Part 2: Hollywood and the Rise of American Fashion

‘Fashion observers for Apparel Arts have spent many months in London in the places where well-dressed Englishmen congregate . . . and they have brought this fashion to America for its first appearance.’ – Apparel Arts, Winter 1936-6[1]   ‘I only play myself, but I play it to perfection.’ – Cary Grant[2]   There are several oft-cited major influences on men’s fashion: sport (especially of the equestrian variety), military uniform, and the standards set by royalty and aristocracy are probably the three most commonly acknowledged—“But seldom has it been noted what a significant effect films have had on male dress.”[3] This is true especially when it comes to the development of American fashion as something unique and separate from the English styles we originally attempted to imitate. Americans of the 1920s and ‘30s could watch the Duke of Windsor, say, in all his fashion-setting charisma. However, there was a notable separation different from interactions (or, rather, reactions) between Edward VIII and his subjects. Further, most Americans—especially during the Depression—simply didn’t have access to London’s Savile Row bespoke attire. What they did have, though, was cinema: a chance to watch fashionable men, to learn about fashion, and to try to mimic it when possible. In addition to providing role models, though, the movies taught us something else, something extremely important, about style and clothing:

“Interestingly enough, it is in great measure because of the movies that we come to the understanding that clothing is in fact costume, an aid to role-playing in our lives. Just like actors, we dress a certain way to play a certain part in our lives; and if we stick to these clothes diligently enough they become a uniform, an easy means of identification. And identification by outward appearances—a means of form defining content—is the whole point of costume.”[4]

Especially—though not only!—during the Depression, it was hard to understand who one was; even harder to perform one’s proper role to expectations. Hollywood gave many Americans—including those with little else—a demonstration, even a crash course, in how not only to dress, but to be.  

1. The Americanization of London Fashions

According to Alan Flusser, the thirties marked the high-water point of American taste and fashion.[5] During this time, wealthy Americans had been able to expand their exposure to England and the rest of Europe and bring back not just new clothing, but style ideas as well. These wealthy Americans were concerned with their appearance on the global stage and paid close attention to menswear movers and shakers of the time—most notably, the Duke of Windsor. Those Americans who traveled to England and the continent included many Hollywood stars. Fred Astaire, for example, “appearing on stage in London for the first time in 1923, was paid a visit by the Prince of Wales, whose white evening waistcoat made an indelible impression on the dancer, so much so that he had a copy made in Jermyn Street.”[6] [caption id="attachment_150" align="aligncenter" width="252"] Fred Astaire has a love for fashion that went beyond showmanship.[/caption] The more familiar Americans became with London styles, and the more Americans began wearing their foreign-bought bespoke attire, the more American tailors worked to develop the London look into something unique. Very few American tailors managed to match the brilliant subtlety of Scholte’s English Blade cut. However, one London double-breasted fashion became increasingly popular in a slightly new version: a double-breasted jacket with four buttons rather than six and lapels that sloped all the way to the bottom button, lengthening the silhouette and deemphasizing the waist as compared with the classic Blade.[7] This new style (often referred to as the Windsor D.B., or double-breasted) illustrated “a good example of the compromise being forged … between appearance and ease, style and comfort.”[8] This style was quickly adopted by fashionable American men (the accompanying trousers even by the Duke of Windsor himself!), appreciating the loose, elegant, and natural-looking design. It was Hollywood, though, that was primarily responsible for popularizing this style (now known as the “American cut”) and teaching American men not only how to wear fashionable styles but also, in an important sense, to live fashionably.  

2. Movie Star as Fashion Icon, Role Model

[caption id="attachment_153" align="aligncenter" width="211"]371px-Grant,_Cary_(Suspicion)_01_Crisco_edit As popularity of cinema grew, celebrities like Cary Grant became more powerful role models.[/caption]   As noted, American men became more and more interested in clothing and style in the thirties. Thanks to the Depression, though, most didn’t have the access to the people or places (or clothes) to become fashionable themselves—and this is where cinema played an extraordinarily important role[9]:

with matters so tenuous in the real world, Americans in increasing numbers turned to the movies to provide themselves with an escape. Men as well as women flocked to movie theaters, where they watched film stars such as Fred Astaire, Clark Gable, Cary Grant, Adolphe Menjou, Gary Cooper, and the Fairbankses, Sr. and Jr., impeccably dressed in the most up-to-date fashions, parade fifty feet high in front of them … Finally, American men had role models at home to whom they could look in order to ‘learn’ how to dress properly.

