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Celebrating Lauren Bacall’s Innate Style

The iconic actress — and unabashed fashion fan — was born on this day in 1924.

Lauren Bacall in a chic look by Helen Rose in 1957’s “Designing Woman,” co-starring Gregory Peck.

Few people have lived a life as glamorous as Bronx native Betty Joan Perske, who was born on this day in 1924. We know her as Lauren Bacall, of course, the husky-voiced actress who conquered movies, Broadway and Bogart in equal measure.

If you’ve read Bacall’s 1978 autobiography, By Myself – or the 2010 follow-up, By Myself and Then Some – you also know she was a fan of fashion from an young age. “In my early teens, the fun I had window shopping, looking sometimes longingly into shops filled with lovely clothes I could never afford,” she wrote in Then Some. “And years later, I was still window shopping on Madison Avenue, Broadway, many streets East side and West side, only this time I could walk into these shops and I could buy what I yearned for sometimes.”

Lauren Bacall, circa 1946.

By Myself includes delightful anecdotes about trips to Loehmann’s, the Brooklyn clearing house for designer fashions that Bacall loved to frequent even long after she became a star. Coupled with her innate style, a love of clothes was among the reasons she decided to seek a modeling career while studying acting in New York – her dreams were set firmly on the Broadway stage, but in the meantime, modeling gigs enabled her to contribute to the family coffers.

Her first job was in a Seventh Avenue showroom in New York’s garment center in May 1941. Bacall’s salary? Thirty dollars a week: “a fortune – Mother and Grandma would be thrilled!” she wrote in By Myself.

Between auditions and acting jobs, Bacall’s modeling career eventually led her to the office of Diana Vreeland, the famed fashion editor of Harper’s Bazaar. “Betty’s always been what used to be called a ‘good kid,’” Vreeland is quoted as saying in the 2012 biography Empress of Fashion: A Life of Diana Vreeland. “She’s always kept her own thoughts and her own dreams. She literally had nothing to offer but her existence. But I was so interested in her.”

Bacall on the March 1943 cover of Harper’s Bazaar.

Photos inside the magazine ultimately led to an appearance on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar in March 1943; Bacall was 20 years old. That image, of a stylish young woman standing in front of an American Red Cross office, caught the eye of Slim Hawks, wife of director and producer Howard Hawks, who suggested to her husband that he test the beautiful girl for his latest project: To Have and Have Not, based on the Ernest Hemingway novel. Most fans know that Bacall’s role in that film changed the arc of her life both professionally and personally, as she met Humphrey Bogart on that set and quickly fell in love (he was unhappily married, and the relationship hit Bogart like a thunderbolt as well). They were married in May 1945, seven months after To Have and Have Not premiered, and Lauren Bacall was already a star.

Onscreen and in photos of splashy Hollywood premieres in the years that followed, it’s impossible to find an image of Bacall in which she looks anything but chic and of the moment. There’s a phrase about someone who “knows how to wear clothes,” and it’s an idea that seems to suit her perfectly. The ability to project poise, that natural carriage and confidence in entering a room while wearing something that’s meant to be noticed – only so much of that can be taught. Bacall often would talk about how nerves plagued her for onscreen and onstage moments throughout most of her life, but you’d never know it from watching one of her films, wearing something stylish by Helen Rose, Milo Anderson or William Travilla. Lauren Bacall was a terrific actress who could be sultry and vulnerable at once, but it’s also the unfailingly elegant images of her that continue to resonate with fans of film and fashion alike.

A gown by Marc Bohan for Christian Dior, donated by Lauren Bacall to New York’s Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology.

Bacall likewise never ceased to embrace her own love of great design, collecting pieces from Yves Saint Laurent, Pierre Cardin, Halston, Emanuel Ungaro and others, and she wasn’t shy about naming her favorites. “I like to have Emanuel, Yves and Halston, all three, in my pocket wherever I go … just not the same pocket,” Bacall once joked. She would ultimately give an incredible gift that benefited her native New York in the years before her 2014 passing, donating 700 pieces from her considerable personal collection to the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology. In 2015 a dozen of those looks would be compiled in a graduate fashion exhibition titled “Lauren Bacall: The Look,” while others have found their way into subsequent events, such as The Museum at FIT’s “Power Mode: The Force of Fashion,” which included one of Bacall’s suits by Saint Laurent.

Perhaps the best way to celebrate Lauren Bacall’s birthday is to check out some of her most stylish roles. Viewed purely through the lens of fashion, it’s impossible to pinpoint any film in which she doesn’t look flawless; here’s a selection of her best:

Bacall in a publicity image for 1944’s “To Have and Have Not.”

To Have and Have Not (1944)

Directed by Howard Hawks

Starring Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart

Costumes by Milo Anderson

Available on DVD at Amazon and Shop TCM

Available for streaming on Google Play

Bacall’s first film remains among her best, as she nails her sultry persona from the start. Her signature expression was born out of nerves and a tendency to tremble, she said, and her ability to control it by lowering her chin ended up creating an allure that was quickly dubbed “The Look.” The magnetism of Bacall’s expression is evident from her first moment onscreen.

