Tag Archives: 1930’s

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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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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