Essay by Lynda Nead Georges Méliès’s Le déshabillage impossible and Ferdinand Zecca’s Monsieur et Madame sont pressées

Lynda Nead

The perfectly dressed fashionable body represents a specific kind of physical ideal: composed, complete and finished. Moreover, the perfection of the surface is assumed to be simply the most outward manifestation of multiple hidden layers of equally gorgeous textures and details. This image of fashion as an accumulation of exquisite layers was especially dominant in the nineteenth century, when highly detailed and ornamented outer clothes concealed an array of foundation and undergarments. Within this context of fashionable layers and the proliferation of fasteners, trimmings and openings, the processes of dressing and undressing took on a particular symbolic significance and, in certain circumstances, could become a highly erotic expression of the fact of fashion throughout this period.

The first years of film coincide with the highpoint of late-Victorian and Edwardian fashion and it is not surprising that a number of comic trick films take the clothing and unclothing of the body as the butt of their jokes. Non-fiction film in this period was disrespectful and anarchic; filmmakers took their tone and style from fairgrounds and music halls and used the illusional powers of the new medium to interfere with and denigrate figures of authority and social status. Rather than the fashionable body as a figure of aesthetic containment and control, therefore, clothes in early trick films take on a mischievous life of their own; they confound and infuriate their owners with the sole intention of turning them into objects of ridicule.

Georges Méliès was the great master of the trick film. Originally a stage musician and artist, he started making films within months of the medium’s first public exhibition in Paris in December 1895. His films are action-packed and visually inventive. Using a stop-motion technique in which the camera is stopped when the substitution is made and then restarted from the same point, the transformations in Méliès’ films come thick and fast. In Le déshabillage impossible (1900), a film of a couple of minutes’ duration, an elderly man enters a hotel room and tries to undress. ‘Tries’ is the operative word here, for, no sooner does he remove his clothes and hang them up on the hooks on the wall behind him, than new ones reappear on his body. He cannot undress, as coats, hats and other items magically appear on his body at a faster and faster rate. As in many comic films of this first silent period, in the end the protagonist is so enraged by the situation that he physically collapses and ends up rolling on the floor in a fit of frustration.

It might be argued that in the first years of film men are prevented from undressing by the tricks of the filmmaker in a way that women were not. Although there are exceptions to this statement, it is the case that for all the “impossible disrobings” of male bodies, there are a significant number of films from the same period in which ladies are able to undress and prepare for their baths without obstacles to the straightforward removal of outer clothes. But even something as apparently straightforward as this could be interfered and played with by the filmmaker and projectionist. A sequence of short films could be projected forwards and it could be reversed. In fact reverse projection was a simple technique that was recommended to exhibitors as an effective way of entertaining audiences. So even striptease could become dress-tease if a projectionist decided to run the film backwards.

A number of these themes come together in Ferdinand Zecca’s Monsieur et Madame sont pressées (1901). Here, the setting is a bourgeois bedroom with a carved door and fireplace, and a wooden bed. Madame, wearing a striped petticoat, chemise and corset, is looking in the mirror, while Monsieur is in bed in his pyjamas. In the foreground there are two chairs piled with ‘his’ and ‘her’ clothes. The stage is set for a trick film on the impossibility of dressing. Realising that they are late, Madame wakes up her husband and bustles him out of bed; they must dress quickly… and this is the problem. She picks up a skirt; he picks up his trousers and they begin to dress. First substitution: the clothes switch. She is holding the trousers and he has her skirt. They swap them back and try to re-continue but are constantly thwarted by the magic clothes. Each time the couple come close to actually putting on an item of clothing, it is substituted for a different, impossible piece. A skirt is switched and becomes a hat; a waistcoat is substituted for trousers; Madame tries to put a hat on her head and it becomes a boot. There is a constant, surreal sequence of clothing substitutions.

Fashion is always necessarily concerned with dressing and preparation; about the manner and style of putting on clothes – a temporal process, rather than an instant transformation. Early film played with the temporality and instantaneity of dressing. It switched clothes in the blink of an eye and made the finite process of dressing a temporal impossibility. Complete perfection becomes an unending nightmare in which inanimate objects take on a life of their own and rob their owners of their decorum and composure.

The knockabout action in Zecca’s film increases, with the couple initially laughing at each other and then throwing the clothes in a pile on the floor. Then, just as they appear to have given up on the idea of ever getting dressed, they are suddenly fully clothed. Amazed and delighted, they are about to leave the room when their costumes are switched and they stand, helpless, wearing each other’s clothes. At the end of his tether, the man tries to reclaim his clothes and attacks the woman and the couple end up fighting and rolling about on the floor. The clothes switch again to their proper owners, the couple makes a final attempt to exit but trip and find themselves back in their original state of undress. They rush from the room and in the final visual assertion of the triumph of objects and the magic of film illusion, the clothes begin, on their own, to become animated and get up from the floor.

Early trick films brought inanimate objects to life to become the demonic tormentors of the living. Perhaps clothes were the ideal objects to assume this role. Fundamental to individual identity and social status, clothes were next to the skin, they touched the body at the same time as they provided the body with the concealment required for social interaction. Dressing is also a basic skill, fashion can make it complicated, but it is something that we learn as young children. The first films turned this system of order upside down; they used the tricks of the new medium to create a world where commodities misbehaved and reverted to base objecthood, robbing their owners of dignity, status and power.

© Lynda Nead

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