31 July 2017

The "Mae West" Effect


Lady Lou checks out the scene in She Done Him Wrong

In 1933 talk about women's fashion was suddenly news, though the headlines it engendered weren't exactly solomn: "Bed Slat Figure Wanes as Women's Styles "Go West,"" one stated gleefully. "The "Lady Lou" Styles Capture Feminine Fancy," reads another. Why was this unusual enough to merit news coverage? Because Mae West had arrived on motion pictures screens, witty, sexy, and with a unique glamor unlike anything anyone had seen before.
The twentieth century had brought with it a fashion revolution. Womens styles of late 19th century reached a height of elegance and elaboration that has seldom been equaled. The silhouette of the fashionable woman was, as it had nearly always been throughout the centuries, curvaceous. But changing social roles, work outside the home, and the ferment over women’s political rights, made these lovely gowns seem outmoded and impractical by the 1910’s. Women discarded their full skirts, their corsets, and their long, heavy hair, sometimes with mixed feelings, but generally greeting the new fashions with an increased sense of freedom. Before their eyes was the fresh and fashionable example of Mrs. Vernon Castle, whose slim, active figure and boyish bobbed hair became a new ideal in the years right before the outbreak of World War 1.
From this distance, it’s really difficult to realize just what a shock these new fashions were. There had been fads for slim outlines and even short hair during the Regency period, in the early 1800’s, but this was not in living memory, at least not for anybody under the age of 100.  People had grown up seeing women in skirts that touched the ground and hair piled high. These “new” women really seemed new.
Irene and Vernon Castle
From 1914 to 1918, Europe was consumed with the Great War; the U.S. joined in vigorously in 1918. This disaster eventually shattered belief in authority of all kinds, including social convention. It’s not too extreme to say that the war shook Western Society to its foundation. Young people who came of age during and immediately after the conflict felt cut off from older generations, and also felt that they faced a new world of modernity without much guidance from the past. After the war, fashion became yet more extreme, with skirts skimpier than they had ever been, hair as short as a boy's, and an ideal figure that was essentially waistless, bustless and hipless. 


This certainly was a change from the past, and for a while young women reveled in it. 

Fashion evolved through the twenties to the early thirties, as short, beaded evening dresses morphed into gowns that were structureless slips of bias-cut satin that skimmed the slender body.

Constance Bennett in a slim satin evening gown circa 1932

These fashions were very charming, and felt youthful and new. But there was one problem with them. Most adult women do not have waistless, bustless, and hipless figures. And after 25 years of trying to achieve them, they were pretty tired of making the effort.
 
Mae sings Frankie and Johnnie

 
Fortunately, a savior was riding to the rescue. In 1933, most unexpectedly, the highest-grossing motion picture was a period melodrama laced with wit called She Done Him Wrong, the creation of Broadway star, playwright and screenwriter Mae West. It was based on her hit play Diamond Lil, which was deemed too shocking for movies. She Done Him Wrong was a huge sensation; besides doing enormous business and keeping Paramount Pictures from bankruptcy, and proving so popular that midnight showings were instituted in some cities -- some of them for gentlemen only! -- it also created a tsunami in the world of high fashion.
The gorgeous period gowns adorning Mae's equally gorgeous figure were designed for Travis Banton's Paramount studio by Banton's chief assistant, Edith Head, and based on the original Broadway costumes for Diamond Lil by Dolly Tree -- all with major input from Mae herself. Tight fitting, low cut, glittering with sequins and fluttering with feathers, accessorized with wide brimmed hats and ostrich plume stoles, these costumes set off Mae's hourglass form perfectly, as she knew they would. And everybody noticed. Suddenly the aspects of the female figure that had been discarded twenty five years before were "in" again -- much to the gratitude of men in general, who had never exactly lost interest in the female figure. 
One of Dolly Tree's costumes for the Broadway production
Most people still looked to Paris couturiers as arbiters, and Mae West's look was a sensation in France. The fashions of 1934 suddenly went in in the middle, and various kinds of drapery adorned bust and hips. Elsa Schiaparelli designed a perfume bottle based on Mae's torso for her signature scent Shocking. (She would eventually design Mae's gowns for her 1938 film Every Day's a Holiday, which opens in 1899.) And Hollywood did not lag far behind; it has always seemed to me that leading ladies must have taken one look at Mae's fabulous gowns and said, "Hey! Where are my feathers and sequins and ruffles and lace?" Whether or not that's the real reason, in 1934 there was a rush of period films with gorgeous gowns for the stars; including Irene Dunne, Dolores Del Rio, and Kay Francis. 
 
Dolores Del Rio in Madame Du Barry


Of course, in daily life women were not about to adopt ankle-length skirts or heavy coils of hair again. Designers adapted the hourglass look to shorter hair and practical but flattering skirt lengths that hovered below the knee. The great costumer Gilbert Adrian added exaggerated, padded shoulders, which he originally designed to mask Joan Crawford's naturally unusually broad shoulders. This shoulder emphasis had the visual  effect of slimming the whole body. Women were released from the pressure to be wraith-thin, lest a bulge or a jiggle should show through the thin silk or satin of an early 1930's evening gown. It could be argued that the fashions of 1935-1945 were more becoming to more women than those of any other era. And women owed some of that to the astute sense of style and irresistible charm of Mae West.