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