5 Different Costume Interpretations of the…1920s

After the release of The Great Gatsby (yes, it was a fair while ago) I started thinking about the way eras are viewed by different periods. For example, Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby has a number of visual differences from Jack Clayton’s The Great Gatsby even though they are both set in the ‘20s and, ostensibly, the same place and characters. Every period film is released as an interpretation of that era and these interpretations can be widely different. Here are five varying interpretations:

[Just an advance warning, spoilers may abound for these films. If you don’t want to be spoiled for one of the films just scroll past!]

Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

Directors: Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly

Costume Designer: Walter Plunkett

Singin' in the Rain

The height of the fur collars on the coats here perfectly sum up the ’20s – but one example of the fashions taken to extreme levels?

This has to be one of the most iconic films ever and for good reason. But when you look at the costumes they do seem to take an interesting view of the 1920s. The colours used in the film are much more fitting with the idea of a ‘50s musical than a period perfect ’20s film. That’s not to say that the aspects of the costumes weren’t right – just that everything was turned up to 11.

Singin' in the Rain

Here, Debbie Reynolds’ dress shows a number of ’20s styles: the dropped waist, the full pleated skirt, the geometric design, but my favourite is the use of wool for the top. This reflects the men’s knitted tank top fashion; and these were worn by Donald O’Connor and Gene Kelly at points in the film.

Singin' in the Rain

Here we see the boys wearing knitted jumpers with high-waisted trousers. Very ’20s. Especially when you look at the length of the jumpers – the trousers need to be high-waisted to prevent any odd shirt reveal. The one thing that is noticeable in these photos is the true ’50s influence on the costumes – Kelly’s shirt collar width.

Singin' in the Rain

O’Connor again wearing a double-breasted waistcoat but here you can also see a watch chain.

This image shows more clearly the different in shirt collar widths between O’Connor and Kelly. O’Connor’s are a little too slim for the era but they suit him more at this width, while Kelly’s are vastly exaggerated for both the ’50s and the ’20s – they look more suited to John Travolta’s shirts in Saturday Night Fever… They’re both still wearing high-waisted trousers but Kelly’s costume is playing up much more to the golfer of the ’20s – the diamond knitted umper with very wide plus fours. This is from the “flashback” in the photo so Kelly’s costumes have moved on in the film yet O’Connor’s style remains pretty much the same. As does the eccentric director Roscoe Dexter (Douglas Fowley).

Singin' in the Rain

Then we come to the true ’50s musical section of the film. This is the extreme Hollywood view of the ’20s. From the cartoonish colours of Kelly’s first suit (plaids are still in keeping with the ’20s though), to Cyd Charisse’s low-cut, fitted super short fringed emerald green dress (obviously to allow for dance movement) to the extras. Every extra is wearing a heightened impression of ’20s fashion. Be the suits wildly patterned or the dresses too fitted, too short or with too much fringing. But why does this section work? Because it is set as the musical sequence within the film within Singin’ in the Rain. It is almost a dream sequence – anything goes.

Some Like it Hot (1959)

Director: Billy Wilder

Costume Designer: Orry-Kelly

Best Costume Design, Black-and-White

Some Like it Hot

The first view of our two male leads is in tuxedos playing at a speakeasy. Both are wearing wing collar shirts with bow ties and shirt studs. The nature of the lighting here means we can’t see the lapels that clearly but you can just make out Jack Lemmon’s lapels. They’re satin and fairly wide – ’20s wide, not ’50s wide. So far, so “accurate”.

Some Like it Hot

Then Marilyn Monroe enters the picture. Looking back at Curtis and Lemmon here, we can see dropped waists and limited decoration. Their dresses both have long sleeves as a way of covering up their manly arms and always wearing gloves. But along with that their dresses have a satin sheen to them that catches the light – not unlike Monroe’s. That’s where the similarities end though. Monroe’s dress is shorter but still just about ’20s length. It’s the rest of the fit that doesn’t match the ’20s style. The impression of a dropped waist may be given but the dress is fitted to show off her hourglass shape. And that neckline definitely wouldn’t be seen in the ’20s. These are changes that have been made for the actress’s shape and for the expectation of the audience. Sugar needs to look irresistible. The ’20s dresses aren’t the most flattering cut and wouldn’t really have suited Monroe.

