Suzanne Lenglen: Sport and Fashion Film

After our last advisory board meeting, the film historian Marion Schmid sent us this link to a British Pathé film of the French tennis star Suzanne Lenglen dressed by Jean Patou playing at Wimbledon in June 1925.

It was sparked by our discussion in the meeting of what a historical fashion film might be, and what historical genres we might look at beyond fashion (dance, trick film, ethnographic film and animation) to discover different articulations of early 20th century fashion. ‘It’s definitely great tennis, up to you to decide whether it might be fashion film!’ wrote Marion of this film. She’d been inspired to search it out by the suggestion of another board member, the photographer’s agent Katy Barker, that we expand our research categories to think about sportswear in high fashion today (sometimes called athleisure).

Two things stand out about Lenglen from this film: her balletic sports style, and her intrinsic bodily elegance. Both are highlighted by the film’s use of slow motion, and its intertitles foreground the technological possibilities of film to capture physical performance.

They name-check the cameramen and editor, the colour sections of film in ‘Verachrome’, the slo-mo achieved by the ‘Ultra-Rapid Camera’ that recorded 160 frames per second, and the ‘panoramic-telephoto camera’ that captured Lenglen’s agility on court.

Lenglen was a brilliant sportswoman who was also a fashion icon. Much photographed for society magazines, she appeared on court in furs, cosmetics and nail varnish, often dressed by Jean Patou, the haute couturier noted for his sportswear.

Yet watch her play in this film, and all that disappears. Instead, you see a beautiful, elegant body focused 100% on the task in hand. In this short film, the technology of the body and the technology of film seem to mesh, something the filmmakers are well aware of in their intertitles. She is ‘never still but always on her toes and ready’ says one, ‘and always that wonderful “follow through”. ‘And those dancing feet’, says another. She makes other ground-breaking tennis champions of the period like Helen Wills look workaday.

In the twenties, sport and fashion went hand in hand. Writing in French Vogue in 1923, Colette described a famous tennis star’s bodily posture: upright and sporting on court, at night time she slouches fashionably in her slinky dress, her shoulders drooping. Lenglen’s bodily styles worked for both fashion and tennis.

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Fig. 2

The film shows her balletic poses [fig. 1] that reminded me of the dance sequence [fig. 2] in another film, a half-hour fictional fashion film from 1923, Toni Lekain’s On Demande un mannequin, that can be seen in the Cinémathèque Française in Paris’s rue de Bercy. In both, the weightlessness of the bodies in the air seem to freeze the moment, as if to prolong it like an extended still. They catch the essential connection of time to both film and fashion.

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Fig. 4

Lenglen’s extended poses—her balletic follow-through, soaring jumps and springy footwork—make a link to sportswear, as Marion noted, with reference to Katy’s suggestion to look at today’s athleisure. The way that Katy’s suggestion sent Marion off into the film archive to excavate this extraordinarily modern piece of sports performance film from Lenglen perfectly encapsulated the media archaeological ambitions of our project. Big thanks to both of them for their generous and lateral thinking, that extended the ‘categories’ that we are simultaneously working with and challenging. Both their suggestions made me think sideways to ever-new genre of both film and female performance in the elusive quest of ‘fashion film’ from the past. This is an example of how rethinking something  in the present (Katy’s point about sportswear) makes us re-view the past (Marion’s discovery of the 1925 tennis film footage) so that we can speculate in new ways about both. This is what Thomas Elsaesser calls ‘retro-active causality’, or Nachträglichkeit, where he writes that film history could

become a matter of tracing paths or laying tracks leading from the respective “now” to different pasts, in modalities that accommodate continuities as well as ruptures. We would then be mapping media-convergence and self-differentiation not in terms of either a teleology or a search for origins, but in the form of forking paths of possibility…

History as archaeology adds to this a further insight: it knows and acknowledges that only a presumption of discontinuity (in Foucault’s terms, the positing of epistemic breaks) and of fragmentation (the rhetorical figure of the synecdoche or the pars pro toto) can give the present access to the past, which is always no more than a past (among many actual or possible ones), since for the archaeologist, the past can be present to the present with no more than its relics. Finally, an archaeology respects the possible distance the past has from our present perspective, and even makes it the basis of its methodology.

Thanks to our wonderful board for their generous involvement that spurred these thoughts, including to the fashion scholar Jonathan Faiers for terrific publishing suggestions.

 

– Caroline Evans

 

Reference:

Thomas Elsaesser, ‘The New Film History as Media Archaeology’ in Cinémas, Volume 14, Issue 2–3, Printemps, 2004, pp. 75–117, accessed at: https://www.erudit.org/en/journals/cine/2004-v14-n2-3-cine863/026005ar