Halston: Through a Glass Obscured, by Dayne Linford
The act of looking back, of examining the past, is a key feature of human consciousness and arguably the primary function of art itself–to render a narrative so we can understand ourselves. As we look back over an incredibly violent and tumultuous century, we’ve just now begun the work of trying to make sense of our current place between that century and whatever happens tomorrow. That work is all-encompassing and every aspect, from our thinking to our technology to our values to our aesthetics, serves as a key element of making meaning. No wonder then that we’re now in a golden age of documentary work after a long maturation, a genre that has rapidly developed admirable sophistication and nuance and develops further with each passing year, a genre that was only possible with the technology and social gains of the last century. One more entry in this history is Frédéric Tcheng’s Halston, a biographical treatment of the famous American designer whose work came to dominate the world in the second half of the last century and whose story becomes a fascinating, multi-faceted mirror of ourselves, redirecting our gaze in a million different directions.
Halston, born Roy Halston Frowick, was a seminal designer in women’s fashion throughout the 60s, 70s, and 80s, breaking open the previously Eurocentric fashion world as the first American designer to gain world prominence. As he himself put it, the twentieth century was America’s century and Halston achieved a kind of preeminence in that American takeover, dressing first his home country and then the world. He started out as a hat designer and maker, running his own store in Chicago, making a name for himself before coming to New York City to work for Bergdorf Goodman, a luxury clothing store. Here, he took off, thanks primarily to a design that’s still very well known–Jackie Kennedy’s white pillbox hat. It’s at this point that our documentary picks up his story, where he’s already achieved a good deal of success and established a name, that being the name “Halston,” refashioned from its family roots with a different pronunciation, a different air, a constructed personality. As he would do with his clothes for others, he had already fashioned himself and perhaps similarly destined himself for the coming saga of his success and decline.
Director Tcheng brings as similarly, ambitiously layered an approach to his second documentary as his subject did about his own life, to mixed results. Halston’s incredible story covers a great deal more than fashion: queer life in America through a major period of transition, the way our culture thinks about and looks at women, the sexual revolution of the late 60s, the Vietnam war, the rise of the corporate 80s, and so on. Though these are all touched on, Tcheng regrettably chooses to focus on the corporate intrigue that eventually ousted Halston from his own company and barred him from using his own name. This eventuality alone carries interesting layers of meaning surrounding a gay male designer of women’s clothes and then much else but these layers are not really plumbed in any meaningful fashion. Instead, Tcheng sets up a strange, fictional bookend surrounding an anonymous employee of the company that ultimately took over Halston’s design house, played by Tavi Gevinson, who is looking over tapes of various shows and documentations which were supervised by Halston and ultimately taken from him. This employee fulfills only one function in the film, that of being our narrator, and no aspects of this job are furthered, complicated, or expounded by this bookend construction. The only real purpose of it seems to be to allow a foreshadowing open and the occasional cut away to different tapes, as if the footage we’re going to see is on them. That this editorial functionality is largely presumed by an increasingly savvy documentary-watching audience, that many, many talented documentarians have accomplished similar voyeur and in media res effects without feeling the need to add this ornamentation and that said ornamentation provided no useful context for exploring the layers of Halston’s expansive life, only underscores how strange and wrong-headed this choice was.
This is especially frustrating because not only is Halston truly worthy of a documentary or a series but Tcheng shows admirable editorial insight throughout the film when engaged in the usual work of documentary films as a genre. Hundreds of hours of footage must have been combed through to select these very choice bits and the interviews with major figures and celebrities, ranging from his best friend Liza Minnelli to the man who supposedly orchestrated his fall, are handled really well. Beyond these basic aspects, Tcheng often employs film technique very well, particularly editing, the great tool of all film but especially documentary film, showing playful facility with how best to tell this tale. One such moment is when Halston travels to China, just after Nixon’s famous trip, hoping to effectively open the country up to Western fashion and products, meeting with politicians and seamstresses. Initially, this trip is presented as Halston saw it, an unqualified success, a grand tour and a high point in his career. Then, with an unfortunate cut away to a finger pressing “rewind” on a tape machine, accompanied by the attendant, sufficient visual of the footage winding back to the start, we begin again and hear about the trip as experienced by his adoring, loyal staff, who dealt with a lot of nonsense and abuse from Halston, captured on tape. Tcheng uses this technique often throughout the film to add complexity to Halston’s narrative and allow the other people in it to say their piece, quite effectively. That he feels the need to accompany it with his extraneous bookend underscores that the material in some ways is beyond his approach.
Ultimately, Halston led a fascinating life and was a very interesting person. The film that bears his name is a flawed but interesting and mostly successful tribute. It’s only unfortunate that Tcheng didn’t trust either his material or his own commendable skills to carry the audience through the film, as he should have. It’s clear, however, that there are many other stories in the fashion world to tell and that Tcheng is a good venue for them to be told. Hopefully as he matures as a filmmaker he’ll develop a little more of a steady hand to allow his talents to come to the fore. Meanwhile, we have here a mixed but capable introduction to this incredible twentieth century figure.