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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 — assume an affair took place; Shearer’s character must decide whom she’ll choose by the film’s end. Unlike her Oscar-winning turn in 1930’s The Divorcee, Riptide is a more lighthearted affair (pun intended), with Adrian’s work noted by Mordaunt Hall in his March 31, 1934 review in the New York Times: “Miss Shearer as Lady Mary displays a weakness for sartorial creations, some becoming and others quite startling,” he wrote.

Claudette Colbert in a publicity photo from 1934’s “Imitation of Life."

Imitation of Life (1934)

Starring Claudette Colbert, Warren Wiliam and Louise Beavers

Directed by John M. Stahl

Gowns by Travis Banton

Available for rent or purchase on Amazon Prime Video

Classics fans tend to be more familiar with the 1959 remake of this film, starring Lana Turner and Sandra Dee, but this version likely resonated more deeply with Depression-era audiences, who could relate to the story of how two widowed single mothers pool their talents, home and resources to make a better life for themselves and their children. Both the dynamic between the two women, as well as the mother-daughter relationships — including Beavers’s daughter, who believes she can pass as white — also would have taken on a different tone with audiences in the 1930s vs the version filmed 25 years later (though not by much). Indeed, unlike the Lana Turner film, in which she achieves Broadway and Hollywood stardom, Colbert builds a business from a pancake recipe developed by Beavers’s Delilah, making her character’s contribution to their rag-to-riches story more compelling than the remake. Success, of course, is also reflected in Colbert’s increasingly posh wardrobe by Banton, looks that are unquestionably far more glam than the rest of the cast.

Myrna Loy and William Powell in 1934’s “The Thin Man.”

The Thin Man (1934)

Starring William Powell and Myrna Loy

Directed by W.S. Van Dyke

Wardrobe by Dolly Tree

Available for rent or purchase on Amazon Prime Video

William Powell and Myrna Loy made six Thin Man films together as Nick and Nora Charles, but for pure style factor, nothing beats the first. That’s partly due to the couture-driven aesthetic of Dolly Tree, who found success in London and Paris before arriving in Hollywood, and to the audience’s introduction to Nora Charles as a chic woman in her own right. It’s notable that, unlike contemporary films, the sequels didn’t go to great lengths to upgrade her wardrobe; Loy’s Nora favored high style from the start, thus any desire to raise the fashion bar in subsequent films wasn’t really needed. The asymmetrical pleating under the satin coat dress seen here is one example of Tree’s terrific looks in The Thin Man; a striped gown Nora wears to a Christmas party is another (a look that likewise has been copied by modern-day designers). But Tree didn’t save her strongest looks only for her female star; check out the designs worn by guests at the dinner party that climaxes the film, especially a white sleeveless gown accented with a jeweled clip, worn by Minna Gombell as Mimi, to understand that Tree’s work was solid throughout this iconic film.

Irene Dunne in 1935’s “Roberta.”

Roberta (1935)

Starring Irene Dunne, Randolph Scott, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers

Directed by William A. Seiter

Gowns by Bernard Newman

Available for rent or purchase on Amazon Prime Video

Based on the 1933 novel Gowns By Roberta by Alice Duer Miller, this musical comedy throws everything at the audience: a Paris fashion-house setting; Irene Dunne as a deposed Russian princess who’s annoyed by her new business partner, played by Randolph Scott, before she falls in love with him; musical numbers by Astaire and Rogers that have little to do with the original story; and for the climax, an ultra-glamorous fashion-show sequence with Dunne singing “Lovely to Look At,” which would become the title of the 1952 remake. From the stunning bias-cut gowns for Rogers’s dancing sequences to the opulent looks for the fashion show, this is some of Bernard Newman’s best work. Also, look for a young, platinum-haired Lucille Ball, who briefly appears in an uncredited role as one of the models in the fashion show.

Ginger Rogers in the famed feather dress by Bernard Newman for 1935’s “Top Hat."

Top Hat (1935)

Starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers

Directed by Mark Sandrich

Gowns by Bernard Newman

Available for rent or purchase on Amazon Prime Video

Speaking of iconic work by Newman, Top Hat was the second Astaire-Rogers film he worked on after Roberta, but it features what is perhaps both the most iconic and infamous costume seen in the 10 films the pair made together. Rogers reportedly co-designed this blue dress, almost completely covered in ostrich feathers, with Newman, for the “Cheek to Cheek” number. Sandrich and Astaire initially objected to the design, fearing it was wrong for the dance. Rogers refused to come to the set until they relented, and that’s how this gown made it into one of film’s most legendary musical numbers. If you look closely, you’ll see the dress shedding feathers, just as Sandrich and Astaire had feared. The result also earned Rogers her nickname: You guessed it, Feathers.

