Costume Research: Watch “Dress Extras” in Silent Movies

I saw the freshly restored Colleen Moore film “Why Be Good?” at the Silent Film Festival this summer, and now it is about to be shown on Turner Classic Movies:  Monday, Sept. 28, 8 p.m. EST and 5 p.m. Pacific time. (If you record it, you’ll be able to watch later and pause it for a closer look at the clothes.)
Colleen Moore was considered one of the quintessential movie Flappers; the book, Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style and Celebrity and the Women Who Made America Modern, by Joshua Zeitz, devotes a whole chapter to her.

As F. Scott Fitzgerald quipped in Motion Picture Magazine, “I was the spark that lit up flaming youth; Colleen Moore was the torch . . . .” — article by Susan Doll for Turner Classic Movies.

Colleeen Moore, New York Public Library Image Collection.

Colleen Moore, New York Public Library Image Collection. Click to enlarge.

Colleen Moore usually wore the same smooth-bob-with-bangs as Louise Brooks, but her character was distinctly American.

In this movie still, from 1927, you may be surprised by how tightly fitted her dress is.

Colleen Moore in "Her Wild Oat," 1927. Image from

Colleen Moore in “Her Wild Oat,” 1927. Image from

You can see another view here. (scroll down a little)

Why Costumers Should Notice “Dress Extras”

Why Be Good was released in the spring of 1929, which means it was probably filmed in late 1928.  It’s worth watching for many reasons, but especially for the clothes worn by the “dress extras.”

The clothes worn by the star and featured players in a movie are usually designed or purchased specifically for them, so they may be the costumer’s good or bad guesses at what will be in style a year after they are designed — when the picture is finally released. But the clothes worn by the extras — the nameless people walking around in the background of street scenes or nightclubs, etc. — are usually real clothes worn by their owners. When I watch old movies, I spend a lot of time looking at the the extras instead of the main characters. (Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers are always worth watching, but I learn a lot from the other people at the nightclub!)

Movie extras show us ordinary clothing in context — day, night, working, at sports, beaches, restaurants, etc.

Movie extras (or supers, short for supernumeraries) were often hired for their wardrobes — except for period films. A man who owned a set of “white tie & tails,” or a tuxedo, or a good business suit could work as a “dress extra” in Hollywood — it was cheaper for the studio to hire someone whose clothes didn’t need to be rented, purchased, or fitted. The same would go for the guests in the lobby of a ritzy hotel (actually a film set), shopping, attending a party,  or working in an office, etc. People who owned a nice wardrobe but had fallen on hard times after the stock market crash sometimes found their way into movie work as “dress extras.”

One child star, “Baby Peggy,” made millions in the early 1920’s; later, no longer a baby, she and her mother and sister worked as dress extras. (As an adult, under the name Diana Serra Cary, she wrote several books about Hollywood and was a strong advocate for child actors’ financial protection and working conditions.)

Click here to see Colleen Moore — far right — with dress extras in a nightclub scene. (The costumed waiter is not a dress extra.)

Moore is not in this preview, (a video of the first minutes of “Why Be Good?”) but the party guests are worth looking at — especially if you care about menswear, too. Notice how very short the women’s hems are! (An even fancier party is seen later in the film.)

More About “Why Be Good?”

Most of Colleen Moore’s dresses in Why Be Good have a tightly fitted bodice, which closes with a line of snaps in the underarm seam. (She also dresses and undresses in the film, which gives us a look at her underwear, including a black bra.) The plaid (taffeta?) dress with apron effect, which she wears early in the movie, is supposed to be the “going out to a nightclub” dress of a salesgirl.  (See it at She Blogged by Night — click here.) The  evening dress Moore later receives as a gift from her wealthy boyfriend is such a knockout on her that the audience gasped and murmured when I saw the movie. She Blogged by Night captured a still photo of Moore dancing in it at a party — notice the variety of clothes on the extras.

The dress she wears in the movie’s posters has an “apron” effect, created by ruffles that rise in a diagonal line toward the back of the dress. This Butterick pattern for a dress with a similar apron effect appeared in The Delineator magazine in December of 1928. (Colleen’s dress had a snug bodice, a modest-but-low back and no sleeves.)

Butterick pattern 2370, Delineator,Dec. 1928. The inspiration, it says, was Jean Patou.

Butterick pattern 2370, Delineator,Dec. 1928. The inspiration, it says, was Jean Patou.

1928 dec p 32 2370 text

A different dress by Jean Patou, with a relatively fitted bodice, is worn by a model resembling Colleen Moore or Louise Brooks. Click here. It’s from Pinterest, so I can’t check the date — given as 1925.

More About Dress Extras

People still work as dress extras — because extras are often asked to show up with a suitcase full of possible outfits.

