Frédéric Tcheng has continued his exploration of traditional fashion houses and figures following his 2015 release, Dior and I, in his newest documentary, Halston. The film chronicles the rise and fall of designer, Roy Halston Frowick, known by his mononymous name Halston, in the late 1960s and into the 70s, as he revolutionized the industry and put America on the map of international fashion.
Halston was often called “the man who set fashion free” through his innovative pattern-making, and his focus on the woman in the garment, rather than just the clothing itself. Through numerous interviews with models and industry peers who knew him best, including superstar Liza Minnelli, we are provided with a personal glimpse into the man behind the persona. Halston succeeds at expressing the esteem and undeniable legend of the man, not only by his peers, but by the world at large. Persistent tonal issues, as well as a dichotomous structure that often battles itself for attention, leaves much to be desired from this film.
The structure of Halston exists both in fiction and actuality. The narrator is fictional, a young woman in a dark storage room, sorting through VHS tapes and trying to piece together the story of Halston as if it was an investigation. These VHS tapes are the vehicle of telling the narrative. As she places each tape in the player, the archival footage is displayed, and the actuality begins. The film cuts back and forth between these structures throughout the documentary.
Halston matters to the history of fashion. This film does not merely make this point, but thoroughly proves it through the real-life footage and interviews. Models speak to the fact that they were finally “free inside [their] clothes.” Halston’s designs were refreshing, simplistic, and uninhibited in contrast to the stiff formality of 1950s fashion. In the 1960s, a decade so commonly known as being one of huge change and progress in the United States, primary media and mainstream fashion was still held at very white, wealthy, and hetero-normative standards. Halston was inclusive. There was a spot on his runway for all races, sizes, and sexual orientations, and he made it known. Quick montages of photographs and video from inside his studio contribute to the dignified iconicity of Halston, while the disco soundtrack and Studio 54 imagery express the 1960s culture, leaving the viewer nostalgic for the glamour and liveliness of an era in which they may have never even lived. The film does an excellent job of translating the emotional and heartfelt passion within Halston and all of his associates. Through the extensive display of his significance, reverence, and influence, I found myself adopting an appreciation for him as well. In this way, the film did its job.
However, this documentary is greatly hindered by the inclusion of the fictitious narrator and the constructed scenes that were paired with her. The inspiration of film noir is very apparent through the jazz score that accompanies the narration scenes, and the dark, shadowy storage room in which the narrator exists. Tcheng cites this style as an inspiration, stating that he believes the story of Halston has “all the trappings of a great corporate thriller.” While the intent was clear, and the noir-style scenes alluded to the elusiveness and mystery of Halston’s persona, they were so heavily contrived, down to a jumpsuit strewn on the floor like a crime scene’s chalk outline, that their presence withdrew any emotional investment that had been accumulated and came across as more kitschy than captivating. Besides, the narrator’s voice-overs did not contribute any new information that hadn’t already been provided through the testimonies, instead of feeling like a forced attempt to include a tone that didn’t have a place in the context of the rest of the film.
Despite some choppiness in the transitions that often left the viewer wondering, “how did we get here again?,” the storytelling of this film is overall effective in its chronology. We got to know Halston, so we cared and understood the chain of events that led to the rise and fall of his empire. We were given enough perspective, and enough emotional testimony, to acknowledge the themes of consumerism and commercialization that serve as the foundation of the fashion industry, yet are simultaneously damaging. We understood how he went from putting the pillbox on Jackie Kennedy, to dressing every woman in America, and through this context and perspective, Halston’s story has an impact.
Roy Halston Frowick was the man who innovated and molded the fashion industry in the 1960s and 70s, and his influence cannot be disparaged or overlooked. Halston’s illustration of the timeline of the most influential fashion house in the mid-20th century garners appreciation for Halston, while also asking important questions about how, or if, the fashion industry can ever be truly satisfying and inclusive for not only consumers, but designers as well. It explores the hindrances of ambition, inclusion, constructed realities, and commercialization. However, its blatant tonal issues and distracting structure diminish emotional engagement and withdraw focus within the documentary.