This is the third in the series of my guides to vintage movie stars (i.e. before 1965). This guide is devoted to two style icons: Joan Crawford and Marlene Dietrich. Both had careers that spanned from the 1920s to the 1960s. Such career longevity is almost unheard of in Hollywood. They were both style-setters in their time, in the way they wore their clothes and the way they lived their lives. 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, had many other interests than movies. But she spent her last years in seclusion, refusing to let anyone see her in her old age.
- Joan Crawford (born 1906 - died 1977)
- Marlene Dietrich (born 1901 - died 1992)
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 crawfish," she was quoted as saying at the time.
Her earliest parts involved dancing and playing the wild young "flapper," much like Clara Bow. 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. One costume was a ruffled shoulder 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 housedresses. The first time she wore one on the set, the director looked at her and said, "Goddamn shoulderpads!" 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--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. 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 look: 1940s 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.
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 swoons around 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, 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; Edith Head remembers that fittings took hours, as Dietrich scrutinized every fold and bead on her costumes. 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. In 1939 she, 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, and 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.
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.
If you want Marlene Dietrich's look: simplicity, sophisticated vintage chic, fitted 40s and 50s suits, New Look, plenty of leg, scarves, high-end handbags, high heels, or, conversely, 40s and 50s menswear-tailored womens' clothing. Accessories can be over the top if you keep the basic outfit simple.
copyright Elisa DeCarlo - use of this material is forbidden without written permission