Some Like it Hot

Then we come to THIS dress of Monroe’s. Definitely not ’20s. This is super sexy for the ’50s let alone thirty years earlier. The sequins barely cover her…modesty, the dress is fully fitted and also is mostly made of a powernet type material (commonly used for ballet costumes and other dancewear). The authentic ’20s aspects are the length, the dangly nature of some of the embroidery and the use of a fur stole. (Although how Sugar could afford that is beyond me.) Curtis as Joe as Junior looks much more the part (not even intended as a pun). Although, suspension of disbelief that Beinstock’s double-breasted jacket would fit Joe.

Some Like It Hot

This image shows some of the beautiful detailing on Curtis and Lemmon’s custom made dresses – ’20s female costumes just wouldn’t fit their shapes. The slightly fusty details at Curtis’ neckline is a great contrast to the eternally low necklines of Monroe. Lemmon’s neckline is simpler because he has a…more manly(?) neck. Curtis’s neck looks a little more feminine so the neck detailing can play off better and less obviously.

Some Like it Hot

Monroe’s final dress has much of a similar cut to the silver dress from earlier (their backs are different and can be seen here but for arguments sake, they are similar). The body fit is similar as is much of the style of embroidery but here, there is no imagination that the dress is held up on its own. The black beading is along all of the neckline so there is no guessing involved – the power net is there! The embroidery is used across all seams and then sparsely across the skirt with some beading fringing.

Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967)

Director: George Roy Hill

Costume Designer: Jean Louis

Nominated for Best Costume Design

Thoroughly Modern Millie Thoroughly Modern Millie has a brilliant opening number that attempts to show all the fashion changes of the ’20s in about 3 minutes.

You start with the haircut (also meaning that Julie Andrews looks like Julie Andrews), then there’s the dress, then the underwear to get the desirable flat shape (your pearls need to lie flat) and then the cigarettes… This is a mass generalisation of the ’20s, obviously, and it doesn’t show the social and political changes that went into these fashion changes but it sets the film up (and the character of Millie) exactly where she needs to be. The first costume has all the markings of the ’20s fashion (dropped waist, pleated skirt) but it still seems…more fitting with the Singin’ in the Rain idea of the ’20s. As we’re entering another musical, and a rather…fantastical (?) one at that, this seems completely acceptable.

Thoroughly Modern Millie

Here we see the collected cast and the different interpretations of the ’20s – this is where Millie comes into its own. Miss Dorothy has the look and feel of old money. Her dress is beautifully cut with a classic drape and the soft colours are subtle – she doesn’t need her clothing to stand out. When she is next to Millie their differences seem fairly clear – Millie is trying to emulate the ’20s too much. She is the ’60s view of the ’20s that has been emphasised since the ’50s view in Singin’ in the Rain. And also, because the film is firmly in the world of musical everything is heightened anyway. Muzzy’s costume is interesting because she has clear similarities to Miss Dorothy (that wealth, even if Muzzy isn’t technically ‘old money’ herself) but her clothing (in this image at least) also reflect the past. Unlike Millie she isn’t rushing to the future and trying to change her entire personality. Muzzy is Muzzy and that’s enough for her.

Thoroughly Modern Millie

This is the true stern look of the ’20s in Millie – sharp lines in monochrome colours with just the red flower for colour. No red lipstick, the black of the dress, bag, hat, scarf and eyeliner are the pulls. It’s all about the eyes. This costume is worn when Millie is determined to take control over her life. To be the confident, independent woman of the ’20s that she is determined to be she needs to look the part. In the only way she knows how.Thoroughly Modern Millie

And for contrast here we have Jimmy in Millie’s dress. Fits quite well doesn’t it?

