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Hollywood 1920s silent romcom – Clara Bow has It

With the Oscars just hours away, when stars’ sartorial elegance and faux pas will be dissected, it seems timely to blog about Clara Bow – a darling on screen and at the box office, but also a somewhat forgotten outsider from tinsel town. Her Hollywood story is both one of dream fulfilment and a cautionary tale ending in faded glamour and an almost forgotten career, which has been just been rediscovered over the last 1o years or so.

Clara Bow came into my head for this Oscars blog after watching a documentary on Hollywood’s Lost Screen Goddesses. All the talking heads reiterated that she had ‘it’ but the power of the star system and the way that it circulates via other media (magazines, TV shows, biopics) was not really discussed fully, and so I wanted to get to know Clara Bow, the star focusing on the silent film, It (Badger, 1927), her defining role as the original It-girl.

Coming from a troubled home in Brooklyn (her mother suffered from mental health issues and her father from alcohol abuse), Clara Bow’s Hollywood trajectory is on fast forward. Her acting début derived from winning Motion Picture Magazine’s Fame and Fortune Contest to appear in a film, and although this footage ended on the cutting room floor, she went on to make 57 films in her short career. At the height of her fame, she received 45,000 fan letters a year, and filled movie magazines with stories both complementary and scandalous, prior to retiring to married life on a ranch before she reached 30. Clara Bow  represented the new woman, who was taking on a more active role after the First World War, but these traits combined with her “vulgar” working class background, also brought her approbation (and the money from her talents went to the film bosses). Sadly her story ends almost ‘Baby Jane’ style with her divorced and living alone in Hollywood’s suburbia replying to fan mail and re-watching her old movies.  

Do you have It?

The character Clara plays in It has parallels with her off-screen persona. It tells the story of Molly Lou, a shop girl in a department store, who falls in love with the owner, Cyrus Waltham, and sets out to get her man. The movie is based upon the book of the same name by English author, Elinor Glyn, (who also has a cameo in the film) which tries to explain that indefinable characteristic that attracts us to certain people. According to the caption:

“It is that peculiar quality which attracts others of the opposite sex. The possessor of it must be absolutely unselfconscious, and must have that magnetic ‘sex appeal’ which is irresistible.”

A conventional romance narrative is played out, where after overcoming class obstacles and misunderstandings, love conquers all. At the end, the caption reads “We’re just a couple if it-less its” and the final shot sees them kiss with the ‘it’ of the name of the ship ‘Itola’ between them.

Although Molly uses a man to ahead, she is a character with agency – a new woman of the 1920s – who knows what she wants and how to get it. She may use her desirability to attract and steal men, but she’s also loyal to her female friend, willing to work to support her and her child, and she can fight her own battles (in the final scenes, she saves her love rival who tries to sink her and she does not need to any male assistance to save herself).

The pre-code film has an endearing, saucy tone. The inter-title reads – “Hot dogs that sizzle and satisfy! Best in the beach!” – to introduce the scenes when Molly takes the upper-class Waltham to her milieu, the beach fair. The couple go on a ride called the social mixer which spins them round and round, and they whirl down a chute with Waltham holding Betty between his knees, resulting in her skirt flying up to reveal her garters. She slaps Waltham when he tries to kiss her, and later says that she has to play this game, as women should not be seen to take the lead sexually.

The feminine consumer of romance

The romance is played out in the department store, and linked with commodity culture. Orgeron (2004) argues that the space of the shop, one of the few places in the public sphere where woman would be actively encouraged to look, formalises the way that the spectator is set up in the film to look, desire and then buy. A defining scene early in the film is when Betty first sees Waltham and palpably shows her desire for him – “Sweet Santa Clause, give me him”.

It in particular illustrates the link between the Hollywood system, the commodification of the star to sell movies and products. Orgeron says:

“The fan magazines were advertisements, and their pitch was attainability; if you buy this you can look like Star X. Bow made such aspirations looks particularly possible because she failed to create distance between herself and her fans that other stars worked rigorously to achieve. She was in many ways the star system’s best advertisement because she perpetuated the illusion of possibility for fans.”

As Clara won a competition to get into the movies, her story is the fulfilment of a fantasy even greater than her character in It.  Below is an article about Clara Bow to sell a book about how to make love like the movie stars. If you look, desire and buy, you too can achieve love.

Clara Bow's secret

Fashionable Clara Bow – the one to follow

Last year at the Oscars, the talk of the town was The Artist, a silent film, following the rise of female star, Peppy Miller who had ‘it’. And that’s not where the connection ends, Clare Bow’s style was the inspiration for Mark Bridges’ (Boogie NightsThere Will Be Blood) costumes for Peppy Miller. Clara Bow embodied the roaring twenties flapper, and after the success of It, she was a fashion icon. Fans could order their own Clara Bow cloche hat via mail order, scarf sales increased as did henna. Indeed, women are still encouraged to style themselves a la Clara Bow.