A clever stage actress I worked with twenty years ago was not too proud to work as an extra on TV shows filmed where we live. We started chatting at a play rehearsal when I complimented her on the vintage black, beaded sweater she was wearing. She said she bought it at a thrift store for $8.50, and it saved her from getting fired from a scene when she was working as an extra.

We don’t usually notice extras — we’re focused on the characters with dialog. That means a clever extra (and this woman was very smart!) can appear in several scenes in the same show.  I’ll call her Maya. In her little wheeled suitcase she carried clothes that could play many roles with minor changes, plus some hairpieces. For example:

(1) The detectives (the stars) visit a murder scene in a park. In the distance we see a woman with a baby stroller, and a jogger. One of them was Maya in the warm-up outfit she had packed. (2) The detectives interview the clerk at a fast food store. In the background are a few customers — one of them was Maya in a black T-shirt and a baseball cap. (3)  The detectives visit an office. While they talk to the receptionist, Maya — wearing a tailored navy blue skirt, a blue blouse, and heels, with a cluster of curls clipped to her hair — passes in the background, carrying a stack of files. (4) At the courthouse, the detectives play a scene in the foreground. Behind them are all the people waiting for a trial to begin — including Maya dressed as a lawyer, in the same navy skirt and heels, but wearing the matching suit jacket over a white blouse, with glasses, and her hair slicked back into a bun. (5) A few days later she was wearing her red cocktail dress while sitting at the bar of a fancy restaurant — where the detective took his date. Uh-oh! The detective’s date was wearing the same color! The director didn’t want Maya in the shot. But:  “I reached into my bag and took out this beaded sweater and put it on. I stayed in the shot, and I got paid for the day’s work. Not a bad return on an eight buck sweater from Goodwill!”

Extras in movies and TV shows may still be asked to supply their own wardrobe. If you’re curious, WikiHow has a long, clear article, How to Become an Extra in a Movie. Advice about wardrobe is Step 10, near bottom of the article. Click here to read it.


Filed under 1920s, 1920s-1930s, A Costumers' Bookshelf, Hairstyles, Old Advertisements & Popular Culture, Resources for Costumers, Tricks of the Costumer's Trade, Underthings, Hosiery, Corsets, etc

5 responses to “Costume Research: Watch “Dress Extras” in Silent Movies

  1. Excellent! I’ve read (but don’t ask me where) that the dresses for women stars were shorted and tighter than fashionable clothes in the 20s. I can see why.

  2. Sounds like an interesting movie! I’ll have to see if my parents, who have cable, can record it for me.

    Yes, the extras (aka “background”) still bring their suitcases full of clothes. I’ve had to dress them many times and we costumers might only have 3 minutes with each extra to choose 4 script day looks for the day of shooting (it’s called a “cattle call” for a reason!). The best extras know to bring a huge selection/variety and to avoid red, black, white, logos, and anything high contrast (unless those things are specifically asked for by the costume department). If all you bring is blue and one of the main characters is wearing a similar shade of blue or a bunch of extras dressed before you were dressed in blue, you either can’t be in the scene or you have to hope the costume department has something in stock you can borrow.

    There are definitely still some “career extras” I have worked with. Some manage to work on everything I am on and more.

    As a viewer, I have the hardest time not “working” when a tv or movie scene is boring because I’ll start to watch the background extras like I do on set during a shoot. I recently saw some bad background costuming in an episode of “Hart of Dixie” – one of the main characters was in a coral pink top and three (3!) extras walked through the scene in the exact same shade of coral pink! It was so bad it distracted me from the dialog in the scene! I can’t believe no one fixed that during the shoot, but perhaps all the costumers were back at basecamp dressing the masses for some upcoming scene.

    • I have a friend who worked “costume continuity” on several movies. After talking to her, I started noticing mistakes — buttons that unbutton themselves from one shot to another, etc. It’s hard not to notice our own special areas of expertise.

  3. Great post! The info about modern extras is especially fascinating; not something I’ve ever known about.

    I was at the same screening. The “‘going out to a nightclub’ dress of a salesgirl” is a good description–I actually thought they were trying to show that she didn’t have such good taste. I mean, why so many bows at the neck, and why mix that fantastic metallic headdress with what appears to be cotton tartan? (More pictures of the dress appear here–includes underwear shot: ) I agree the later dress was fantastic, except I hated the illustration of the bow on it. (What is it with the bows? Here they are in a bunch of GIFs:

    Note: Colleen Moore cut her hair for “Flaming Youth” (1923) about two years before Louise Brooks ever appeared onscreen (1925).

    “[Jean Patou gown] is worn by a model resembling Colleen Moore or Louise Brooks…” That’s Louise herself. Here’s a different shot of the same dress, since it’s so nice:

    For anyone who wants to know more about Hollywood extras of the past, “Hollywood Unknowns” by Anthony Slide is quite good:

  4. Pingback: Florrie Was a Flapper, in 1914 | witness2fashion

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