WHEN FASHION SOLD THE MOVIES: 1930-1940

 

In the beginning of Hollywood’s Golden Age in the 1930s, movie marketing was already an old trade, but one of its newest tools was selling the movies based on the fashions that would be worn by the stars that appeared in them. Unlike recent times, it was the women that decided what movies a couple would see, and women stars dominated the screen. In the late 1920s,  exotic costumes or bold flapper looks were already drawing attention. But with the arrival of the 1930s, the studios planned methodical campaigns to attract women to the new releases by placing fashion images of the stars from the upcoming movies in magazines and newspapers. For this marketing to work, the stars’ costumes would have to be the best and most appealing fashions, and so the studios hired the best designers they could find.

Fashion in Movies ClaudetteColbert_Bluebeard'sEighthWife

Claudette Colbert in “Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife,” designed by Travis Banton, 1938. The publicity emphasized the “minaret silhouette” and the tulle fabric dotted with gold and black sequins, with the large tulle bow.

And the studios publicized their designers almost as much as their movie stars, and they became household names during the heyday of the 1930s. Newspapers regularly covered film fashion as part of the publicity for a film: what the stars wore; and which costume designer was responsible, all as part of a film’s publicity. Fan magazines like Photoplay, Screenland, Movie Mirror, and others regularly carried articles and photographs about what film fashions and costumes the stars would be wearing and what tips on dressing the costume designers had for the average woman. In the 1930s through the 1950s, print media was the dominant form of advertizing and promotion, and the combination of print and still photography was used to sell movies by promoting the look of the movie stars. This meant an emphasis on fashion and costumes, and since the female audience had been found to make most of the decisions on which movie showings to attend, this well into the 1940s, women were specifically targeted by emphasizing the importance of costuming in film. This was at the very peak of film attendance in U.S. history. This period was also one where women entered the workforce in large quantities. There was a shift from rural to  urban living, and one where young women were influenced by the dress of the young female stars on the screen, often playing roles that echoed their own lives. Realistic or not, the message often was, “with the right clothes you get the right breaks.”

Fashion in Movies Wendy Barrie_A Feather in Her Hat

The smiling face of Wendy Barrie is shown wearing white faile blouse with a tiered collar and pronounced peplum as publicity for Columbia’s “Feather in Her Cap, 1935.

Fashion in Movies Fay Wray_ The Richest Girl In The World_1934

Fay Wray models a “lip-stick red” velvet evening gown designed by Walter Plunkett at RKO for the film, “The Richest Girl in the World.” It has an interesting cowl neckline.

The contemporary movies, those depicting the times when the movie was released, were those where the studios could produce the most publicity about the fashions worn by the stars on-screen. Accordingly, male and female actors wore the fashions of the day, at least of the day when the movie was made. Since fashion trends change so quickly, classic Hollywood always had a potential problem with its contemporary movies. Even in the heyday of the studio factory system, it took a number of months between the time costumes were designed and when the film was released. During those months a new style could be launched, or a current style could become passé. This happened in 1929 when the popular irregular-length, handkerchief-hemmed dress was suddenly demode when Jean Patou introduced the long skirt. Movies featuring the former looked out of fashion, and some had to be re-edited with actresses filmed from the waist up. This happened relatively early in Hollywood’s history, but from then on the studio moguls decided they would employ the best costume designers they could find, and would emphasize a classic Hollywood style of fashion, and one that took full advantage of the sex appeal of their roster of stars and starlets.

Fashion show Joan-Mannequin 3

Adrian turned Joan Crawford from a former flapper into a sophisticated dresser in “Mannequin,” in 1938.

Thus in the 1930s, MGM had Adrian, who created the looks for Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford,  Jean Harlow, Jeanette MacDonald, and many others.  At Paramount there was Howard Greer followed by Travis Banton and then Edith Head. Warner Brothers had Orry-Kelly and Milo Anderson.  RKO had Walter Plunkett, Bernard Newman and Edward Stevenson. Fox, later the merged 20th Century-Fox had several designers come and go until Charles LeMaire became the Head Designer. Irene, working out of Bullock’s Wilshire, designed the wardrobe for major stars at several studios.

Fashion in MOvies  RKO_1936

Lily Pons in a silver lame wedding gown. Miss Pons, an opera diva, and this gown from “That Girl from Paris”was photographed by George Hurrell in full color for Photoplay

Samuel Goldwyn wanted to capitalize on fashion for his movies, going to France and the Haute Couture for a designer, where he found Chanel. He thought he could get both publicity and the avoidance of the problems of changing hemlines and styles by going direct to Paris. He hired her in 1931 to design the costumes for his film The Greeks Had a Word for It. Chanel also designed the costumes for Gloria Swanson in Tonight or Never in 1931. But Chanel and Swanson never got along , or were able able to establish a working relationship. Chanel was in Hollywood to take her measurements but then went back to Paris. By the time the costumes were made Gloria was pregnant and they no longer fit. And while the costumes were chic, they seemed to fall flat on the screen. In any event the film never did well and Chanel never came back to work as a costume designer.

