Marlene Dietrich: a film & a costume/fashion resource


Noir film costume design is often gone uncredited – but that doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate it. The San Francisco Silent Film Festival comes this weekend to the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, and one of its presentations is a Noir film called The Woman Men Yearn For, starring Marlene Dietrich.

Via the Film Noir Foundation newsletter:

She’s a Femme Fatale

“Before she shot into stardom with Josef Von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930), Marlene Dietrich had a brief career in German silent films. The Film Noir Foundation is proud to co-present one of these rarely screened films, Kurt Bernhardt’s The Woman Men Yearn For (1929) at this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival. On his way to his honeymoon, a young industrialist encounters a seductive beauty (Dietrich), traveling with a mysterious male companion. When she begs the young man to help her, events spin out of control. For more information on the festival, running July 14 through 17, visit the SFSFF website.” See the full lineup here

On a related note, the Marelene Dietrch Collection Berlin includes a huge selection of her clothing and accessories. Those looking to research her film costume and offf-screen style should probably start here. The collection includes:

  • Over 3,000 textile items from the twenties to the nineties, including 30 film- and 40 show costumes, by among others Jean Louis, Travis Banton, Edith Head, Eddie Schmidt.
  • 1,000 individual items from her private wardrobe, 50 handbags, 150 pairs of gloves, by among others: Elizabeth Arden, Balenciaga, Balmain, Chanel, Courrèges, Dior, Givenchy, Guerlain, Irene, Knize, Lee, Levis, Schiaparelli, Ungaro.
  • 400 hats, 440 pairs of shoes by, among others: Agnés, Aprile, Cavanagh, Lilly Dache, Delman, Edouard, John Frederics, Massaro.

*Image above via Marlene Dietrich Collection Berlin, and the exhibition “Marlène Dietrich. Creation d´un mythe

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New Historic Film Archive (and Costumes) Now Online

Given that costume designers sometimes don’t get the credit they deserve, it’s nice to be able to tell you about a new authoritative archive that emphasizes the historical import of this often under-valued craft. Earlier this week I received notice that the  Margaret Herrick Library (of the Los Angeles based Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences: i.e. OSCAR!) had finally released its online archive of Production Art.

It’s not the entirety of the Graphic Arts collection, but much to my delight, it includes a good deal of film costume art! Of the 5,300 records in the database, nearly half include images.  The database also includes “production design drawings, animation art, storyboards and paintings” and date from the 1920s to the present day.

It’s a huge resource for film costume historians, and thankfully provides credit for both costume designers, as well as illustrators (often two different individuals).  As Library Director Linda Mehr notes:

“We’re very happy to be able to make this database more widely available to researchers, students and film enthusiasts. . . . Our hope is that it will bring much-deserved attention to the costume and production designers, sketch artists, animators, and other artists who have contributed so much to filmmaking.”

“The Spanish Dancer”, 1923 by Howard Greer (via AMPAS)

To give you just a quick snapshot of what’s available: The database includes nearly 40 records for Gilbert Adrian; 20 for Milo Anderson; almost 30 for Travis Banton; 70 for Marjorie Best; 19 for Howard Greer and many, many more.

Not surprisingly, my interest is in the illustrations by Natacha Rambova, Gilbert Adrian, Georges Barbier and Erte (and of course those depicting Rudolph Valentino and Alla Nazimova).

Though most images are rights-protected (i.e. you can see them on your computer screen, but can’t insert them into a blog post or save them to your computer), a few have been cleared for media purposes. Those interested in information on additional materials (or to make an appointment to view an item that does not yet include a reference image) are encouraged to contact graphic arts librarian Anne Coco at A full list of their databases is available here.

