Movie Star Style Icon: Marlene Dietrich


In an effort to share my vast knowledge on fashion and cinema, this is the third in the series of my guides to vintage movie stars (i.e. before 1965). This guide is devoted to another style icon whose career spanned the 1920s to the 1960s: Marlene Dietrich. Such career longevity is almost unheard of in Hollywood. She was a style-setter in her time, in the way she wore her clothes and the way she lived her life. The subject of the previous entry, Joan Crawford existed for one reason: to be a movie star. She signed autographs and answered fan mail to the end of her life. Marlene Dietrich, however, had many other interests than movies. But she spent her last years in seclusion, refusing to let anyone see her in her old age.

Marlene Dietrich (born 1901 – died 1992)

MARLENE DIETRICH (real name: Maria Magdalene Dietrich von Losch)

There are those who think that Marlene Dietrich is at best a campy creation, an exaggerated 30s vamp with perfect legs who swooned about in arty lighting and ridiculous costumes. But how did that creature survive more than thirty years as a top draw in the entertainment business? She succeeded in films, won over audiences in live stage shows, and entertained troops in World War Two. (She is shown below, slogging in the mud with American soldiers in Germany.)

According to many biographers and friends, she was also a born hausfrau who loved to cook and often brought food to sick friends. But when it came to her career, she was a compulsive perfectionist. Designer Edith Head remembers that fittings took hours, as Dietrich scrutinized every fold and bead on her costumes. There were mirrors set up behind the cameras so Dietrich could check her lighting. Nothing was allowed to be less than perfect when Dietrich was on camera.

She was a married, working actress with experience in both stage and screen when Josef von Sternberg cast her as the cabaret singer who causes a professor’s downfall in The Blue Angel (1930). von Sternberg saw her as a dangerous temptress, uncaring, erotic, viewing her victims with a jaundiced eye. Always pragmatic, Dietrich lost 20 pounds before she made her first American film, Morocco (1930), in which she famously made her entrance in a man’s tuxedo, kissed a woman on the lips, and gave a flower to co-star Gary Cooper.

The star and director made five more films together at Paramount, and Dietrich wore some of the most amazing costumes of the 1930s. The designer was Travis Banton, who costumed all of Paramount’s top female stars. In Shanghai Express (1932), she wore one of her most iconic outfits: a full length black traveling suit covered in black feathers, with a feathered black turban and nose veil.

During this period her costumes were often outlandish, increasingly so as she worked with von Sternberg. In contrast, she was known offscreen for wearing trousers, the first star to wear them in public. Slacks were only worn on the studio lot before then.

This was one of the most important fashion innovations of the 1930s, although pants were used mainly for casual wear. It was not lost on Dietrich that her blonde beauty was even more striking in mannish attire.

Their final collaboration, The Devil Is A Woman, (1935) was a box-office disaster. During shooting, von Sternberg announced they would no longer be working together, which came as an unpleasant surprise to Marlene.

But, pragmatic as ever, she moved on. She had remained married to her husband, Rudolph Seiber, in name only and had a daughter, Maria. In 1939 Marlene, along with Joan Crawford and Katherine Hepburn, was named “box office poison” by the Motion Picture Exhibitors of America. So Marlene moved to England, where she moved among the cream of British show business society, including Noel Coward and Cecil Beaton.

It was at this time that Germany’s former ambassador to England visited her with a personal offer from Adolph Hitler to make her “The Queen of the Reich Cinema.” Marlene listened but showed him the door.

The film that turned her career around was Destry Rides Again (1939). Marlene was cast as saloon singer Frenchy opposite sheriff James Stewart in this Western comedy. It put her back on top, and she remained there until 1943. Marlene had been quietly using her money to get friends out of Nazi Germany, but she wanted to do more. She decided to entertain U.S. troops at home and overseas. Under the auspices of the Office of War Information, Dietrich made broadcasts in German and French that were transmitted to citizens under Axis rule in Europe.

After the war, she made the classic A Foreign Affair (1948), her glamour intact.

(The gown above was designed by Edith Head.)

After that her films were few and far between, but included the classics Touch of Evil (1958) and Witness for the Prosecution (1958). Dietrich was uninterested in television. Except:

On an Academy Awards show, Marlene strode onstage in a high-necked black dress by Christian Dior. The sleeves were to her wrists, and the gown was skin-tight. But it had one large slit, exposing her spectacular legs as she crossed the stage. Dietrich wore no jewelry. She was a sensation.

In the early 1950s, Marlene Dietrich began her international nightclub career. As stated in the earlier guide on Marilyn Monroe, designer Jean Louis created a seemingly “naked” dress, by building the dress over a flesh-colored corset, using flesh-colored netting and plenty of sequins. The photo above is from 1967.

