Our style icons today reach us from the small screen—the really small screen: our phones. Instagram, whether through fashion influencers or the brands themselves, is where we find ourselves staying up to date on the latest sartorial trends.
Just under a century that wasn’t so different, only the size of the screen was. In the 1930s and ‘40s, a time bookended by the Great Depression and World War II, Americans turned to Hollywood film for fashion inspiration. Stars like Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford were like the Chiara Ferragnis or Leandra Medines of today. Accessibility mixed with glamour appealed to audiences during these decades, over the out-of-reach designs and expensive looks coming out of Paris.
That era is currently the focus of an exhibition at the Chicago History Museum, curated by Virginia Heaven, associate professor of fashion design at Columbia College Chicago. Featuring garments by designers like Vionnet, Paul du Pont, Howard Greer, and Chanel, “SILVER SCREEN TO MAINSTREAM: AMERICAN FASHION IN THE 1930s AND ‘40s” is on view through January 21, 2020.
WHITEWALL: What prompted the shift of influence from Paris to Hollywood at this time?
VIRGINIA HEAVEN: The invention and prevalence of the movies. The extreme reach of movies made a huge impact, and everybody wanted to be part of them. Every culture loves to hear stories, and this was a new version of that. Paris was not accessible for the vast majority of people—very few people could afford to get there to see anything. Those clothes were only in topline magazines. As a consequence, this material at the time was only accessible to very wealthy people, while anybody could experience Hollywood, so long as they could afford a ticket to the cinema. Aside from the glamorous costumes in movies, stories of freedom and access were also being discussed, as stories were often about strong women getting their way.
WW: Were there particular actresses or films that wielded great influence in fashion?
VH: Greta Garbo, Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford. They were beautiful, but they were made even more beautiful by makeup and glamorous by costume design. The costume designers are the key players in Hollywood. Many of these movies would’ve been great movies, but without the creativity of the costume designers, they would never have been as important as they eventually were. Designers made it possible for actresses to be glamorous.
WW: Who were the designers finding inspiration in Hollywood?
VH: Irene, Adrian, Travis Banton, Robert Kalloch. While many designers in the exhibition were focused on fashion, many of the Hollywood designers were designers strictly for costume use in film.
WW: How did that translate into material, silhouette, and style?
VH: Designers were aware that all movies were black and white during that period, so they’re treatment was to make amazingly striking silhouettes with a lot of drama and interest, knowing full well they were never going to be seen in color. The main thing was the styles were larger than life. Even when a movie was based on real life, everything is amplified.
WW: What impact did the depression have on this time?
VH: The movies allowed people an escape from what was happening—they had access to something that was more glamorous than their real life.
WW: How did the onset of World War II affect what came after?
VH: There was an American style established. What was happening after was essentially a pragmatism about American clothes. It was really important that people understood the impact that American style had on what we wear every day.
WW: What remaining impact does this time have on the world of fashion?
VH: This pragmatism continues to this day. The glamour that we acknowledge as beauty and flawlessness comes from the era of Hollywood. If you look at movies, women have gorgeous make up, perfect hairstyles, fabulous clothes. That definition of beauty continues in present day.