What I found unique about this book was not the abundant photographs, or costume illustrations depicting a glamorous Marilyn – that was to be expected. What I didn’t expect was the level to which that glamor was removed, and the details of the real objects described and illustrated. Author Andrew Hansford is the manager of the William Travilla archive, and like a true archivist, is interest lies in the ‘state of the artifact’.
It’s a gem of a book for anyone interested in the real objects of popular culture: depicting not only the beautiful ‘idealized’ garments, but also the state they are in today, including rips, stains, holes, and even lipstick marks. Most books that include collection images don’t include what goes on the condition reports. For this alone, I love this book.
Dressing Marilyn begins with a biography of designer William Travilla, who created costumes for Marilyn onscreen and off, and follows with two+ page spreads on seven of Marilyn’s most famous film costumes, followed by two smaller sections titled ‘personal dresses’ and ‘further classics’. Each of the seven costumes is explored and discussed in-depth, both photographically as well as with historical research, documentation, and text. It truly is a marvelous resource for anyone looking to hunt down the details of Marilyn Monroe’s wardrobe and film costume history.
Starting this evening, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival begins with a showing of Wings (1927) – a film about a lady aviator (or ‘flyer’) starring ‘it girl” Clara Bow. It is one of my favorite silent films, the story AND the costumes are great. Stella Dallas (1925), Mantrap (1926), Spanish Dancer (1923) and Pandora’s Box(1929) are some other favorites with great clothes and great characters. These — plus, the Mark of Zorro (1920) and The Cameraman (1928) with Buster Keaton–make this a killer line-up. The full list of films is below, do yourself a favor and go !
Audrey Hepburn as Eliza Doolittle (My Fair Lady, 1964) Costumes by Cecil Beaton
“The makeup people, led by the Westmore brothers, did a fine job de-glamorizing Audrey, with [Cecil] Beaton’s cooperation. Her hair had to be filled with an unpleasant substance known as Fuller’s earth—which was quite toxic—and she had to wear a special kind of kohl makeup and a drab foundation to make her look sallow and underfed. For the tests she also had to undergo the blackening of her fingernails and the backs of her hands, and her clothes were deliberately made large so that her frail figure would disappear in them…
Every scene had to be tested in costume again and again because the essence of the movie lay in the gradual transition of Audrey from goose to swan. Beaton stood over her like a Svengali, ordering, in his own words, ‘Strands of her hair to be placed in this direction or that, suggesting more or less eyelash, selecting a brooch or a trinket.’ Every hairstyle had to be argued over and decided upon. Finally, Audrey and Beaton jointly settled on Edwardian bangs like those worn by the famous British music hall star Gertie Millar. Audrey risked having her face look even more square than usual because she wanted total period authenticity, and deeply respected Beaton’s taste and experience…
She had particular fun choosing the right hat for the ascot scene. She and Beaton finally chose one that was replete with cloth poppies and antic bows and would tremble when she jumped up to see the horses.”
Yesterday, the Smithsonian Magazine’s blog, Past Imperfect posted a rather long article on Rudolph Valentino and his impact on sex and seduction in the early silent film era – and of course there is a brief mention of Natacha Rambova (the main subject of my own research). The article spends much of its time focused on the very public battle over the speculation of his sexuality, and his impact on masculinity in film. However, the article fails to discuss the role that Rambova played in the creation of his on-screen persona – especially in the role that many suggest established him as an entirely masculine star, The Son of The Sheik.
Although Rambova and Valentino had already separated by this point, their time together had inevitable effect on the development of his on-screen personas. This, coupled with the fact that Rambova’s costumes from Hooded Falcon were used for The Son of The Sheik, suggests that she had a significant (perhaps unintentional) hand in his career trajectory.
“A stunning Moorish costume adorned the stalwart form of our hero, including a pair of cerise satin Zouave trousers plentifully braided and embroidered in gold. These had been secured in Algiers originally for ‘The Hooded Falcon,’ which Rudy never made and which was the high spot in the Valentino contention with the Ritz-Carlton Company, which sent him into the United Artists fold. Natacha Rambova was the one who designed the costumes, to the tune of $100,000. They now lie on the wardrobe shelves. This is the first use that has been made of any of them.”
Regardless of whether this bit of publicity is true (often the film studios publicity machine’s put out information that was in fact dead-wrong) – many actors regularly explain that putting on their costumes has helped them to ‘realize’ or ‘achieve’ the personality of an on-screen character (see the work of Dr. Deborah Nadoolman Landis). This is no less true in the early days of film. Rambova’s impact on Valentino is regularly discussed – often with negative connotations: she was too avant-garde for some, and European tastes often read as ‘effeminate’ to middle America. It’s unfortunate that this positive association is overlooked.
Despite this foible – I think the article is a good introduction to those unfamiliar with the scandals and speculations associated with Rudolph Valentino and his now infamous cult of celebrity.
Chicago Tribune, April 11, 1926. William McGuire Papers, Library of Congress, Box 83, Folder 1.
“What cannot be pushed past the censors with words is often tried with costume. Marilyn Monroe was an expert at this—often to the despair of designers. Miss Monroe refused to wear underclothes. She felt they inhibited the rotary motion of her hips, dulled the color of her skin and, in general, reduced her sex appeal. Even in a high-necked gown with long sleeves she managed to be so revealing that on one occasion beads had to be added as a sop to the censors.
“Miss Monroe’s favorite comment about the concern of censors with her cleavage was: ‘The trouble with censors is that they worry whether a girl has cleavage. They ought to worry if she hasn’t any.’ To make sure her cleavage was shown to best advantage, she would slyly pull down the décolletage before camera time. This infuriated some of her designers.”
This coming June my paper, “Icon: The Shirtwaist Dress in Good Housekeeping and other media,” will be included in the presentations at the upcoming conference: Women in Magazines: Research, Representation, Production and Consumption.
“David Cox, who had been [Gilbert] Clark’s assistant, stayed on until 1931 and became a fully-fledged designer. He did Joan Crawford’s famous beaded Charleston dress for Our Dancing Daughters and the rest of her films until the arrival of Adrian.
Six days before the film had its world premiere in New York on 6 October, an article appeared in the New York Evening Journal that was ostensibly written by Joan Crawford herself. More likely, it was the creation of an anonymous writer in the publicity department. In either case, this article, widely reprinted across the country, goes a long way toward establishing an image for the actress that would reverberate throughout her career at MGM:
‘Something new has entered the world of clothes and personal adornment. It is not just a change in fashion, a new style. It is a concrete, tangible thing. A spirit. The spirit of modernity. The spirit finds an expression of itself in the clothes we wear. They are modern. They are startling. They do not blend; they contrast. They do not conceal; they expose. They do not rustle; they swing. They do not curve; they angle. Perhaps this new feeling in the dress finds its first and most definite expression in the motion picture world. We are the first to exploit a style. The modern clothes spirit I am talking about is abundantly typified in the picture Our Dancing Daughters. My own wardrobe, and the wardrobe worn by Dorothy Sebastian and Anita Page, breathe the very essence of restless activity…the costumes of that particular production as the costumes of my own personal wardrobe.’
This article was one of the final pieces of publicity in an exploitation onslaught that made Our Dancing Daughters a watershed film for the marketing and publicity departments at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.”
Those of you who follow me on Twitter know that I’ve been debating watching L’Amour Fou, the 2010 film on Yves Saint Laurent, for the last few weeks. This last weekend, I finally took the plunge. I have read a good deal on Yves Saint Laurent, but somehow seeing the information in a film made a greater impression on me. If you haven’t seen the film, and you are a fan of fashion history (or art history), I encourage you to watch: