Category Archives: Fashion in Film

Songstress Style: Key Elements of On-Screen Glamour

Nina Mae lookin pretty fierce.

Nina Mae lookin pretty fierce.

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.

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Cherchez la femme fatale: film noir fashion of the 1940’s

Ann Savage, 1945

Ann Savage as bad girl Vera in 1945’s “Detour”

Cinema during the 1940’s, although somewhat lacking the raw dynamism of the pre-code 30’s, allowed for the forging of some the most intriguing genres of film.  Ranging a broad spectrum the included women’s pictures, comedies, westerns, crime films, and war films, 40’s cinema showed the influence of the era.  World War II was showing some of the grimmer facets of human nature, and amidst the patriotism and war effort, there was nonetheless a sense of despair.  Film reacted to this darkness in two extremely different ways: on the light, bright end of the spectrum, there was the musical, with its over-the-top Technicolor, dance numbers, hit songs, and cheerful, smiling, triple-threat stars.  Meanwhile, on the darker side of the spectrum, there was film noir, which literally translates to “dark film”.  Film noir became a sort of subset of the crime and detective genre, but it quickly set itself apart visually, technically, and by its storylines and characters.  Visually, film noir photographers played with light and dark, emphasizing shadow and allowing lighting to become its own character in the story, increasing the tension and suspense of the film itself.  The storyline, typically, focused on a main character (usually male) who was plagued by some unforeseen force that was pulling him into a waking nightmare.  Due to some circumstance, or perhaps a character (such as the femme fatale), the so-called hero of the story was usually descending on a downward spiral riddled by crime, mistaken identity, or some other misfortune.  Things did not usually end well for this anti-hero of sorts, and often there was a woman who, intentionally or unintentionally, was spurring on this fall from grace.

While this new archetype of the femme fatale may sound like a step backwards for women, it actually allowed female actors to play against type in many cases, and to portray a woman who was beautiful and glamorous, yet riddled with flaws.  These women were often using the men to further their own agendas, realizing that they had little tools available to them in order to make their own lives.  The femme fatale also provides a clear example of 1940’s fashion, as her wardrobe was one of the factors that added to her striking image, and exemplifies what was considered glamorous or desirable at the time.  In addition, a subset of film noir, sometimes referred to as a “women’s noir”, allowed female characters to take the lead, such as in Nora Prentiss, although their stories often dealt with romances turning into nightmares instead of the crime-oriented themes of a male hero’s story.

So what set la femme fatale apart from other archetypal women’s roles in film?  Keep reading to find out some of the key elements of femme fatale fashion… Continue reading

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Top Ten Fashion Moments of Pre-Code 1930’s Hollywood

Clockwise from top left: Teresa Wright, Jean Harlow, Barbara Stanwyck, and Theresa Harris

Signaling the start of Hollywood’s so-called Golden Age, Depression-era cinema set the foundation for trends in film, culture, and fashion throughout the first half of the twentieth century.  The star-powered studio system, the moral conduct code, and the typical film personae were crafted and fleshed out during this period.  Directly following the gay twenties and collapsing into the economic disaster of 1929 and 1930, Hollywood sought to keep audiences paying to see films and fought to maintain a theatre-going culture, where seeing a film was an essential part of daily life.  In order to keep attendance high, studios sought the biggest stars, the best talent, and the most intriguing and sometimes raciest story lines.  Known as the pre-code (as in, the period prior to the enforcement of the Hays Code which restricted what was portrayed on film) era, the period from 1930 to about the middle of 1934 allowed for some of the freshest, most provoking portrayals on film the public had and ever would see (at least until the 1960’s).  During this period, women’s roles in films flourished, as pre-code starlets such as Barbara Stanwyck, Ruth Chatterton, Norma Shearer, and Greta Garbo were given meaty roles that went against the stereotypical ideals of femininity (as seen in the 1920’s archetypes).  Playing divorcees, professional women, ‘loose’ women who were never punished for their sexual depravity, maneaters, women who used men for their own personal gain, and on and on, pre-code actresses were really allowed to let loose on the silver screen.  Some of the most fun to watch performances were given during this period by women who modern film lovers often remember for their latter (more sober and classical) roles during the forties and fifties.

But what does all this mean in terms of fashion?  Continue reading

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A Brief History of Women’s Fashion Pt. 2: The Depression, The Bias & Return of the Waistline, 1930’s

Typically, when people think of Great Depression-era fashion, exciting thoughts do not necessarily spring to mind.  Marking the end of Jazz Age decadence, the 1930’s are often thought of as a somber decade when it comes to fashion.  However, to be honest, the 1930’s are one of my favorite eras of fashion (besides the 1960’s).  Perhaps it is the existence of extreme opposites that interests me; the 1930’s saw both the bare minimum housedress of the typical woman simultaneously with the escapist Hollywood glamour of the pre-code silver screen.  As a sort of apology for the frivolity of the flapper fashion, women’s dresses dropped their hemlines and were typically constructed of more practical, less ornate fabrics.  The waistline assumed a more traditional, natural position.  The ideal look, however, continued in the art deco fashion- streamlined, long, lean.  Meanwhile, couture fashion pushed boundaries of the silhouette with the increased popularity of bias cut draping, as well as the influence of modern art movements, such as surrealism.  Modern hardware, such as the zipper, was also popularized throughout the 1930’s. In a sense, the 1930’s is the start of the sort of classic period of vintage fashion that lasted up until the early 1960’s, a period marked by ultra-feminine silhouettes existing at a time when women’s roles in America were increasingly traditional, acting as the build up and inspiration for the second wave of feminism.  The Great Depression insisted women stay home to allow for more chances for employment for men, a trend that would last until the factory boom of the 1940’s, only to re-emerge during the nuclear family-centric, suburban docility that was the 1950’s.  Thus, women’s fashion was further feminized and defined, drifting away from the boyish, masculine silhouette of the flapper.  With a few exceptions… Continue reading

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Film & Fashion in Focus: Silent Icons of the 1920’s

Colleen Moore

Colleen Moore, America's perfect flapper.

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.

the Flapper

Colleen MooreColleen Moore

Colleen Moore

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

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