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Posts tagged ‘Flapper’

Flapper fashion: 1920s dress-up in Berlin

After blogging about dressing up for Bohème Sauvage in Berlin a few weeks ago, I thought I’d share the outfit that I wore to that very 1920s party, which had the period’s sensibility without any real efforts at authenticity. All were picked up cheaply at vintage stores or had been hiding in my wardrobe just waiting to go to the ball…

Flapper(ish) Dress

When we think of 1920s style, it’s all about the flapper. Zelda Fitzgerald, dubbed the first by her husband, writes in a “Eulogy to the Flapper”:

“The Flapper awoke from her shoes of sub-deb-ism, bobbed her hair, put on her choicest pair of earrings and a great deal of audacity and rouge and went into the battle. She flirted because it was fun to flirt and wore a one-piece bathing suit because she had a good figure … she was conscious that the things she did were the things she had always wanted to do. Mothers disapproved of their sons taking the Flapper to dances, to teas, to swim and most of all to heart…”

The flapper sticks in our imagination starting with film of the same name in 1920 starring Olive Thomas, and then through the stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Anita Loos via Louise Brooks, Clara Bow and Josephine Baker. Although many of the women in the 1920s wore flapper attire, they did not necessarily have the attitude – it was just fashion. However, part of its appeal for us now are those glamorous, wild connotations. These young women were taking a more active role, living for the moment after the insecurities of war (and won the ‘flapper’ vote in 1928 in the UK). The archetypal image of a flapper is heavily made-up, doing the Charleston, cigarette or cocktail in hand – stepping out in domains where women were not supposed to tread, let alone kick up their heels.

As fashion and cultural change are intertwined, women’s more active role during the First World War was reflected in post-war trends. Women took on men’s roles in factories and wore loose full knickers – slack girls, while Coco Chanel introduced less restrictive fashions, pauvre chic, in jersey. And of course women needed looser, shorter dresses for dancing the tango – just in vogue from Buenos Aires. Nonetheless, I was really interested to read that when Paul Poiret’s neo-classical empire line dresses came into sale pre-war, the Edwardian corset did not completely disappear. The boyish dresses still necessitated a corset, which was straight up and down rather than an S shape, for those with the figure of a less lithe boy.

The flapper dress was certainly what I had in mind when I went on a mission to Glasgow’s vintage treasure troves. In Circa Vintage, I tried on a flapper style dress with tassels but it just looked awful and shapeless (I don’t have a boyish flapper figure). Then my fellow vintage shopper spotted this dress below. It’s 1980s /early 1990s but the characteristic drop waist is there, it’s got a low neckline and back, and the diamontes are in keeping.

vintage 1920s flapper dress and accessories Boheme Sauvage

Headdress

Headgear is key to the 1920s look – whether a turban, cloche, birdcage hairpiece or feather headdress. It’s in this area that your dress-up can become costume, but it’s also what makes you feel most of that period and out of time. That’s why the Bohème Sauvage website encourages us to wear our hair vintage style:

“We especially want to encourage the ladies to creative use of headdresses and hats, as well as exciting modelling of hair (keyword: water wave) and the use of various make-up techniques (keyword: smoky eyes and pale complexion).”

The headband (pictured above) picked up at a vintage fair here in Bristol, helped me get in the mood. The girl whose birthday took us on this trip to Berlin, was treated to a bob, and another of our party had a go at water waves (see the flyer below). If you want to read more about 1920s hair and make-up, pay a visit to Come Back in Time.

Water wave - Boheme Sauvage ticket

1920s jewellery

I imagine a flapper wearing long pearls as in this iconic photo (by Eugene Robert Richee, 1928) of queen of the bob, Louise Brooks. A long string of black beads which I bought in a charity shop years ago, were flung on (needless to say not really anywhere near Ms Brooks).

Louise Brooks peals - Pandora's Box

Cape

The 1920s style of coat that appeals to me the most has long lapels, perhaps with (fake) fur, and one large button to fasten it. However there weren’t any coming my way so I chose this cape. It’s not of the period but it’s in keeping and worked with the dress. Although in a ‘Style Me Vintage’ guide I read, they advise eschewing the cliché of long gloves, I added them for extra sophistication and again to pull me out of the present time.

cape for 1920s vintage dress-up

Bag

I have a rather shameful love of handbags of all shapes and sizes so I thought this part would be easy, but when I looked in my wardrobe the right thing did not jump out. So I opted for this simple purse.

1920s style silver purse with Boheme Sauvage tickets

Shoes

I must confess I did look in high street shops for a new pair of Mary Jane T-bar shoes as I thought they were a staple that I’d wear again and again. However, luckily I remembered a pair of Red or Dead shoes that I’d bought around 10 years ago in my wardrobe. Although the heel is perhaps too high and not rounded enough, they were the style of the decade – the T-bar and the suede element felt right. So they got to dance the night away. (And I am very pleased about this after reading WRAP’s report that there is £30 billion unused clothes in our collective wardrobes.)

Red or Dead T-bar shoes with metal heel - 1920s vibe.

And for the boys… or girls

Vintage style is not just for the flappers. Gangsters, cads and artistic bohemians also need to look the part and Bohème Sauvage welcomed a mix ‘n match style for men too. We had the upper class toffs in top hat and tails, the middle class professionals in pinstripes with trilbies or twisting it to a gangster look, and the workers or starving artists in baggy Oxfords with braces and flat caps. Flapper frenzy was avoided by some women too taking on male attire but it was notable that the worker look outlined above was chosen by women, over the others, so there were no Marlene Dietrich look-alikes. Monocles were optional for men and women…

Over to you flappers …

Do you like to dress as a flapper? What style would you choose? Who are the ‘flappers’ of 2013?

If you want to find out more about 1920s fashion (and look at lovely illustrations and photos of the period) check out the ‘Fashion Sourcebook – 1920s‘ by Charlotte Fiell and Emanuelle Dirix (Fiell Publishing Limited,2012).

There are lots of vintage style books on the market at the moment, and one of my lovely friends treated me to ‘Style Me Vintage’ by Naomi Thompson, Katie Reynolds, Belinda Hay (Pavillion Books, 2012).

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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.