Of course Clara Bow’s red hair was not really captured in her movies, and the film magazines would literally add extra colour to the black and white films, encouraging readers to buy henna to get the star’s look. Here are some recovered lost fragments, just as this star has been brought back into the limelight in recent years. The quality of the footage makes us feel voyeuristic as though we are watching her audition reel through the camera lens.

Loved by movie-goers and one of the biggest stars in the business, she was nonetheless, kept at a distance by the Hollywood glitterati failing to shake off her Brooklyn working class background (her accent was not a problem in the silent era). One story which seems to circulate frequently when reading about this actress is when she turned up to a formal Hollywood party in a belted swimsuit. Her outsider status is articulated through lack of cultural capital via inappropriate dress code.  

It‘s costume designer was Travis Banton, best known for shaping the styles of Carole Lombard, Marlene Dietrich and Mae West. In the popular discourses about Clara, he despaired of her lack of taste but succumbed to her fashion ideas because she had ‘it’. In a Photoplay magazine article, the interviewer writes:

“And then her boundless vitality never failed to turn Banton’s most costly gowns into rags within a few hours. There was too much in the sheer business of living for Clara to remember what she had on her back the moment she left a mirror. Sequin trains were dragged through muddy studio streets, white satin robes fell unnoticed on dusty floors, and a frock of cobweb lace was an unfailing signal for a romp with the Great Dane.”

Her taste in clothes was ‘noxious’ and she ‘jazzed up’ his most beautiful creations, accessorising with the vulgarity of  bangles, large earrings and socks, as well as pulling her skirt up to her knees. She may have had ‘it’ and moved to the West coast, but the Brooklyn girl remained.  I wonder if the cherries on Clara Bow’s cloche hat (which I love) were from her idea or his…

http://youtu.be/z5vgMWGe444

Fashion both its commercial side and the notion of a sense of style plays an important part in the film. Molly sells clothes to rich women whilst her love rival buys fancy stylish items. However, money and class cannot buy you ‘It’, so the qualities that made Clara Bow an outsider in real life, were her selling points in the movie. The difference between Molly and her rival for Waltham’s affections is played out through clothing as we see both actresses preparing for an evening at the Ritz. The wealthier woman takes time to dress in an opulent boudoir with a maid to help her, whilst Molly ‘makes do and mends’ with her friend’s help by cutting up the dress she is wearing to create an evening dress with a shawl. She also attaches flowers to her waist but once she is at the Ritz she copies the trend of her love rival and wears it like a corsage. When Molly sees an advert for dresses from Waltham’s store in the newspaper, she looks wistful for the object of her desire, which is also linked with the desire to consume. 

The pleasure in It, for me, resides in the active desire that Molly shows to get what she wants and the fun, cheeky attitude of the film. Although this is still very much within conventional gender roles, there is some negotiation here in a time where there were tensions in women’s roles. Clara Bow brings joie de vivre to her performance, and you feel that you would get carried along with her schemes. One of the first actresses to grow up watching movies, she brings expression and physicality to the screen. Indeed she said of the talkies:

“They’re stiff and limiting. You lose a lot of your cuteness, because there’s no chance for action, and action is the most important thing to me.”

What do you think of Clara Bow, the Hollywood legend? Are there any contemporary Clara Bows? Will you be hooked reading about the Oscar winners and losers tomorrow in magazines? Why not watch It – a very Hollywood film – to get in the mood for the Oscars tonight?

Clara Bow articles to check out

Ball, Christina, (2001), “The Silencing of Clara Bow” in Gladfly, March/April.

Orergon, Marsha (2003), “Making It in Hollywood: Clara Bow, Fandom, and Consumer Culture”, in Cinema Journal, 42 (no.2), Summer.

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Less waste, more flavour – Poco Bristol wins Sustainable Restaurant of the Year Award for Environment

Poco Bristol

Simply creating vibrant flavours that make diners smile and clear their plates isn’t enough for Poco Bristol. Sustainability, locally sourced organic food, and a zero-waste endgame need to be on the menu. That’s why Poco Bristol won the Sustainable Restaurant Association’s (SRA) Restaurant of the Year Award for Environment presented earlier this month by its President, Raymond Blanc.

Read more on Bristol Pound’s blog.

