Today is the second in my series of movie star style guides. Today, we draw our attention to the actress who became known as the Queen of Camp. Her career lasted from the silents until television. She was devoted to her fans above anyone else, and influenced current fashion throughout the 1930s and 1940s.
Joan Crawford (born 1906 – died 1977)
JOAN CRAWFORD (real name: Lucille Le Seur)
Our first sight of Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce (1945) is the Crawford many of us have in mind: Wearing an impossibly broad-shouldered mink swing coat with matching hat, long dark hair, thick black eyebrows and a huge, lipsticked mouth to match her huge, haunted eyes.
But there were many other Joan Crawfords before that: the 1920s cutie, the 1930s clotheshorse, the early 40s grand lady of MGM. All of them had one thing in common…they came from hardscrabble backgrounds and were determined to earn respectability.
Lucille Le Seur was born in Texas, to parents who had divorced before she was born. Her mother remarried a man from who she separated when young Lucille was eight. The family traveled a great deal, and Lucille often changed schools. At the age of eighteen, she won a Broadway chorus job. In 1925, she was put under contract by MGM, the Rolls-Royce of movie studios. Her name was changed through a fan magazine contest. She didn’t like it. “It sounds like craw fish,” she was quoted as saying at the time.
Her earliest parts involved dancing and playing the wild young “flapper,” much like Clara Bow. By the end of the 1920s, Crawford was a bona fide star. During her off-hours she enjoyed winning Charleston contests.
When sound came in, she proved to have a pleasant speaking voice and worked to train it. She was one of MGM’s top female stars in the early 1930s, dressed by Adrian, the studio’s most important designer. Crawford’s shoulders were broad in relation to her hips. So he created the broad-shouldered look she cultivated ever after. Her landmark costume was a ruffle-shouldered gown for Letty Lynton (1932 ).
The dress was a sensation. Immediately copies of it showed up in every dress shop in America.
Sheila O’ Brien, president of the Costume Designers Guild, believes Crawford had more fashion impact than any other female star at the time because Adrian did great things with her. O’Brien said: “Adrian used bizarre cuts and different things but they were so right, because she was always the poor girl who married the rich guy and got all the beautiful clothes, or the rich girl who married the chauffeur and still got all the clothes.”
She often starred opposite Clark Gable, MGM’s top male star, with whom she had an affair. But her parts became too alike, and her box office slumped, so MGM let her go. Crawford was out of work for two years before she made Mildred Pierce (1945) for Warners. It was the first time she played a mother. For this film she wore off-the-rack house dresses. The first time she wore one on the set, the director looked at her and said, “Goddamn shoulder pads!” With that, he ripped the dress open down the front.
Crawford was not wearing shoulder pads.
Joan Crawford won an Oscar for Mildred Pierce. She had a new look, harder and more harshly made up, but it suited the post-war period perfectly. Always she wore ankle-strap shoes, even when times changed and other women stopped wearing them. Joan turned in a number of excellent performances at Warner Brothers, including Possession (1947) and Daisy Kenyon (1947).
Crawford had three failed marriages, all with actors less well-known than she, including Douglas Fairbanks Jr. So she adopted four children and in 1955 married Pepsi-Cola executive Alfred Steele. After his death, she became the first female director of the company, as well as its official hostess, which helped to keep her in the public eye. She was not much interested in the realities of family life, an unpleasant trait she shared with many Hollywood stars. Her daughter published a much-disputed memoir that became made into a campy film after Crawford’s death.
Joan Crawford continued to make movies, although the budgets grew lower, the scripts more lurid, her acting more strident. The Western Johnny Guitar, directed by Nicholas Ray, is a camp icon (1954). Towards the end she was making horror films, such as the classic Whatever Happened To Baby Jane (1962) with Bette Davis and the far less classic Strait Jacket (1964). Crawford also developed a serious drinking problem. But she was professional to the end, answering her fan mail personally, every day.
If you want Joan Crawford’s quintessentially 1940s look: try for tailored suits (preferably with shoulder pads), ankle strap shoes, large costume jewelry, tailored dresses (not shirtwaists), slim skirts, high-necked 1940s blouses, pinstripes, wide-shouldered fur or wool coats. For evening, dark gowns in rich fabrics, long sleeves, no ruffles. Think grown-up sexy.
Even though it is terribly hot here in New York City, this makes me want to put on a flowing satin evening gown and mink coat. And then pass out from heat stroke.