Morocco was Marlene Dietrich’s first American film. For her role as cabaret singer Amy Jolly she was nominated to the Academy Awards for Best Actress in a Leading Role. The top hat, tuxedo and white bow-tie she wears for her first performance in the film became her signature look. To say that her opening number, when she is dressed up as a man and kisses a woman in the audience, was a provocative scene for 1930, would be an understatement. She wears trousers only in that sequence, but it is Dietrich in that tux that stays with you and I think this is the look most often associated with the image of Marlene Dietrich.
“I’m sincere in my preference for men’s clothes – I do not wear them to be sensational”, she said. “I think I am much more alluring in these clothes.” She was the first Hollywood star to prove the seductive power of a woman in trousers and to wear them in public, defying social norms, pioneering androgynous style, thus revolutionizing and redefining women’s fashion.
There is one unforgettable moment with Marlene during her opening number when she leans back onto the railing separating herself from the tables in the audience. She barely yields any body weight to the rail before swinging one leg over, lightly bringing it to the ground and then swinging the other leg over too. She couldn’t have personified the mystery, sex appeal, detachment and aloof confidence she eludes, had she worn a dress.
By deciding to put her in trousers in the first important act, Josef von Sternberg not only built up the anticipation of the audiences, who were anxious to see Marlene’s legs revealed as they had been made famous in The Blue Angel (1930), also directed by von Sternberg, but this smart move would always link her image to that of an enigmatic persona, who, unlike many other stars, would use subtext to enhance the femme fatale perception of her. The director had seen her wearing a man’s suit and a top hat at a party in Berlin, and it inspired him to use it as a dramatic look for her first musical number in an American film. The result still tantalizes the viewers, more than eight decades later. Wearing men’s attire suited Marlene like a charm, but whether in a man’s suit or a glamorous gown, she exuded sex appeal all her life, never lacking tastefulness.
Women wearing trousers in 1930 was controversial, but in a nightclub in an exotic country like Morocco, it was acceptable. Moreover, the foreign, the unknown and the unexpected have always fascinated the audiences, especially in those times, and the film’s producers knew that the public would be seduced by the exotic location and Marlene’s outlandish look.
Marlene’s costumes were designed by Travis Banton. Dietrich, Banton and von Sternberg were at their first collaboration and all three of them would forge the image of Marlene Dietrich, the icon of style and the epitome of Old Hollywood glamour. Dietrich and Banton worked together on the costumes and the designer was willing to do the sketches over and over again until they were right for what the director had in mind.
The actress makes her Hollywood entrance on the deck of a ship bound for Morocco, in a black day dress with a coat wrapped around her and a hat with a veil, evoking a bit of the mystery her character is enveloped in. After the tuxedo act, as the film progresses, Marlene’s outfits become more and more revealing, like the sleek black evening gown with a sheer neckline and a string of pearls she wears in the dinner scene (photo below), or the sequined fringed show dress, in late 1920s Berlin burlesque style, so short that it shows stockings and suspenders. But although playing up the feminine side, the cool detachment of her in that tuxedo is still echoed even when dressed in black dresses. Only when she wears white, suggestively in the scenes with Tom Brown (played by Gary Cooper), the man she comes to love deeply, her mask seems to come off, giving way to a more vulnerable side.
“Don’t follow it [fashion] blindly into every dark alley. Always remember that you are not a model or mannequin for which the fashion is created.” Marlene Dietrich
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photos: stills from the film, except for the last one – photographed by me, from the book Classic Hollywood Style, by Caroline Young | credit: Paramount Pictures
source: Classic Hollywood Style, by Caroline Young