HER OWN WOMAN: Without question, Marlene Dietrich’s popularity has stood the test of time. Now her transgressiveness, self-styled photo shoots, strong mindedness and unmistakable fashion sense are the subject of a Flammarion-published book, “Obsession Marlene Dietrich.”
In a Q&A with coauthor Jean-Henry Servat, Parisian gallery owner Pierre Passebon said Dietrich “invented, disseminated and popularized” the concept of wearing men’s clothes in a very feminine way.” She made a habit of wearing tuxedos and other men’s wear on screen and inadvertently became the muse for Yves Saint Laurent’s “Le Smoking” decades later. The daughter of a military man, she was partial to military uniforms and gold-braided caps, envisioning of her wardrobe in terms of uniforms rather than costumes. Passebon noted that she “never looked like she had had a fight with her outfits, unlike some other actresses.”
Notoriously private, the German-born actress and singer had a film career that spanned 60 years as well an extensive stage and cabaret one. Featuring images from Passebon’s personal collection, the compact book presents photos of the film star shot by Edward Steichen, Irving Penn, Cecil Beaton, George Hurrell and others. Dietrich is also the subject of two museum exhibitions — “Marlene Dietrich: Dressed for the Image” at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. through April 5 and another at Maison Europeenne de la Photographie in Paris through this month. Hollywood’s quintessential femme fatale died in 1992 at age 90. Serious fans will find a substantial amount of her extensive archives on view in “Marlene Dietrich 1901-1992” at the Deutsche Kinemathek in Berlin.
An unflinching image maker, Dietrich said in a 1960 interview, “I dress for the image. Not for myself, not for the public, not for fashion, not for men. If I dressed for myself, I wouldn’t bother at all. Clothes bore me. I’d wear jeans. I adore jeans. I get them in a public store — men’s, of course; I can’t wear women’s trousers.” The actress “adored” her friend Madame Grès, but the same could not be said of Coco Chanel, according to Passebon. When dressed by Chanel, she “flatly refused” to see the company’s namesake due to “how she behaved with the Germans during World War II,” he said. When German Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels invited her to return to Germany, she refused.
Her time in Berlin nightclubs inspired her years after she had fled to the U.S. Dietrich learned the artistry of lighting and costume from director Josef von Sternberg, who discovered her and featured her in six films. (He used butterfly lighting for her in “Shanghai Express.”) Not the easiest subject for a photo shoot, Dietrich “had it all worked out, oversaw every detail, organized everything….She refused to do any poses that didn’t appeal to her, and she generally laid down the law,” Passebon said. So much so, that she often took the photos herself.
Her transformation from a curvaceous European actress to a more willowy California one happened by design. In between shooting “Blue Angel” in Germany and her first Hollywood film, “Morocco,” Sternberg slimmed her down, putting her on a diet “that she followed to the letter,” according to Passebon.
A quick change artist on set, Dietrich was inventive, too, sewing bras into dresses to improve her range of movement. For her last concert tour, she decided on a long white coat of ultralight swansdown — a dramatic fashion statement that actually hung lightly on her shoulders. Dietrich once said, “All my life I have represented glamor in a milieu that was anything but glamorous. People come not to see me, but to look at me.”