Modern fashion shows often link to the glamour of old Hollywood movies. Important designers get movie stars to attend them. Fashion shows are produced with high entertainment and production values, and designers wage campaigns to have stars wear their gowns at major Hollywood award shows. Once upon a time Hollywood put fashion shows right in their movies. The early studio moguls promoted both their films and their movie stars along with the costume designers that created their looks. It wasn’t long after the birth of the major studios that their newly created stars began influencing how young women wanted to look. The clothes that stars wore and how they wore them quickly became a hot topic by the mid-1920s. The hugely popular movie fan magazines became filled with reports on what fashions the stars wore in their latest movie, and the names of the costume designers that dressed them. While Parisian couture designers were well known to a select group of rich women, it was Hollywood that reached the masses – in America as well as abroad. If the modern woman of the 1920s was fascinated with movie fashion, why not give them a fashion show within the movies? And so, by 1925 film scripts were developed that involved characters working in the fashion or clothing business, or stars that were mannequins (as models were then called), or if they had really become successful in the plot, viewed fashion shows to select their own wardrobe. Thus was born the earliest film fashion shows, created by the studios’ own costume designers
Model Cecilia Evan wears a fringed dress in Dressmaker from Paris above designed by Travis Banton
One of the first fashion shows in film was Dressmaker from Paris, made at Paramount studio in 1925 and featuring the first movie costume designs by Travis Banton. Banton was lured from New York by film producer Walter Wanger. Banton had been working for the fashion house of Madame Frances. Paramount already had a great designer in Howard Greer, but Greer needed some help with the increasing number of films he had to design, and he was looking forward to starting his own fashion business. Banton made an immediate splash with his first movie, and from there his career took off. In 1925 the major studios suddenly became very competitive in luring new designers and thereby extracting maximum publicity. M-G-M itself grandly announced it was bringing Erté from France and putting him under contract.
Dorothy Seastrom plays one of the models, wearing a gown of satin with fur trim and capelet.
Dorothy Seastrom wears a Banton iridescent gown with the extra long string of pearls so in style in the 1920s.
Dressmaker from Paris was directed by Paul Bern and starred Leatrice Joy. It was surprisingly written by Howard Hawks, the director of later action films. Leatrice Joy played a fashion apprentice in Paris who returns to America as a modiste (a maker or shop owner of fashion garments) . Her old beau from Paris, a former American WW I aviator, is a part-owner of a clothing store. To promote the store and create some pizazz, he brings in a modiste from Chicago, who unbeknownst to him is Leatrice Joy his old flame, playing the role of Fifi. With a scenario firmly set in the fashion world, a fashion show was the next step. The film’s fashion show involved fourteen beautiful Travis Banton designs on models. From then on, Parisian couturiers and their designs were no longer necessary to sell or influence American fashion. Paramount went so far as to state in its promotion for the film, “for the first time anywhere the 1926 Paris fashions.”
Gilbert Adrian was also lured from New York, where he had been designing for the Broadway revues. He was then hired to work for Natasha Rambova and Rudolph Valentino, designing Valentino’s costumes for Paramount’s New York based films before moving with them to Hollywood. Adrian designed the costumes for Valentino’s last film, Son of the Sheik in 1926, after which Valentino suddenly died. It wasn’t long before several free-lance jobs were offered to Adrian, but he was hired by Cecil B. DeMille. Corinne Griffith had previously hired him to design her costumes and a fashion show scene for Mademoiselle Modiste released in 1926, a movie based on the Victor Herbert operetta. In this story Corinne Griffith, playing another Fifi, is sponsored by a wealthy man and opens a modiste’s shop. This serves as the prompt for many great costumes and a fashion show. Adrian used a theme of storms for the fashion show scene, with fashion creations based on storms, clouds, and lightening.
Corinne Griffith not only starred in Mademoiselle Modiste, she was also the movie’s producer, which was directed by Robert Z. Leonard.
Bernice Claire is hailed by French soldiers in Mlle. Modiste
Adrian also designed the costumes and a fashion show scene for Fig Leaves in 1926. This was based on another script by Howard Hawks, but was also directed by him. It is the earliest extent film directed by Hawks. And it’s a seeming contradiction to the manly type of film Hawks would be best remembered for
Olive Borden is shown above among the models in Fig Leaves
Fig Leaves starred Olive Borden and George O’Brien who played husband and wife. When Olive complains she has nothing to wear, her best friend suggests she get a job as a fashion model. This set up an eight-minute-long fashion show scene that was shot in two-strip Technicolor, a novelty in 1926. It was thus a precursor to Adrian’s The Women with its Technicolor fashion show in 1939. Adrian designed fifty costumes for Fig Leaves.
Olive Borden is shown above amidst the models and staff of the fashion store. The movie was made at the Fox studio. It was one of the early Hollywood movies to use Art Deco sets. The art directors for the film were the legendary William Cameron Menzies and the Hungarian William S. Darling. The striking Art Deco sets launched the trend for such sets as background for modern fashion shows on film.
In 1930 some of the biggest stars were still in their formative years, these included Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Loretta Young, Carole Lombard, Marion Davies, Jean Harlow, and others. Adrian was hired at M-G-M after C.B. DeMille had moved his production company there. Joan Crawford had already become a big star, and paired with Adrian, was starting fashion trends across the country. In Our Blushing Brides, released in 1930, the biggest fashion show yet seen on film was incorporated into the plot.