Chicago (2002)

Director: Rob Marshall

Costume Designer: Colleen Atwood

Best Costume Design

Chicago

So far all of the films that I’ve looked at set in the ’20s are musicals. It just turned out that way – it wasn’t planned! Chicago, however, is the only film that started as a stage musical and not the other way around. (Well, the history of Chicago is a bit more complicated than that but that’s the gist.) What does this mean? It means that a high level of theatricality existed for the story before filming began.

“The designs were based on quite a lot of research of the period, with a nod toward what a movie musical is, somewhat filtered through the eyes of today,” Atwood explains. “We wanted it accessible to the audience of today. If we‘d gone strictly with the ‘20s, the movement would have been impaired. The costumes had to serve the choreography.”

Chicago

The two costumes worn by Catherine Zeta-Jones above (for All That Jazz and Cell Block Tango) are definitely a sexualised, theatrical interpretation of the ’20s and particularly the ’20s nightclub scene. In the context of the film these two musical numbers also exist in different locations: All That Jazz being real and Cell Block Tango being in Roxie’s “dream world”. The real number is more of a show-stopping number full of fringing, beads and sequins. This is Velma’s workplace and the sexier she is, the bigger the audience and the more money she can command. That number also comes before her arrest and marks her first solo performance – all eyes on her rather than split with her sister. The fringed skirt (like Charisse’s in Singin’ in the Rain) allows for freedom of movement but also catches the light. Comparing the costume with Charisse’s you can see the modern eyes because this costume in the ’50s would have been scandalous but, here, it isn’t the most revealing. The Cell Block Tango costume is in a way toned down due to the simple decoration (she is in prison) but the closer connection to underwear means that it is even more sexualised than the previous costume. This costume also plays into the contradiction of the victim role that Velma is trying to portray.

Chicago

Another example of Roxie’s fantasy world view. Not only are the showgirls obviously a creation of her mind but even Billy’s suit. This one has pinstripes of red glitter – just enough sparkle to play off the showgirls costumes and catch the light. The jury are the “audience” members, along with Roxie herself, so Billy needs to clearly be part of the “show”. It’s the same style and cut of suit that he normally wears with only slight changes that make him fit in that world. This is again against the traditional ’20s outook. A man in the ’20s would never wear a suit with red glittery pinstripes but this is a musical number taking part in the lead character’s mind.

Chicago

We now have a view of the real world – or as real as it gets in Chicago. Roxie has been playing up for the cameras and has secured herself hair dye, hair styling and a new dress. The dress itself is in a similar tone to the grey prison dresses – enough for her to stand out without being seen as too different. She is currently top dog and this needs to be reflected visually. The dress itself is a great example of ’20s draping, it wouldn’t look out of place in the early ’30s either… From the way the light hits the fabric and it flows over her arms and legs you can see the quality of the fabric.  Another side-step from true “prison attire”. Billy, on the other hand, has his three-piece suit sans jacket (and sans glitter) with noticeably large cuffinks and a pinky ring like the one Joe wears in Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. His shirt collar seems to be an acceptable width – not comedy width like Gene Kelly’s but also not too slim and “modern”.

Chicago

Now we have the epitome of Roxie’s dreamworld, and yet, this doesn’t scream out ’20s to a modern audience. The men in tuxedos are a classic look that mostly remains timeless. Roxie’s costume on the other hand would be scandalous in the ’20s. In the world of Chicago this seems perfectly acceptable and fits in with the circus/ballet costume world that Atwood has already created. For this sexy number (Roxie) it would be inconceivable to use an “authentic” ’20s costume. For modern eyes this would look ridiculous and take you out of the action more than an “inaccurate” costume does. Costume is there to facilitate storytelling and this is what Chicago achieves.