In 1964, she made a cameo appearance in Paris When It Sizzles, stepping out of a white limo and entering the House of Dior, clad (of course) in a white Dior suit with matching hat.

A few years before her death, Maximillian Schell made the documentary Marlene, interviewing Dietrich in her apartment in France. Dietrich was heard only in voice-over, refusing to be seen on camera. She would not allow friends to see her old; instead she spent hours on the telephone, in bed. To the last, she would not let the legend be sacrificed.



copyright Elisa DeCarlo – use of this material is forbidden without written permission

Movie Star Style Icon: Joan Crawford


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.


Movie Style Icons: Marilyn Monroe, Jean Harlow, Rita Hayworth


As an cinemaphile I am in a unique position to know, when reading a listing online for womens’ vintage clothing, whether or not the movie star used as a keyword would have actually chosen to wear it, or even be alive to wear it. This first guide will help you, the buyer, make a more informed choice between sellers who use the names only as meaningless keywords and those sellers who use them correctly.

For this first guide I am keeping it simple by using the movie stars that I run across in Vintage Womens Clothing listings the most:

Jean Harlow (born 1911 – died 1937)
Rita Hayworth (born 1918 – died
Marilyn Monroe (born 1926 – died 1962)

JEAN HARLOW (real name: Harlean Carpenter)

Jean Harlow was the first Blonde Bombshell. In fact, she made a comedy Bombshell, 1933, that was very much like her real life. It portrayed a movie star whose family leeches off of her, and a publicist who constantly betrays her.

In the early years of her career she played a series of cheap sexpots, because that was the way she looked. Even though off screen she was always described as surprisingly sweet and affectionate. But Jean Harlow had a marvelous flair for comedy.

Her movie wardrobe was always tight in the extreme, designed to show off her jutting, bra-less bosom. (She was the first female star of the 20th century to make the bosom the center of attention.) Harlow was considered a “man’s woman,” salty, brash, and uninhibited, at least on screen. Harlow’s hair was dyed white blonde, so she was also the first “platinum blonde,” a term coined just for her.

Much of her career as a true star was spent at MGM. Her clothes were meant to show off as much of her figure, particularly her breasts, as possible. Bias cut satins, tight long 30s skirts, low-cut evening gowns, furs, nightgowns…flowing satin and silk is the first thing one associates with Jean Harlow. Most of her movie wardrobe was designed by Adrian, MGM’s top designer.

Since the majority of her starring roles were in the early to mid 1930s, the costumes were not as structured as they might be ten years later–and one could get away with showing a LOT more in the early days of her career. (In fact, in many of her early films, the sides and undersides of her bosom and her nipples are clearly visible. Something that would not be tolerated a few short years later.)

Jean Harlow died an untimely death in 1937. When you think Harlow, think flowing, satiny, unconstructed, like lingerie. When you see a seller saying that “Jean Harlow would have worn this” about a 1950s full-skirted high-necked dress, you know they haven’t done their research.

RITA HAYWORTH (Margarita Cansino)

She was known as “The Love Goddess,” because her beauty seemed at once so down-to-earth and yet unapproachable. In real life painfully shy, her screen presence implied volcanic sexuality beneath a sultry surface. This is the famous “Put The Blame On Mame” dress from Gilda (1946)–the designer Jean Louis used the across-the-body hip sash and bow to tighten up and conceal Rita’s recently having given childbirth!

By now the censors did not let female stars show as much of their bodies as a decade before, so designers used other methods to showcase their clients’ assets. Rita Hayworth’s greatest assets were considered to be her long arms and shoulders, not to mention her beauty and lush hair. So her costumes emphasized those over her slightly thick waist and thin legs.

Hayworth was a favorite of World War Two soldiers, along with Betty Grable. Hayworth did a tremendous number of movies, climbing very slowly up the ladder to stardom. Columbia, her home studio, loaned her out for supporting parts, which gradually made Rita a star. Along the way, her black hair was dyed dark red, and her hairline raised by electrolysis, to make her less “Spanish-looking.”

During the war, she specialized in musicals, having been a dancer, born to a family of professional dancers, the Dancing Cansinos. Her singing was dubbed. Technicolor showed her off to great advantage, and she was born to wear the clothes of the pre-New Look war time 40s – tailored suits with padded shoulders, knee-length tight skirts (but not too tight–the silhouette was an inverted vee).

The preferred style during World War Two was practical. Since fabric was rationed, suits tended to look slightly like soldiers’ uniforms, and dresses were simple. But, we’re talking about the movies here, not real life–so Rita also wore lavish evening gowns with elaborate beading that clung close to the body, or boned-bodice evening gowns that flared out at the skirt with layer upon layer of chiffon.

The latter gowns were designed for dancing. Rita’s strongly-boned face showcased the large picture hats and the upswept hairstyles of the time perfectly.

