Exploring Ginger Rogers’ Costumes in Top Hat (1935)

In anticipation of discussing interwar fashion and film as part of the MA course this semester, I marathoned the movie partnership of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers over winter break. Their highest grossing film, Top Hat (1935), remains well known today both for the pair’s fancy footwork and the spectacular outfits worn by Ginger Rogers. Her costumes were designed by Bernard Newman, former head designer at Bergdorf Goodman who had initially been contracted by RKO to make costumes for Roberta, another Astaire-Rogers film. Newman would go on to dress Rogers in Swing Time (1936) and Follow the Fleet (1936). His imaginative designs for Top Hat assured Rogers’ place as the ultimate fashionista of 1930s musical film.

Dale’s nightgown and robe in stills from Top Hat (1935)

In the film, Ginger Rogers’ character Dale Tremont is a model for the fictional designer Alberto Beddini, and she wears ‘his’ high-fashion clothing throughout the film. Dale encounters Astaire’s Jerry Travers days before a trip to Italy to meet her friend Madge Hardwick, awoken by his tap-dancing in the hotel room above. Her nightgown, cut in the fashionable slim silhouette of the 1930s, is designed with short sleeves and a v-neckline accentuated with a bow at the bust. When she confronts Jerry, Dale covers up her previously exposed skin with a silk robe: her low neckline is replaced with a high, flared collar and her arms covered with long bell sleeves.

Dale’s riding outfit in stills from Top Hat (1935)

Despite her icy response to his dancing, Jerry attempts to woo Dale the next day at the stables. Her riding outfit is practical and fashionable, with activity-appropriate jodhpurs, a checked blazer, and an ascot accentuated with a glittering pin. Jerry entices Dale to tap dance with him and she soon returns his affections.

Dale’s afternoon dress in stills from Top Hat (1935)

A mix-up with Jerry’s employer Horace Hardwick leads Dale to believe she accidentally fell for Madge’s husband. During the ensuing trip to Italy, Dale tries to explain the situation to a comically indifferent Madge. In an attempt to catch Jerry (who Dale believes is Horace) in the act of lying, she confronts him wearing a tantalizing low-back afternoon resort dress, its sheer sleeves and spray of flowers at the collar accentuating her femininity. She tells Jerry of a fictional time they spent together in Paris only to become angry with him when he starts to play along with a story he knows is false.

The iconic ostrich feather dress in stills from Top Hat (1935)

That evening Madge invites Horace, Dale, and Jerry to dinner. Horace is, of course, unable to attend. Madge encourages Dale and Jerry to dance (having intended to introduce them during the Italy trip), and Dale reluctantly agrees. The following dance sequence, “Cheek to Cheek,” is perhaps their most well-known. Though the scene looks effortlessly beautiful, Rogers’ ostrich feather dress was a source of contention on the set. As it shed feathers during each take, director Mark Sandrich and Astaire demanded Rogers change. She, along with her manager, rejected their criticisms and the now iconic dress remained in the film.

The Piccolino Dress in stills from Top Hat (1935)

After yet more mix ups, Dale finally uncovers Jerry’s real identity. They end the film joyously dancing “The Piccolino,” with Rogers’ glittering dress echoing the celebratory mood. The Piccolino dress epitomizes how, despite being in black and white, Newman’s costumes in Top Hat are a feast for the eyes and rightly remembered as some of the best in Astaire-Rogers history.

Dress, History & Emotion

Something we discuss a lot on the MA Documenting Fashion is the ways dress is implicated in our ideas of history – on the grand scale, but also in our personal histories too. Early on in the course, we all bring in items from our own and/or family collection to help us unpick the myriad ways we use images and objects to talk about ourselves and situate ourselves within our families and wider communities. These discussions are always some of my favourites, they draw us together as a group, as we share stories and memories, and they allow us to recognize the subjective element within our work as dress historians – how we relate to and use dress ourselves.

I thought it might be interesting for our blog readers to see the things I treasure as part of my family history through dress, and the ways these items connect to wider histories.

My Grandfather & The Compact

My Grandfather & The Compact

My grandfather was in the Royal Navy, and travelled to China in the early 1930s. His wife was left behind at home, but their closeness and love is remembered still in the presents he brought back for her on his return.  These include the powder compact shown here. The outside has a little scene painted on it, and the surface has a slight texture – it warms in your hand as you hold it, and contrasts to the cold metal base of the case. Once opened, traces of the white face powder remain and I think of my granny using it – catching glimpses of myself in the mirror, just as she would have done.

Inside the Compact

Inside the Compact

The compact makes material their relationship, my grandfather’s travels, and the emotions imbued in the souvenirs he brought to share his experiences with his family. It provides an intimate link to the past – my personal history, but also to the role of the military in the 1930s, to international relations and the goods produced for home and tourist markets. It shows us an example of makeup history, and ideals of beauty and design in the 1930s.

