History Through Hollywood: Fashion
This is the third in my series of History Through Hollywood, a discussion of the little things you can pick up from watching Old Hollywood films. I’ve talked about “Reno-vations,” love, automats, sex, telephones, manicures, travel, and alcohol as depicted in old movies. This History Through Hollywood looks at fashion in films from the 1930s-1960s.
As I’ve discussed in the previous History Through Hollywood articles, old films are inadvertent time capsules: the cars, architecture, fashion, language, and customs are all there, preserved in celluloid like insects in amber.
What’s onscreen is not always entirely accurate, of course, as Hollywood was and remains a powerful dream machine. But there is a great deal of history hiding in plain sight, and what seems weird to me made perfect sense to my grandparents. It’s a fascinating disconnect, and it’s one reason I love classic movies.
On to the fashion! If you pay attention to red carpets, you’ll hear the term “Old Hollywood glamour” thrown around whenever a celebrity struts her stuff with red lips, swooping curls, and a relatively modest amount of exposed flesh showcased in a mermaid or ball gown.
That look, which seems to draw primarily on Veronica Lake, Rita Hayworth, and Marilyn Monroe, has come to represent “Old Hollywood style,” but what we see on modern red carpets is only one tiny slice of classic film fashion. In fact, Classic Hollywood’s stuffed closet and crowded dressing table allowed for many other modes of fashion and beauty, though not all have made the transition into modern style the way that crimson pouts and the side-parted “Veronica Lake” have.
Some elements from the classic era have come down to us either as assimilated features of everyday fashion or as ironic throwbacks donned when trying to be #retro or #vintage. But other elements have fallen out of our style vernacular entirely. You don’t see many platinum pin curls, tight marcelled waves, or pencil eyebrows, for instance, and when was the last time you pulled on short white gloves for a trip to the grocery store?
This article will focus more on what has fallen out of fashion than what has remained en vogue or has influenced modern design. I think it’s fascinating when things that past generations took for granted (sock garters, anyone?) seem entirely alien to us now.
If you’d like a broad overview of changing styles, this short video on hair and this one on clothes are fun to watch. I also won’t be getting into a costume’s role in a movie, which is a completely different, though also fascinating topic. (You can check out my posts on Summer Stock, Notorious, My Man Godfrey, and My Sister Eileen for that kind of analysis.)
It’s important to remember that what we see onscreen in classic movies is Hollywood’s ideal of fashion and glamour, not necessarily the reality of an average American. But that’s part of why it’s so fun to watch these films! Old Hollywood didn’t skimp on clothes, and making over starlets into icons was a daily occurrence. After all, “realism” was not the goal; rather, many of these films work incredibly hard to present a dreamlike, unattainable world of beauty and style.
One of my favorite examples of this “glamour-over-all” attitude is a scene in which Myrna Loy was filmed waking up in bed. Loy was “subtly deglamorized” so that she would actually look like a woman who had just woken up. But when MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer saw the footage he was furious: “What do you mean by shooting that kind of stuff of Loy? Here we’ve spent a couple of million bucks building her up as a glamour girl and you knock the whole thing for a loop with one shot.” So they filmed the scene again, and this time “Loy woke up looking as if she’d just emerged from Max Factor’s.” (Recounted in Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer by Scott Eyman).
The studios’ fixation on beauty, no matter how unrealistic, was not just confined to the hours spent on the movie set. Joan Crawford recalled that “I would never leave home unless I looked every bit the movie star. The public has never seen me less than perfect. MGM taught us that.” (The Golden Girls of MGM by Jane Ellen Wayne.)
Never appearing “less than perfect” is much harder in today’s TMZ, paparazzi, Internet-driven world obsessed with “stars without their makeup!” and “worst bikini bodies,” but Old Hollywood had the glamorous movie star thing down. And it’s still impacting fashion today.
