The Women – A Study in Fashion of 1939

At its peak in 1939, The Women was described as being a “thoroughly nasty picture.” While today we would consider this movie to be quite tame, it was ahead of its time as far as script, plot, and costuming goes.  Composed of an entirely female cast of over 130 roles (even most of the animals were female), The Women acts as a sociological investigation of Park Avenue’s elite women of the 1930s.  Leading Ladies Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Paulette Goddard, and Joan Fontaine let go of their former sympathetic and innocent characters and “leaped at the chance to be vixens.”  The women dissect their best friends’ private lives and reputations daily over casual luncheons or while at the salon and are absolutely intriguing to watch their performances heightened through brilliant use of costumes.

While it was very original for its time, today the plot surrounding a gossiping group of friends and marital affairs seems rather predictable and cliché.  No film like this had ever been done before, so the innovation is clear when compared to other pieces from this period.  George Cukor, director, was quoted as having said that “the costumes bore little importance in the film.”  It seems fair to say, however, that most anyone who has seen the film will disagree with this statement.  The costuming was used to define the personalities of the core characters.  Norma Shearer’s character always looks tailored and put together to show her sophistication and poise while Joan Crawford’s character is often shown in tacky fashions to further prove that she is not a natural part of this upscale lifestyle.

The film is shot almost entirely in black and white, aside from a few minutes known as “The Technicolor fashion show sequence” which really showcased costume designer, Adrian’s talents and use of color.  Cukor, again, criticized this sequence “as it did nothing to advance the plot.”  While this is true in regards to the plot, this sequence was very important to fashion at the time.  It truly gave viewers a better understanding of how these designs would look in person and contributed greatly to mainstream fashion of the time.

Above shows an ensemble from the fashion show sequence on the left and an advertisement for Bergdorf Goodman on the right from Vogue, October 1939.  This side by side comparison shows how this style of dress (hooded, maxi dress, overflowing with fabric draping) rose in popularity immediately after the film’s release.  Not only was fashion affected by this film, but so was home furnishings.

Here you can see an image from the fashion show sequence of the model laying out a yellow scarf as a picnic blanket.  This led to the Vogue advertisement next to it selling yellow bed-linens.
One of the most innovative trends, at the time, is still even popular today: Jungle Red.  This is the color of  nail polish that one of the most gossipy characters convinced all other members of her posse to wear from her manicurist.  Even from a black and white film, this color’s popularity exploded and is still around today, as can be seen below with a modern version of this color nail polish by NARS.

Other trends that remain popular or have recently come into popularity today are items such as long dresses, capes, excess use of draping and flowing fabric, and low-cut back dresses.

The film’s use of fashion to describe its characters greatly influenced mainstream fashion of the time.  It made viewers believe that they could live that luxurious lifestyle if they looked the part, so they went out and found outfits that helped them to do this.  The technicolor fashion show sequence was pivotal to this as it showed women what the dresses and outfits would actually look like in person.

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3 comments

  1. During the late 1930’s, costumes and designs that actresses wore, helped to spread new styles and trends throughout society. Often in movies, the clothing suggests and reflects the lifestyle of that character. People wanted to be like or live a life that copied that character in the movies. This lead to these fashions becoming wide spread throughout the fashion world. Magazines started making adds based off of the styles seen and movies, and stores sold items that were similar to the costumes in the movies. People wanted to be as close to these icons as possible, so much so that they tried and to copy the styles.Many different activities and stories can reflect ones style; however, I think that it is interesting to see how these movies changed the fashion industry.

  2. I think it’s so interesting that one film had such an impact on fashion. Considering the fact that most of the movie is in black and white, this idea is even more intriguing. I wonder, though, if some of the fashion in the movie is not the cause, but rather the reflection of the trends during that time. But it is definitely valid to connect fashion and cinema. As you mentioned, low-back dresses became popular in the 30s because they were worn so often in movies by female actresses. I’ve actually read that this might be connected to the Hollywood ban on low-cut fronts in films, so to keep it sexy, costume designers decided to make the backs of dresses low-back.

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