STARS AND THEIR STYLE HAVE BEEN A PART OF WOMEN’S WEAR FROM HOLLYWOOD’S EARLY DAYS TO THE MOST RECENT RED CARPET STROLL.
Byline: Merle Ginsberg
“Movies have given women in America courage — courage to look not only attractive, but to dramatize themselves a tiny bit,” said legendary Hollywood designer Adrian during a Fashion Group lunch in February 1934 to an audience that included actress and hostess Elsa Maxwell, milliner Lilly Dache and a WWD reporter.
Adrian knew the impact of Hollywood style was enormous, whether it was larger-than-life glamorous, gaminely chic or even downright tacky — and so did WWD, from the early days when reporters simply chronicled the stars’ outfits up to the sometimes scathing fashion critiques that follow today’s awards shows.
Coverage often took a commercial slant, as befits a trade publication. Following Vivien Leigh’s Oscar for her Scarlett O’Hara in 1940, a headline read: “Gone With the Wind gets Academy Award; Merits Another for Inspiration in Fashions.”
In more recent decades, the stars themselves came front and center. Starting in the Sixties, the paper focused sharply on anyone it thought interesting, attractive and important: a newly married Jane Fonda in 1967, an ageless Jeanne Moreau in 1982, a model-turned-actress named Cameron Diaz in 1994.
The Academy Awards have provided reams of copy. Recent examples: Demi Moore’s bike shorts, Sharon Stone’s Gap turtleneck, Gwyneth Paltrow’s pink Ralph Lauren ballgown. Critiquing Oscar fashions has become a global sport. And as WWD’s coverage reveals, when everybody else was asking, “Are you excited to be nominated?” our reporters wanted to know, “What are you wearing?”
IN THE BEGINNING
In the Twenties, the public’s fascination with stars was born as movies began to replace radio as America’s key form of entertainment. In August 1926, WWD reported that “the long-awaited presentation of Warner Bros.’ new picture, Don Juan, with John Barrymore as star, took place last night before an invited audience that included everybody who was anybody in drama, screen and literary circles.” On Oct. 7, 1927, the film version of The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson, was reviewed as the first film that used “the vitaphone” to full effect — making it essentially the first film with a soundtrack. Jolson, present at the premiere, shed tears of joy over the picture’s reception.
By 1927, a million Americans a week were flocking to the cinema, and WWD appropriately stepped up its coverage of the nation’s new royalty by publishing quick descriptions, by sketch or photo, of the stars’ fashion finery: Gloria Swanson, whose ermine cape in The Trespasser sparked a new trend; Pola Negri, who was married, quite stylishly, in a Jeanne Lanvin wedding gown, and Mary Pickford, who greeted fans in “a neat tan tailleur with little checked vest and collar.” Louise Brooks’s “Lulu bob” from the 1928 film Pandora’s Box kicked off Hollywood’s setting of beauty trends for decades to come.
“Greta Garbo Wears an Organdie Frock,” read WWD’s headline on June 3, 1932, showing Garbo’s dress from the premiere of As You Desire Me.
Even child star Shirley Temple became something of a fashion icon. On March 13, 1936, WWD ran three outfits she wore in the film Poor Little Rich Girl, when she was eight years old.
Celebrities, of course, have always been a flash point for any fashion scandal. In February 1933, the nationwide debate about women wearing pants hit Hollywood when Warner Bros. studio head Jack Warner told its cadre of contracted ladies, including Bette Davis, Joan Blondell and Ruth Chatterton, that their contracts could be broken if they sported trousers.
In the Fifties, WWD started silhouetting one or two specific outfits from current films that it thought could influence popular taste and, consequently, what stores would order. In 1956, the paper featured a lilac tweed suit for Lauren Bacall designed by Helen Rose for Designing Woman. Highlighted from Anastasia were the elaborate gowns worn by Ingrid Bergman, including one by Balenciaga. In 1957, the outrageous hats by Lilly Dache and lavish furs designed by Travis Banton worn by Rosalind Russell in the stage version of Auntie Mame were shown in sketch form. And the same year, WWD announced that “practically every major motion picture studio in Hollywood is working on one or more stories of the 1920-1930 era, the current area of fashion influence.” In 1958, Hubert de Givenchy was credited with creating chic Gallic looks for Jean Seberg and Deborah Kerr in Bonjour Tristesse. The small-waisted, short-sleeved dresses worn by Suzy Parker, Hope Lange and Diane Baker in 1959’s The Best of Everything were shown as an example of the fashions of the day.
THE PERIOD PIECE
Designers and retailers alike felt it when Hollywood resurrected the past. Vivien Leigh’s hoop skirts, Marlene Dietrich’s Victorian wardrobe for the 1933 The Song of Songs and Katharine Hepburn’s Walker Plunkett-designed wardrobe in the 1936 Mary, Queen of Scots all had commercial impact. “Mr. Plunkett believes that this jacket is one of the costumes in the picture which have possibilities for modern adaptations,” reported WWD.
