As anyone who has seen Gloria Swanson freak out in Sunset Boulevard knows, in the 20’s, the actors had faces. Also, they had fashion. Often, actors in silent films were portraying archetypal characters who were easily identified and defined by their clothing, hair, and makeup. For women, this meant two main categories of characters: the virgin and the vamp. Beneath these two umbrella archetypes were a variety of personas- the flapper, the ingénue, the girl next door, the “It” girl. Fashion in film helped to define these characters to the American public, and in turn says something about how women were defined by what they wore during that era. Film also helped to spread fashion trends out of the city to outlying or rural towns, giving the rest of the country a taste of the new styles emerging from a city center like New York. Ultimately, film played an integral role in defining the ideal style for the twenties woman, and comments silently about what clothing projects about the wearer.
Above: Box-office gold, Colleen Moore, in the many costumes of the ideal flapper.
Perhaps the most iconic persona of the silent screen, the archetypal flapper is also the most responsible of all the film personas when it comes to inspiring the fashion, both of the twenties and the modern era. Actress Colleen Moore personifies this character, with her bold, parisienne-esque fashion choices depicted above. From the long, lean, deep-v flapper evening dress, to the androgynous garçonne, to the eastern-inspired turbans and head-wraps, Moore’s on-screen style runs the gamut of flapper fashion. Moore starred in films with titles like Flaming Youth, Painted People, and The Perfect Flapper, and became a sort of icon of the flapper to the American public. Her characters were fun, carefree, adventurous, and free-spirited, but never vampy or obscene (unless you count putting perfume on your lips as obscene). Her portrayals helped make the flapper accessible to the public, while Moore’s on-camera style gave dreamy girls who saw her films something to look up to, fashion-wise. When most girls owned one, maybe two dresses, seeing Moore wear a different dress, usually heavily beaded or trimmed in fur, or covered in an ultra-modern art deco print, in every scene of Flaming Youth provided a sort of perfect ideal of this mysterious modern woman, the flapper, who everyone was trying to understand and explain.
Other notable flappers: Clara Bow, Josephine Baker, Joan Crawford
Above: Lillian Gish, the virgin and child-woman, in the appropriate costumes.
Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, was the ultimate virgin, the ingénue. Child-like, porcelain-skinned, and dressed in Grecian-inspired gowns of the past, the ingénue was certainly a woman of the twenties, but ran with a much different crowd than the flapper. While the flapper was art deco, the ingénue was art nouveau. Anyone who has seen a painting by Arthur Matthews or a gown by Fortuny has basically seen a different representation of this same archetype which, in cinema, was portrayed by the virgin queens of cinema, Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford. There was certainly no flaming youth in a Gish vehicle; typically, Gish would be suffering or held captive, or wallowing in martyrdom, all the while remaining good and pure. Gish was quoted as saying, “Those little virgins, after five minutes you got sick of playing them- to make them more interesting was hard work.” Fashion-wise, Gish’s characters, although seemingly from a time so out of place in the jazz age, are still testaments to their era. The majority of Gish’s on-screen silent style represents the old order of fashion, which prized romanticism over modernism, virtue over freedom. Although, to be fair to Gish, she began her acting career before the twenties and, by the time the flapper was introduced, Gish had already been given her persona; there was no trading the floor-grazing Grecian gowns for flapper-length hemlines (most silent actresses didn’t get a new persona until the talkies or the pre-code 1930’s).
The appeal of Gish’s detached, virginal fashion contemporaneous to the fun, racy costumes of the flapper films is that comfortable, romantic vision of the past. Her costumes convey an idealized aesthetic of the early 1900’s, one where lovely girls with long golden curls danced under cypress trees in maxi-length gowns. They were not the traditional image of corsets and high-buttoned colors, certainly, but instead conveyed a romanticized version of that era, perhaps providing comfort to American film goers who were not quite ready to accept the bold new woman present in other films on the silver screen.
Other notable ingénues: Mary Pickford, Marion Davies, Blanche Sweet
Above: The glamorous, mysterious, and fashion-forward Anna May Wong.
The persona at the furthest end of the virtue spectrum in silent film was probably the vamp. She definitely did not inhabit the same solar system as the virgin or ingénue. Edgier than the flapper, the vamp conveyed a mystery and created a role which allowed actors of ‘exotic’ backgrounds (by 1920s standards) to break into film. The first Chinese-American Hollywood star was Anna May Wong, and she was quickly inserted into this persona. Emphasizing her exotic features, early silent films featuring Wong cast her as characters with names like Lotus Flower and Dragon Horse, with stereotypical costumes to match. Yet, as a vamp, she was also entitled to the ultra-glamorous and scandalous costumes as well. Bandeau tops basically made out of sparkling beads, low-cut silk dresses, elaborate headpieces, the works. Wong’s popularity and status as a fashion icon also conveys the oriental fixation that was predominant in hip America during the 1920’s. Almost to the point of fetishism, Asian-influenced art, furniture, and fashion was increasing in popularity from the early 1900’s and throughout the 1920’s. The silk kimono was incorporated into American lounge styles. Wealthy American families began collecting ceramics and art from Japan, China, and Korea. And Hollywood had Anna May Wong, whose popularity and fashion icon-status only increased throughout the 20s and into the 30s.
Thus, vamp fashion was exotic, luxurious, and escapist. She represented the luxury and excess that was so valued during the twenties, the pre-Depression era of bloated coffers and carefree spending. Her beautiful but suggestive clothing carried the connotation that she was a sort of ‘man-eater’, who aimed at trapping and tricking men, using them instead of loving them, or generally destroying their lives (see Greta Garbo in Devil and the Flesh and you’ll definitely get what I’m saying). The vamp usually died at the end of the film, and apparently the audience was supposed to feel justified about this, but they were also saying goodbye to the most interesting character in the film, and definitely the best dressed.
Other notable vamps: Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Dolores Del Rio, Louise Brooks
Silent Fashion Icons
Above, left to right: Hollywood’s first “It” girl, Clara Bow; Superstar flapper, Gloria Swanson.
Above, left to right: the iconic “girl in the black helmet”, Louise Brooks; free-wheeling flappers Dorothy Sebastian, Joan Crawford, and Anita Page in Our Dancing Daughters
Sadie Thompson starring Gloria Swanson
Pandora’s Box starring Louise Brooks
Flaming Youth (incomplete) starring Colleen Moore
It starring Clara Bow
Our Dancing Daughters starring Joan Crawford and Anita Page
Lady of the Night starring Norma Shearer
Silent Movies: The Birth of Film and the Triumph of Movie Culture by Peter Kobel
Lulu in Hollywood by Louise Brooks
Clara Bow: Runnin’ Wild by David Stern