The “Gowns By” Effect: Fifteen Escapist Films of the 1930s

Updated: May 5, 2020

For the perfect antidote to everyday anxiety, consider something from the decade that put cinematic style front and center.

A 1930s publicity portrait of Norma Shearer.

“No man’s gonna let me or not let me do anything ever again.”

That’s Norma Shearer as Mary in 1934’s Riptide, a line that neatly sums up the attitude of so many female characters in films of the 1930s. Women asserting their independence was a huge theme throughout the decade, often in films that saw them using sex to attain power over the men in their lives. Whether it was suggestive or, in the case of many pre-Code films, entirely overt, the idea surely appealed to Depression-era audiences, who largely were seeking escapism in their weekly visits to movie theaters.

Barbara Stanwyck in 1933’s “Baby Face.”

An estimated 80 million Americans frequented cinemas at least once a week at the height of the Depression, when a 5-cent ticket bought not only the latest film, a cartoon and newsreel footage, but very often a stage show as well. That much-needed break from everyday life contributed to the success of everything from a Busby Berkeley extravaganza like Gold Diggers of 1935 to such gritty gangster features as The Public Enemy or Little Caesar, both from 1931.

Another genre also emerged, though it may not have acquired an official label — beyond being lumped into the category of “women’s pictures.” But its prevalence throughout the decade was undeniable: the comedies and dramas that explored the travails of the social set, stories that typically focused on a beautiful woman who starts out either rich or poor, and by the end of the film has found true love while either gaining or losing social status and wealth — all the while wearing a succession of glamorous looks.

From Shearer’s Academy Award-winning performance in 1930’s The Divorcee to Joan Crawford in 1932’s Letty Lynton or Barbara Stanwyck in 1933’s Baby Face, the scripts may have differed markedly, but the high style was ubiquitous. The resulting messages also surely appealed to audiences: A woman born without wealth could attain both love and a posh lifestyle, while not even the Park Avenue set was immune to the problems of heart and home, though they always looked chic while navigating their troubles.

Bette Davis in a publicity still for 1932’s “The Rich Are Always With Us.”

In Bette Davis — The Lonely Life: An Autobiography, the legendary actress mentioned the unique role fashion and style played in these particular Depression-era features. “This was the period when Joan Crawford would start every film as a factory worker who punched the time clock in a simple, black Molyneux with white piping (someone’s idea of poverty) and ended marrying the boss who now allowed her to deck herself out in tremendous buttons, cuffs and shoes with bows (someone’s idea of wealth),” she wrote. “A change of coiffure with each outfit kept her so busy it was a wonder she had time to forward the plot. All of this was possibly not Miss Crawford’s fault, the public adored it. Hollywood had its own type of reality, and the Misses Crawford, Shearer and Dietrich were gorgeously glamorous.”

Adrian’s famed design for 1932’s “Letty Lynton,” starring Joan Crawford.

Indeed, it’s no accident that this is the decade in which costume designers enjoyed newfound status, with Adrian, Travis Banton, Orry-Kelly and Bernard Newman becoming A-list names in their own right. The 1930s also spawned a new type of onscreen credit: Rather than a simple “Wardrobe by” or “Costumes by” listing, “Gowns by …” conveyed to audiences that stylish moments were sure to be unspooled over the next 90 minutes. High-profile costumes also transcended the screen to become sought-after looks any woman could purchase — the famed “Letty Lynton dress” being the best example; depending on the source, a copy of Adrian’s organdy gown, made by Macy’s, sold anywhere from “tens of thousands of units,” according to the Adrian biography by Leonard Stanley and Mark A. Vieira, to up to 500,000 or even one million units (unverified numbers that surely Macy’s would crave to achieve almost 90 years later).

It’s an ideal time, of course, to once again view cinema through the lens of escapism. For fans of fashion, 1930s titles are the perfect avenue to immerse yourself in stories that might take on notes that are serious, fluffy or (in the case of pre-Code films like Baby Face) downright sinful — and in each, the glamour indeed is fully on display. With that in mind, Screen Chic is highlighting 15 films starring 15 of the decade’s most iconic actresses, and where each is available to enjoy a moment of stylish escape.