So, even though not everyone in America was draped in bias cut silk like Carole Lombard, or rocked wartime shoulder pads and Victory Rolls like Joan Crawford or Rosalind Russell, Hollywood certainly had a powerful effect on fashion in the real world. Audiences saw ridiculously gorgeous stars decked out in duds designed just for them by the studio costume designers (no wonder they looked amazing!), and trends were set. (You can check out Silver Screen Modes, a great site about costume design and film fashion, for more on that.)
Although Hollywood still wields fashion power, it seems that movies today reflect trends rather than set them as they used to.
These days you can visit websites devoted to tracking down the clothes in movies and TV shows so that you too can own the purse carried by Reese Witherspoon! But in the classical era, clothes were bespoke, one-of-a-kind creations (I’m dealing primarily with women’s clothing here, as men provided their own suits unless it was a period film. For more on that, visit my Foreign Correspondent review.)
Even though movie fashion was designed by studio wizards, it didn’t mean that the clothes stayed onscreen. Retailers saw the power that Hollywood wielded over American fashion, and copycat collections or early forms of product-tie-ins were not at all unusual.
Sometimes specific costumes made the transition from unattainable screen dream to your closet. For instance, the Edith Head-designed gown that Elizabeth Taylor wore in A Place in the Sun (1951) famously became the dress teenagers wanted. The gown was copied and showed up all over the country at dances and proms almost immediately after the film was released.
Edith Head remembered that the flower-flecked ball gown was so ubiquitous after the film was released that “Someone at Paramount once counted at a party 37 ‘Elizabeth Taylors’ dancing.” For more, visit GlamAmor, a wonderful site devoted to Hollywood fashion.
And the story goes that undershirt sales fell after Clark Gable undressed in It Happened One Night (1934) and–gasp!–revealed a bare chest beneath his outer shirt. Esther Williams recalls how after she appeared in Andy Hardy’s Double Life (1942) in a white two-piece suit, bikinis suddenly became much more common around the country’s swimming pools!
But these weren’t bikinis as we know them; just as the conventions surrounding the depiction of sex and violence have changed, so have the standards of modesty. What is totally acceptable now, like a string bikini at the beach, was unthinkable in the 1930s and 1940s.
But if you think ladies sauntered around in high-necked, long-sleeve, ankle-shrouding dresses, you’ll be surprised at some of the sexy numbers that lit up the screen. It’s clear that the amount of skin displayed does not necessarily correspond to a garment’s sexiness. But side-boob is nothing new.
So here is a glimpse into Classic Hollywood fashion, particularly the once ubiquitous styles that are now relegated to fashion’s footnotes: hats, gloves, handkerchiefs, stockings, sock garters, and fur, as well as the “old-fashioned” styles of undergarments, bathing suits, dressing gowns, and more!
Styles change, but until fairly recently, men and women almost always wore something on their heads. Fedoras, homburgs, trilbys, boaters, newsboys, top hats, and of course the iconic cowboy hat grace the heads of even the most sartorially challenged men. And women had their own extensive options: most of our classic stars appear quite often in cunning caps, enormous poufs, and veiled, feathered, or bejeweled cranial creations. Hats were a must for everyday occasions, and were as much a part of one’s daily attire as socks or shoes.
Hats weren’t limited to the everyday, either. They could be just the thing for special evenings out (or in, as the case may be). Sometimes an actual hat was eschewed in favor of a large bow, flowers, an elaborate clip, a scarf, or a veil.
One must have spent quite a bit of time at the milliners. I love the scene in Midnight (1939) when Claudette Colbert goes to the most famous hat salon in Paris to shop for her weekend trip to the country:
Along with a hat, gloves were a must-have accessory. They were not reserved for the prim, proper or churchgoing crowd, either. Even relatively scandalous characters usually wear a hat and gloves at some point during the film. But when was the last time you donned the cunning cap that matched your outfit, and pulled on your matching gloves before heading out the door?
As you’ll notice in these images, coordination of an entire outfit was the goal. Your purse matches your belt which matches your hat which matches your shoes which coordinate smashingly with your brooch/the trim on your jacket/your eye color. Women seemed to think in terms of an entire outfit and all the corresponding accessories. None of this jeans and T-shirt separates nonsense!
