Thursday, April 21, 2011

Cinema Style File--the 1930s Glamour of Jean Harlow

As you know from my vintage collection for GlamAmor, I am definitely partial to the 1950s and 1960s when it comes to design in daytime dresses. But when it comes to evening gowns?  In that case, I am allllllll about the 1930s.

To offer escape to an impoverished nation devastated by the Great Depression, design in film during the 1930s was all about sophisticated glamour.  Movies sparkled then...Deco penthouse apartments with lofty ceilings and satin bedding, supper clubs with sultry singers and champagne, men in tuxedos with top hats and tails, and women in floor-length gowns.  These were body conscious gowns, too, most often in slinky silk cut on the bias for a figure-flattering fit.  Some of the best dresses came from costume designers like Adrian at MGM, Jean Harlow's studio, and Travis Banton at Paramount.  Their design frequently blurred the line between underwear and outerwear since many garments could easily be mistaken for lingerie.  Sometimes they were embellished with details like feathers for the ultimate in over-the-top glamour.  But more often than not, designers let the woman's body do the talking with daring decolletage in either the front or back.  All of my evening gowns adhere to this type of silhouette, though now they are made in more modern fabrics like matte jersey.  For me, there is just nothing sexier.

No one seemed to wear the gorgeous gowns of the 1930s better than Jean Harlow.  Her body (and accompanying attitude) is what really made her a star.  She truly was both the original Platinum Blonde (1931) and bombshell, so named for her lead role in the hit Bombshell (1933).  The movie interestingly echoed aspects of her own life--both the good and the bad--of being a mega movie star in Hollywood.

Jean made love with every camera she stood in front of and fully used the opportunities that pre-Code Hollywood afforded her.  In 1930, the Hays Code enacted guidelines for "decency" on film, but it wasn't fully enforced until around 1934.  So until then, sexual boundaries and the characters that Jean and other actresses played could be pushed to the limit.  She is infamous for icing her breasts before going in front of the camera so that her body looked its absolute perkiest.  Jean didn't shy away from nudity either, including making a a point of announcing that she always slept in the nude and never wore underwear.  This level of candor and eroticism was of course shocking at the time.  Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, Madonna...they all owe their own iconic images and brazen sexuality to Jean Harlow.

Jean made an enormous impact with her tragically short life--it's incredible to believe that she was only 26-years-old when she passed away.  But she has been captured forever in sumptuous black and white, a vision and one of the best examples of 1930s glamour.  Including George Hurrell's images of Jean in her iconic Adrian gown from 1933's Dinner at Eight (above and below), here are just some of the reasons she is still so memorable today.

As James Cagney's moll in 1931's The Public Enemy

With one of her best co-stars, Clark Gable
in 1932's Red Dust (above) and 1937's Saratoga

Scene stealer as a trophy wife in George Cukor's 1933 ensemble classic Dinner at Eight

Gowns, gowns, and more gowns...

We see the inspiration of 1930s outfits like these in movies like Bonnie and Clyde

Jean having a couple Marlene Dietrich moments

The great love of Jean's life, The Thin Man's William Powell

For the best selection of Jean Harlow films, be sure to visit the TCM Shop!

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