Hollywood Before Glamour: Fashion in American Silent Film – review

Gloria Swanson
Gloria Swanson, film star and fully fledged fashionista.

“To the feminine mind nothing appeals quite as strongly as clothing, hats, or shoes – in fact finery of any kind,” opined Moving Picture World in 1916. Gentlemen spectators apparently preferred films with fighting in them. On finishing this fascinating survey of how the fashion and film industries met and grew together in the early 20th century, I’m inclined to excuse MPW’s sweeping generalisation.

Clothing, and fashion, are at the heart of everything that Hollywood has ever done. All film is spectacle, early film unambiguously so – and nothing epitomises the excesses of La-La Land more than the view of preening, primped movie stars lining up on the red carpet draped in borrowed couture and jewels. Baffling then, to remember that the first film actors were required to supply their own costumes. Turning up well-dressed to an studio (as the supremely stylish teenage Gloria Swanson did at Essanay) could secure you a chance at stardom.  Even when studios had appointed a seamstress, numbers were so short that they would frequently be called upon to play roles on screen. In fact, Hollywood wardrobe departments would be staffed by many a former actress. And because few people kept proper records of who did what in the early studios, it is the memories of stars such as Swanson and Lillian Gish that often provide the clearest picture of how the costumes were supplied, chosen and recycled in-house.

Lillian Gish wears a negligée in Way Down East (1920)
Lillian Gish wears a negligée designed by Henri Bendel in Way Down East (1920)

To begin with, Michelle Tolini Finamore’s scholarly illustrated book examines fashion trends that made for great movie subject matter, from the exploited women working in sweatshops that churned out shirtwaists for America’s increasingly well-dressed urban working-class, to the extravagant picture hats that caused havoc in Nickelodeons, to the risque Paris styles that marked a lady out as a vamp. The idea that US fashions were practical and democratic and French ones outlandish and revealing kicks off a major theme in this book – the battle for fashion supremacy between first New York then LA with Paris.

Finamore also traces the growing professionalism of the job of studio costume designer. The bring-your-own-frocks approach of the 1900s and early 1910s died out in the later teens when most American studios established an in-house costume designer and workroom. By 1925, costume designers were beginning to receive proper credit for their work on screen, and by the dawn of sound, it was considered such a high-status role that megastar couturiers such as Coco Chanel crossed the Atlantic to have a shot at working in the movies.

Lady Duff Gordon, AKA Lucile
Lady Duff Gordon, AKA Lucile

As film-makers put more thought, more care and more money into how their actors were dressed, enterprising souls glimpsed creative opportunities for some lucrative mutual back-scratching. One simple way of satisfying the audience’s hunger for fashion, was to include real catwalk shows in newsreels, and staged versions in narrative films. The Mutual Film Corporation went a step further when it produced Our Mutual Girl (1914), an absurdly glamorous newsreel-cum-film serial in which Norma Phillips shopped and shlepped around New York in search of adventure and ever more stylish millinery. All the while the serial’s product placement and location visits did for Manhattan boutiques what Sex and the City did for Manolo Blahnik, the name Mutual was associated with top-end fashions and exorbitant production costs. Mutual hired a wardrobe woman, “Mrs Madden”, to provide clothes and homewares for the film as well as a full-time publicity man to get the word out there and remind people how much money was being flung at the screen. The designs of leading designer to the stars and sister of Elinor Glyn, “Lucile”, or Lady Duff Gordon, featured prominently. According to studio publicity, though, the gowns and accessories provided by fancy department stores and exclusive designers were “purchased outright and paid for by the producing company”. In which case their pockets must have been very deep. For the punters, who almost certainly couldn’t afford such lavish purchases, a ticket to see each weekly instalment also included a fashion magazine, Our Mutual Girl Weekly, which included patterns for copies of garments shown on screen.

Peggy Hamilton Adams wears a gown by Adrian in 1929
Peggy Hamilton Adams wears a gown by Adrian in 1929

The themes of Finamore’s book all converge in an enlightening chapter-length case study of Peggy Hamilton Adams – an actress turned costume designer turned fashion journalist who campaigned long, hard and with an endearing lack of subtlety to make LA a fashion capital to rival Paris. A brilliant self-publicist who frequently modelled the fashions she wrote about, Hamilton Adams was fond of dressing up as film stars or characters – from Natacha Rambova to Marie Antoinette.  She was increasingly, persistently, critical of Paris houses, but she knew that that the only way California could really compete with France in the fashion stakes was by harnessing the power of Hollywood. She trumped LA designers and stores in her newspaper columns, used movie actors as models, curated shoots for film magazines and staged fashion shows in cinemas and on aeroplanes. She wrote about studio costumiers as if they were bona fide couturiers and in 1929 teamed up with Mr A Carmen Smith, whose company sold duplicates of gowns worn by stars on screen, to establish Cinema Shops in branches of Macy’s department store. “We have disseminated hundreds of Greta Garbos, Joan Crawfords and Irene Dunnes,” ran the publicity. “We can give almost anyone the cinema glamour.”

There is, of course, far more work to be done on this important and hugely enjoyable topic, but this incredibly well-researched book is more than a very welcome start. Highly recommended.

Hollywood-Before-Glamour-FIHollywood Before Glamour is available to order direct from Palgrave Macmillan or from Amazon.co.uk for £50 (hardback) or £47.50 as a Kindle ebook.

5 thoughts on “Hollywood Before Glamour: Fashion in American Silent Film – review”

  1. A fascinating look at a facet of Hollywood many of us take for granted. Or, like me, know little about. And yet fashion and wardrobe were certainly a large part of the Hollywood image. Thanks for this look at early fashion in the film business. A friend of mine here in St. Louis has an elegant collection of dresses and gowns worn by major actresses from the 30’s and 40’s. I will forward your post to her.

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