The films of Whit Stillman have long cast a knowing eye on the behavior of the 1 percent, or even a fraction of that population known as the ultra-moneyed elite. Metropolitan, the independent film that became his first major hit when it premiered in 1990, opened an Upper East Side window onto the world one of his characters termed UHB, or “Upper Haute Borgeoisie,” depicting what then remained of Manhattan’s debutant season with such realism that the satin gowns, worn with black tights and a single strand of pearls, now serve as visual archive of socialite fashion from the period. (You can watch the trailor for Metropolitan above.)
In fact, Stillman’s films – Metrololitan and The Last Days of Disco among them – remain a touchstone for fashion designers who look back at this earlier era of Manhattan with nostalgia. It was simpler, more innocent. Or, perhaps it is better to say that its decadence was just a little less obvious, without the benefit of social media. Metropolitan retains such resonance that Rialto Pictures is re-releasing the movie this week in New York and Los Angeles for its 25th anniversary, and if you have a chance to see it, be sure to pay close attention to the fashion.
“The clothes are very restricting,” says Carolyn Farina, who played the role of Audrey Rouget (pictured, below), the more naïve and trusting of the debs, a character who is taken by the arrival of potential escort, Tom Townsend. “I’ve heard comments over the years that the characters seem a little stiff, but in those circles, people were a little stiff. The clothing creates a certain behavior.”
Metropolitan was Farina’s first professional role, and its success was a surprising to her as anyone else. Coming from Queens, where she grew up in a working-class family with a single mom, her first exposure to that rarified world of deb balls – when the daughters of wealth families are presented to potential suitors – was during the filming. “I couldn’t be further to a debutant than a cockroach is to a stallion,” Farina says. “Though I’m not comparing myself to a cockroach.”
Recalling those scenes, Farina, who now works as a school psychologist, notes how the characters were partly defined by their clothing. The dresses she wore, with big poufy shoulders, were less sophisticated, for example, from those worn by her friend Cynthia McLean. “It helped us find our own way of telling the story,” Farina says. Cynthia’s dresses were more provocative and grownup, reflecting her experience, and her behavior, too.
Although times may be less innocent today, Farina notes, those archetypes haven’t really changed in characters from Gossip Girl to Mean Girls.
“Human nature remains the same,” she says. “That’s why Metropolitan still has so much appeal. Despite the fact they are wealthy debutants, everyone can identify with them.”