My Granny (left) with her Sister.

My Granny (left) with her Sister.

There are so many links to be made through the objects and photographs we save – in a sense we curate our life histories through these and share them with those close to us, weaving intimate and public histories together and showing the importance of dress in embodying emotion and memory simultaneously.

Paul Poiret, En Habillant l’époque (1930)

1002nd Night photograph
Poiret photograph of marbling
Poiret photograph of mannequin

Summary 

Paul Poiret’s memoirs ‘En Habillant l’époque,’ which literally translates as ‘Dressing the Age,’ were written in 1930, almost two decades after the height of his fame. At the end of his manuscript, Poiret wrote that though he continually felt ideas for new dresses germinating ‘under his skin,’ his glory days had passed. Poiret traced his fascination with dress to his childhood family. He dedicated his memoirs to his mother, who he considered supremely elegant, and described how his sisters gave him a forty-centimetre wooden mannequin, which he lovingly draped in silks, in both Parisian and Oriental styles.

Poiret cast himself as an artist-designer, whose vision of femininity radically differed from that of the early 1900s fashion he encountered during his tenure at the couturiers Doucet and Worth. He claimed that he waged war on corsets, which had divided women’s bodies into two distinct peaks, comprising the neck and breasts on one side, and the hips and buttocks on the other. However, he recalled how his more holistic outfits, with their narrow hobble skirts, made women cry, gnash their teeth, and complain that they could not walk, or get in and out of a car easily. Overall, however, Poiret regarded his relationship with women as mutually beneficial. He likened the women he dressed to orbiting planets, who relied upon ‘his sun’ to shine; but simultaneously considered that his favourite mannequin Paulette, a ‘vaporous’ blonde, with the cylindrical shape of a cigarette, was a true collaborator, because she brought his designs to life.

Response 

Poiret considered that his primary innovation in fashion was relinquishing the etherealized palette of rose, lilac, powder-blue, maize-yellow and white that had dominated French women’s clothing from the eighteenth century, in favour of opaque, Fauvist tones, including royal blue, strong greens, reds and violets and acidic orange and lemon hues that made women’s silhouettes ‘sing.’ Poiret’s incorporation of these bold hues, alongside Orientalising components, such as the Minaret ensemble of 1911, which featured turbans and hip-skimming lampshade tunics, alongside harem pants, introduced an expressive, if still decorative, vision of womanhood. Rather than blending into the background in pastel tones, the women he dressed would stand out for their exoticism. A photo-plate from Poiret’s Arabian Nights-themed party, the 1002nd Night, of 1911, shows non-Western attitudes to the body, as guests of both sexes in turbans, belted kaftans and variations upon the Minaret outfit, crouch or sit cross-legged upon a Persian rug. Extravagant feathers, which emerge from the guests’ turbans, contribute a festive and frivolous air to proceedings.

Still, the photograph’s grainy, cinematic greyscale imbues the image with a nostalgic air. One gets the impression that the colour and vibrancy of the original party resonated with memories of a vanished world. Interestingly, Poiret wrote that after his experimentation in the early 1910s, colours in fashion became ‘anemic and neurasthenic’ once more. Poiret’s memoirs, with their slate-blue leather skin, blue-marbled inside cover, and black and white photographic inserts, did not only reflect the colouristic limitations of publishing in 1930, but express their distance from the Orientalism that made the author’s reputation.

poiret cover

War, Women and Lipstick

WarWomenLipstick

‘War, Women and Lipstick’, House of Tangee Advertisement, Vogue, July 15, 1943, page 75.

In recent months, countless hours perusing the US Vogue database has enabled, or rather become an outlet for, my intense cosmetics and advertisement addiction.

There is much pleasure to be had in tracing the origins of what we now consider to be heritage brands, and the pivotal campaigns that have shaped their iconic status. In many cases, Second World War years were fundamental, as the backdrop of turmoil and increased social changes inevitably became a barometer of cosmetic houses’ ability to adapt and remain relevant. At the same time however, the progression from the 1930s into the 1940s stood to magnify the deeply complex relationship shared between the cosmetics industry and women.

In a recent Man Repeller article, the modern use of cosmetics was categorized as either ‘shield’, or ‘weapon’. This echoes a study undertaken in 2008 by LVMH researchers that attributed two inherent abilities to cosmetics: the ability to ‘camouflage’, and the ability to ‘seduce’. Hardly a revelation, yet the recognition that camouflage relies on an internal desire, while seduction relies on the external surface, was as pertinent if applied to examples from the 1930s and 1940s, as it is to today’s cosmetics.

