Not long ago, I spent an evening presenting The Style Essentials: History of Fashion in Film 1920s-1930s at the Annenberg Beach House. The former beachfront estate of screen star Marion Davies, the venue could not have been more ideal to share my choices of the most iconic costume design in the movies that continues to influence fashion today. One of the films from this elite list is 1928's iconic Our Dancing Daughters.
Our Dancing Daughters is one of those films that really reflected its moment in history. The 1920s were one long celebration after the great sacrifice and hardships of World War I. Women had won the right to vote at the beginning of the decade and with it came an empowerment and sense of newfound freedom. These were also the days of Prohibition, so there was an additional rebellious spirit in the air as an entire generation sought to find its identity. At the time Our Dancing Daughters was made, the Jazz Age was at the peak of prosperity and still more than a year before the financial crash that would cause the Great Depression. People really were dancing on table tops and celebrating the ongoing economic boom in the United States.
One of those doing the dancing was Joan Crawford. In fact, she was really good. While still known as Lucille LeSueur, she started her career as a dancer and used those skills to create a new life for herself...far away from an impoverished childhood that included a father who abandoned her at birth. She was discovered dancing in Detroit, which led to a show on Broadway and soon a screen test for MGM. Though she was signed to a contract in 1925 and rechristened 'Joan Crawford,' she was disenchanted with the small parts that came her way those first few years. As a result, this master of self-promotion decided to literally dance her way through every hot club in Hollywood to attract the attention of the studio bosses. It worked. That perseverance led to the role that would make her a star.
Our Dancing Daughters could not have been a better showcase for Joan and her talent. Made in the days before the censorship of the Hays Code (1930-1967), producers continued to push the limit of what was shown on screen. As a result, this silent movie feels anything but and its energy completely captures the zeitgeist of the times. Joan was a huge part of that...her dancing was front and center, and her free spirit and journey through the loosening morals of the 1920s made her seem the quintessential flapper. This included The Great Gatsby (1925) author F. Scott Fitzgerald who wrote,
Joan Crawford is doubtless the best example of the flapper, the girl you see in smart night clubs, gowned to the apex of sophistication, toying iced glasses with a remote, faintly bitter expression, dancing deliciously, laughing a great deal, with wide, hurt eyes. Young things with a talent for living.
Clearly, the costumes and overall style of Our Dancing Daughters was a huge part of its success. The picture was produced by Hunt Stromberg, a man who knew something of the value of style and featured it prominently in movies such as The Thin Man (1934) and After the Thin Man (1936). Dancing's wardrobe was credited to David Cox, one of MGM's earliest costume designers, but the real style story in my mind is Adrian. Adrian arrived at MGM the same year as this movie and quickly became the studio's Chief Costume Designer. It was he who became virtually synonymous with MGM's glamorous look and style. I have no doubt that he was involved in this film, especially because of Joan Crawford...theirs was one of the all time great relationships between designer and star. With Adrian by her side, Joan became a trendsetter in every decade of her career. It is the 1940s that they are perhaps best known for...when Adrian added strong shoulders to gowns (and just about everything else) to help Joan's petite 5' frame look larger. Those strong shoulders would become one of the top trends in fashion--a signature of the 1940s--and they are still on trend today.
As you'll see, the style of Our Dancing Daughters is the epitome of Art Deco glamour. Each of the actresses--Joan, Anita Page, and Dorothy Sebastian--wear dress after dress dripping in sequins, beading, and fringe. Accessories like fur stoles and long necklaces are draped over the girls for their parties at night. But during the day, there is a much more modest look in their casual attire that includes particularly inspirational menswear. Though Gloria Swanson had launched the look in Her Husband's Trademark (1922), Our Dancing Daughters made menswear very modern and would later inspire Diane Keaton's iconic look in Annie Hall (1977). It's no wonder then that Our Dancing Daughters has become the reference point for any production today that is set in the 1920s, such as Oscar winner The Artist (2011) and Baz Luhrmann's upcoming update of The Great Gatsby (summer 2013). See just why I consider this classic such a Style Essential.
Champagne and Joan in her showstopper of a quintessential 1920s flapper dress
complete with fringe and a deep draped back
This is the moment of a generation on film--flapper Joan Crawford dancing on the tabletop
Diana has a rival for the affections of Ben in blonde Ann (Anita Page)...
...and a true friend in frequent confidant Beatrice (Dorothy Sebastian)
Besides the party attire, the casual side of the girls' clothes includes separates that are on trend today
as well as iconic menswear that would later influence Annie Hall (1977)
Even accessories like their cloche hats are a huge influence