Fasting fashion for Lent – Culture Chic of the Week

How do you know when you need a fashion spring clean? Maybe when your wardrobe explodes… After a whirlwind tidy before the arrival of a guest, my overstuffed clothes cupboard just couldn’t take any more and made itself heard. My cover was blown as with a bang, handbags, gladrags and all, freed themselves, and I was somewhat shamed into sorting it out.

And this may not only save my embarrassment but also my vintage purse. “Valuing our clothes, research from WRAP, in July last year showed that in the UK we have around £30 billion worth of clothes, which haven’t been worn for at least a year, hanging in our wardrobes. The report claimed:

“The average UK household owns around £4,000 worth of clothes – but around 30% of clothes in the average wardrobe have not been worn for at least a year, most commonly because they no longer fit.”

I’ve been guilty of buying clothes that have never or infrequently been worn, and a fluctuating waistband has meant that at times clothes go to the back of the cupboard… and come back out again. Although I’ve never been tied to the high street, the quick-fix charms of fast fashion have lured me in the past. With fashion seasons speeding up, shorter lead times and more frequent deliveries, consumers are encouraged to buy the latest trends before they leave the rails to make room for the next must-haves, rather than looking for quality or durable items. Implicit in the buzz of commodity fetishism is that it rarely lasts long or fills the gap but that only means the next thrill is round the corner.

For the past year I’ve been making a conscious effort to curtail my fashion spending. To save money is definitely in the decision mix but it’s also just about reducing consumption for both environmental and social reasons. According to WRAP, “… by increasing the active use of clothing by an extra nine months we could reduce the water, carbon and waste impacts by 20-30% each and save £5 billion.” And of course it is not only environmental harm caused by the fashion industry but unethical working conditions and deunionisation which are exacerbated by the demands of ‘Mcfashion’.

At the very least we can think about what we buy, and reuse, repair and recycle. Fashion innovator, Vivienne Westwood at London Fashion Week this month encouraged austerity Britain to buy less to maintain its individuality:

“People have never looked so ugly as they do today, regarding their dress. We just consume too much… I’m talking about all this disposable crap. What I’m saying is buy less – choose well. Don’t just suck up stuff so everybody looks like clones.”

Quality over quantity makes sense as clothes will be less likey to join the tonnes of used up products in landfills (UK consumers send £140 million / 350 tonnes of clothing and textiles to landfill each year). They’re more likely to be durable and to be recycled in charity shops (often the trendy, low-cost, seasonable items cannot be resold easily). But for people wanting to be in ‘now’ without lots of disposable income, quality items may not feel within reach (and I still feel uncomfortable paying too much for one item). It comes down to revealing the actual lack of consumer choice and homogenisation of major fashion chains. Vintage and independent retailers are not working outwith the commodified fashion system and key into fashion trends too, but at least these may be at a slower pace. And of course the major plus for consumers, apart from a clearer conscience, is that the chance you’ll be caught at the office or a party wearing the same item as your contemporaries is much reduced.

With Lent coming up, I thought I should formalise my resolve to tidy up my wardrobe, and there are no shortage of projects to inspire us to rethink our addiction to fashion. The 333 project challenges participants to use 33 items of clothing for 3 months. Or how about A New Dress a Day where the stylish and inventive Marisa Lynch, transforms an oversized, seemingly unwearable vintage item each day?

Six Items Challenge

Could you manage with only six pieces of clothing? That’s what Labour Behind the Label, a not-for-profit raising awareness about garment workers’ rights, asks us to do every Lent with their Six Items Challenge. It’s a fashion fast to highlight the impacts of fast fashion. The idea spins around choice. Those involved in providing Western consumers with their fashion fix do not necessarily have a choice about working longer hours for low wages to meet increasingly demanding fashion brands, and by narrowing the apparent choice of items, participants are encouraged to get creative and think about what they actually need.

Six Items Challenge - what will you give up for Lent?

Follow the fashion fasters to see how they get on over the next six weeks. Even if you’re keen to continue to wear more than six items, I’d certainly encourage you to join Labour Behind the Label’s campaigns too.

The Uniform Project

The Uniform Project is a few years old but it’s still inspiring, innovative and shows how social media can be used for good. Sheena Matheiken pledged to wear one little black dress for 365 days of the year styled up with accessories from vintage and thrift shops. (Don’t panic, she did have a few versions of the same dress…) Her efforts raised over $100 million for the Akanksha Foundation, a grassroots organisation in India, which seeks to educate children from low income communities. I love the way that she turned her disillusionment with the advertising sector around and used her skills to make a difference. In the UK, when we are being fed ‘Big Society’ philanthropy to disguise public service funding cuts, her quote from Martin Luther King (which you’ll hear in the video below) about philanthropy is timely – “Philanthropy is commendable, but that should not stop the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice that make philanthropy necessary.” Like Labour Behind the Label, which seeks to help educate the industry and improve workers’ rights, here by providing education for children through this campaign, in theory at least, new, sustainable opportunties are being created.