Fashion in Movies Gloria Swanson

Gloria Swanson in “Tonight or Never” designed by Coco Chanel

It was in the 1930s that the iconic look of Hollywood glamour was developed by costume designers Adrian, Travis Banton, Irene, and others. This was done out of a need for that timeless style, but using a combination of new couture techniques of bias-cut dressmaking with luxurious fabrics like silk satin for form-fitting gowns worn by stars like Jean Harlow ,Joan Crawford, Claudette Colbert, and Carole Lombard. And the costume designers not only designed the look of glamour, but the simple-but-elegant styles that women aspired to, as well as the casual outdoor styles and bathing suits popular in California. During Hollywood’s Golden Age, American woman looked to movies for their fashion cues, and women across the world did too.

Fashion in Movies Loretta Young_Second Honeymoon

Loretta Young in “Second Honeymoon,” designed by Gwen Wakeling

The imagery and glamour of Golden Age Hollywood was developed in synchronicity with the tools to sell the movies through fashion. The Studio Portrait Gallery and its skilled photographers were put to use in taking glamour photos of the stars in their stunning gowns and beautiful dresses, all costumes they would be wearing in their upcoming movies. These ravishing images would be placed in fan magazine glossies and would still look good in newspapers. The most expensive of the movie  magazines, Photoplay, cost 25 cents in the 1930s. Vogue cost 35 cents while Harpers Bazaar cost 50 cents. The cost of a movie ticket was 25 cents in 1936.

Fashion in Movies Kitty Carlile_Here Is My Heart_1934

Kitty Carlisle in “Here is My Heart,” 1934, designed by Travis Banton

In the January 1932 issue, Photoplay had the article, “Let Screen Clothes be Your Guide to Wearable Fashions,” with a photo-spread of stars in current movies including Joan Crawford in Possessed. and Norma Shearer in Private Lives, both designed by Adrian.  Photoplay  magazine also had the leading studio costume designers give the “Fashion Forecast” for the seasons. Kalloch wrote  his forecast article for early Fall, 1935, outlining fabrics, furs, skirt lengths and other design elements, all accompanied with photos of the stars he designed for in their coming films. Travis Banton did the same for Photoplay for Autumn 1935, the article including some of his costume sketches. Banton stated there would be return to the era of elegance, with rich fabrics, furs, gold and silver brocades.   And with the current emphasis on the draped silhouette, chiffon would still be useful even in winter. The studios had been successful beyond their dreams in selling movies through fashion. The very image of the stars had usually been created by the studio’s costume designer, often paired with the star over many years. Sometimes the studios would also license a designer’s name to a fashion line, or otherwise publicize their creations as part of the film. This marketing arrangement worked very well through the 1930s up until the beginning of World War II. A variety of things happened to place this system in limbo. With the late 1950s it made a brief comeback but then disappeared with the demise of the studio system.  Only its relics and memorabilia remain today, although the films made during the period show – not the marketing – but that the emperor really did have clothes, and beautiful ones at that.   SONY DSC The photo above shows Joan Crawford wearing the famous “Letty Lynton” dress from the movie of the same title, 1932, designed by Adrian. It was knocked off by designers everywhere including by Parisian couturiers. The Macy’s Cinema Shop reportedly (but with much exaggeration) sold 50,000 copies of it.

This blog post is part of the   Classic Movie History Project Blogathon, hosted by Movies Silently, Once Upon a Screen, and Silver Screenings

 

FAN FAVORITE MOVIE COSTUMES

 

When I asked some classic movie fans for what  their favorite movie costumes were I got some surprise answers. These were heartening in this age of narrowing focus on “the best”or more often “the most mentioned in the media” answer to such a question. But then again I was dealing with a group of discriminating and knowledgeable film fans and fellow bloggers. Their answers also run the spectrum of older classic and more recent movie costumes and film fashion, some are well known and some not at all.  Here are their responses:

Patricia Gallagher’s favorite gown was worn by Grace Kelly in Rear Window,  this was the dramatic black and white coctail dress she is first seen in at Jimmy Stewart’s apartment. Edith Head designed it with a simple black decollete top and a full white chiffon skirt decorated with beaded twig decorations in black. It was quite smashing, one of Edith Head’s best designs. Grace wears black strappy heels with the outfit.

Grace Rear Window2

Deborah Thomas said her favorite was worn by Deanna Durbin in It Started with Eve, 1941. This outfit was designed by Vera West in a scene where Deanna Durbin is chased around a piano by her beau Robert Cummings. Deanna Durbin was a huge star in the late 1930s and early 1940s. She single-handedly kept Universal solvent with her popular films. Vera West designed costumes at Universal from 1928 until 1947.