AMPAS Production Art Database


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Teaser Tuesday: Behind the Scenes in Hollywood

The fantastically choreographed work of director Busby Berkeley

So happy to share this brief, but highly entertaining clip “Behind the Scenes in Hollywood (1934).” It’s an endearing look at a simpler time and tells a nice story  of a college football team visiting with Busby Berkeley‘s chorus girls on set, and one of them has a chance at a screen test. Glamorous young women in their every-day clothes, and young men in nice suits. It seemed useful for film and fashion historians. I’d love to hear your thoughts:


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Researching my own Collection: A 1940s Folk Jacket

Green Coat Images via Etsy seller missfarfalla

For Christmas last year, I asked for and received this marvelous 1940s felt jacket sold by Etsy seller missfarfalla. I was enamored with its unique ‘Western’ version of folk art, the hand work (applique and embroidery), not to mention that it was one of my favorite colors.  I particularly love the cactus, palm tree and the tiny sequins that decorate the piece. It’s unlined and smells strongly of old wool – but it doesn’t have any holes or noticeable weak spots.

Once the jacket was added to my small, odd and sporadic collection of vintage clothing I began to wonder about it’s origins and meanings. I did some light research, but my sporadic schedule left me with more questions than I had time to answer. I found some other similar jackets being sold online and noticed that most other available jackets had polychromatic embroidery and applique, where as mine had only white figures with modest embellishments. I suspected that this meant mine might be earlier than the others.

Slowly, though, as winter vacation drew to a close my free time quickly disappeared and I put the jacket away in my closet… Until yesterday. Sunday evening, I took the jacket out to take a closer look.

A question came to into my head that I hadn’t thought to ask before: Was it machine made? In looking at the seam along the bottom (where the green connects to the white band at the bottom), I quickly saw that it was in fact sewn by machine with gold thread – but more interestingly, I found writing in the seam!


It repeated that phrase, along with what might be some kind of copyright mark, three times along that seam. Until yesterday, I had thought that the jacket contained no label at all. I’ve always thought that the insides of garments yielded far more information than the surface decoration, and I’m surprised at myself that I hadn’t given this a more through going over in the first place. Unfortunately, this ‘label’ didn’t get me very far in identifying any possible significance for the figures. Thus far – I’m guessing it was a tourist item and made for export in Mexico (given how prevalent they seem to be in vintage shops). But I can’t help wondering if it was based on some earlier form of the garment that was actually a part of Mexican culture.

That said, I did come upon a similar jacket in Worn Journal, indicating its significance in popular culture :

The Shining (1980), Costumes by Milena Canonero


Other examples:

Via Etsy Seller: aliciahanson Oceanside, CA
Via Vintage Detail



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Fashion History Finds me: In a Hospital

A few weeks ago, I was visiting a relative in a hospital in the rural Northern California town of Colusa. The halls of there were filled with various forms of art for sale. While most were paintings of local life, there was also the odd quilt or photograph. In one large display (pointed out to me by my mother -thanks Mom!), I came upon the work of a former patient: Josephine Lanouette (May 26, 1917 to June 7, 2002).

A group of 10 beautiful illustrations dating to the early 1930s were up in the case. Most notable were the outfit pages in color seen here at the left (note the bottom left includes a flying outfit, swimming outfit, beach outfit and dancing outfit – labeled around the heads). Other pages included a study of 1930s hairstyles, glamorous scenes that looked right out of a movie set, single portraits, silhouettes, and an illustration of fashionable children playing in a yard, among others.

According to the text accompanying the display, Jo began drawing fashion illustrations at the age of 14 because she couldn’t afford the clothes that she wanted. These illustrations were primarily of clothes dating from the early 1930s, and are strongly reminiscent of Hollywood’s glamorous leading ladies.

Several years ago, I read the book Some Wore Bobby Sox: The Emergence of Teenage Girls’ Culture, 1920-1945 by Kelly Schrum and couldn’t help remarking on the similarities. Chapter 5 in particular is particularly relevant: “A Guiding Factor in my Life”: Teenage Girls and the Movies:

Teenage girls used these materials [fan magazines and film stills] to personalize rooms, decorate belongings, construct scrapbooks, or trade images. Irene Scholfield, a high school student in Northern California in the late 1920s, lovingly drew pictures of movie stars based on movie magazine photographs … turning mass produced images into personal art. And she was not alone. Seniors in 1933 nostalgically remembered their younger high school days of ‘deskcovers hidden by drawings and photographs of moviestars.'” (155)

Josephine’s illustrations seem to fit right into Schrum’s book, both because of their link to Hollywood glamour as well as to teen culture during the depression era. The clothes she drew were SO glamorous! It’s unclear if she ended up pursuing any sort of career related to costume and fashion, though her obituary did note that she was “a former member of the Colusa Stagehands,” a local community theatre group.