Profitting from my wardrobe 

Part of the reason I have so many clothes is that I don’t tend to throw things away and have bought clothes to last – just too many of them and often rash purchases rather than planned staples. Many are vintage or charity shop gold dust, even from way back to when I was a student, and pieces passed down from stylish relatives. Indeed I still feel pangs of guilt about wearing a camel coat to death that my great aunt had kept ‘for good’. Although, better loved and worn, than wardrobe bound.

My challenge is inspired by J. D. Roth from Get Rich Slowly, and is not so much about reducing the use of items but more about maximising what I’ve got. My wardrobe is being cleared and clothes only get back in, if they’ve been worn by Lent time next year.

So I’ve started to sort into charity (two bags gone already), eBay helped me out at Christmas, Mum (she’s already rejected two tops but taken a coat) and a swishing party bag.  Some items go season after season without being worn as they’re at the bottom of my wardrobe, repairs get left after I stuff them back in the cupboard on realizing that the hem is down or a button missing on the mad whirlwind rush to work. Now the cupboard is becoming bare, who knows what I’ll find?

Are you giving up something for Lent? Could you manage the six item challenge or even one dress for a year? Let me know if you come across any projects that have made you rethink fashion consumption.

Vintage Movie Magazines – Culture Chic of the Week

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Whilst researching about Hollywood star, Clara Bow, I came across this piece from the American film magazine PhotoPlay about her relationship with costume designer, Travis Banton. The interview articulated the designer’s cultural superiority towards the working class actress as he described her rather vulgar fashion sense:

“He finds it almost impossible to describe his mixed feelings for her. She made him suffer, she caused him endless anxiety and worry, and yet there always will be a glowing place in his heart for her. Her taste in clothes was noxious, she thwarted every move he made to improve it, she “jazzed up” his most beautiful creations, and yet he continued to indulge her.”

It seemed that Clara Bow’s beauty and charm somehow superseded her ‘noxious’ taste in clothes. After reading this quaintly formal article, written without any quotes from the interviewee himself, I was hooked and wanted to flip through the pages for more…

Such movie magazines are a fascinating way to peer into the cinema of the past and its intertwined relationship with fashion and consumer culture. Films and their stars, even in the early stages of the medium, were sold via these publications, whilst fans gained access to the lives of the glamorous actors. In the days of black and white silent film, these magazines played a vital role for the studios in bringing the actors alive in colour. Through adverts and editorials, readers were offered a lifestyle, advice and consumer products to fulfil such movie star dreams. Sensational stories about the seedy side of tinsel-town (with titles such as ‘Nobody is safe in Hollywood’) also feature to safely scandalise, and perhaps to allow the readers to ease back to their ordinary lives with a dose of schadenfreude – even the stars can have it tough.

PhotoPlay was launched in Chicago in the 1910s, reaching its most influential period in the 1920s and 1930s, and best known for its stunning illustrated covers. In the photo gallery above, I’ve picked out some gems for you to enjoy: cover stars, Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo and Dorothy Mackaill, (a British born actress, who made the transition to the talkies). The movies’ influence on style is evident throughout as you can see from the recurring fashion series (featuring actresses like Kay Francis, one of the highest earning actresses at Warner Bros in the 1930s) and spreads showing the way that film costumes influence the latest trends (for instance see 1855 inspires 1936 with Gracie Moore’s costumes from The King Steps Out alongside illustrations of designer, Ernest Dryden’s 1930s versions). 

This cultural history was to delivered via Media History Digital Project, which is digitising collections of classic media periodicals to make them accessible in the public realm. So far I’ve just delved into the movie fan magazines, but there are also trade periodicals, year books, educational magazines, and legal and governmental papers as well as some European film mags.

Familiar elements of contemporary women’s fashion magazines are evident: female stars on the cover, problem pages, the latest fashions modelled by actresses endorsing beauty products,  adverts for female products to satisfy made-up needs lifestyle features (‘Mary Pickford entertains‘) and insights into how men really think and their romantic intentions (“Carey Grant – reluctant bachelor” or “Dick Powell admits he’s in love.” I just know that I shall be returning time and time again to this collection for fashion and period inspiration, and to analyse the way these cultural artefacts inform the films from the past.

Culture Chic of the Week… 

Each week I aim to pick something cultural that’s inspired me – my culture chic. I’d certainly recommend checking out the Media History Project – although don’t blame me if you lose an hour or two… If you come across any other digitisation projects that you love, let me know.