The Birth of the Androgynous Look: Greta Garbo in “The Single Standard”

Greta Garbo in “The Single Standard”, 1929 | Photo: James Manatt, MGM

 
 

This Summer We’re Channelling: a recurring seasonal series
in the journal that celebrates both style in film and summertime.

 
 

 
It was 1929 when Greta Garbo introduced trousers into women’s fashion, when she appeared in her lover’s clothes in The Single Standard. Among the clothes she borrows from her lover, there are wide-legged pleated trousers, shirts, sweaters, swimming shorts, plain tank top, socks, sneakers, an oversized bathrobe and a sailor’s cap. It was Garbo who paved the way for Marlene Dietrich and Katharine Hepburn. She invented the androgynous look. She was the first nonconformist.

In real life, she preferred a natural, simple style, too, menswear inspired, and favoured trousers, flat shoes, turtlenecks, trench coats and polo-neck sweaters. She loved to wear trousers because her tomboyish nature wanted her to be active and comfortable while walking and moving around. It was her who launched the tuxedo, which she had custom-made by the tailor Watson, and which only later became the trademark of Marlene Dietrich. Both Dietrich and Hepburn were influenced by the Swedish actress, both developing a personal style of dressing that emulated Garbo’s and eventually became to represent an evolution of the androgynous style that Garbo gave birth to. It is a look that is also reflected in the clothes she wore in The Single Standard and in other films. Always the mysterious, refusing her life and dressing style to be a continuation of her films and characters, never yielding to conventions, proposing a new feminine form and a new model of beauty. “She was a woman with an elegant line, slender but strong, so contemporary with her vaguely boyish allure to rewrite the rules of glamour and charm,” writes Giusi Ferré in the book Greta Garbo: The Mystery of Style.
 

Greta Garbo and Nils Asther in “The Single Standard”, 1929 | Photos: James Manatt, MGM

 
 

It is however her star image, and, above all, her face – framed to perfection by the costumes of Adrian, brilliantly shot in the publicity stills of Ruth Harriet Louise and Clarence Sinclair Bull, whether intense and enigmatic and unattainable or emphasizing the woman’s power to seduce, and, according to Roland Barthes, the face that “catapulted viewers into the most profound ecstasy, when one literally lost oneself in a human image” – that places her in the collective imaginary. But you’ve got to love the way she straddles both androgynous look, stripped of any “feminine” artifice, and feminine playfulness and pensiveness, with only her iconic face to celebrate femininity, in The Single Standard. She showed that being strong and beautiful are best paired together. There is an adventurous side to girls and women and Greta Garbo made the world aware of that. There is nothing more powerful and attractive than the combination of the femininity of her pose and the masculine style of her clothing. Because, as it is noted in the aforementioned book, “she is the one who lends her unique face to characters, though always remaining herself, never renouncing – in her interpretations – her own physical and intellectual typicalness”.

Greta Garbo perfectly understood the Hollywood star-making system, and she was the ultimate star. Yet, although she let the studio resort to all its devices (colour photography could have never illuminated her beauty the way black and white did) to underscore the power of her sculpted face in creating her intriguing and seductive characters, she never let the movies take hold of her life, she never let go of her original self. That’s why the mystery endures. Living her own life away from the movie world, unadulterated by success, championing her understated way of dressing, leaving things unsaid, leaving people want for more. Because when everything you do and say is out for display, what else do you leave for desire?
 

Greta Garbo in “The Single Standard”, 1929 | Photos: James Manatt, MGM

 
 
In The Single Standard, directed by John S. Robertson, Garbo plays Arden Stuart, a free-spirited and independent-minded young woman from a wealthy family who thinks beyond her social status and conventions and wants to live her life by her own rules. “There are many theories about love, but only one answer: equality – the perfect freedom!” That’s the kind of love and relationship both Arden and her lover, Packy Cannon (Nils Asther), believe in. When she runs away with him on his boat, it is something unplanned. She hasn’t brought any other clothes along, so she wears his clothes for the entire duration of their trip. But it is something that comes very naturally to her, because it reflects her own beliefs and personality. She clearly feels energised, free, and, most certainly, a little rebellious.

Adrian was the costume designer, one of the most talented and creative costume designers who have worked in Hollywood, at his second collaboration with Garbo. Adrian would dress her for 19 films and they would strike a long friendship. Garbo’s style on screen will forever be inextricably linked to Adrian, but the designer acknowledged that he created her image based on her own radiant beauty that called for singular treatment, always trying to let her true personality and natural beauty shine through even behind the most glamorous and exotic film costumes. And whenever she didn’t play period or historical parts, he dressed her with simplicity, offering her strength and attitude.

Breaking with Hollywood’s relish for excess, the designer created an understated look for Garbo both in The Single Standard and A Woman of Affairs, their first two films together, and she donned functional and menswear inspired looks in many other films, such as Anna Christie, 1930 (laced shoes, leather jackets and turtlenecks were part of her character’s wardrobe) and Susan Lenox, Her Fall and Rise, 1931 (she even wears a vest over a t-shirt with belted trousers).

One of the pieces Adrian designed for Greta Garbo for A Woman of Affairs was a trench coat, one of the first examples of trenches for women, remarks Christian Esquevin in the book Adrian: From Silver Screen to Custom Label, and one bearing the signature of what would become known as the Adrian look, the wide shoulders. “In A Woman of Affairs I put her in sport clothes… I created the broad shoulders for her, which has become the silhouette of today. Broad shoulders give a smaller hip, great youth, independence, all of which are part of Garbo’s character.”
 

Greta Garbo in “The Single Standard”, 1929 | Photo: James Manatt, MGM

 
 
Garbo is also seen in a multi-striped pyjama look in The Single Standard, another item that caused a sensation, and one that intentionally called to mind men’s pyjamas (another striped pyjama outfit will make again an appearance in Susan Lenox, Her Fall and Rise, two years later). Arden wears this piece after she parts with her lover, when she no longer wears his clothes, thus making it clear that she has always preferred a modern, boyish style of dressing.

It was Adrian, with the help of Garbo’s star persona, who made pyjama lounging suits popular, transforming them from European boudoir and beachwear to multi-functional dress, further notes Christian Esquevin. When he dressed Garbo in velvet evening pyjamas in Inspiration, he foresaw that “due to the pyjama craze, I am certain women will adopt trousers for formal evening wear within the next year or two,” revealing that what he was trying “to create for the screen are ultra modern clothes which will be adaptable for the street.” In the promotion catalogue for Wild Orchids, 1929, where in one scene she appears in a safari-inspired costume, Greta Garbo encourages women to show restraint in adopting eccentric dressing and to channel their interest instead towards sports clothes, which she finds modern and elegant. “And the loveliest thing,” she adds, “is that sports wear can be worn all day long. It can be seen at formal dinners and in tea rooms.” In Adrian, Garbo found the perfect ally to popularise her style philosophy on-screen, too.

 

Left: Greta Garbo in “The Single Standard”, 1929 | Right: Adrian and Greta Garbo in her pyjama suit on the set
Photos: James Manatt, MGM

 
 

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