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


21 thoughts on “WHEN FASHION SOLD THE MOVIES: 1930-1940”

  1. Can anyone help please. Just watched the 1931 movie, My Sin, starring Tallulah Bankhead and Fredric March, cannot find who was the costume/wardrobe designer of Ms Bankhead’s wonderful clothes in this movie. I particularly loved her black outfit at the end of the move with the white lattice lace trim with matching black and white hat, so elegant and the evening dress when she meets, her just announced, fiancee’s mother for the first time. I see Eugene Joseph was the costume jewelry designer but no mention of the wardrobe designer??

    1. Hi Kat, as you noticed no costume designer was credited. It was probably Travis Banton, He was the head designer at Paramount at the time. Ms. Bankhead was an important star,
      so he likely would have designed her wardrobe.

  2. It’s quite odd then, isn’t it, that it was 1948 before the first Oscars for Best Costume were awarded? I wonder is this because costume was seen as mere ‘Fashion’?

    1. It is odd considering the place costume design has had in movie history, almost from its very beginning. I can only assume that once the categories were selected, it was difficult to add anything unless your Guild had
      enough power in the Academy.

    2. Probably because they were just work horses, not acknowledged as a major contributors to the production or success of the film. Maybe the film stars didnt want attention taken from them.

  3. I have been collecting millinery that was produced by Warner Bros costuming department under the name of ‘Studio Style’- some have the milliners name Caspar Davis added to the label. I am trying to find more information on this side industry of Warner Bros, etc ( I have also discovered that 20th Century Fox had a similar business entitled ‘ Movie Modes’.) I do know that Caspar Davis was a name millinery apart from his studio association. Can you shed more light on this topic for me ?
    Thanks- ! Dave

    1. Hi Dave. I don’t know anything particular about Caspar Davis, but as you know, he had his own millinery business based in Los Angeles in the 1930s and 1940s. Warner Brothers, like some of the other studios, beginning in the 1930s,
      promoted many of their films through the fashions worn by the female stars. These fashions were shown in popular movie fan magazines in advance of the movie’s release. They then got the idea of licensing their costume designer’s names on fashion lines – like Orry-Kelly at Warner Bros. The garments were made and sold separately from studio operations. The studio wardrobe departments often used outside milliners for their contemporary fashion looks designed for their films. Caspar Davis was the milliner WB used, and therefore must have been the one they entered into a licensing agreement with for his hat designs, like they had previously with designer Orry-Kelly. This is as much as I know or surmise about his situation.

  4. Does anyone have information on costume designers of the 30′ and 40′ Maurice Bresnick or Kathleen Hudson? Hudson also did pen and ink drawings/sketches of women.

    1. I don’t know about these designers. I checked in the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) and the Broadway equivalent and they were not mentioned there with any credits. They were not in Costume Design in the Movies by Elizabeth Leese, a usually good source for listing classic era designers. Sorry I can’t help you on these designers.

  5. I enjoyed your post–so many interesting tidbits on film fashion. I didn’t know that filmmakers had to re-edit to keep up with changing fashions in the late 20s/early 30s. I’ll have to keep my eye out for it now. (Any movies in particular I should watch?) Also – the cost of a fashion magazine in relation to a movie ticket really put in perspective how expensive those magazines were. That would be like an issue of InStyle costing $20–wowzers! I guess that was the price women were willing to pay to feed their fashion crave.

    1. Thanks for your comment Classicreelgirl. Samuel Goldwyn has been cited as being one that had to re-edit some films he had made because of the change from the short-skirts to the longer hemlines when Patou and the other Parisian couturiers started this new fashion trend in 1929 – although no particular film was mentioned. I know that “The Marriage Playground” (1929) starring Lilyan Tashman and Kay Francis was edited for one of Lilyan’s handkerchief-hemmed dresses designed by Travis Banton. As for the magazines, the Vogues and Harper’s Bazaar were really not affordable, and in fact they catered to the rich. All the more reason that the movies were where most women got their fashion cues (although there was also Ladies Home Journal etc.also).

  6. It’s so strange that I am utterly fascinated by this topic yet have zero fashion sense. Terrific commentary, Christian. Movies had such influence on society as a whole, but it’s so interesting to consider the major role played by fashion over the decades. And I’d never really considered it a marketing tool although I knew the draw that stars and what they were have always been for women. Does that even make sense? Thanks so much for this.


    1. Thanks for your comment Aurora. The marketing of fashion and movie stars is so huge today but is basically done outside of the movies themselves. In the 1930s it was huge also but focused largely on-svreen and as a way to drive ticket sales – as you know from this post. This was still during the Depression, so the look of glamour was one part of the pitch and the other was the more practical fashions that could be adapted for home or workplace. And remember that the garment makers were knocking off the studio designers.

    1. Yes Caftan Woman,but of course advertising was so “limited” in those days.And it was almost gracious – think of the art deco posters, and the Norman Rockwell school of advertising art – painters and graphic artists – on newspapers and magazines – no TVs, and certainly no ads at the movies. And that’s probably one reason why those beautiful fashions and remarkable art deco movie sets of the 1930s were mesmerising to audiences.

  7. Beautiful post, Christian. If I had been around then, I’m sure I would have been plunking down my hard-earned shop girl dollars in the hope that I would look and live like Joan Crawford. Ah, dreams,…..

    1. Thanks FlicjChick – you would have had company, as the young Joan was the most popular of the stars that young women aspired to. The studio publicity also gave out “types” of stars and starlets that young women could pattern their dress, hair and makeup after. This was based on their own personality and body type (all near perfect of course). And there was Garbo, for the young woman who wanted to be really mysterious and exotic, or maybe just left alone.

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