The “Pre-Code Peep Show”: a Lesson in 1930’s Lingerie

One of my favorite aspects of Pre-Code Hollywood film is what I like to call “the Pre-Code Peep Show”. These scenes, in which one or more of the film’s actresses disrobe for the camera, are a staple of Hollywood movies made between 1929 and July of 1934. Usually the “Pre-Code Peep Show” has absolutely nothing to do with the plot; take for example Joan Blondell helping Barbara Stanwyck with her stockings in Night Nurse (1931) or Jean Harlow wiggling out of her blouse and skirt in Red-Headed Woman (1932) and giving the audience a glimpse of her naked right breast in the process. Sometimes however, the leading lady strips to reveal more than just her flesh, such as when Bette Davis gets naked in order to further secure her tight grip on Richard Barthelmess in the proletariat drama The Cabin in the Cotton (1932). One of my favorite such scenes is the introduction of Ivy (Miriam Hopkins) in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932): After being rescued from an abusive john by the “good doctor” (Fredric March), the flirtatious Ivy lifts her skirts, ostensibly to show Dr. Jekyll a bruise, while exposing her garter and bare thigh. Jekyll chides her for wearing “so tight a garter – it’s bad for you, it – uh – impedes the circulation.” (Nudge nudge, wink wink) He suggests bed rest and Ivy, smiling at the camera, slowly lifts her skirts, revealing her black stockings and beribboned garters. She gleefully kicks off her high-heeled shoes, peels off her right garter belt and, giggling, tosses it toward the camera. The camera pans to the garter at Dr. Jekyll’s feet before moving back to Ivy, now naked under a white, doily-like bedspread. “Come back soon, won’t ya?” she purrs to Jekyll, swinging her bare leg over the side of the bed like the hand of a clock. “Soon”. Her shapely leg continues to dangle in double exposure as Jekyll departs: a hypnotist’s pendulum.

“Come back…”

But whether meant to reveal a character’s true intentions or simply to titillate the audience, the “Pre-Code Peep Show” offers modern audiences a quick tutorial in 1930’s lingerie.

In Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s, author Frederick Lewis Allen writes that in the spring of 1919, skirts still hung just six inches from the ground, flesh colored stockings were taboo, and petticoats were de rigueur. Nice girls did not wear rouge or lipstick and they certainly didn’t cut their hair (short hair on a woman was considered radical enough to have her barred from public gatherings). What a difference a decade makes! By the mid-1920s, the music got faster as the skirts grew shorter. Girls bobbed their hair like Louise Brooks and painted their lips ala Clara Bow. A generation hardened and weary after the horrors of WW1 was ready to cast off the remnants of the puritanical Victorian-age and kick up their heels: for many, this meant exposing a lot of thigh and a pretty garter. But by the early 1930s, women’s skirts had fallen along with the stock market: they now reached below the knee, but still exposed the calves (and the seamed, flesh colored stockings of the wearer).

Corsets were replaced by bi-stretch latex girdles which favored smooth lines over curves. The corselet foundation garment created a seamless profile under the snug gowns favored by Greta Garbo and Jean Harlow. Was the corselet any more comfortable than the old-fashioned corset? The fact that Hollywood actresses often used a slant board (or rest chair) between takes may provide the answer. šŸ˜‰

Working class girls chose comfort over glamour: cami-shifts and tap pants (or French knickers) were preferred by the streetwise dames portrayed by Joan Blondell, Bessie Love and Barbara Stanwyck.

James Cagney tries on Joan Blondell’s tap pants in Blonde Crazy (1931)

As for bras, cup sizes were introduced in 1931. Contrary to popular belief, 1930’s brassieres were not meant to flatten but rather to “lift and separate”. Designer Elsa Schiaparelli sewed uplift brassieres into dress bodices to create a stunning profile. The average bra however was seamless, soft and wireless. The material was so thin that sometimes – as demonstrated by Mae Clarke in Waterloo Bridge (1931) and Clara Bow in Call Her Savage (1932) – the wearer’s nipples were visible. Today, we are so used to push-up and padded bras that the natural shape of the 1930’s bra may look a little strange to modern viewers.

Of course, if you didn’t want to wear a bra, you could always model yourself after Jean Harlow…

Written by Heather Babcock, 2020

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