When considering sartorially rich moments in American history, the mind easily jumps to the 1920s. There exists a glamorous image of 1920s fashion in the popular imagination that is centered around the “flapper”—one of feathers, beads, and cloche hats. Elements of this may ring true, but as amateur film and photo from the 1920s (or your grandmother’s old clothing) can attest to, much of what was actually worn in the 1920s was far more boyish and less decadent, with a sophisticated and muted color palette. The style of the 1920s has been some of the most incorrectly reproduced and imitated in film and popular culture through the contemporary moment, and the myth of 1920s fashion can largely be attributed to Hollywood, beginning in the 1950s when “Hollywood began mining the 1920s…in order to make it work, they adapted the costuming of the period to look more like what people were actually wearing in the ‘50s,” (Jeanine Basinger). The obsession and interest still seen today with the aesthetic of the 1920s appears to have begun its emergence in the 1950s, when the 1920s was already being viewed as a “theme”—for parties and costume.
Set in the roaring ‘20s and filmed in the ‘50s, the iconic movie Singin’ in the Rain is highly regarded for its glamorous and bold fashion, with detailed and elaborate technicolor garments worn by each character from the film’s leads to its hundreds of chorus dancers. The costumes are far from period-correct, but the film provides an excellent case study for the way the 1920s has been reimagined in subsequent decades, and a lens through which to examine the ways we attempt to portray (and inevitably muddy) the past. During one particularly compelling number entitled Beautiful Girl—a pastiche of Ziegfeld Follies-style tableaux vivants—we are treated to a series of vignettes of different women dressed extravagantly for particular occasions, while the male singer describes each one in poem.
There is an obvious element of satire here and throughout the entirety of the film that pokes fun at the aesthetic of the 20s, and the number is barely connected to the plot, but nevertheless functions as a testament to the significance of fashion in the film, and the impact it had on the picture of the 1920s in the 1950s imagination.
It seems only appropriate that Hollywood in the 1950s looked towards the 20s for mass appeal, given correlations in society and culture. Both decades experienced the boom of productivity and rapid economic growth of a postwar economy, a relaxation of sexual mores, and the emergence of new styles of popular music that challenged previous tastes–jazz and rock n’ roll. Perhaps these parallels provided contemporary viewers in the 1950s with something that resonated with them—distant enough to be romanticized, but similar enough to understand.
Subsequent films, including Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 rendition of The Great Gatsby, have continued to betray the 20s in their costuming, with dresses cut far too close to the body. When attempting to reproduce the past, we are never able to fully eviscerate the modern lens. Regardless, Singin’ in the Rain, with its bright color palette, rich satins and furs, and glittering sequins and fringes is a feast for the eyes.