‘Happy Clothes: A Film About Patricia Field’ Review: An Occasionally Satisfying Doc on ‘Sex and The City’ Costume Designer

Tribeca 2023: Michael Selditch’s profile of NYC’s storied stylist should have been as bold as its subject

Patricia Field in Happy Clothes
Happy Clothes

When she won a Golden Globe for “The Devil Wears Prada,” Meryl Streep said it best about what the role of costume design could be in moving pictures while thanking costume designer Patricia Field: “That was like special effects for our movie.”

Indeed, “special effects” is what the effervescent Pat Field touch brings to any project that she signs her name under, the most popular among them undoubtedly being HBO’s “Sex and the City.” With perhaps the exception of “Mad Men” has there been another culturally iconic TV series in the last quarter century that informed, even evolved how people dressed in their daily lives?

So it’s no easy task to do justice to the life and legacy of Field, a colorful New York City personality with a recently published book about her life. (Field doesn’t call it a memoir, as that word sounds too final to her.) But more versed in episodic outputs such as CNN’s four-part docuseries “American Style” than feature-length films, director Michael Selditch gives this gigantic task a shot anyway in “Happy Clothes: A Film About Patricia Field” with mixed results.

“Happy Clothes” gives us an intriguing snapshot of a creative force who can mix patterns and colors more fearlessly than anyone in the business. But it ultimately leaves us craving move. The plot is meandering and unfocused on the whole with a register that feels haphazardly episodic. It satisfies occasionally when it zeroes in on Field’s storied past and on-the-job personality,

Field’s shopping process for the second season of “Run the World” bookends “Happy Clothes,” a title that refers to Field’s sweet spot when it comes to happily harmonious colors that allow her to “f*ck with mismatched patterns.” In between, we get a lavish parade of talking-head interviewees consisting of Field’s current and former collaborators, from “Sex and the City” stars Kim Cattrall and Sarah Jessica Parker, to Lily Collins (“Emily in Paris”), show-runner and creator Darren Star, Michael Urie (“Ugly Betty”), and “House of Field” collaborators David Dalrymple and Steven “Perfidia” Kirkham, who owned their own wig department for over a decade at Field’s iconic (and now closed) NYC store of 50 years.

Perfidia—as well as a few of the other former employees of Field’s store, all current big stars—adorn some of the most enjoyable segments of “Happy Clothes.” Daphne Rubin-Vega and Laverne Cox look back at their time with Field and remember how Madonna was once asked to wait outside of the store until they finished vacuuming, or how Cyndi Lauper was once told “Those shoes are very expensive.” (“I can afford them,” was her amusing response to the employees who did not recognize her at first.) But these idiosyncratic figures recall how they were always encouraged to embrace their sexual identity freely by Field, at a time when such inclusive attitudes and safe spaces were sadly uncommon.

Selditch thankfully leaves room for Field’s own sexual identity too—she speaks about the loves of her life (one of which we get to hear from) as an openly gay woman. But “Happy Clothes” starts to give the unfortunate flavor of a rushed and promotional testimonial video mixed with a “Project Runway” episode, making one wish for more archival material and anecdotes of Field’s growth as a fashion whiz. One of the most significant stories in the film is when Field remembers getting a job at a department store straight after graduation, singlehandedly growing the shop’s blouse sales through nothing but her knack for visual display. As the interviews go on and on, one does long for more stories along these lines about Field’s early instincts as a budding stylist.

In fairness, we get to share a few interesting memories with the likes of Cattrall, Parker and Collins, who tell us about stories behind Carrie Bradshaw’s tutu and other crazy outfits (including this critic’s favorite: the ensemble with the pink shirt and green polka dot belt sitting directly on Carrie’s skin), Samantha Jones’ massive wide-brim hat and Emily’s evolution from bucket hats to fingerless gloves. There is a lot of joy in these personalities remembering what made Field unique, with her willingness to spend time understanding the real human being behind the character, instead of generically mandating clothes to actors.

Still, seeing Field at work is the most priceless asset “Happy Clothes” has to offer, with a long segment in which Field and her team dress “Run the World” star Bresha Webb. “How does this even make sense,” Webb often lovingly enquires about an outfit that shouldn’t work in theory, but very much does in the mirror. It is apparently a question Parker also often heard on the set of “Sex and the City,” which became her cue for knowing that she was wearing something special that encouraged viewers to see what Field was seeing.

“Happy Clothes” does that to a degree, but only sporadically. In the aftermath, you can’t help but feel that Field deserved something splashier, a doc as unapologetically distinctive as its subject’s signature flaming red hair.