The Way We Wore Part 1: The Women (1939)

the women

The Women (1939)

 “When anything I wear doesn’t please your husband, I take it off.”

Director: George Cukor

Gowns and Fashion Show by Adrian

MGM’s star-studded The Women boasted an all-female cast but don’t let that fool you: it may very well be one of the most sexist movies ever made. The film’s original tagline was “It’s all about men!” and the plot revolves around a romantic tug of war between a society wife (played by Norma Shearer) and her husband’s mistress (Joan Crawford, chewing up scenes, along with the aforementioned husband, as sassy shop girl Crystal Allen). So why should we watch The Women today? For the clothes, of course! Particularly the six-minute fashion parade styled by Adrian.

Hailed by MGM as “Hollywood’s foremost studio designer”, Adrian’s over 250 film credits include designing the costumes for The Wizard of Oz (1939), Dinner at Eight (1933) and Grand Hotel (1932). In the 1940 MGM featurette Hollywood: Style Center of the World, the film’s narrator declares that Adrian “has probably done more to influence style trends the world over than any other designer.” In the featurette, a young farm girl named Mary goes to town to buy a dress for her date with Jim. The saleslady assures her that the dress she chooses is styled the same as the one that “Joan Crawford wears in her new picture.”

And so to this quiet little town, far from the Metropolitan areas, the Hollywood influence reaches out to style and gown Mary just as smartly as Joan Crawford,” the narrator boasts. “Today the girl from the country is just as modern and dresses just as smartly as her big city sister.”

In The Women Adrian takes us on a “voyage into fashion land” as the black&white film morphs into eye popping technicolor and the viewer is treated to a department store fashion parade. In the 1930s, department stores held live fashion shows complete with tea and sandwiches; the models were commonly referred to as “mannequins” so sometimes these shows were also called “mannequin parades”. Wide brimmed hats, wide shouldered belted jackets, feathered caps, silk turbans, matching gloves and Gone With the Wind inspired wide skirted gowns with puffed sleeves and high necks: this “voyage” has it all, including a rather creepy beach cape with a Frankenstein-like man’s hand as a clasp. The feminine, frilly and sometimes over the top styles showcase a smorgasbord of late 1930’s fashion. For an audience that was still feeling the effects of the Great Depression, this parade must have been an eye-candy store fantasy of indulgence.

Written by Heather Babcock

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