In the 2006 comedy drama The Devil Wears Prada, employees at fictional New York fashion magazine Runway go through an elaborate, panicked ritual before their exacting editor-in-chief arrives, even swapping out their flat shoes for a pair of heels in deference to the expected workplace attire. A year later, halfway around the world in Mumbai, Femina senior fashion editor Nitasha Gaurav found herself doing the same when she got to work.
"At Femina, we could not wear flip flops at work. That was a big rule," says Gaurav, now a celebrity stylist whose clients include Ranveer Singh and Parineeti Chopra. "I worked there for four years and wore heels 90 percent of the time. Since I quit, I don't think that I've worn heels even one percent of the time." This 'no slippers' rule is also sacrosanct at fashion label House Of Masaba, where designer Masaba Gupta insists that every employee wear closed shoes to meetings.
Based on Lauren Weisberger's book detailing her experiences as Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour's personal assistant, The Devil Wears Prada cemented itself as a cultural touchstone in the 15 years since its release. Directed by David Frankel, the film earned Meryl Streep her record-setting 14th Oscar nomination, redefined the image of the personal assistant and reminded everyone that wearing florals for Spring was neither original nor groundbreaking. Viewed as a glimpse into the cutthroat workings of the fashion industry, it gave those aspiring to work in the field unrealistic notions of what to expect.
"I hired an assistant and on the first day of the job, she messaged me: Shall I pick up some coffee for you? I don't even drink coffee! Later, she said that she'd seen Anne Hathaway's character, Andrea, do that in the film. She didn't have a background in fashion and so she was taking all her cues from that movie," says Gaurav, who admits to taking her own cues from Andrea's mercurial boss Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep), albeit to a much lesser extent.
While she didn't go as far as to fling her coat and handbag on her assistant's desk upon arrival or demand advance copies of unreleased Harry Potter books, Gaurav says she caught herself and her team being critical of the way others dressed, despite the otherwise supportive atmosphere at the workplace. "You thought that sort of behaviour was cool because that was how your head worked at that time" she says. A scene in which Miranda dismisses a feature on "deeply unattractive" female paratroopers hits uncomfortably close. "We didn't do things like only put fair girls on the covers — we had that level of awareness. But we lacked plus-sized models. We've evolved now, but we were a little less kind back then."
The Indian fashion industry, and the coverage surrounding it, were a lot different when The Devil Wears Prada hit theatres. It would take another year for Marie Claire and Conde Nast to launch here. Gupta, who was three years away from setting up her label, remembers being intimidated by the fashion industry depicted in the film and wondering if this was a world she really wanted to be part of. "Andrea changes her entire look overnight to fit in at work. I thought that was a true representation of how the industry could literally make a human being," she says. Fifteen years later, she sees the movie as more nostalgia-inducing than accurate. But what did the film really get right about the industry? And what did it get wrong? Experts weigh in:
"The idea of snobbishness in fashion, the idea that you couldn't sit with us unless you dressed in a particular way — those were dominant claims in fashion in India even then," says Namrata Zakaria, who has been a fashion and lifestyle columnist since 2000. "We all had a chip on our shoulder regardless of the quality of our work or the hours we put in. We all thought that we were privileged." Looking back, she realizes this cultivated air of exclusivity was the industry's way of ensuring that assistants and interns felt grateful to belong to this world despite the low salaries they were being paid.
One perk that editors, and by extension, their assistants, did get was access to luxury items. Much like The Devil Wears Prada scene in which Andrea surprises her friends with a $1,100 phone, a $1,900 Marc Jacobs bag, branded hairbrushes and skincare products — all Miranda's castoffs — brands do send over their products to fashion outlets, and more recently to beauty bloggers, to be reviewed.
Sadly, however, the idea of employees having full access to a walk-in closet filled with expensive couture is still more cinematic than realistic. In the film, Andrea's makeover from frumpy to fashionable is aided by the designer clothes, shoes and handbags she liberally borrows from the Runway closet. In reality, while it's common for stylists to send over racks of clothing to a fashion magazine ahead of a shoot, employees are prevented from taking the garments home or wearing them to events. Gaurav explains that this is because magazines are answerable to designers, who are particular about who's spotted wearing their clothes and where, making it unlikely for an assistant to walk out in a pair of Chanel boots.
Given the proximity to designer wear, dress sizes and subsequently, body image issues, become naturally recurring topics of conversation among the characters in the film. Andrea's told that her size, 6, is the new size 14. Senior assistant Emily (Emily Blunt) embarks on a diet, starving herself till she feels faint and then reviving herself with a piece of cheese.
"Models, at least in India, eat and eat well," says Gupta. "But a few years ago, I hired an assistant who would eat half an avocado through the day. Or drink just one smoothie. She got really, really skinny over time. One day, she passed out because she was so underweight and undernourished. I asked her what happened and she said: I don't know. I just wanted to fit the mould. I didn't understand that because I myself didn't fit the mould back then. Sometimes, there is that pressure but sometimes it's self-created."
The extent of Miranda's power is revealed through a scene in which she demands a preview of a designer's new collection, non-verbally communicating her opinion of his clothes. A single purse of her lips means that he must now start over from scratch. How accurate is this scene? "Not even one percent," says Gupta. "Designers present their collection on the runway, not before, and then it's not even the editor, it's the magazine's stylist or the senior stylist who comes by and talks about whether she wants to feature it in the issue." The editor's word is no longer what makes or breaks a designer's career. With editorial fashion spreads dwindling over the past few years — magazines no longer dedicate 10 pages to features like The Best Ways To Drape A Sari — social media is now the place to spot emerging fashion trends. "You won't discover the new It Bag of the season in a magazine anymore," she adds.
"I won't call the film timeless because its appeal hasn't lasted. It's largely offensive," says Zakaria, pointing out the lack of diversity among the Runway office staff and the absence of plus-sized or trans models on the magazine's covers. What does endure, however, is the perception of the fashion boss as abrasive and demanding, a veneer of ruthless efficiency concealing private hurts and vulnerabilities. While Gupta's Netflix show Masaba Masaba, a fictional chronicle of the inner workings of the fashion industry, also features a bitchy male editor, she says it's more of a stereotype and not based on her experiences.
What the movie gets right is the toll a high-pressure job in the fashion industry takes on relationships. "Let me know when your whole life goes up in smoke. Means it's time for a promotion," art director Nigel (Stanley Tucci) tells Andrea. Gupta agrees with his assessment. "People who are not in fashion assume that it's fun and frivolous and can't be all consuming, but it is. It's not a 9-to-5 job, it's 24×7 and affects how much time you get to spend with family or friends," she says. Just as Nigel predicted, Andrea ruins an evening out with her father when she's forced to attend to work calls, alienates her friends and breaks up with a boyfriend who no longer recognizes this newly ambitious version of her.
"The film nailed the idea of the possessive boyfriend because even now you see women who want to be achievers being pulled back especially by the men in their lives," says Zakaria. "If it's not the boyfriends, it's the fathers. It's very rare for a man to nurture a woman's career and be secure about it. That's a feminist aspect the film got right."