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Teaser Tuesday: Craft in America

Premiering tonight on PBS at 8pm is Craft in America, and from the trailer it looks like it will offer some inspiring stories on handcrafted objects and their role in culture. The companion book is available for sale : Craft in America: Celebrating Two Centuries of Artists and Objects

Watch the full episode. See more Craft in America.



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Motherhood: Donna Reed & The Shirtwaist Dress

In the mid to late 1950s television began to reinforce the shirtwaist as a mother’s uniform on family comedy TV shows such as The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best, Make Room for Daddy, and later, The Donna Reed Show.  These shows reinforced the idea that a responsible or “good” woman [or mother] is well put together at all times, and that her place was in the home. [i] With the advent and prevalence of television, women were shown doing housework in the most perfect of ensembles, including Dior inspired shirtwaists, with high heels, and pearls.  Early television shows, such as The Honeymooners had been slightly more realistic and less idealistic than later shows such as Leave it to Beaver, I Love Lucy, and The Donna Reed Show.

In addition, the later 1950s saw a dramatic shift in terms of influence as television began to outweigh all other media types.  Television Historian Mary Ellen Zuckerman explains that, “by the mid-fifties it was clear that television could attract larger audiences than any of the older media, even with the cut-rate subscriptions increasingly offered by magazines” (203).

Television characters affected how women felt about themselves and their capabilities, both in terms of motherhood as well as in terms of appearance.[ii] In 1959, Donna Reed was given an award for her character on The Donna Reed Show from the founders of Mothers Day (The American Mother’s Committee), reinforcing the notion that women should be mothers who strive for perfection (Chapman; Fane 107).  William Roberts, who created the characters for The Donna Reed Show described her character as “wife, mother, companion, booster, nurse, housekeeper, cook, laundress, gardener, bookkeeper, clubwoman, choir singer, PTA officer, Scout leader, and at the same time effervescent, immaculate, and pretty” (Fultz 118).  Moreover, her character and unrealistic perfection helped to solidify the shirtwaist dress as an icon of female perfection for American Culture.

-This has been an excerpt from my 2009 article on the Shirtwaist Dress, published in the Journal of American Culture.

[i] Of “the goodwife “Her setting was the home and she was seldom seen outside it.  Her uniform was the apron and later, the housedress”  (Meehan 34).

[ii] “Titles such as ‘Do You Make These Beauty Blunders?’” suggested just how close women could be to making mistakes and did little to alleviate the anxieties about personal appearance that were also being fostered by films, and later, television”  (Walker 193).


Vaughan, Heather A. “Icon: Tracing the History of the Shirtwaist Dress” Journal of American Culture, Vol 32, Issue 1 (March 2009) pp 29-37.

Chapman, Priscilla. “Donna Reed Wins citation for Television Family Show.” New York Herald Tribune 20 May 1959.

Fane, Xenia Flyer.  “Television Image of the Father: A Comparison of the Father Image Held by Home Economics Teachers with the Image Perceived by High School Students on Commercial Television.”  Diss. New York U, 1965.

Fultz, Jay.  In Search of Donna Reed.  Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1998.

Meehan, Diana M. Ladies of the Evening: Women Characters of Prime-time Television.  Metuchen: Scarecrow Press, 1983.

Walker, Nancy A. Shaping Our Mothers’ World: American Women’s Magazines.  Jackson: U P of Mississippi, 2000.

Zuckerman, Mary Ellen. A History of Popular Women’s Magazines in the United States, 1792-1995.  Westport: Greenwood P, 1998.

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Natacha (Rambova) in the News

Yesterday’s Los Angeles Times brought with it a mention of Natacha Rambova – the woman whose fashion and costume design career I’ve been researching for the last eight years. It always thrills me to come upon new (or not-so-new research). Times reporter, Chris Erskine, took a road trip to Crown Point, Indiana where Natacha Rambova and Rudolph Valentino were married.

(Lake County Courthouse, in the county seat of Crown Point, Ind., is where silent star Rudolph Valentino was wed. Via the Los Angeles Times)

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