Costume-wise this is far from Bacall’s most glamorous role; she has few changes, from a gingham suit with oversized buttons to a striped dress and a bathrobe. The midriff-baring satin gown seen here, worn while she sings “Am I Blue?” to the accompaniment of Hoagy Carmichael, likewise seems designed to highlight Bacall’s seductive character, unquestionably the foundation for almost every role that followed.

Bacall and Gregory Peck in 1957’s “Designing Woman."

Designing Woman (1957)

Directed by Vincente Minnelli

Starring Lauren Bacall and Gregory Peck

Costumes by Helen Rose

Available on Blu-ray and DVD at Amazon and Shop TCM

Available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video

By the mid-1950s Helen Rose was firmly ensconced as MGM’s chief costume designer, creating memorable looks for studio superstars like Grace Kelly and Elizabeth Taylor, and it was her idea to produce a film centered around the glamorous life of a woman who creates chic looks for a living. Kelly originally was slated to star in Designing Woman until she met Monaco’s Prince Rainier while in the south of France for the Cannes Film Festival, soon after choosing to become a real-life princess.

The Vincente Minnelli-directed film also came at a pivotal moment in Bacall’s life: She had been caring for Bogart, who had been stricken with cancer, and her career had come to a full stop. When she heard Kelly was no longer available, “I called [producer Dore Schary], told him I could play it, wanted to, and when I cut my salary in half, he finally said yes,” Bacall wrote in By Myself. “It was … a lovely, funny script, a terrific part, and I was happy about working. Felt lucky to get it. I wasn’t sure about leaving Bogie to work, but he wanted me to.” Designing Woman premiered in May 1957; Bogart passed away from cancer the previous January.

In addition to each thoroughly stylish look Rose designed for Bacall, the romantic comedy also features the requisite fashion show that was so popular in 1950s films. In retrospect, it’s difficult to imagine Kelly playing a role that seems tailor-made for Bacall.

Bacall in a publicity image for “Written on the Wind."

Written on the Wind (1956)

Directed by Douglas Sirk

Starring Lauren Bacall, Rock Hudson, Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone

Costumes by Bill Thomas

Available on DVD at Amazon and The Criterion Collection

Available for streaming via subscription on PeacockTV

A good argument can be made that this is Douglas Sirk’s soapiest film, the story of two best friends, played by Rock Hudson and Robert Stack, who have the unfortunate luck of falling in love with the same woman, a secretary played by Bacall. It’s Stack who marries her, but alcohol and jealousy for what he sees between Hudson and Bacall soon wreaks havoc on the marriage. Dorothy Malone, meanwhile, chews up the scenery as Stack’s sister, especially in a terrific sequence in which she dances with abandon in her bedroom while her father — wait for it — falls down the stairs to his death, a quintessential Sirk moment. Bacall exudes a quiet elegance by comparison, and her costumes by Bill Thomas likewise convey this idea. Written on the Wind wasn’t well-reviewed when it first premiered — though years later, Roger Ebert would give it four stars, calling it “a perverse and wickedly funny melodrama.” Indeed, it’s a great guilty-pleasure film for a rainy afternoon.

Marilyn Monroe, Lauren Bacall and Betty Grable on the set of 1953’s “How to Marry a Millionaire.”

How to Marry a Millionaire (1953)

Directed by Jean Negulesco

Starring Lauren Bacall, Marilyn Monroe and Betty Grable

Costumes by William Travilla

Available on Blu-ray and DVD at Amazon and Shop TCM

Available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video

This fluffy comedy is a great showcase not only for the comedic talents of its trio of stars, but also the design talents of William Travilla, whose costumes contribute significantly to this story of three women on the hunt for rich husbands, and who presumably met while working as models in a chic fashion house. Bacall’s character, the wonderfully named Schatze Page, is the most polished of the three, while Monroe’s Pola is more overtly sexy, and the style of Grable’s Loco, like her name, is just a tad nutty. Throw in the fashion show that takes place early on, and How to Marry a Millionaire is one of the decade’s best examples of cinematic style.

Bacall with Kirk Douglas in 1950’s “Young Man with a Horn."

Young Man with a Horn (1950)

Directed by Michael Curtiz

Starring Lauren Bacall, Kirk Douglas and Doris Day

Costumes by Milo Anderson

Available on DVD at Amazon and Shop TCM

Available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video

Loosely based on the true story of jazz musician Bix Beiderbecke, Young Man with a Horn was a troubled film from the start: In her 1975 authorized biography, Doris Day: Her Own Story, Day called the filming experience “utterly joyless,” while Bacall, as a medical student who marries Douglas’s trumpeter against her better judgment, must play a character originally written as a lesbian, but the all-powerful Hays Office censored any overt mention of that idea. As a result, Bacall largely appears sad and resentful throughout the film — though admittedly always stylish in some pretty fantastic costumes by Milo Anderson. The censorship of Bacall’s character has done little to improve the film's reputation in fans’ eyes over the years, which is a shame; the story suffers markedly, but it’s a terrific example of Anderson’s work.


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