As we saw in Nicole’s January post, ‘Cosmetics: freedom in a tube’, the 1930s was synonymous with possibility and opportunity. Not only for the liberation of the female body in terms of activity, but for the promotion of a new visual discourse that encouraged exploration of surface identity through the use cosmetics. In this respect, the cosmetics industry was pivotal in mobilizing both the wearer and spectator, as makeup became a recognizable symbol of free will and autonomy- a ‘shield’ with which to navigate, or identify modern femininity. What is clear moving into the 1940s is the apparent reversal of feminine ideals, repositioning women both as wearer and consumer, and cosmetics as ‘weapon’. Though this is surely to be expected during such upheaval, the wearer becomes a vessel though which the aims of the nation can be expressed, and thus loses her individual identity under the guise of ‘femininity’.

It was a common strategy for all cosmetics houses, not limited to industry behemoths such as Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein, to focus on the collective identity of women rather than their individuality. In doing so, they expressed what David Clampin has stated as the desire of the industry to participate in wartime society. The above advert from the House of Tangee, for example, encourages women to wear lipstick as a show of ‘strength’ for adapting so courageously to their new roles in masculine spheres. Superficially, the imagery employed by the advert suggests support for the freedom of female expression solidified in the ‘30s. However, such a ‘shield’ is re-positioned by the cosmetic house as a ‘weapon’, as femininity itself becomes an extension of the nation’s ambition to assert supremacy over Germany – a country that discouraged such displays of femininity. Makeup therefore becomes emblematic of carrying out a task, even if it is not a product of the wearer’s free will. The spectator recognizes cosmetics as national ambition, over the ambition of the wearer. In this light, solidarity is achieved, but external forces manipulate ‘self-expression’.

It is arguable, when following the trajectory of advertisements after the war that the use of makeup never quite returns to being the show of independence that it was in the ‘30s. There is always a task to be completed, often requiring seduction of some sort. Next time you are browsing the pages of a magazine, question whether the advert is positioning makeup as a shield, or as a weapon. I think you will be surprised.

Sources:

David Clampin, Advertising and Propaganda in World War II: Cultural Identity and the Blitz Spirit (New York: I.B Tauris & Co Ltd, 2014)

R. Korichi, D. Pelle-de-Queral, G. Gazano, A. Aubert, Why women use makeup: implication of psychological traits in makeup functions, J Cosmet Sci, 2008 Mar-April, 59 (2)

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18408870

How Ginger Got the Job!

howgingergotthejob

When researching American fashion advertising in the interwar period, I came across a J.C. Penney advertisement located in a 1939 edition of McCall’s Style News. The ad employs a comic book format, synthesising text and image to relay a narrative promoting the department store’s affordable, yet stylish fabrics. Readers are introduced to Ginger, a young woman who is initially portrayed as a pathetic character, a conventional trope of the tremendously popular comic book genre. After failing at her job interview, a defeated Ginger sorrowfully cries to her friend: ‘Oh Peg… What’s the matter with me?’ Peg proceeds to denounce Ginger’s dowdy dress and introduces her to the materials at J.C. Penney’s which Ginger uses to fabricate a stylish outfit for a second interview that she managed to get. Ginger is later pictured wearing her new patterned dress paired with a hat and bag, having successfully secured a job. The narrative ends with a neat resolution in which a newly confident and employed Ginger expresses her joyful realisation of the potential for fashion to elicit happiness and bolster confidence.

This advertisement sheds light on women’s shifting roles during the period and underscores the importance for women from all ranks of society to make sound fashionable choices. On the one hand, the advertisement affords women with power in that it situates women as viable and active participants in the working world, a realm previously associated exclusively with masculinity. The context of the Great Depression, along with the increasing visibility of women’s rights movements are two of several factors that resulted in more women needing to work. On the other hand, the advertisement problematically associates women’s success and happiness with outward appearance as opposed to ability and intellect. According to the advert’s narrative, Ginger failed to succeed in landing a job because of the dowdy nature of her clothing rather than a poor interview performance. Once she remedied her unfashionable appearance, she secured a job. Moreover, Ginger derives her newfound confidence not from the accomplishment of employment, but rather from her fashionable clothes, she expresses: ‘I never realized before how much confidence a smart outfit gives a girl!’ Additionally, she revels in the idea that she can be the ‘best dressed girl in the office’, as opposed to performing the best.

While fashion advertisements and comics are often deemed trivial, they play a hand at engendering, cementing and disseminating societal norms. Adverts such as the J.C Penney comic associate female success and happiness with appearance and, as a corollary, nourish the essentialist conception that women are merely ornamental. Although this advertisement dates back to the late 30s, the immense pressure for women to resemble beauty and fashionable ideals has persisted to the present day.