Favorite Movie Costumes Durbin, Deanna (It Started With Eve)_01

Marsha Collock said her favorite was the “love bird dress” from  Gone with the Wind, 1939, designed by Walter Plunkett. The gown was made of blue silk and has “love-birds” sewn diagonally onto the front and right shoulder of the gown. It is seen briefly during a honeymoon scene in New Orleans. The gown is rarely seen in photographs. It was reportedly owned by the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts as late as the 1970s, but was in poor condition then.

Favorite costumes GWTW

Jacqueline T. Lynch said her favorite costume was Audrey Hepburn’s garden party gown from Sabrina  designed by Hubert de Givenchy. It is embroidered with black floral decorations on white silk organza. The gown has a detachable train that flows from the hips.

Audrey Sabrina

Dan DeSantis said he had many favorites, but especially the men’s fashions worn in The Red Shoes. Indeed, these are striking to me as well. The chic but casual style of the clothing of the International set at the Riviera, 1925-1965, is a lost art. This was a time when men believed in dressing up to look their best in their leisure, though here they are so dressed in producing art. The stills don’t do it justice, so the film has to be seen to appreciate the men’s wardrobe (and this wondrous  film as a whole).

Favorite costumes red shoes

Danny Reid’s favorite was the classic 1930s look of Kay Francis in Mandalay, designed by Orry-Kelly, 1934. The puffed tulle shoulders became popular after the “Letty Lynton” dress that Adrian designed in 1932. Kay Francis was a style-setting clothes-horse of the 1930s.

Favorite costumes Kay Francis

Aurora Bugallo’s favorite was worn by Eve Marie Saint in North by Northwest, 1959It’s a black silk dress with red embroidered roses, with a deep v-cut back. The dress was selected by Eve Marie at Bergdorf-Goodman in New York, where Alfred Hitchcock was filming. The costumes were designed at MGM but the head- designer Helen Rose was unavailable at the time and Hithcock didn’t like what had been provided. This one provided plenty of drama.

Favorite costumes North by Northwest

James Kelly said his favorite costume was worn by Elizabeth Taylor in Raintree County, 1957it was a cream colored tulle and lace ball gown designed by Walter Plunkett. This movie was one of Walter Plunkett’s best costume productions.

Costume favorites Raintree County Bob Willoughby

Billy Alvarez said his favorite costume is Deborah Kerr’s ball gown from The King and I, 1956designed by Irene Sharaff. The copper-colored satin gown with train and puffed lace sleeves was worn by Deborah Kerr as she danced with Yul Brynner. Irene Sharaff won a Best Costume Oscar for the film.

Favorite costumes king & I

Darian Dare’s favorite costume was Barbara Streisand’s “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever” white satin decollete gown worn with a collar and headpiece in Funny Girl, 1968, designed by Irene Sharaff.

Favorite costume Barbara Streisand

Patricia Nolan Clark said her favorite costume was worn by Jane Wyman in Just for You, 1952. Jane’s costumes were designed by Edith Head.

Favorite Movie Costumes  Jane Wyman

Becky Barnes said her favorite costume was worn by Nicole Kidman in The Others, 2001. This mauve-colored outfit was designed by Sonia Grande. Its simplicity and somber tones fit the character and the plot. and This costume designer is not well known, although she has designed Midnight in Paris and Vicky Cristina Barcelona for Woody Allen.

Favorite costumes Nicole Kidman The Others

Favorite costumes Nicole 2

Michael Munnelly’s favorite costume was worn by Kate Winslet in Titanic, 1997, designed by Deborah L, Scott. This was Rose’s peach-colored and sequined black lace gown worn early in the film when she wants to jump overboard before Leonardo Di Caprio prevents her from jumping. This costume sold at auction in 2012 for $330,00.

Favorite costumes Titanic

Barbara Allen’s favorites were the sarongs that Dorothy Lamour wore in several movies starting with The Jungle Princess, 1936, The Hurricane, 1938, and several subsequent movies. With the start of World War II, silks and other fabrics became restricted or hard to find. Silk was used for parachutes, and European fabrics had been cut-off by the war. Barbara Allen’s mother was a specialist working at the Paramount Pictures’ Wardrobe Department, where she hand-painted the floral prints on sarongs and other costume’s fabric due to its otherwise unavailability in sufficient variety.

Dorothy  lamour  in  a  knockout  pictorial  spread!!!

Inge Gregusch said her favorite costume was worn by Greta Garbo in Inspiration, 1931.  This is a stunning Adrian-designed black velvet gown and train with cut-crystals at the neckline and shoulders, with long gauntlet gloves. The gown has survived, and was recently exhibited at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts Hollywood Glamour Exhibition.

Favorite costumes Inspiration gretagarbo

And what’s my own favorite? There are so many. But to be fair to the those that responded, I too will pick just one. So here it is. Loretta Young in Midnight Mary, 1933, designed by Adrian. This silk satin gown with the caped shoulders, exposed back, fringe train, and accessorized with a medallion is too beautiful. And its the cover of my book on Adrian.

Favorite costume Loretta in Adrian

 

Thanks for sending in your favorites They are all wonderful!

 

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