As a life-long lover of old black-and-white movies, especially those from the 1930s and 1940s (Hollywood’s so-called Golden Age), I enjoy seeing many of them over and over again. The first time, I’m obviously paying attention to the plot. But in subsequent viewings, I can focus on the jewelry and clothing worn by the characters and the architecture and décor of the settings. The only problem is that those films were created for the big screen, and the details get lost on my 26-inch television. So imagine my delight when I read about and then saw the exhibition Hollywood Glamour: Fashion and Jewelry from the Silver Screen, currently on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA). If you love fashion, jewelry and old movies, go to see this marvelous exhibition by March 8, 2015 — you won’t be disappointed!
Fashion in the Movies
Our fascination with movie stars and what they are wearing on and off the red carpet is not a phenomenon invented in recent years. Since the first decades of the 20th century, Hollywood has had a tremendous influence on American fashion. By the 1920s, movies were the most popular leisure activity in the country. Long before television and social media, fashion magazines reported on the glamorous wardrobes of movie stars, both on and off the screen, and these publications had a huge impact on the public’s taste. During the years of the Great Depression, people looked to the movies as a means of escape from the harsh realities of their economic circumstances. Hollywood studios complied by dressing their stars in luxurious clothing and jewelry and portraying the fantasy of the ideal American lifestyle.
The Exhibition: Fashion
The Museum’s press release states: “Hollywood Glamour: Fashion and Jewelry from the Silver Screen focuses on how jewelry and clothing contributed to the iconic style of several major stars of the period, including Gloria Swanson, Anna May Wong, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Mae West and Joan Crawford”. As this photo shows, mannequins dressed in lavish gowns by designers such as Travis Banton, Adrian, and Edith Head are gracefully posed on platforms arranged in a step pattern. Don’t you think the figures look as if they are waiting to step down onto the runway of a fashion show?
According to one of the curators: “The sumptuous dresses in the exhibition illustrate how fashion was an ideal expression of Hollywood’s distinctive brand of escapist fantasy. Fabrics such as metallic lamé woven with real gold and silver enhanced starlets’ otherworldly aura — offering the movie viewer a taste of supreme luxury for the price of a movie ticket”. Because some of these designers left the film studios to start their own fashion lines and because department-store reproductions of Hollywood chic were also available, movie fans could buy their own budget-friendly versions of film star fashions.
Another aspect of film fashion design is explained in the press release: “Hollywood fashions were also influenced by the technical needs of filming. Like satin and chiffon, lamé was a fabric of choice. The glittery surface, created with metal-wrapped threads in silver or gold, translated well onto black-and-white film. A lamé Evening Gown (1937) designed by Edith Head and worn by Betty Grable in the film This Way Please (1937), enrobes the star’s body in sensual, reflective light. On a practical level, with the advent of sound in the late 1920s, lamé, satin and chiffon were better than a rustling taffeta, as they did not produce noise that could be picked up by sensitive microphones”.
The Exhibition: Jewelry
Also on display is exquisite jewelry by designers such as Trabert & Hoeffer-Mauboussin (a collaboration of Trabert & Hoeffer, an American firm, with the Parisian house Mauboussin) and Paul Flato (known as the jeweler to the stars). One of the former’s designs is known as a Mutli-use Necklace. Featuring diamonds and other precious gemstones mounted in platinum, this type of necklace was designed to be “taken apart to create separate bracelets, brooches, dress clips and rings”. A photograph of the one in the exhibition, which belonged to actress June Knight, can be seen on the Museum’s website via the link to the slide-show preview (cited below).
My favourite piece of jewelry in the exhibition is a Flower Bracelet, made by Flato in the late 1930s. (The beauty of this large, three-dimensional piece, shown here, is very difficult to capture in a photograph. You’ll have to see it in person, where I promise it will take your breath away!) The design of this bracelet is described by the MFA as one of the “more fluid, dynamic compositions that are asymmetrical” than the Art Moderne pieces on display. The Art Moderne (or Machine Age) style evolved in the 1930s from the Art Deco style of the previous decade. These later designs feature highly-polished metals; simple, aerodynamic curves; and a mechanical look and feel.
More at the Exhibition
The exhibition is a true multi-media experience. In addition to fashion and jewelry, included are Edward Steichen photographs of film stars, film clips of scenes showing the stars wearing the displayed gowns and/or jewels, and set and costume designs from famous films of the era. Running concurrently at the MFA is Karsh Goes Hollywood, an exhibition of “twenty iconic figures from Hollywood’s Golden Age photographed by Karsh over his life-long career”. (Yosuf Karsh was an amazing photographer who was also Canadian.)
For More Information
Go to the Museum’s website to read newspaper interviews with the exhibition curators, view a slide-show preview of the exhibition and buy tickets. If you are interested in Paul Flato’s work in film, read my blog post Jewelry in the Movies: Paul Flato. You can read about and drool over precious jewelry worn by stars from Mary Pickford to Elizabeth Taylor in the book Hollywood Jewels: Movies, Jewelry, Stars by Penny Proddow, Debra Healy and Marion Fasel. For a splendid selection of costume jewelry from the 1930s and 1940s, visit the TruFaux Jewels website.