All this coordination could have been exhausting, but it may have been easier, actually. You don’t have to think about combining various pieces into something new and presentable. You just choose your red dress or your grey suit and off you go!
We mustn’t forget handkerchiefs! Monogrammed, please, and lace-edged for the ladies. There’s no Kleenex in old movies, though facial tissue came on the market in 1924. (Oddly enough, it was first marketed as a makeup-removing tool, and it was customers who began using it as a handkerchief substitute!)
As a bonus, this quotidian accessory was often used as the decisive clue in a murder (so maybe skip the monogram). It also functions as a cute romantic comedy trope. A debonair gentleman always has a clean, pressed hanky peeking from his suit pocket, and he simply waits around to find a tearful beauty in need of comfort. Or, an adorable everyman who is a bit of a slob never has his handkerchief on him. His absent-minded neglect of this basic necessity is simply too endearing! It will make his crying ladylove sob even harder before dissolving into watery giggles. Ladies love it when men are bumbling fools.
I love the scene in The Palm Beach Story (1942) when Rudy Vallee takes Claudette Colbert shopping. She lost her suitcase with all of her clothes, but happily she meets a millionaire who is only too delighted to help a girl out.
Pre-codes are packed with ladies in various states of undress (and more risqué fashion in general), but you don’t see a lot of underthings in post-1934 classic movies. However, it’s a safe bet that girdles, slips, chemises, brassieres, and lace drawers are hiding under most outfits.
We get a glimpse of these marvels of engineering in The Thin Man (1934), when two thugs see a magazine ad for the 1930s version of Spanx showing the outer layer and then what’s underneath.
Such “punishment” may not have fit under the super-slinky, bias cut gowns sported by Jean Harlow and Carole Lombard. Not much can hide under those. But it wasn’t a problem for Harlow, who famously hated wearing underwear. She also liked to ice her nipples before doing a scene to be sure they stood at attention for the cameras!
In the grandest days of the studio system, it wasn’t uncommon for custom, monogrammed undies to be provided to the stars, whether or not they showed on camera. That’s about as glamorous as it gets.
Something that we do see occasionally are stockings. They were an absolute must, which is why a roaring black market sprang up during WWII when stocking factories ceased production and started turning out parachutes, rope, and other war material with the country’s supply of silk and nylon.
Seamed stockings (which prompted the notorious question: “Are my seams straight?”) were popular until the 1960s. For the last few decades, pantyhose (stockings sewn to briefs, which may have first been popularized by dancer Ann Miller) has outsold stockings, which makes the garter belt/stocking combination a #vintage choice.
In Easy To Love (1953), we get a rare glimpse of a lady’s unmentionables in a montage of Esther Williams hurriedly getting dressed for an audition and then removing everything she just put on to change into her glittering swimsuit. Hat, slip, and stockings, check!
If you’ve ever watched a classic film, you probably saw someone in a smart set of matching jammies complete with a coordinating bathrobe and slippers, which were often high-heeled for the ladies. Apparently, people in the 1940s never walked around barefoot inside. Also, somehow characters manage to travel with multiple sets of beautiful pajamas, even if they only have one suitcase. It’s movie magic!
Part of the reason for these well-attired bedtimes might be a modesty issue. In post-Production Code films, it’s rare for a woman to be seen in her pajamas or nightgown without a robe of some kind flung over her shoulders or meticulously buttoned to keep everything censor-proof.
One of my favorite “robes” is Lucille Ball‘s blue lace number in Easy to Wed (1946). She hurriedly throws on the sheer, open front shrug before Van Johnson comes into her room. It’s about the silliest, most irrelevant robe I’ve ever seen, but quite pretty!
Before dress socks had enough elastic to stay up on their own, men wore these awkward looking sock suspenders that fastened below the knee and clipped on to the slipping socks.