Greta Garbo and Ramon Novarro in 1931’s “Mata Hari.”

Mata Hari (1931)

Starring Greta Garbo and Ramon Novarro

Directed by George Fitzmaurice

Costumes by Adrian

Available for rent or purchase on Amazon Prime Video

A quote from Adrian in the Stanley/Vieira biography perfectly sums up his work for Greta Garbo in Mata Hari: “She had a knack for wearing the most astonishing things with a total lack of self- consciousness. She turned the unconventional into a part of herself.” His costumes for this biopic of the legendary World War I spy add to the highly fictionalized tone of this MGM film, because it’s doubtful that in 1917, the year in which Mata Hari is set, the real-life woman would have been able to conjure the thoroughly sumptuous gowns and headpieces seen here. Even in black and white, the costumes worn by Garbo, as she leads a double life as an exotic dancer who is the toast of Paris, glimmer with metallic tones. This pre-Code film ran into multiple problems with censors, and even by today’s standards, the provocative undertones seem a bit shocking for their time. But while this story of a woman who finds that love gets in the way of her subterfuge can feel a bit faulty at times, the production values alone make Mata Hari worth digging into, especially the seductive-meets-opulent designs worn by the world’s most infamous spy.

Clark Gable and Joan Crawford in 1931’s “Possessed."

Possessed (1931)

Starring Joan Crawford and Clark Gable

Directed by Clarence Brown

Costumes by Adrian

Available for rent or purchase on Amazon Prime Video

Possessed may be the film Davis was referring to in her autobiography, because Crawford’s character indeed starts out as a factory worker in Erie, Pennsylvania, before moving to New York City so she may live the life of wealth and privilege she desires. The Manhattan lawyer played by Gable loves her, but not enough to marry her, so he helps to devise her fictional life as a divorced socialite with a glamorous apartment and a wardrobe (by Adrian) to match — the lifestyle she always craved, even if it comes without the commitment from the man she loves. When a former boyfriend of Crawford’s comes calling, both her background and Gable’s political ambitions become threatened. Possessed wasn’t the first pairing between Gable and Crawford, but it is among the best and most stylish films they did together, and the chemistry between the two stars is also much in evidence; they were in the midst of a full-fledged affair during filming, but MGM head Louis B. Mayer put an end to it. “It was like living over a lighted powder keg, but it was worth it,” Crawford wrote in 1961’s A Portrait of Joan: An Autobiography of Joan Crawford. “I’ve said that Clark could melt you with a look. Well, he could talk, too, and we had a great deal to talk about. His job, like mine, was the most serious thing in the world to him. When we went into a scene, everything else ceased to exist.”

Kay Francis and Miriam Hopkins in 1932’s “Trouble in Paradise.”

Trouble in Paradise (1932)

Starring Miriam Hopkins, Kay Francis and Herbert Marshall

Directed by Ernst Lubitsch

Gowns by Travis Banton

Available for streaming on Daily Motion

This terrific example of fashion in film starts out in Venice, where a pair of grifters played by Hopkins and Marshall originally try to con each other before discovering their true identities, a fact that only deepens their passion. They then set their sights on Francis, a perfume magnate who is seen shopping in an early scene: She pronounces a handbag for 3,000 francs to be “entirely too much,” but another purse, bejeweled with diamonds and sapphires and priced at 125,000 francs, proves to be too irresistible. The loss of the handbag — at the opera, naturally — sets in motion a scheme between Hopkins and Marshall to relieve Francis’s Madame Colet of 850,000 francs in cash. Francis’s status as a style icon reached its pinnacle in 1932 thanks to three films: Trouble in Paradise, One Way Passage and Jewel Robbery, but this title in particular seems to relish showing the star in head-to-toe looks by Banton. “I came here to rob you, but unfortunately I fell in love with you,” Marshall tells Francis toward the film’s end. It’s a great Lubitsch line, but also fits into the theme of these films nicely.

Bette Davis in an Orry-Kelly gown in 1932’s “The Rich Are Always With Us."

