The 1930s were a defining decade for the United States, as the Great Depression and the nation’s response to it shaped the course of history. The Chicago History Museum has a new exhibit exploring a part of history from that era that you might not think about: fashion and how Hollywood created a new look for American women.
It all starts in Paris. (Well, fashion does, anyway.) For decades, Paris was the city of love, the city of lights, and the city rich women visited to shop for dresses. So that’s where the Chicago History Museum’s new costume exhibit begins: with the work of designers like Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli.
“Very wealthy Chicagoans, New Yorkers, other Europeans, would flock to Paris to have their clothes made to measure,” said Virginia Heaven, associate professor of fashion studies at Columbia College Chicago and curator of “Silver Screen to Mainstream”. “They would have special amenities, and it was a very personalized and wonderful experience.”
In the early years of American fashion, styles stemmed mostly from whatever French designers did. But in the 1930s, a new, increasingly ubiquitous medium began to make itself known.
“Going to Paris was class-related,” Heaven said. “If you were incredibly poor and had a nickel, you could go to the movies and spend your time suspending reality.”
A trip to the movies offered an escape for many Americans in the tumultuous years between the Great Depression and World War II. And the films inspired American women’s clothing, diverting some of the attention from high-end Parisian designers.
“They (were) artisans and artists, and so they were often experimental in their approach to clothing,” Heaven said. “American designers have really focused on entertainment, certainly in movies and on the beauty of the movie star.”
American women wanted to look as beautiful as stars like Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich and Bette Davis. And depending on your income level, Hollywood had different options for you.
In 1931, the Hollywood Pattern Company was founded, publishing movie-inspired patterns for people of limited means to create homemade dresses. “They had a star or a starlet on the envelope, so when a person bought that design, they were kind of buying Hollywood history,” Heaven said.
People a little better off could order Hollywood-inspired looks from catalogs.
“Chicago was a center of the catalog industry, and they made accessories and clothing that was supposed to be autographed by the star, meaning worn by the star,” Heaven said. So if you loved Fay Wray in “King Kong,” why not own a handbag with her stamp of approval?
For the wealthy who clung to their money during the Depression, stores like Marshall Field’s and Saks Fifth Avenue sold all the satin and sequins needed to weather a tough decade.
“It was a way of projecting composure at a time when things were definitely not very calm because of the terrible deprivation that most people went through during that time,” Heaven said.
Heaven’s favorite piece in the exhibition is a perfect illustration of the “Silver Screen to Mainstream” idea. It’s designed by Illinois native Howard Greer, who started his career in Chicago and ended up designing Hollywood costumes. Greer – like some of his fellow film designers – saw an opening and branched out, launching his own label in 1927.
“There is a piece with overlapping palm leaves, designed in 1940. It is a kind of evening dress. The same year he did costumes for a movie called ‘My Favorite Wife’ starring Irene Dunne and Cary Grant, and there’s a version of that dress in that movie,” Heaven said.
Even though the robes may be from a black and white era, Heaven says they aren’t stuffy artifacts. “They have a very contemporary silhouette. We’ve had people come in and look around and say, “You can wear this now!” Absolutely, you could. I would say anything you could wear in this show now.
“Silver Screen to Mainstream” is on display at the Chicago History Museum through January 21, 2020. For details, visit the museum’s website.
Note: This story was first published on April 15, 2019. It has been updated.
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