Tag Archives: Pre-Code movies

The Letty Lynton Dress, Adrian, and Joan Crawford’s Shoulders: Part 2

Part 1 of The Letty Lynton Dress, Adrian, and Joan Crawford’s Shoulders discussed one of the first movies Adrian designed for Joan Crawford:  Letty Lynton (1932,) and its fashion influence. Here’s the Letty Lynton dress again:

Joan Crawfrod in "the Letty Lynton dress" designed by Gilbert Adrian. 1932. Image from Creating the Illusion, by Jorgensen and Scoggins.

Joan Crawford in “the Letty Lynton dress” designed by Gilbert Adrian. 1932. Image from Creating the Illusion, by Jorgensen and Scoggins.

The legend is that, because Joan Crawford had very broad shoulders, costume designer Gilbert Adrian decided to exaggerate them, instead of trying to distract us with styling tricks, and incidentally started the fashion for padded shoulders on women. And it is true that broad, padded shoulders for women came into fashion in the 1930’s and lasted through the World War II years.

Butterick Fashion Flyer, April 1938. Broad, padded, shoulders on women.

Butterick Fashion Flyer, April 1938. Broad, padded shoulders for women — and impossible hips.

Butterick Fashion News, Sept. 1943. Broad, padded shoulders for women.

Butterick Fashion News, Sept. 1943. Broad, padded shoulders for women.

I’ve always been a little skeptical that Joan’s broad shoulders were ever a problem. This photo shows her in another evening dress from Letty Lynton.

Joan Crawford in another dress from Letty Lynton. Adrian often made bare- shoulder dresses for her.

Joan Crawford in another dress from Letty Lynton. Adrian often made bare-shouldered dresses for her. From Creating the Illusion.

You wouldn’t say she looks unattractive, or unfeminine…. In fact, she often wore costumes that bared her shoulders, like this one. from 1934.

Here she is in the 1920’s:

Joan Crawford in the 1920's. From Pinterest.

Joan Crawford in the 1920’s. From Pinterest.

Crawford had been making movies since the 1920’s, and the truth is, if you want your hips to look smaller, it’s a good idea to make your shoulders look wider. (Or stand sideways….) A woman’s hips are not — in nature — inches narrower than her shoulders, although that is the way women were drawn in fashion illustrations from the twenties and thirties.

Fashion illustration, July 1928. Delineator. Nobod has hips that narrow.

Fashion illustrations, July 1928. Delineator. Women don’t have hips that narrow.

Most women’s hips are as wide as, or wider than, their shoulders. Even Norma Shearer, “the Queen of MGM,” didn’t look fabulous photographed straight on in this twenties’ outfit.

Butterick fashion illustrations, Jan 1934. Delineator.

Butterick fashion illustrations, Jan 1934. Delineator. Even wearing a really tight girdle will not make normal, childbearing hips that small.

The ruffled shoulders of the famous “Letty Lynton” dress are twice as wide as her hips. In this film clip, as Crawford is seen from the back, standing against a ship’s railing, her waist and hips look very narrow — like a fashion illustration.

Wide shoulders and full sleeves were also used to enhance the illusion of a tiny waist in the 1830’s and the 1890’s.

Wide shoulders and full sleeves create the illusion of a tiny waist, in 1832 and in 1895. Left Casey Collection; right, Metropolitan Museum.

Wide shoulders and full sleeves create the illusion of a tiny waist, in 1832 and in 1895. Left Casey Collection; right, Metropolitan Museum.

The same “trick” reappeared in the 1980’s, to make waists and hips look smaller. Click here.

McCall's bridal pattern 9452 (1985) and Vogue 9816 (1987). Full sleeves, wide shoulders.

McCall’s bridal pattern 9452 (1985) and Vogue 9816 (1987). Full sleeves, wide shoulders.

I do believe another story that Adrian told — as quoted in Creating the Illusion: A Fashionable History of Hollywood Costume Designers, by Jay Jorgensen and Donald L. Scoggins. They mention that Adrian designed the costumes for Joan Crawford in more than thirty-two movies, “…and in the process, created the padded-shoulder silhouette that defined the 1940s.”

“Crawford insisted on a free range of movement in her clothing. During fittings, she would rotate her shoulders with arms outstretched to ensure the fabric in her costumes could move with her. When Adrian was not designing in jersey or a fabric that stretched, he would let the clothes out across the back. He heavily padded Crawford’s shoulders to take up the slack in the fabric….” He said, “She is constantly in motion. When she is in the fitting room, she is always walking around, swinging her arms above her head to be sure she has freedom.” — Adrian, quoted in Creating the Illusion.

I’m certainly not in Adrian’s league, but I remember fitting an 1840’s bodice on an opera singer who kept crossing her arms in front of her body as far as possible, hunching her back, and popping the back of the muslin open.

“It fits all right, but I can’t do that!” she complained.

“Do you need to do that on stage?” I asked.

“Uh, no….” Luckily for me, she was a lot more reasonable than Joan Crawford.

Joan Crawford’s broad shoulders were probably an asset when she was wearing 1920’s styles.

Joan Crawford in the 1920's. From Pinterest.

Joan Crawford in the 1920’s. From Pinterest. If you want to look thin in a twenties’ dress, stand sideways.

Joan Crawford first rose to stardom playing a series of flappers in Our Dancing Daughters; Paris; Sally, Irene and Mary; The Taxi Dancer;  The Duke Steps Out, and Our Modern Maidens. This video shows scenes from Our Dancing Daughters. (Also Pre-Code! note the panties, and her break-away skirt.) In 1932 she starred in Letty Lynton and in Rain (as Sadie Thompson , a prostitute with few illusions,) and appeared in Grand Hotel.