The Rich Are Always With Us (1932)

Starring Ruth Chatterton, George Brent and Bette Davis

Directed by Alfred E. Green

Gowns by Orry-Kelly

Available for rent or purchase on Amazon Prime Video

Based on a 1931 novel by Ethel Pettit, The Rich Are Always With Us was designed as a star vehicle for Ruth Chatterton, but it’s Bette Davis, in one of her earliest film roles, who ultimately steals every scene in which she appears. This also marked the beginning of one of Hollywood’s most successful designer-actress relationships: Though he’s uncredited, it’s the first time Orry-Kelly designed costumes for Davis. Chatterton also fell in love with Orry-Kelly’s work: As he wrote in his posthumous 2001 autobiography, Women I’ve Undressed, “In fact, she stopped ordering Patou clothes from France and had me make many of her personal things.” The story also fits perfectly within this theme, with Chatterton as a newly divorced socialite who keeps waffling between her ex-husband and the handsome George Brent — Davis plays Malbro, a spoiled socialite also vying for Brent’s attention. In the end, Chatterton got her man in more ways than one: She and Brent married after filming The Rich Are Always With Us, though they would divorce just two years later.

Jean Harlow in 1933’s “Dinner at Eight.”

Dinner at Eight (1933)

Starring Marie Dressler, John Barrymore, Wallace Beery, Jean Harlow and Billie Burke

Directed by George Cukor

Gowns by Adrian

Available for rent or purchase on Amazon Prime Video

Dinner at Eight features a star-studded cast of bona fide MGM icons, but this is Jean Harlow’s picture, a thought made clear by Dressler in her 1934 autobiography, My Own Story: “The plain truth is, she all but ran off with the show!” This is also perhaps the film for which Adrian’s bias-cut designs are best known, expertly showcased on Harlow as the social-climbing wife of the gruff industrialist played by Beery. Not unlike 1932’s Grand Hotel, Dinner at Eight’s story weaves together an ensemble of characters who initially seem to be unconnected, but you’ll think otherwise by the time of the titular dinner party, with Burke as the frazzled hostess, which concludes the film. Fashion designers to this day continue to reference Adrian’s looks for Harlow in modern collections, a tribute in itself to Dinner at Eight’s staying power.

Carole Lombard aboard the “Twentieth Century” in 1934.

Twentieth Century (1934)

Starring John Barrymore and Carole Lombard

Directed by Howard Hawks

Costumes by Robert Kalloch

Available for rent or purchase on Amazon Prime Video

A Broadway impresario turns an unknown model into a successful actress — but after she leaves his controlling ways for Hollywood stardom, he schemes to get her back for his latest project. Fold in the glamour of 1930s train travel, and Twentieth Century, based on the Broadway play, offers plenty of farce, slapstick comedy and Lombard, who truly knew how to wear clothes, in a variety of stylish looks by an uncredited Robert Kalloch. Lombard was just 33 (and married to Clark Gable) when she was killed in a plane crash in 1942, and in addition to films like Nothing Sacred or My Man Godfrey, Twentieth Century is another example of wondering what heights she might have achieved as an actress. Barrymore evidently agreed: Once filming on Twentieth Century was complete, he sent her an autographed photo, in which he inscribed, “To the finest actress I have worked with, bar none.”

Norma Shearer in a publicity photo for 1934’s “Riptide."

Riptide (1934)

Starring Norma Shearer, Herbert Marshall and Robert Montgomery

Directed by Edmund Goulding

Gowns by Adrian

Available for rent or purchase on Amazon Prime Video

There’s an early moment of intentionally ridiculous looks worn by Shearer and Marshall to a costume party in Riptide, but don’t let that dissuade you from either the story or the potential for gorgeous gowns (this is an Adrian film, after all). Shearer plays a Park Avenue socialite who marries the English lord played by Marshall, but when he leaves on a business trip and she’s invited on a vacation to the Riviera as a distraction, she’s tempted to rekindle an old relationship with her former beau, played by Montgomery. Throw in romantic Mediterranean locales, and naturally people — including her husband —