Midnight in Paris (2011)

Director: Woody Allen

Costume Designer: Sonia Grande

Midnight in Paris

Midnight in Paris could be seen to be similar to Chicago in the idea of a “dream world” as the film is showing a romanticised view of the ’20s as seen through the eyes of Gil. It is a very different dream world to that of Roxie’s but both are seeing what they want to see – with Gil it means seeing the influential artists of the time. One of the first characters within Gil’s story that we meet is Adriana. Her first costume is true flapper glamour. Black, dropped-waist, knee-length, embroidered and styled with a headband. She is Gil’s first real connection with his romanticised world and she is also the audience’s entrance. She needs to be “believable” as from the ’20s. To be believable as a muse for all the talented artists of the era.

Midnight in Paris

Then we meet Ernest Hemingway (here with Juan Belmonte the bullfighter). Hemingway’s costume is not too dissimilar to Gil’s. Gil has to have a classic look so that although he stands out in this world he doesn’t look ridiculous. Hemingway’s costume is a basic white shirt (with only a slightly wider collar than Gil’s) with a suit jacket. He has no noticeably “period” accessories. From what we know of Hemingway he just wanted to write, drink and fight. He lived life to extremes but none of these extremes would’ve been concerned with his clothing. Contrast his look with Belmonte’s (who looks exceedingly smart). Neither would look particularly out of place in the contemporary world. We are accepting Gil’s meeting with Hemingway, you wouldn’t want to push the audience’s acceptance levels too far.

Midnight in Paris

Here we see another of Adriana’s dresses but this is much more of a day dress. As with Hemingway’s costume, a modern audience wouldn’t be completely distracted by her dress. The ’20s silhouette is visible (along with the accessories) but this dress wouldn’t be out of place on the high street today. You can then look past her costume and appreciate her bond with Gil – to be fully immersed in their relationship rather than her different time period.

Midnight in Paris

Then we have the ’20s party atmosphere. Here is another flapper dress for Adriana but in a softer tone – she is no longer stuck with Pablo Picasso and his moods. Her dresses have been getting softer in colour and generally lighter. This dress signifies the development of her character and also culminates in her decision to remain in La Belle Époque. Her romanticised view of perfection, The draped fringing on her dress reflects the curtains that surround the Moulin Rouge. Adriana’s costume must serve that nostalgic/timeless quality that Gil’s has.

Midnight in Paris

And I couldn’t talk about Midnight in Paris without referencing the Fitzgerald’s – the height of glamour in the ’20s. The costumes for Zelda and Scott are the true visual markers of the ’20s. As we meet them having already met Picasso, Hemingway, Cole Porter and Gertrude Stein the audience is more willing to accept the ’20s era. It would be unthinkable to have the Fitzgerald’s look too modern. But, having said that, this is a couple that were at the height of fashion, style and trends. This is the couple that the ’20s aspired to look like. Zelda is in a classic ’20s dress but highly embroidered and embellished. This is old money and she is the true Daisy Buchanan. Scott is relishing the success of his novels and looks the perfect ’20s host in a three-piece suit with a double-breasted waistcoat. The light colours showing wealth and making him seem open and welcoming. Along with Hemingway, he is Gil’s ideal; a successful, well-regarded author. The two go about it in different ways but they are Gil’s heroes.

So those are just a smattering of films set in the ’20s filmed in the ’50s until very recently. The Great Gatsby was the most recent interpretation of the ’20s (and bear in mind that that’s Baz Luhrmann’s interpretation of the ’20s) but we’ll see what comes up next…

[Update: I’ve just remembered another film set in the ’20s with an interesting interpretation of the era – The Cat’s Meow. I didn’t include it within these five because I talked about the costumes here but thought I should mention it now!]

S x

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6 thoughts on “5 Different Costume Interpretations of the…1920s

  1. Pingback: Costume Stories: This Week, Look of Love and Man of Steel |

  2. Pingback: Substance Over Style: the June edition | Girls Do Film

    • Thank you! I’m planning on continuing the series but it’s quite a long process and involves a lot of re-watching films! That’s the reason I’ve only done the ’20s and ’40s so far!
      S x

  3. Pingback: 1920 s movie director costumes | Kuplux's

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