I admire her most in Grand Hotel . She plays a sympathetic role as a stenographer/part time prostitute trying to survive during the Depression. In this clip, she makes her situation clear to John Barrymore.

Crawford wore a “show biz” version of the Letty Lynton dress when she danced with Fred Astaire in Dancing Lady (1933). Here she is in another  1933 version of the Letty Lynton dress.

In this Hurrell photo, from 1934, you can see the padded shoulders on her evening gown. In 1937, her jacket is definitely padded like a man’s. The effect is even broader when done in fur: click here. Finally, here she is with Adrian, in 1939, and in Humoresque, 1946.

Most of these links are to a wonderful site: the photo gallery at joancrawfordbest.com. It’s well worth a visit, because Joan Crawford’s costumes were very influential in the mass market, and because — no matter what the style was,  she could really wear a hat!

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Filed under 1830s -1860s fashions, 1870s to 1900s fashions, 1930s, 1930s-1940s, 1940s-1950s, Musings, Resources for Costumers, Tricks of the Costumer's Trade, Vintage patterns

One Good Dress in the 1930s

Two Day Dresses from December 1931, Delineator

Two Day Dresses from December 1931, Delineator

Murder, Lust, Ambition, and a Good Black Dress

Fashion History shows up in the strangest places. I’ve been reading a book – Violette Nozière, by Sarah Maza  – about a murder trial in Paris in the 1930s. Maza uses the true story of a woman who tried to kill her parents as a way to examine changes in postwar French society and culture. One point she makes, which I had never really considered before, is that women’s daytime fashions in the 1930s helped to disguise class differences, increasing social mobility and opportunities for mixing,  in a way not possible before World War I.

Fashionable woman, 1912; Photo courtesy of media-cache

Fashionable woman, 1912; Photo courtesy of media-cache

Before the First World War, it was impossible to mistake a working woman for a member of the bourgeoisie, because the fragile, luxurious, and labor-intensive clothing of a middle-class woman could not be imitated more cheaply, or mass produced. The hand-beading, the embroidery, the combinations of fur and chiffon – the very quality of the materials – were not affordable to working women.  Silent movies that show lower class women in “tawdry finery” demonstrate the difference between real luxe and attempts to imitate it.
Simple Was Chic in the 1930s
Maza points out that the fashions of the 1930s, with their use of wool, dark colors, and simpler styling, made it possible for department stores to carry mass-produced dresses of good quality. They were not cheap, but you only needed one. Delineator, Dec. 1931 p 70 dresses, blouses
An ambitious girl like Violette Nozière, pretty, educated, well-spoken, but living in two overcrowded rooms with her parents, could go to a café – in her one good dress – and chat with businessmen and young men of the bourgeoisie, posing as the daughter of a successful man in the railroad business.

One Dress, Many Accessories

 One, really good, daytime dress, varied by scarves and detachable collars, really was an investment. It could get you admitted to chic restaurants and cafes, and was a necessity for a better-paying secretarial or sales position. A well-cut black wool dress from a store like Galeries Lafayette  might not have deceived an upper-class woman, but – for the first time – it allowed any pretty, well-spoken, working class girl with a sense of chic to mingle freely with men of the upper middle classes. She looked like their sisters.  Even thirties hairstyles, covered in daytime with a hat, no longer required the services of a lady’s maid.  A secretary could dress well.

Changeable Collars and Scarves Turn One Dress into a Wardrobe

"If your dress hasn't gotten to the point where it needs a new top, hide its 1931 neckline beneath a collar, one of the new big white ones that make the new dresses look so fresh.... Every one of the collars here was taken from a brand-new dress. They all come right up to the base of the throat and they're all deep enough that even and antiquated deep V neckline can be made to look like a new high one. They all button on,... are smartest in white satin, rough crepe, linen and pique.

“If your dress hasn’t gotten to the point where it needs a new top, hide its 1931 neckline beneath a collar, one of the new big white ones that make the new dresses look so fresh…. Every one of the collars here was taken from a brand-new dress. They all come right up to the base of the throat and they’re all deep enough that even an antiquated deep V neckline can be made to look like a new high one. They all button on,… are smartest in white satin, rough crepe, linen and pique.”

Of course, the problem with having one good dress and a job, is that everyone sees you in the same dress day after day. (Violette was interested in attracting a wealthy man, not working in a office.) The Great Depression meant that many people couldn’t get work, and those who had jobs were often supporting a whole family: parents, brothers, sisters, grandparents…. So fashion magazines offered inexpensive ways to give the impression that you had several outfits. The collars above – and a “make it yourself hat” are patterns from Butterick , 1932.

Butterick Fashion News, April 1938

Butterick Fashion News, April 1938

A Butterick Fashion News flyer from 1938 shows what you could do with collars, cuffs, sashes, and even a halter top worn over a black dress. “Collars and cuffs, gilets and sashes make a small wardrobe seem extensive… Price, 25 cents.”BFN variety April 1938 scarves
“Variety…The basic dress worn with either of two necklines. Vary it with striped sash or trim collars and belts if the neck is high, with clips or collar-into-sash if low.” [Jewelry collectors will recognize several types of “duette clips.”]

Barbara Stanwyck in Baby Face, 1933

Barbara Stanwyck in Baby Face, 1933

Movie Recommendation: Baby Face, 1933
If you rent the movie Baby Face, from 1933, you’ll see Barbara Stanwyck in many variations of the black dress with accessories, as she literally sleeps her way to the top. This is a Pre-Code picture, a lot more frank about sex than movies were 20 years later! (In some versions, it begins with this teenaged girl’s father clearly prostituting her to the patrons of his dive bar.) Armed with determination, cynicism, and a series of ‘secretary’ dresses, she works her way to the penthouse suite – and a much more glamorous wardrobe.

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Filed under 1930s, Vintage Accessories, Vintage patterns