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It seemed that Clara Bow’s beauty and charm somehow superseded her ‘noxious’ taste in clothes.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.