“The Devil wears Prada” Is a comedy-drama film set in the cut-throat world of the New York fashion industry where a warm, naïve journalist is driven to conform to the chilly, inhuman ideologies of her new co-workers. The clash between what is human and individual and what is cold and commercial embodies the struggle between conformity and individualism in today’s consumer society.
To many people, the fashion industry epitomises what is best and worst about consumer culture; It is perceived and represented as supremely elegant, cold-hearted and exploitative. It also has the attraction of perfectionism: this is embodied in the protagonists awe-inspiring boss Miranda.
Miranda could be seen as a rarefied example of the culture she inhabits. She is elitist, perfectionist, supremely demanding, and unforgiving of anything which lowers her standards. Miranda’s appearance signifies her personality; “With her silver hair and pale skin, her whispery diction as perfect as her posture, Ms. Streep’s Miranda inspires both terror and a measure of awe…a vision of aristocratic, purposeful and surprisingly human grace.”
This characters appearance and personality together signify the forces that people believe lie behind high fashion. To break down the sign and signifier, we have: A powerful and cold fashion magazine editor. This signifies power, commercialism and elegance. The sign in context is the driving force behind a large part of modern mass culture.
The protagonist is compelled to conform to her Boss’ ideals, because high standards and efficiency draw admiration. She is greatly rewarded, with the sort of rewards the fashion industry offers; her career goes successfully, she gains a wonderful sense of style, and she is respected in the circles she works in. However, she rejects the rewards of the fashion industry because the values Miranda personifies deny sentiment and human warmth.
The coldness and perfectionism of commercial art is signified in this film by Miranda’s attitude:
Miranda: ….and you have no style, or sense of fashion…
Andy: I think that depends on your definition of-
Miranda: No no. That wasn’t a question.
The conformity demanded of the protagonist mirrors the conformity of the average person in the face of the pressure put on consumers in the modern world. Her co-workers sneering hostility pressures the newcomer to change in the same way that advertising pressures everyone to change, update, purchase, for fear of being out of line with everyone else. While human beings allow for and value individuality, fashion demands conformity; in this film, so do those who commit themselves to it.
This view of the fashion industry is, of course, a fiction. It is shaped by the perceptions of the masses, and has been criticised as unrealistic. Roland Barthes would say that the
representation of the subject distorts rather than hides the reality.
The protagonists rejection of Miranda’s ideology signifies the moral message of the film which in turn signifies the ideology of our society; because we value the warm and individual above cold efficiency, it is necessary for the protagonist to resign, and re-enter her easygoing circle of friends and family.
To move from Semiology to ideology, you could say that this film is an examination of the clash between what is national and impersonal, and what is individual and human.