Marlene Dietrich brought taste and discipline to the business of glamour. Her face was mysterious and timeless and her unconventional style revolutionalised Hollywood and fashion: she had an extraordinary ability to simultaneously embody the passive and the dominating, the masculine and the feminine. She may have looked like a hausfrau before she met Banton, as columnist Hedda Hopper roughly put it (and as Marlene admitted to Edith Head: “I was one! I was not dowdy.”), but this soon changed after she arrived at Hollywood.
Costume designer Travis Banton and director Josef von Sternberg crafted her public image. Von Sternberg created her dignified image and hollow cheeks, achieved through careful lighting and angling. He was greatly influenced by the German Expressionists and her surreal image mirrored those sensibilities. She would only pose for photographer Rudolph Maté, who contributed to create her sharp yet full of refined sensuality look; every photograph had to be of immaculate taste. They were a team for whom the only acceptable outcome was perfection. She and Travis Banton worked even 12 hours a day preparing the clothes for a movie. The clothes she wore on screen could very much be her own and were usually given to her after the filming.
I love the architectural hat and the front zipper on the dress: such an unexpected touch.
For Angel (1937), directed by Ernst Lubitsch, Travis Banton designed Marlene’s costumes. Banton had wit, imagination and perfect taste. He was Edith Head’s mentor: “I was more influenced by Travis Banton than any designer in the world. I think his design was so pure and ungimmickly. His design was pure and simple, classic.”
But as it often happened, studios completely overlooked the fact that not all the designs were created in-house. The Chinese brocade jacket and navy blue double silk jersey skirt Marlene is wearing in the film was created by the French designer Alix exclusively for her, but the dress was credited to Banton.
She is wearing a white pants suit too, naturally. No other movie star used the suit as a provocative costume the way she did. She liked to wear pants, but still looked like a woman. She conveyed a sense of strength and beauty, balancing a seductive femininity with masculine attire.
“A Million Grains of Golden Caviar”: that’s what Diana Vreeland called this breathtaking, beaded gown when she exhibited it at the Metropolitan Museum in 1974 as part of their Costume Institute’s ”Romantic and Glamorous Hollywood Design” retrospective. The dress, adorned with red and green cabochons, was reportedly inspired by the mastery of Fabergé, and Adele Balkan, a sketch artist and costume designer who worked alongside Travis Banton and Edith Head, created the beading pattern. It cost $8, 000 to produce in 1937 – too expensive for Paramount executives to allow Marlene to add this one to her personal collection, as was her usual custom. Have you noticed the jewellery in her hair?
There is something about a white ruffled blouse that says elegance and class.
The costume she wears in the final scene, with that interesting neckline, is my favourite part of her wardrobe. What a posture!
This season Marlene Dietrich is having a big moment in fashion. But her style has never stopped influencing fashion, as it continues to be the cornerstone of playful sexiness since the 1930s.
bibliography: Hollywood Costume, by Deborah Nadoolman Landis, and Edith Head: The Fifty-Year Career of Hollywood’s Greatest Costume Designer, by Jay Jorgensen
photo credit: Paramount Pictures (film stills captured by me)