THE MINIATURE SILVER SCREEN
Hollywood expanded its definition in the mid-Fifties as TV began to infiltrate the American home, and the paper began to write about its impact. “When color TV becomes a regular household fixture, which won’t be long, it will be the greatest force in selling fashion,” said costume designer Paul DuPont, who designed for Judy Holliday, Imogene Coca and Ann Sothern, in a 1955 interview. “Color TV makes the actress look younger and prettier, and every viewer will yearn to look like her favorite TV character.”
At the close of the decade, TV’s impact on fashion became evident. On Oct. 1, 1959, WWD paired a story on “Preview of Dinah Shore’s TV Fashion” — showing the snappy talk show host in looks from gowns to ruffled dresses, with “Fashion Is Key to Rosalind Russell TV Special,” a report on the sophisticated Orry Kelly looks for the star to wear in a 90-minute fashion retrospective that was going to be aired on NBC.
The big-name French designers made an occasional stab at Hollywood in the movies’ first few decades; Chanel, most notably, was supposedly headed for the big screen when she closed her house at the start of World War II. But the Paris-Hollywood connection didn’t really heat up until Audrey Hepburn’s famous collaboration with Hubert de Givenchy. “Slim clothes with softening details at necklines predominate in models from the current Givenchy collection chosen by Audrey Hepburn for Funny Face,” the paper said in 1956.
In the succeeding years, Hepburn expanded her repertoire. In April 1990, she wore Ralph Lauren for the PBS series “Gardens of the World,” which wouldn’t air until the following year. “I’ve worn Ralph’s clothes forever,” Hepburn told WWD. “This is nothing new for me. It’s having the best of both worlds, Hubert and Ralph. You don’t top that. I don’t want to compare them. I just want to wear them.”
High-living glam didn’t sit right during World War II, so celebrities toned it down in their own way. As elaborate European fabrics became harder to get, Hollywood beauties like Jane Russell, Lana Turner, Rita Hayworth and Betty Grable used their figures more than furs, gowns and jewels to get attention. “We had to hold to stark realism,” said legendary costume designer Edith Head, and suddenly all-American cloth, less glitz and pinups in shorts became the rage. Hence the “sweater girls” and the rise of actresses with good gams. “Sweater Silhouette” read a headline on Oct.19, 1943.
With fur in short supply, the stole was born and became the wrap of choice. On Sept.1, 1943, the paper pronounced “The Rich Look of Fur Stoles Over Slim Silhouettes,” shown on the stars of For Whom the Bell Tolls, and slung over the gold brocade dinner suit of actress Ann Sheridan at a Warner Bros. premiere.
In the Fifties, the paper ran numerous images of Grace Kelly’s cool blond chic. In 1955 alone, the paper showed her in an Adele Simpson black-and-white lace gown, a pale blue satin Edith Head Oscar gown and her wardrobe from To Catch a Thief. The next year, she ordered four fur jackets for herself from Ritter Bros. for delivery to her new home: Monaco. “She has a fresh type of natural glamour that personifies a typically American look; a well-scrubbed elegance at home in tweeds or ballgowns,” the newspaper reported.
As audiences became more familiar with the stars, so did WWD.
“Marilyn Monroe Newest Advocate of Chemise Dress,” ran an item with a sketch in 1958, referring to the new “sack dresses” that had no waistlines. “Marilyn’s just crazy about the chemise look,” said designer John Moore. And “Liz Taylor Chooses Green Chiffon Wedding Dress,” was the headline on May 11, 1959, about La Liz’s wedding to Eddie Fisher in Las Vegas. The Jean Louis dress, moss green over yellow chiffon, wasn’t Taylor’s first wedding gown — nor would it be her last.
The paper paid even more attention to celebrities in the Sixties. From the new crop of enigmatic ingenues like Jean Seberg and the Redgrave sisters to sultry starlet Brigitte Bardot, the paper fed its readers’ growing taste for every detail of a star’s life, including, but not limited to, fashion.
L.A. bureau chief Jody Jacobs took a walk on a Malibu beach with Jane Fonda Vadim and her friend Vanessa Redgrave in January 1967. Fonda had just finished shooting Barefoot in the Park and was prepping Barbarella with her new husband, Roger Vadim. Was it hard for an American to adjust to marriage to a European, Jacobs asked. “Actually, adjusting to marriage is hard enough,” said Jane. “Vadim is easy to be married to.”
“Are you difficult?” the paper asked Judy Garland in 1971. Garland, vodka and tonic in hand, replied: “Don’t you think that’s a bit boring? It’s really out of style.”
WWD visited Katharine Hepburn several times in the Sixties. In 1968, on the set of the The Lion in Winter, she parried a reporter’s question about her penchant for pants by saying: “I wear slacks because I like them. If I had a skirt and low-heeled shoes, which I prefer, I look deformed. I know my deformities — but I’d be dumb to name them.”
But the next year, when Coco Chanel chose Hepburn to portray her on stage in the musical Coco, WWD reported that the actress broke down and ordered four of the designer’s dresses.
