intelligence. With the exception of two terrific characters—Stanley Tucci’s wry art director and Emily Blunt’s perennial assistant, who cares about fashion so much that it fills her with an almost desperate hunger—the movie never rises above the level of “Look at all these silly people who care about this ridiculous, overpriced stuff. They must be really stupid.”
It doesn’t help that the clothes in The Devil Wears Prada are—let’s just say it—terrible. With the exception of a few of Priestly’s work outfits (like a trim jacket scattered with matte bronze paillettes that shouldn’t work for day, but does), almost everything the “fashionable” people wear in The Devil Wears Prada is either comically overaccessorized or slapped together in combinations that the truly chic would never attempt. The movie’s costume designer is Patricia Field, who also, famously, dressed the actresses for Sex and the City, a brilliant and beautiful show (for at least five of its six seasons) that honored the ghost of comedy-of-manners virtuoso Anita Loos in the best way. Field’s work on that show (Kristen Davis’s pussycat-bow blouses, Kim Cattrall’s free-flowing jersey separates) was terrific—when she was dressing everyone but Sarah Jessica Parker’s Carrie Bradshaw. Carrie’s supposedly cool, fashion-forward outfits grew more horrific and overstimulated with each passing season, a melange of tutus and unflattering headdresses that had less to do with fashion, or even eccentric taste, than with seeing how much weird, wretched stuff could be piled on the back of one rather small-boned actress. The critic Laura Miller once lamented that Carrie’s outfits made her look like “an organ grinder’s monkey.”
That’s the spirit Fields brings, more or less, to The Devil Wears Prada: In her view, nearly every woman working at Runway magazine (a thinly veiled Vogue) expresses her individuality and style by wearing lots of necklaces plus big earrings, and maybe a superfluous bracelet or two. Nearly everyone is strutting around in cluttered, fashion-victim combos and high, high heels. Andy’s post-makeover outfits—most of them consisting of pieces by Chanel—are jumbled together in a way that’s supposed to signify youthful creativity but which really just scream, “I have no idea what I’m doing, and I don’t care.” Every fashion workplace has its crazy magpies, but there’s always at least one sleek, understated doe, usually dressed in head-to-toe taupe, running with the pack. She’s nowhere to be seen in The Devil Wears Prada, because that wouldn’t fit the absurd spectacle people generally hope to see in a movie about the fashion world.
In Field’s defense, movie costuming isn’t the same as choosing fashion for a photo spread or, heaven forbid, for real life: Things that are a little extreme tend to read better on camera. And with the exception of great 1970s splash-outs like Mahogany and Eyes of Laura Mars, movies about the fashion world rarely capture what’s so compelling about fashion anyway. But The Devil Wears Prada falls way too short of the mark. There isn’t enough variety among the Runway workers—they’re all playing by the “more is more” rulebook, without ever knowing when to quit.
And that does the language of fashion—and the world of people who truly care about it—a disservice. It’s true that fashion can be the province of stupid, shallow people. But that can be said of the world of movies and books and music, too, and even of fine art: Not everyone who makes or enjoys these things is as intelligent as he or she is cracked up to be, or would like to be.
Fashion, at its purest, is both a means of personal expression and a way of reaching toward beauty. To love it—to really love it—has nothing to do with loading up on the latest from Dior or Balmain, or with coveting this or that It bag, or with throwing runway looks on your Instagram, tagged with the words “I’m obsessed!” It’s not just about learning how to look, but learning how to see: Why does one sleeve follow the curve of the human arm perfectly, while another hangs stiff, like an awkward soldier? Why do certain color combinations (tangerine and turquoise, marigold and cobalt) please the eye, even when you think they shouldn’t work?
If The Devil Wears Prada, 10 years old this week, represents the wrong way to look and think about fashion, this week has also given us a reminder of the right way, although it’s a sad one: Bill Cunningham, the New York Times’ longtime on-the-street photographer—and the subject of the superb 2010 documentary Bill Cunningham New York—died on June 25, at age 87. Cunningham had actually made fashion himself (he was a milliner in the 1950s), and was a cofounder of Details magazine. But for some 40 years—almost right up to the day of his death—he could be found, dressed in his trademark blue workman’s smock, pedaling the streets of New York on his bike, camera around his neck, at the ready to capture fashion in the wild. His subjects included socialites wrapped in plush furs and club kids in improvised outfits that might have cost a nickel.
The things that would stop him—the swooping cut of a jacket, a weird, vibrant color combination, a small accessory that had somehow turned drab outfit into one of pure delight—were not necessarily things you could list or even adequately describe in words. But Cunningham was always alive to the telling detail. That’s a world apart from just piling on the details. The Devil Wears Prada, on the other hand, gives us everything to look at, but nothing to see.