The Stock Market Crash, the Great Depression and World War II were defining characteristics of America in the 1930s and 1940s. The dispiriting ring to these events forced U.S. citizens out of their Roaring Twenties daydream and back into rigid reality, setting the stage for one glitzy anecdote: it was Hollywood to the rescue.
“Films were real big diversions for people who were the average person,” said Frances Nelson McSherry, a costume designer and professor theater design at Northeastern University. “[People] just looking…to pay whatever it was that they paid and to go in and sit in a darkened movie theater and watch beautiful women and beautiful men parade back and forth in a lovely story. It kind of made you forget about what was going on in real life,”
The escape provided by the movies produced in the earlier parts of the 20th century have made the period an iconic one, now captured by “Hollywood Glamour: Fashion and Jewels from the Silver Screen,” at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston, MA. 16 costumes, dating from 1926 to 1948, are the focal point of the exhibit. They are showcased on a dramatic curved staircase that carves its way from the back corner of the room to the center of the tiny Loring Gallery.
Sleek satin and lamé garments shimmer under pools of dim chandelier lighting. A few portraits of the time’s leading ladies guide the eye to suites of real diamond jewelry and accessories. The likes of Benny Goodman and Cole Porter provide the soundtrack for the 10 minute movie reel silently displaying the garments the way they were meant to be seen.
One piece allows the visitor to get a glimpse of how a costume is translated from original thought to tangible product. The MFA presents a sketch by Travis Banton, costume designer for Paramount Pictures during the 1930s. This particular pencil and watercolor model is for a hostess gown worn by actress Marlene Dietrich’s character in “Desire.” The gown, a pale pink, form-fitting silk crepe and chiffon garment with accompanying sheer cape trimmed in fox fur, is on display along with a clip from the movie.
Most of the jewelry seen in film during this time belonged to the actresses’ themselves and another standout, this time in the accessory cases, proves there can be a compromise between the lifestyles of a glamorous starlet and a woman living in a depressed economy.
A large diamond and sapphire necklace that belonged to June Knight is actually multipurpose. It can be taken apart and become a brooch or a few bracelets as well.
The stars that waltzed into the hearts of movie-goers everywhere were expected to be just as dazzling off-screen as they were on-screen.
Michelle Finamore, Penny Vinik Curator of Fashion Arts at the MFA and co-curator of “Hollywood Glamour,” used Joan Crawford’s famous line, “I never go outside unless I look like Joan Crawford the movie star. If you want to see the girl next door, go next door,” to encompasses the general idea of the exhibit.
Actress Mae West must have had similar ideology, as her shoes are quite possibly the most unique pieces on display. The bizarre pair of footwear resembles two shoes stacked on top of each other and added nearly 9 inches to West’s height. The bottom half of the shoe, painted silver, looks like a normal pump when worn with a full length dress. She reportedly wore this pair constantly, whether the cameras were rolling or not.
As this moment in fashion slips farther into the depths of history, the artifacts are put up to the harsh tests of time.
“This is the time to see it for real,” McSherry said. “Take a look back at the 30’s quick before it’s all gone, before it’s all degraded. We can see it in books and on the screen of course, but it’s different.”
“Hollywood Glamour” can be viewed until March 8, giving Northeastern students (who get into the MFA free-of-charge with a student ID) until spring break to witness this sliver of Hollywood at its prime at a price no movie ticket can rival–even by 1930s standards.