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Of the '30s, '40s and '50s

By David Wolfe
Hollywood in the 30s, 40s and 50s

The Golden Age of Movies, the '30s, '40s and '50s, was also a time when Hollywood influenced fashion importantly. Big studios like M-G-M, 20th Century Fox, Paramount and Warner Brothers employed talented designers to create original outfits for the stars of the time. On-screen styles had to be absolutely original, interpreting the fashions of the moment and projecting them forward, sometimes a year ahead of the calendar. Designers like Adrian became true trend-setters, influencing other designers and the manufacturers who produced clothing for mass consumption by the avid movie-going public.

From their beginning, movies showcased fashion, sometimes by famous designers like Lucille or Chanel, but mostly by studio employees. Screen styles in early films were too much like costumes to have any real influence. White peacock feathers, yards of pearls and leopard fur didn't exactly resonate with the average woman. With the coming of the talkies, dialogue allowed movies to present more realistic scenarios and therefore, the costumes worn by the characters became more realistic, too. Female movie-goers could seek a reasonable facsimile of the clothes worn by a leading lady like Joan Crawford.

Studios soon realized the impact that cinematic style was having and began to exploit a film's fashion appeal with publicity campaigns in movie magazines, newspapers and paper doll books, too. Some attempts were made to produce and market styles seen in the movies but that proved too cumbersome for the busy studios. A sort of trickle-down system evolved and the entire fashion industry fed off Hollywood style.

Very often a designer created a gown, a hat, a hair-do or even an eyebrow that became a rage. Adrian's ruffled organza froth for Joan Crawford in "Letty Lynton" (1932) was mass produced and sold innumerable copies. Garbo's tilted low-crown hat in "Romance" (1930) influenced millinery for years. When Ginger Rogers played "Kitty Foyle" in 1940, her white collared working clothes became the secretary's uniform. Edith Head's flower-trimmed strapless confection for 19 year old Elizabeth Taylor in "A Place in the Sun" (1951) inspired prom dresses for years.

Decade by decade, Hollywood reflected the fashion dreams of the time. Life in the 1930s was defined by the Great Depression but fashion was about escapism, inspired by the movies. Stars slouched around, shoulders hunched, in floaty chiffon, bias-cut slinky satin, furs and feathers, a veritable feast of fashion. "Fashions of 1934," of 1934" "Roberta" (1935) "Mannequin" (1937) and "Vogues of 1938" all revolved around the fashion business, so great was audience interest. "The Women" (1939) featured perhaps the most beautiful fashion show ever on film.

Hollywood Style

Jean Harlow, Greta Garbo, both dressed by Adrian, and Marlene Dietrich, costumed by Travis Banton, were the stars who influenced style and beauty. They all shared extremely arched fine-line eyebrows and side-parted waved hair that every woman emulated.

World War II affected '40s fashion dramatically and even Hollywood designers were restricted by rationing and shortages. Broad shouldered, tailored looks dominated for daytime and evening, too. A lack of fancy European trims led to the use of bold prints and odd colors. Accessories, especially hats, went wild. Coiffures worn by pin-ups Betty Grable, Rita Hayworth and Lana Turner became extreme; upswept, rolled, coiled and cascading down the back or over one eye like Veronica Lake. Joan Crawford's exaggerated mouth, a gash of bright lipstick, was popular.

The post-war decade of the 1950s brought not only the baby boom but also an economic boom reflected in extravagant and elegant fashions first introduced in Paris. Christian Dior's "New Look" revived long, full skirts with petticoats, tiny waists torturously diminished by Merry Widow corsets, boned strapless gowns and fur stoles. Gloves and hats were an everyday must for women dressed as living dolls.

Two stars, absolute opposites in style, were widely imitated by the average woman. Doris Day's blonde wholesomeness made her the perfect role model for crisp, clean, snappy sportswear until she got glamorized by Jean-Louis for "Pillow Talk" (1959) and became a high fashion icon. Elizabeth Taylor's dark, voluptuous beauty made heavy eye make-up fashionable and her movie wardrobes gave rise to several hot selling styles. Her chiffon dress by Helen Rose in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" (1958) and her wedding gown in "Father of the Bride" (1950) were widely copied.

By 1950, the studio designers were losing their power. Marlene Dietrich insisted on wearing Dior couture for Hitchcock's "Stage Fright" (1950). When Audrey Hepburn wore Paris creations by Givenchy in "Sabrina" (1954) screen style was elevated to a new high fashion height and taken out of the hands of the studio designer... the beginning and the end of glorious, glamorous, made-in-Hollywood style.

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