Her stardom faded after the war, and a series of unhappy marriages, including one to “Citizen Kane‘s” Orson Welles. Rita Hayworth had never wanted to be a “movie star” in the conventional sense. But she still did excellent dramatic work in films such as Separate Tables (1958). However, she suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and eventually died in 1987.

MARILYN MONROE (real name: Norma Jean Mortensen)

Unlike our first two stars, everyone on this planet (and probably others) knows Marilyn Monroe. She is a legend, an icon, a goddess. But take a look at this very young bride during World War Two:

This was before she became a professional model, when she was still a young housewife, married at sixteen. She wore the typical styles of the 40s, and it was a number of years before she became the blonde Sex Goddess we revere today. First there was a modeling career, which in turn led to dozens of bit and small parts, usually as a “dumb blonde,” in undistinguished movies. She herself was not particularly distinguishable, to be honest, but she changed her name to Marilyn Monroe and worked as hard as humanly possible to become a movie star. There were occasional roles that showed a glint of something more, but they were few and far between. Even at the beginning of her career she displayed the emotional difficulties that would plague her later life.

She achieved stardom in a series of films for 20th Century Fox Studios in the early 1950s: How To Marry A Millionaire, River Of No Return, There’s No Business Like Show Business, and others. Along with an excellent singing voice (never adequately appreciated), like Harlow, she also had a flair for comedy. William Travilla was the costume designer for most of her Fox films.

She did not quite wear the typical styles of the 1950s…for instance, she HATED full skirts, and only wore one in a Cary Grant film where she had to put her leg up on a chair. Everything had to be skin-tight. The interior construction of her costumes are a wonder to behold. The dress in which she sang “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” to President Kennedy is a marvel of interior design, everything held and pushed in place. (The same designer, again Jean Louis, was famous for designing Marlene Dietrich’s “nude” gowns for her nightclub act, which were actually gowns made over a flesh-colored corset, sewn into the dress!)

So if you’re looking for Marilyn-style clothes, think: 1950s, everything tight, cinched waists, halter dresses, spaghetti strap dresses with slim skirts, skin-tight capri pants worn with flats (Monroe had a passion for Ferragamos), sleeveless blouses tied at the waist, cardigan twinsets…in other words, unsubtle.

She remained a star until her death in 1962, and has become more of a legend with each passing decade.

I hope that you have learned something useful. More guides will be coming up for more movie star icons!


copyright Elisa DeCarlo – use of this material is forbidden without written permission

Chatting With Lana Turner – Plus Today’s Fashion Tip!

Dahlings –

Tonight I turn my attention to lighter topics. It’s time to start Christmas Shopping for all of your loved ones, and what better place than my store, Elisa’s Bounteous House of Style (link at your right)? The Vintage Blowout Sale is still going on, until November 29th. And I am also stocking my store with plenty of goodies for her, him, and the four-legged set. For example:

Patrick Cox black satin evening slippers with rhinestone buckles:

Cunning little Christmas wreath pierced earrings:

Goldtone faux ruby brooch by Monet:

Vintage stunning 50s R&K Originals turquoise wool dress, size Large:

Vintage 60s tan wool Italian cut man’s two-piece suit, 42 Long:

And so much more! Yes, it is indeed a great deal of work, but as long as my personal assistant scurries at the sound of my footsteps, it is all getting done.

Which is how it should be, n’cest pas?

This weekend I attended a seance, and who should pop in but my dear dead friend Lana Turner. Lana is such a delight. We sat in the corner and chatted about the recent revelations about the bisexuality of both Katherine Hepburn and her longtime beloved, Spencer Tracy (or “Ol’ Granite Face,” as Lana calls him). Although it is a trifle unnerving to picture Spencer in a passionate clinch with Jimmy Stewart, as Lana said, “They can say anything about you after you’re dead, and I oughta know.”

Lana is a trifle envious of today’s stars, who can be openly, even annoyingly, gay (Rosie O’Donnell leaps to mind), or bisexual (Madonna, although I doubt whether she notices her bed partners–she is far too busy staring at her ceiling mirror). Lana herself prefers gentlemen, but her daughter is a lesbian and it does not bother Lana in the least. “For one thing, women smell so much better than men,” she remarked to me. “Anyway, most women. Some of ’em smell like tuna that’s been out of the can too long, if you catch my drift.”

If she had been corporeal, I would have patted her hand and agreed. But maybe it’s better I didn’t. One would have hated to have one’s actions misconstrued.

Elisa and Bucky The Wonderdog

“As a seller, I feel black velvet….all velvets, but particularly black… the most underrated textile in the vintage world. It indeed is more common, and as dressier items tended to be the ones people held onto, it’s more plentiful. But despite that…’s still the most elegant. Easily accessorized, instantly glamorous. ”
Vintage or Bust, the eVintage Society blog