Ruth Chatterton in 1936’s “Dodsworth.”

Dodsworth (1936)

Starring Walter Huston, Ruth Chatterton and Mary Astor

Directed by William Wyler

Costumes by Omar Kiam

Available for rent or purchase on Amazon Prime Video

Based on the 1929 Sinclair Lewis novel, Dodsworth is about a husband and wife who each experience a mid-life crisis upon the husband’s decision to sell his successful auto company and enjoy a long-desired second honeymoon in Europe. Walter Huston’s Sam Dodsworth quickly discovers that European high society isn’t for him — the trouble is, his wife Fran, played by Ruth Chatterton, loves her new surroundings, as well as the attention she receives from men at the parties, perhaps a bit too much. Chatterton’s wardrobe by Omar Kiam also enjoys an upgrade as Fran becomes enamored with the chic lifestyle — the glamorous looks she wears are also meant to juxtapose with the simpler wardrobe of the down-to-earth socialite played by Mary Astor, who ultimately captures Huston’s heart. Chatterton was 43 at the time of filming Dodsworth, and reportedly she and director Wyler fought during filming, as he didn’t realize that the story of a woman trying to recapture her youth might hit a bit too close to home for the actress. Dodsworth was Chatterton's final American film.

Herbert Marshall, Marlene Dietrich and Melvyn Douglas in 1937’s “Angel.”

Angel (1937)

Starring Marlene Dietrich, Herbert Marshall and Melvyn Douglas

Directed by Ernst Lubitsch

Costumes by Travis Banton

Available for streaming on YouTube

Years before she decreed that she would only wear Dior onscreen, Marlene Dietrich enjoyed several successful pairings with costume designer Travis Banton, starting with 1930’s Morocco, in which the actress famously wears a men’s tuxedo, as well as the dramatic looks she wears in 1932’s Shanghai Express. But Angel is decidedly more lighthearted than both of those films, while not losing any of Banton’s luxe aesthetic. Marshall and Dietrich play Lord and Lady Barker, who have grown apart due to his frequent business trips to Geneva, so she decides to head off on her own adventure. The first shot of Dietrich shows her in an impossibly chic hat while she looks out an airplane window at the Arc de Triomphe as she arrives in Paris. As she’s traveling incognito, Lady Barker declines to give her name when she meets Anthony Halton, played by Melvyn Douglas, who is instantly smitten and, after an evening together, christens her “Angel.” She returns to her husband in London and, though it’s clear she loves him, she thinks occasionally of Douglas — who turns up in the English countryside soon after and reminds Marshall that they’re former war buddies. Once that happens, Dietrich must decide how she’ll navigate the situation without hurting either man. The glamour is non-stop throughout Angel, notably an amusing shot of Dietrich asleep in bed, in full hair and makeup, including arched brows and false eyelashes.

Barbara Stanwyck in 1938’s “The Mad Miss Manton."

The Mad Miss Manton (1938)

Starring Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda

Directed by Leigh Jason

Gowns by Edward Stevenson

Not available for streaming; on DVD at WBShop

“Out of the social register and into the police blotter!” declares the trailer of The Mad Miss Manton, the story of Stanwyck as Melsa Manton, a spoiled Park Avenue socialite who enjoys playing pranks with her gang of girlfriends — until a dead body turns up and just as quickly disappears, and no one believes her. While she’s trying to both prove a body existed and discover who the killer might be, she also has to deal with newspaper editor Peter Ames, played by Fonda, who initially doubts her story and treats her like the spoiled brat she appears to be. This film predates the most famous Stanwyck-Fonda pairing, 1941’s The Lady Eve, but the chemistry is already evident, while Edward Stevenson acquits himself well with the gowns and other looks a woman like Melsa Manton would wear to the parties and nightclubs that, until a dead body appears, dominate her frivolous life.

Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in 1938’s “Holiday."

Holiday (1938)

Starring Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant

Directed by George Cukor

Gowns by Robert Kalloch

Available for rent or purchase on Amazon Prime Video

Between Bringing Up Baby, also released in 1938, and 1940’s The Philadelphia Story, Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant paired up again for Holiday, the story of two sisters in a wealthy family who couldn’t be more opposite, yet they love the same man. Hepburn naturally plays the more eccentric of the siblings, Linda Seton, who believes Grant’s Johnny Case should live his life as he desires, while the more traditional sister, Doris Nolan’s Julia Seton, would prefer Johnny give up his dreams in favor of a solid job working for her father. Robert Kalloch’s gowns for Hepburn and Nolan also highlight the differences in the sisterly relationship; switch any design between the two, and it would simply look wrong. It’s not difficult to guess which sister Grant ends up with in the end, but getting there proves to be a fun and thoughtful exploration of family dynamics and the class system of the 1930s.


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