The gowns fashion show, with Joan Crawford at the center
The leisure wear show, designed by Adrian
Our Blushing Brides was made during the pre-Code years, when plot elements and wardrobe were more permissible. Joan Crawford, shown above, also modelled lingerie in the the fashion show.
Joan Crawford played one of three friends working in a department store, chasing or being chased by rich men. The two friends were played by Anita Page and Dorothy Sebastian. Joan also models in the store’s fashion shows – lavish theatrical numbers well beyond the production capabilities of even the biggest couturiers of the era. Ann Dvorak, then 18 years old, played one of the models.
Motion picture technology was not the only thing that had changed significantly between 1925 and 1930. The Great Depression had begun, and the need for escapism in film was dominant. Gone was the flapper look by 1929, and the high jinx of the jazz age. In fashion, short skirts and handkerchief hemlines had been replaced by long, sleek, and backless gowns in 1930.
Several other notable films from the 1920s had fashion shows. The 1926 Irene starred Colleen Moore, the flapper par excellence with the notable bobbed hair style. This First National film had Moore moving into New York and becoming a model, and it too featured a fashion shoe in two-strip technicolor. The costumes for Moore were designed by Broadway show designer Cora MacCreachy.
Colleen Moore is dressed in the above two photos by “Madame Lucy,” the designer, played by George K. Arthur.
Three other films with fashion shows were Miss Brewster’s Millions, from 1926, starring Bebe Daniels and Warner Baxter. Monte Carlo which also came out in 1926, starring Gertrude Olmstead and directed by Christy Cabanne. And Three French Girls, with Fifi D’Orsay, Yola d’Avril, and Sandra Ravel, all dressed by René Hubert, M-G-M, 1930.
The Fox studio made another film in 1930 with the lead role being a modiste, in this case it was Irene Rich playing Julianne and her chic 5th Avenue clothes boutique in On Your Back. H.B. Warner stars in the film, along with Ilka Chase. The boutique has several attractive models that not only show the latest fashions but also lure men to the premises. While the film title shortens the expression, The Clothes On Your Back, its double entendre in this Pre-Code era conveys how the models really made money. The costumes were designed by Sophie Wachner
The field day that Hollywood was having with its attention-grabbing film fashions had a hiccup in 1929-1930. The Parisian couture house of Lucien Lelong came out with the long evening gown and instantly made shorter skirts passé. Since movies, even during the fast-paced 1930s studio system, took several months to make, from first fashion sketch to theatrical release, a new fashion trend could catch movies off-guard. This happened when the long gowns came out at the end of 1929. While film fashion shows and the influence of Hollywood fashion continued its onslaught, the movie moguls and costume designers decided to concentrate on a look of timeless fashion and not be caught with a fashion statement that would look dated by the time the movie came out. The result was the creation of the glamour gown, a look that is timeless and still intoxicating.
Fashions for Women was the first film totally directed by Dorothy Arzner, the pioneer woman director. It starred Esther Ralston and was released in 1927. It was made at Paramount Pictures.
Fashions for Women featured the costume designing of the brilliant Travis Banton. The fashions in this movie are eye-popping examples of the 1920s look combined with the emergence of Hollywood glamour that Banton and Adrian were creating at the time. Above Banton dressed Ralston with strap shoes and lamé tunic top with its modernist floral design making a perfect 1920s outfit, complete with its simple loose pants and sash-tied waist
It is clear from the high quality of the costumes and the fabrics used for their fabrication that Adolph Zukor of Famous Players/Paramount style family was counting on the appeal of the fashions and the film’s fashion show to draw attention and get female viewers into the theaters. In those days, female viewers were credited with making most of the decision which film to go see. The fullness of the ostrich feather skirt and wrap is contrasted beautifully with the tightly-fitted diaphanous gown. The costume foreshadowed the Bernard Newman gown worn by Ginger Rogers in Top Hat.
In the photo above Ralston is shown wearing an extravagant gown with dolman sleeves and a tightly draped lamé fabric.
The basic story of Fashions for Women according to the American Film Institute’s catalog is about Céleste de Givray, whose social success is the result of the audacity of her press agent, Sam Dupont, is persuaded to retreat from public life and to have her face lifted. Lola Dauvry, a cigarette girl at the Café Pierre, who loves Raoul de Bercy, a former aviator, is hired by Sam to pose as the new Céleste in a fashion show while Raoul is hired as Céleste’s private aviator. While Raoul is waiting for Lola at Céleste’s apartment, the Duke of Arles, one of Céleste’s sweethearts, arrives; in despair, Lola begs Sam to inform Raoul of her identity, but he refuses. At the fashion show, Céleste appears and declares Lola an impostor, but the latter is declared “the best dressed woman” by the judges. Raoul, realizing that Lola has been faithful, returns to her at the café and they are happily reunited.
Esther Ralston was a big star in the 1920s, she was often called the “American Venus” after a role she played in the movie of the same title. She was clearly a great beauty with an attractive figure that she showed off generously. She is shown above in an embroidered velvet gown with a see-through embroidered wrap trimmed in fur. It was Banton’s habit to state, “When in doubt, trim in fur.
Fashions for Women has an incredible wardrobe designed by Travis Banton. It raised the bar for future fashions shows on film. It also demonstrated that fashion helped sell movie tickets in the 1920s. It set the stage for more and more competition amongst the studios for top costume and fashion designers, and the publicity that resulted from film fashion. We will see in later blog posts how fashion shows further evolved in film.