Sock garters are unnecessary today, thanks to advances in sock technology. According to GQ, they are a “peacockish affectation” providing “nothing but a retro look at the price of discomfort.” Unless you’re wearing a kilt, of course! You can still buy them, though. I was actually surprised to find so many offerings online.
Now that the basics are out of the way–it’s on to bathing suits!
Bathing suits have definitely gotten smaller over the years. Just a few decades ago, strings weren’t an option, and bikini bottoms as we know them didn’t exist. Instead, bottoms were cut straight across and lower down the leg, or draped in little skirts in what is actually a very flattering look.
Dangerous When Wet (1953) even includes a little joke about the new “French style” of suits when Esther Williams‘ French beau gives her a French bikini as a gift. She is shocked, and makes sure to pull down her window blind so that the audience can’t see her trying it on!
Let’s talk belly buttons. Belly buttons were to classic movies what nipples are to today’s mainstream media: taboo. So although Esther Williams donned dozens of swimsuits throughout her movie career, not one of them displays her belly button. The two-piece suits rise just high enough to cover it.
Although belly buttons were out, midriffs weren’t off limits. There are actually a surprising number of two-piece outfits and evening gowns in old films. This trend has recently come roaring back with popover dresses and stars like Taylor Swift and Jennifer Lawrence rocking the hidden-belly-button, midriff-baring styles.
Women’s bathing suits were high-waisted, but that’s nothing compared to the men’s trunks.
And their trousers. Sometimes their pants are practically skimming their collarbone.
Fur was a status symbol, a glamorous, expensive item lusted after by women everywhere. Now it’s taboo, but in old movies, if you’ve “made it,” you’ve got a fur coat. And if you’re really rich, you’ve got several, and perhaps even stroll around town in fur-trimmed gowns and day wear.
Fur was so special and so marked that sometimes a fur coat becomes more than just an item of clothing. It’s loaded with meaning and can become a bargaining chip of sorts. For example, when a chorus girl who parties with a rich man appears at the theater in a new sable, she’ll get some knowing looks from her compatriots. She might as well wear a sign saying “I traded my virtue for this coat.” Diamond bracelets work the same way. They’re both 20th century versions of a scarlet letter.
That’s why poor Jean Arthur gets fired from her job when she shows up in a gorgeous, $58,000 sable coat. It’s all perfectly innocent; an angry millionaire threw the coat off his penthouse roof to punish his wife for overspending, and it landed on Arthur as she rode the double decker bus to work. Arthur tracks down the millionaire who gives her the coat as a reward for her honesty and good, hardworking spirit. But Arthur’s boss assumes the worst, and he can’t have a fallen woman working in the office, now can he?
Top Hats and Tuxedos
Nowadays, tuxedos are reserved for special occasions, but in classic movies they’re put on about twice a day. After all, a man without a set of impeccably tailored tails isn’t to be trusted. Bonus points for a top hat.
I won’t get into silhouettes or fabrics (for instance, when silk was rationed during WWII, even the movie stars’ fabulous forms were draped in substitute fabrics) in this History Through Hollywood, but instead I’ll leave you with these stunning gowns that prove that old-fashioned does not always mean modest, boring, or dated. Funny how some of these styles would look perfect at this year’s Oscars, isn’t it?
Styles change: hemlines and necklines rise and fall, waists are cinched-in and loosened, sleeves are lengthened, shortened, inflated, deflated and sometimes dispensed with altogether. Hats are tiny, huge, then small again, and then disappear altogether. Skirts are puffed into voluminous folds and supported by lacy petticoats, then hang slim and straight without the help of marvels of structural engineering. Trousers become acceptable and then begin their own unending dance of shapes and lengths, while an exposed ankle is deemed whorish, scandalous, risqué, sexy, commonplace, and dull. Then it all begins again! Hurray for fashion!
If you’d like to know more about some of the movies I mentioned, check out my reviews on The Blonde at the Film, and follow me on Twitter, tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram at BlondeAtTheFilm, and Facebook. As always, thanks for reading!