The role of movie stars as fashion arbiters was even more authentic in the twenties and thirties than it is now: this is because most male leads (unlike their female counterparts) were expected to dress themselves for the camera—with the help of their tailors of course. This means that “actors dressed for the camera just as they did in everyday life.”[10] Thus, American audiences didn’t see carefully developed costume sets for certain characters; the actors themselves were the characters and the wardrobes were their personal styles. [caption id="attachment_151" align="alignleft" width="181"] Clark Gable was a fan of comfortable American formal wear styles.[/caption] Many actors continued to go to London for Savile Row bespoke suits (Fred Astaire was one, as mentioned previously). Cary Grant, for example, an English-born Hollywood star, exuded casual elegance through his immaculate Savile Row wardrobe.[11] Other stars, though, preferred—and as a result began to popularize—American styles. Clark Gable, for example, preferred the looser and less understated American cut offering “a boxy jacket with broad shoulders, wide lapels and roomy trousers. Coloured shirts, spectator shoes, a wide patterned tie and a snap-brimmed hat, preferably a Borsalino, became an iconic Hollywood look associated with the dandy gangster.”[12] The different styles and associated lifestyles demonstrated by different stars served as icons for American spectators looking both to fit in to fashionable society, and to present their individuality. Movie stars, who did just this but on the big screen, served as role models for different people inspired by different looks and lifestyles.  

3. The Influence of Film on Fashion

I’ve made broad generalizations so far, but it’s interesting as well to look at specific fashion trends influenced by particular movies or actors over the decades. The influence of film on fashion stretches back to the Jazz Age 1920s, when people like Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., John Gilbert, and Rudolph Valentino illustrated a new silhouette—graceful and slim, reacting significantly against the bulky, barrel-chested Victorian styles that had been popular previously.[13] In the thirties, young men stopped wearing undershirts after watching Clark Gable’s performance in It Happened One Night: it’s rumored that the year of the film’s release, US sales of undershirts plummeted by over 30%![14] (Luckily for undershirt manufacturers, their popularity returned with Marlon Brando’s performance in Streetcar and The Wild One.[15]) Contra Flusser’s claims about the thirties, Bruce Boyer insists that each of these swings in fashion led up to the forties, which “should be considered the high water mark of masculine fashion in Hollywood.”[16] And, depending on one’s favorite fashion moments of choice, there are arguments to be made for both sides. In either case, the influence of Hollywood across these decades paved the way for a unique American fashion (or fashions), inspired by but wholly separate from its English ancestry—more than a little bit like the US itself. Finally, it’s worth making one last point, given the focus of this guide: we tend to judge those actors considered to be the “most consummate of dressers”[17]—for example, Fred Astaire, Cary Grant, David Niven, and others with a similar polished yet unfussy approach—by their competence with formal wear. We admire actors who “demonstrated a dominance over formal attire”; those actors whose touchstone was “the ease with which they wore even the most restricting of outfits—the evening suit.”[18] In fact, I should end by quoting Boyer in full, as his analysis of Hollywood’s role in the evolution of formal wear itself (as well as our approach to it) is informative even now[19]: In fact, [these actors’] secret is more in aptitude than in outfit, and their appearances have a timeless quality of simplicity, taste, and moderation—amid a whirlpool of excess and flash seen elsewhere all the time. This blend of comfort and correctness became the clarion call of male attire during the difficult war years that preceded the casual revolution that began just afterwards. [1] Quoted in Chenoune, 181. [2] Quoted in Chenoune, 186. [3] Boyer, 126. [4] Ibid. [5] Flusser (1985), 3. [6] Blackman, 84. [7] Chenoune, 182. [8] Ibid. [9] Flusser (1985). 5. [10] Chenoune, 186. [11] Blackman, 84. [12] Ibid. [13] Boyer, 128. [14] Chenoune, 184. [15] Boyer, 128. [16] Boyer, 129. [17] Ibid. [18] Ibid. [19] Ibid.