“Brigitte Bardot is Brigitte Bardot,” wrote Claude de Leusse from the Paris bureau after an interview with her in 1965. “If she did not exist, one should have to invent her. She has a kittenish natural grace that fascinates. She is pure instinct.”
There was one star no one could get close to, but WWD managed to find Greta Garbo several times on the street, getting pictures of her despite her attempts at escape. “Facial tissue obscured the fabulous face,” the paper said after one successful snap on April 6, 1972, “but there was no mistaking the eyes. They could only belong in Greta Garbo.”
In 1982, Jeanne Moreau said: “Age is no difference to me. All my lovers are young. I don’t decide — they come to me. There are some human graces that don’t have anything to do with age.”
AND THE AWARD GOES TO…
The paper covered the Academy Awards from the Thirties, but only started to gauge their fashion impact in the mid-Fifties, praising, for example, Liz Taylor’s Irene honey-colored chiffon in 1957, Zsa Zsa Gabor’s black chiffon Elizabeth Arden with white satin banding in 1958 and Rosalind Russell’s Orry Kelly blue bugle-beaded ensemble in 1959.
Before designers, stylists and makeup artists realized they could hitch their careers to the red carpet, the choice of Academy Awards attire was overshadowed by who actually won. It was a rare moment — Barbra Streisand’s transparent Scaasi in 1969 or one of Cher’s loopy Bob Mackie ensembles, the Gothic black crow two-piece in 1986, for example — when fashion took precedence.
That all changed in the Eighties, culminating with looks like Demi Moore’s much-flogged bicycle shorts ensemble in 1989 or Kim Basinger’s homemade one-sleeve dress a year later.
After taking a beating, the stars retreated to a safe haven, whose name was Giorgio Armani. A page-one photo in March 1990 showed an Oscar statuette with Armani’s head superimposed on it. The Italian designer made it easy for actresses to go back onto the carpet, and soon he was dressing Hollywood’s top tier, including men: Michelle Pfeiffer, Jessica Lange, Jodie Foster, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Denzel Washington, Andy Garcia, Jeremy Irons and Billy Crystal were some who wore his label. But where one designer goes, others soon followed, and over the next few years, Gianni Versace, Valentino and even Prada scored — the latter with a knockout violet chiffon ensemble on a glowing Uma Thurman in 1995.
It all got a little too tasteful, in fact, for WWD. “The lack of bad taste cast a bland pallor over the parade of surprisingly subdued gowns grazing the red carpet,” the newspaper opined in April 1992, despite the presence of Geena Davis’s high-low white ruffled gown. The minimalist parade at the next year’s show garnered the dismissive headline, “Call of the Mild.”
At least there was Sharon Stone; in 1996, she wore a Gap turtleneck with $500,000 worth of Van Cleef & Arpels diamond earrings at the Oscars and a Ralph Lauren blanket as a wrap to the Golden Globes. “Sharon Stone loves clothes and wears them beautifully and proud,” said Vera Wang, who dressed the actress. “She wears them like Joan Crawford, Lauren Bacall and Audrey Hepburn used to.”
By then, there were at least a half dozen other high-profile fashion occasions competing for international attention: the Golden Globes, the VH1 Fashion Awards and MTV’s various awards shows, among them. And designers were becoming keenly aware of the benefit of star dressing.
“It was a battle of the Hollywood super vixens versus the European sylphs,” reported WWD at the 1997 Golden Globes; Madonna poured out of her Dolce & Gabbana bra gown, Patricia Arquette held forth in an eye-popping Herve Leger, and Melanie Griffith snagged a Versace couture right off the previous day’s runway. That year, Nicole Kidman put John Galliano (for Christian Dior) in a new league by sporting his chartreuse couture sheath to the Oscars.
WWD instituted expanded Oscar coverage in 1999: a full section that appeared the Monday morning after the Oscars and that would become a yearly event. Gwyneth Paltrow landed page one in her pink Grace Kelly-esque Ralph Lauren princess gown, Cate Blanchett made fashion history in her Galliano sheer gown with butterfly embroidery, and “thank God for Celine Dion,” waxed WWD. “Her backward Dior suit was so misguided, some thought it should have gone down on the Titanic, but she sure showed courage.” The paper also documented Oscar jewelry, Oscar tailors and all the pre-parties that went on for a full week before the big event.
Not every celebrity has gone tame: In 2000, Courtney Love took up the cause of questionable taste by wearing a Christian Dior from Galliano’s infamous Hobo couture collection. The slashed-just-so dress bared almost too much, but Love had taken the precaution of trimming off the dead mice and tiny beer cans, “in the name of good taste.”
It was Julia Roberts, 13 years after WWD first interviewed her, who stole the 2001 Academy Awards, in a vintage Valentino dress trimmed with ribbon. But winner Marcia Gay Harden brought glamour full circle last March, as she assumed just the right Forties-esque pose to flatter her Randolph Duke satin dress. “I have to admit,” said Harden, “It’s all about Ava Gardner.”