As made evident by my previous post, pop culture in the 1940’s clearly valued elements of glamour, despite the basic and utilitarian fashions that were popular for real-life working women. Adding to this drama of escapism was the popularity of musical numbers in popular Hollywood films, such as of the above Hazel Scott, a brilliant musician and actress who often made musical cameos in various pictures. Especially for women of color, whose roles were extremely limited by a blatantly racist film industry, the importance of being able to “do it all” was clear: be beautiful, be a gifted actress, sing wonderfully, play an instrument. Often, women of color fell into two categories when it came to Hollywood casting: the well-meaning, unintelligent but caring “maid” or “nanny” character, or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, the extremely beautiful and unattainable glamour girl, often cast in the role of a musician or so-called diamond in the rough who was too good for her current surroundings and situation, which sometimes included the cringe-worthy but relevant plot-line of “passing” for white. Despite these typecastings, women of color in the entertainment industry still delivered iconic performances, and I’ve collected some of what I find to be the key elements of style for the songstress/chanteuse archetype from throughout the 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s.
The exquisite and electrifying Josephine Baker is perhaps the most well-known 1920’s screen goddess whose dancing and musical presence was one of the defining aspects of her career. Famous for her sensual dancing that most Americans had never seen before, Baker promoted the flapper image throughout the 1920’s, and then the glamour of the bohemian during her move to Paris in the 1930’s (in an effort to escape the racism and judgment of the States). Part-showgirl and part flapper, Josephine is instantly recognizable. Her style is clearly iconic, including shimmering costumes, hemlines as high as socially acceptable (if there were any hemlines at all), art-deco accessories (large decorative earrings, layered necklaces), and skull-hugging cloche hats over her short bobbed hair, which emphasized the length of her neck as well as her layers of jewelry. Her image celebrated the free-spirited flapper, with arguably one of the most envy-inducing wardrobes of the era.
Becoming a breakout star in 1929’s Hallelujah!, the first all-black mainstream musical, Nina Mae Mckinney sang, danced, and acted throughout the early 1930’s before leaving Hollywood for similar reasons to Ms. Baker. Dubbed “the Black Garbo” not for bearing any resemblance to the Swedish starlet, but for possessing a similar magnetic beauty and ease on the screen, Mckinney often stole the show from whomever was in the starring role. Her singing voice is less known than it probably should be, but becomes easily recognizable due to her textured vocals (she could do the awesome jazz growl with the best of them), swinging ease, playful delivery, and high register. At the same time, her style emphasized the best of late ’20’s and early ’30’s glamour with statement-making evening wear and an affinity for large, chunky earrings, her hair often short or pulled back away from her face.
In the 1940’s film roles continued to be limiting for women of color. While the ’20’s and ’30’s at least saw the “race films” which often cast, written, and directed by all-black studios, the 1940’s was the era when African-American women were receiving big-name studio contracts, but saw little benefits. Typically a black actress would sign to a contract then receive hardly any roles of import, or witnessed their scenes cut from a film almost entirely. Beautiful, talented women such as Fredi Washington gave up on Hollywood because she was viewed as “too beautiful” to be cast as black but not white enough to star in romantic roles with a white leading man. Such complications allowed for very few breakout stars who were also women of color, with a few notable exceptions, including Lena Horne. Horne starred in several independent films during the late ’30’s and early ’40’s before signing with MGM, where she starred in classic jazz-oriented films such as Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather.
Meanwhile, the talented Hazel Scott found success in film thanks in part to her renowned musical abilities. Her appearance in the Gershwin biopic Blue Rhapsody showed off her amazing talents (she was a musical prodigy who was accepted to Julliard at age 8 so, yeah, kind of a big deal). Later, in 1950, she became the first woman of color to have her own television show, The Hazel Scott Show. This triumph was short-lived, however, as ultra conservative McCarthyism drove Scott to defect to France like so many talented women of color already had, and she continued to work in French film and sing in French (her lovely French singing voice can be heard in her Blue Rhapsody cameo). Similarly, the beautiful Eartha Kitt also found success singing in French (“C’est Si Bon”) later in the 1950’s as well, and continued the tradition of American singers/actresses of color emigrating to France where they found commercial success that just wasn’t realistic in the U.S.
Style-wise, on-screen cameos of musicians such as Hazel Scott usually meant ultra-elegant evening wear that capitalized on escapist ’40’s fashion, somewhat like the lavish gowns of the femme fatales in film noir. Lena Horne often was dressed in a similar style, with even her casual looks, such as the polka-dot number from Cabin in the Sky, portraying a more glamourous, stylized version of daily wear. One-shouldered evening gowns were popular costume pieces, often done in silk or sequins, with a perfectly contoured drape emphasizing the shape of the body. Sleeveless or halter styles were popular on-screen as well, but the songstresses of ’40’s cinema often did without the elbow-length gloves of the typical glamour girl, probably because they needed freedom to dance or play their instruments. Jewelry was simpler than the large pieces of the ’20’s and ’30s, and usually was either a statement necklace or diamond or rhinestone earrings, usually one or the other and not both at once, indicating the relative simplicity to come during the 1950’s.
Clearly, this article barley scratches the surface of the history of the beautiful chanteuses that lit up the silver screen throughout the ’20’s, ’30’s, and ’40’s. However, I hope it inspires lovers of fashion, film, and music history to look into lesser-known talents of the era, whose style and talent often goes unmentioned in film history classes that focus more on typical starlets and big-name productions. Apparently a biography on Nina Mae Mckinney was recently published, which makes me really happy because these women deserve to be written about and analyzed a lot more thoroughly than I am able to do here. Nonetheless, these iconic images and the legacy of their music and film are clearly essential, and looking back on their style is extremely inspirational for the modern-day lover of vintage-fashion.