Theda Bara: Hollywood’s Original Vamp and Femme-Fatale

We often associate film stars with their onscreen personas, which are inextricably linked to the costumes they wear while portraying their most iconic characters. Audrey Hepburn will forever be linked to Hubert de Givenchy’s black evening gown in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, just as Judy Garland’s blue gingham pinafore in The Wizard of Oz became a part of her lasting image. Identification between star and character can lead to typecasting and an audience expectation that a star will appear as a certain type of character. For example, Joan Crawford was the rags-to-riches girl. Crawford’s characters were often working-class girls who, through luck and hard work, were able to climb to the social ladder to their happy ending. One of Hollywood’s earliest manipulations of star into character, was Theda Bara.

 

Theda Bara, often cited as Hollywood’s first sex symbol, was one of the silent-film era’s most famous stars, second only to Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford. Her career last from only 1914-1919, perhaps the reason why her name is not as well-remembered today as some of her contemporaries. After her first film A Fool There was (1914) her image as the vampire, in this case a woman who destroys men using her sexuality, was cemented. Fox Studios was so committed to this image that they fabricated a backstory for Theda, in which she was an Arabian princess raised in Egypt, trained in Paris, saved by director Frank Powell from the horrors of war in Europe, and brought to America. This outrageous story concocted to support her onscreen image linked Bara to her characters in the eyes of the audience.

Bara’s most famous film, Cleopatra (1917), created a Queen of Nile that mixed popular styles of the day, Egyptian motifs, and burlesque costumes to display a Cleopatra who would be both irresistible to the public, and maintain Bara’s public persona. Her costumes reflected her mysterious image. Her costumes were extremely revealing, and accentuated her voluptuous curves. Theda Bara biographer notes that “The Cleopatra costume created quite a stir because it cost $1,000 a yard and Theda seemed to be wearing only ten cents’ worth…the Plain Dealer declared that ‘Of all the Vampires of Screen There’s None So Bare as Theda’”. While Bara strove for historical accuracy in her portrayal of Cleopatra, the revealing costumes did more to enhance her existing image than transport the viewer back to ancient Egypt. Fox carefully controlled this sexy, mysterious persona, even going so far as to contractually insure that she did not appear in public without a veil. While studios would regularly control a star’s story and persona in the Golden Age of the Hollywood Studio System, Bara presents one of the earliest examples of this deception. Through her costumes and characters Bara projected the image of the Vamp and the femme-fatale, and helped to define their look in Hollywood.

By Olivia

Sources:

Landis, Deborah Nadoolman, Dressed: A Century of Hollywood Costume Design, (New York: Collins, 2007)

Landis, Deborah Nadoolman, Hollywood Costume, (London: Victoria and Albert, 2012)

 

 

If You Can’t be Pretty, be Interesting!

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Don’t be afraid to be different. 
Don’t be afraid to grow up. 
Stop mentally walking the Atlantic 
City boardwalk in a beauty parade. 
Make capital of your defects. 
Cultivate a color sense. 
Learn restraint in dress. 
Understand the value of simplicity. 
And dress to be interesting! 

With these words, Hollywood designer Gilbert Adrian – known simply as Adrian to his public – speaks to the readers of Motion Picture Magazine, guiding them to rethink their attitudes towards dress and beauty, and to embrace their possibilities, rather than feeling quelled by contemporary ideals.

Published in the 3 May 1926 edition, Adrian’s words are imbued with the designer’s understanding of the ways actors’ images could be sculpted by artful costuming.  The magazine describes him as a ‘youthful genius’, at the time he was head of wardrobe at the De Mille Studio, and he went on to work at MGM, where he designed costumes for stars including, Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford, during the 1930s and 1940s.

For readers of a fan magazine, he represented a tangible link to their favourite actors and a means to learn the kind of skills in cosmetics and dress that were evolving as cinema boomed in the 1920s.  Like fashion magazines of the period, film journals appealed to women’s desire to emulate their idols – whether society women, fashion models, or stars.  While publications such as Vogue targeted a slightly older, more elite woman, fan magazines attracted young women eager to make the most of readymade fashions that now brought style to a wider group than ever before.

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The article seeks to manage expectations – while it is clearly designed to guide women’s approach to their appearance, Adrian addresses his audience with both authority and empathy, aware they cannot look exactly like their favourite screen star, but counseling them to be confident and strategic in their choices.  For example, he complains that too many women seem to believe only in two age groups-16 or 60- with many therefore dressing too young or too old, and warns: ‘…beware of making yourself ridiculous by clinging to flapperdom too long!’  Instead, women should embrace a sophisticated style, and remember that ‘All pretty women can’t be interesting, but an interesting woman can outshine all pretty ones.’

And how to cultivate being interesting? Adrian assures his readers that this is attainable: ‘ It can be developed, since it is a quality of mind, and it will last and increase while beauty and youth fade and decay.’  Such girlish terms as ‘cute’ should be abandoned, women should ignore men’s interest in frivolous examples of femininity such as the Ziegfeld Follies, and ‘Instead of trying unsuccessfully to hide what you consider your defects make capital of them!’ Don’t, therefore, copy a trend simply to follow the herd, or mistakenly try to ape film costumes designed for an exotic narrative.  He advocates ‘individual dressing’ focused on a small number of well-made and carefully chosen garments that highlight one’s personality.  Advice that is still being given in magazines now…

Sources: 

http://mediahistoryproject.org/