It's always incredible to me how few people know Kay Francis. Even those who do know her seem to fail at recognizing and appreciating just how much she contributed to classic cinema as well as to today's fashion. There is no question that Kay was a style star and consistently so in every one of her movies. Thankfully, Turner Classic Movies dedicated an entire day to her films and I, for one, was watching them all.
From 1932 to 1936, Kay was the top female film actress at Warner Brothers. To give you a little perspective, this was the same time a young actress named Bette Davis was on the rise and soon would become a cornerstone of the studio. Ginger Rogers was dancing cheek to cheek with Fred Astaire at RKO. Claudette Colbert took a bus trip with Clark Gable over at Columbia. And Marlene Dietrich was ever the seductress at Paramount. Yet Kay was more popular than any of them...so much so that she was the highest paid star in Hollywood and one of the highest paid people in America.
Once you see her movies, it's actually easy to understand why. For one, she was luminous on film...with big bedroom eyes that swelled with emotion and a soft supple voice that communicated it. Her characters were elegant, smart, and vulnerable. And what style. She was widely publicized as the "American glamour girl" and inherited the reputation as Hollywood's clotheshorse from 1920s queen Gloria Swanson. Designers loved dressing her because she was quite the canvas. Kay was one of the tallest actresses at the time--reportedly between 5'7" and 5'9"--along with others like Ingrid Bergman and Alexis Smith. This height and her natural poise and polish made for a magnificent model on screen.
To fuel the fantasy of Depression-era audiences, designers dressed Kay in sleek bias-cut gowns that pushed the limits of how bare a girl could go. She was known for wearing designs with deep decolletage in the front and back...often at the same time. Her body conscious slip and tank dresses were surprisingly modern and would influence much of the minimalist style of the 1990s. Of course many could still be worn today. She was also known for coats and gowns (often longsleeve) that had a dramatic draping effect and pooled around her feet on the floor. Fur was one of the luxurious accents she wore most often as well as Art Deco jewelry that never seemed overdone. Her own skin just might have been her best accessory, though, especially when it was lit by the industry's best cinematographers. Kay was consistently glamorous, most often thanks to costume designers Travis Banton whenever she was loaned out and Orry-Kelly at her home studio of Warner Brothers.
Orry-Kelly was one of the giants of costume design and contemporary to Adrian at MGM and Banton at Paramount. He moved to New York from Australia and became roommates with a young actor (and future Men's Style icon) Cary Grant. It was Grant who recognized Orry-Kelly's talent and encouraged him to move to Hollywood in 1932. He immediately went to work at Warner Brothers and became a favorite of Bette Davis; in fact, she demanded he return to design her clothes even after he left the studio. He is one of the few costume designers who would work with most of the major studios--first Warner Brothers then 20th Century Fox, Universal, RKO, and even MGM. During his time in Hollywood, he was responsible for some of the greatest costumes on film--Casablanca (1942); Now, Voyager (1942); An American in Paris (1951, Oscar with Walter Plunkett and Irene Sharaff); and for Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot (1959, Oscar). These are only some of his brilliant work.
But being so closely aligned with costume designers had its downside for Kay. In the end, she became better known for her wardrobes than for her acting. This wasn't her fault...to feed the audience's appetite, studios poured more money into costumes and sets than they did effort into the scripts. The roles she was offered simply started to become less and less substantive. And when she tried to fight for better treatment--and she did fight--the studio simply let her go and essentially ended her career. Even friend Carole Lombard could not save her. For this reason, I feel responsible to put a spotlight on her and remind today's audience just how delightful she was, particularly when trading delicious double entendres with frequent leading man William Powell. She also deserves a major celebration of her sophisticated and influential style.
Kay made six to eight films a year--there were seven in 1932 alone, one of her best years. Though I shared The Style Essential Trouble in Paradise (1932) at a recent seminar I taught at FIDM, it's almost a disservice to Kay to show costumes from only one of her movies. You can practically close your eyes, blindly pick a film of hers, and it's guaranteed that both she and her costumes will be stunning. Therefore, here I am highlighting much of the quintessential 1930s style of Kay Francis.
Raffles (1930) with Ronald Colman
with costumes by Travis Banton and a hint of the type of low cut backs she would become known for
With frequent co-star William Powell in 1932's Jewel Robbery
in Orry-Kelly's fur-trimmed velvet dress that has such a deep front and back it's practically falling off
Another popular look on Kay were coats with grand collars (often fur) that framed her face
Kay in Orry-Kelly's draped gowns with Powell again for 1932's One Way Passage
Kay in Travis Banton for Trouble in Paradise (1932) with Herbert Marshall
Banton includes a dress similar to one he did for Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express
A still from Wonder Bar (1934, above) and portraits from around 1936
show her dress' famous low cut fronts and backs
Gowns from 1937's Stolen Holiday include more with low cut fronts (that have matching deep backs)
A kiss to say goodbye to Kay from The Keyhole
To see Kay's influence on fashion today,
be sure to check out the article on the Cinema Connection