“You who wear me will know me,” forebodes the message sewn into the lining of a haunted artery red faux-wraparound dress, adorned with a black peacock feather at the waist. Worn by a model (Sidse Babett Knudsen) at the moment of her death, the red vestment has made its way back onto a mannequin in its department store of origin where it is under the watchful Victorian eye of a witchy shopkeeper (Fatma Mohamed) who has newly violent designs for the piece.
From the first synthesizer chords that open Peter Strickland’s In Fabric and the 1980s giallo horror homage of the title sequence, this film already had me under a spell. Playing with arthouse horror iconography made famous by directors like Dario Argento, Alfred Hitchcock, and even David Lynch’s Wild at Heart and Lost Highway, Strickland toys not just with his actors, but with the audience as well. From disembodied mannequin parts, long nighttime highway jaunts, and erotic undertones what emerges is a strange and compelling story with many moving pieces.
One portion of the narrative involves Sheila Wallchapel (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) and her son Vince (Jaygann Ayeh) as they navigate an uncomfortable post-divorce living situation made worse by Vince’s antagonistic girlfriend Gwen (played by an almost unrecognizable Gwendoline Christie). In Fabric takes place back in the day when people placed personal ads in the newspaper, and Sheila is doing her best to put herself out into the dating scene, most especially since she found out her ex already has a new girlfriend. Setting her first date with a man promisingly named Adonis inspires her to look for a new dress during the Christmas sales at Dentley & Soper, and the witchy saleswoman with her huge Victorian upswept hair, corseted black lace dress, and red as red nails and lipstick encourages Sheila to try on the dress. The dress isn’t Sheila’s size, but it fits perfectly.
And so Strickland’s phantasmagoria begins in earnest as the witchy saleswoman and her coven cast a bizarre blood spell. While the dress claims more and more victims, its power appears to increase. The shopmatron’s spell will come back to haunt them all, and herself included, in a fiery conclusion I still haven’t quite wrapped my brain around.
In Fabric is the kind of movie that will provoke many different interpretations, all of which will be valid. Beyond the family drama, emerging love story, horror film, and 1980s period piece, Strickland puts an entirely new spin on the idea of fashion victims. Yes, a haunted dress is murdering people. But the subtext in In Fabric’s diverging and converging plotlines suggest as well that capitalism at its heart is violence, consumerism kills, and through these structures we still need reminding that women are not objects.
At one point Sheila’s superiors at the bank where she works pull her in for a meeting to tell her the big boss doesn’t think her handshake is “meaningful enough.” They also threaten to write her up for insubordination after she greeted the big boss’s mistress while out shopping. They tell her that her bathroom breaks are cutting into the boss’s profits. Exploitative capitalist and consumerist systems and structures permeate In Fabric far beyond the killer red dress.
Even Dentley & Soper’s shopkeepers, with their outmoded and overtly formal manner of speech, appeared hyper aware of their own place in the wheel of capitalism. While they encouraged people to consume, their dialogue suggested they still understood the inanity of capitalist structures as they exist. “Sale. Sale. Sale.” So you must “Buy. Buy. Buy.” You must participate in this yearly event of stock liquidation. Returning something, or simply deciding you don’t want it anymore, is not part of the capitalist contract. Once an item leaves the store, it is not welcome back, even if they were the ones who enchanted it.
I got my period four days early after watching this film. When you see the film you’ll understand why this is significant. That night I had a dream that I was in a deep aquarium filled with sharks and other ocean monsters. I was in human form and I couldn’t change into my natural mermaid shape. The sharks nipped at my feet, octopi tried to pull me under. Suddenly I was standing over the aquarium. The water had turned into a layer of glass. And it was my bedroom. The animals were still trying to get me. A man broke in through the bathroom window. He had weapons. My weapons were at the front door, far away. He was going to kill me. The beasts below my feet screamed and raged until I realized they were mine. They answered to me. A trap door opened and I fed the intruder to my beasts. I woke with a muffled shout. This is one of few dreams I’ve remembered upon waking in some time and I’m sure In Fabric had something to do with it. At first, it was terrifying. Looking back, I see this dream was a message of incredible personal power and agency—kind of like what the red dress possesses.
My second viewing of In Fabric was punctuated by extreme thunderstorms here in Florida. It was like the outside world reminding me there exists more than just this movie. Good it did. I was starting to forget.
How does a writer meld family dramas, romance, folk witch horror, and a haunted “house”—in this case, the house being a dress—move into one cohesive narrative? Once the enchantment wears off some I plan to study this film in detail to figure out how they’ve managed to create something so straightforward, and yet so incredibly narratively complex simultaneously. This is a cabinet of curiosities I’ll be excavating to its bones.
In Fabric doesn’t really even feel like a movie anymore. It feels like a lived experience. It feels like a message.
This is the kind of film that makes you feel even the smallest, most banal thing is fraught with meaning. And in particular old clothes. My husband is so pleased that thanks to In Fabric I plan to purge our closets of all the haunted items of clothing I still keep that no longer serve me. Because of In Fabric I feel the weight of those clothes and the people I associate with them—many of whom are no longer in my life for good reason. So why are those clothes still here? And when I don’t even wear them? This is just another reminder of the healing power of horror stories, and especially arthouse ones like In Fabric. I feel something was physically, psychically, even possibly spiritually unlocked in me after watching this movie. Like it was a message of some sort, and Strickland was merely the conduit for it to take place.
Whatever day you see this film on, it might feel like your own personal message too.
In Fabric is currently screening at the Toronto International Film Festival.
For more of our reviews from TIFF check out the following: