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Couture on the Screen
The first films ever made were records of everyday events and were shot in the open air.
They were not unlike the first attempts of someone experimenting with one of today's 8 mm movie cameras and, because the filming had to be done outside, it is possible for us to know what ordinary people of the time really looked like - not as stiff figures in photographs, but as living, moving people. Before the advent of the cinema, the average woman could keep in touch with society fashions by studying newspapers, magazines or the limited number of fashion publications available. Probably the most accessible source of this information was the series of picture postcards of famous beauties.
When halls in every town and village were converted into cinemas, then high fashion could be seen by everyone. The cameras took audiences into the salons of exclusive dress designers and showed them the very latest fashions being paraded before them. It is slightly surprising that designers and rather exclusive dress shops were willing to allow this invasion of their privacy, as it could hardly have increased their clientele, but many fashion houses and shops, such as Liberty and Swan & Edgar, seemed only too pleased to co-operate with the film companies.
The earliest fashion film I have discovered was shown in London in February 1910, and was probably filmed at the end of 1909. It was called Fifty Years of Paris Fashions 1859 1909, and the trade paper, "The Bioscope," described it as showing:
"... magnificent examples of the art of the dressmaker and milliner, and a lady sitting in the picture theatre where this is being shown can imagine that she is in the showroom of a fashionable modiste with the mannequins walking round for her inspection ..."
So the invention of moving pictures brought high fashion to an even wider audience.
In 1911 the All-British Fashions Exhibition at Kensington Gore was recorded on film, and the following description of the event appeared in the Kinemacolor Film Catalogue of 1912:
"... remarkable as showing the styles of costume fashionable in the year of grace 1911, and also as proving that the skill of British designers is not so far behind that of our French cousins as is sometimes supposed. The film was secured in co-operation with Messrs.
Liberty & Co. and consists of photographs of mannequins parading in gowns of the latest, and sometimes ultra fashionable design. The harem skirt, the fashion sensation of the year finds a place in the array."
By 1910 newsreel companies such as Pathé and Gaumont were producing films that contained two or three subjects on each reel, and the footage showing the latest creations from Paris was a very small part of a film, running only a few minutes. However, at the end of 1911, Pathé decided to expand their coverage of the subject by producing a series of short films entirely devoted to forthcoming fashions. The review for the first of the series appeared in "The Bioscope" in October 1911:
"The delight with which the coloured fashions in Pathé's Animated Gazette have been viewed by thousands of feminine spectators every week has been the precursor of a frequently expressed desire for films giving a greater number of pictures showing the changes foreshadowed by Dame Fashion. To meet this desire and demand for fashion films, Messrs. Pathé are commencing a series showing the coming models from Paris.
The present one gives coloured pictures of hats, dinner gowns, tailor-made costumes, walking dresses, negligees and teagowns."
Even at this early date, "coloured pictures" were not a novelty. Early experiments in colour film have a strong bearing on fashion in the cinema. Such experiments date back to the infancy of films. The French pioneer, George Méliès, had a factory for hand-colouring each frame of his film. In the early part of this century, film-makers tried cheaper and quicker methods, sometimes tinting sections of the film with a colour wash, and producing in 1908 a process called Kinemacolor which gave a fairly good effect of colour by alternating green and red. The short interest films were very suitable for these colour experiments and a parade of the latest fashions was an ideal subject for a cinemagazine.
In those days feature films were very short, and the programme had to be filled out with four or five other items. In 1913 a very ambitious project was devised by an enterprising fashion journalist called Miss Abbey Meehan. In conjunction with the Natural Colour Kinematograph Co. she produced the Kinemacolor Fashion Gazette. The film played at the Scala Theatre in London (and also at several provincial theatres) in November 1913 and showed all the latest fashions, which were modelled by actresses and society ladies.
Miss Meehan managed to recruit as models the Princess Bariatinsky, Miss Joy Chatwyn, Miss Dorothy Minto, Miss Sybil de Bray, Miss Violet Essex, Miss June Ford, Miss Elsa Collins and Madame Bonita. The clothes were modelled in natural outdoor settings and there was a carefully chosen musical accompaniment for each gown. Several London West End and Parisian costumiers and milliners permitted their creations to be photographed, and one of the highlights was the appearance of the tango dress, shown by two dancers who gave an exhibition of London's newest dance craze.
This production was also shown at the "Evening News" Review of Fashion at the West End Cinema Theatre in Coventry Street. The "Evening News" invited a great many dressmakers and milliners, as well as celebrities, to the performance.
The great French designer, Paul Poiret, made a number of films in 1913, but I can find no evidence to show that they were ever released in Britain. He did, however, take some of his film footage over to the USA and was amazed to find his film seized by Customs and, after examination, declared obscene. All it showed was a few of the Poiret models parading in his garden in skirts that stopped just above the ankle. One of his films, Winter Fashion Show of Paris Styles, was registered with the Library of Congress in Washington in 1914. It may well have been that the Customs authorities changed their minds about allowing the film into the country, and that this was the allegedly obscene film.
When World War I started, newsreel companies obviously had more serious events to cover, although Pathé Animated Gazette were still showing news items from the Paris fashion world as late as 1915 with the slogan: "Despite the War, Paris still leads the world of dress". Europeans were too involved with the war effort to devote much time to fashion coverage but, as America did not enter the war until 1917, American film companies took over the fashion coverage. In 1915 a lady called Mrs Armstrong Whitney organised a fashion tour of the USA which included three shows at the Casino Theatre in New York.
While the tour was in New York, they went to the Peerless Fort Lee Studio (very near to New Jersey) and the event was captured on film by an enterprising producer called Jacob Wilk of World Film Productions. This differed from previous films by having a definite story line:
"An innocent miss fears that her fiance is being captured by an Indian princess so quite sensibly she decides to enhance her charms by wearing the most becoming costumes money can buy. In this way her uncertain lover is to be held. Visiting a society modiste she watches a parade of beautiful gowns and takes her pick. She chooses so wisely that her fiance forgets all about his Indian princess. Moral: 'Clothes make the woman'."
This description was taken from "The Moving Picture World", an American trade paper for the film industry. In this way, Mrs Whitney's fashion show could be seen in many more cities and, to get the maximum publicity, Mr Wilk arranged for a number of journalists to go to the studio and see the filming. The gowns were from Paris and were from Worth, Paquin etcetera, plus a few American designs.
Apart from the fashion news in the supporting programmes, filmgoers were often treated to a display of ultra fashionable gowns in early serials, as many stars from New York worked at the East Coast studios and would frequently provide dresses from their private wardrobes to use in film production.
During the late 'teens and '20s, every programme boasted such an attraction, starring a popular serial queen. Pearl White, though perhaps the best remembered, was only one of many actresses (their names quite forgotten today) who appeared in some extremely stylish outfits.
Pearl White, although American, was a frequent visitor to the Continent, especially France, and bought a lot of her clothes in Paris fashion houses. That the serial stars spent most of their screen time jumping along the tops of trains in jodhpurs and riding boots is a popular misconception. In 1915 another of the serial stars, Eleanor Woodruff, was engaged for a five-part film called Colton, USN, in which she played the part of a leader of fashion in Newport. The advance publicity was published in a magazine called "News of Photoplays and Photoplayer":
"Gowns valued at £10,000 and designed by M Maurice of Maison Maurice will be worn by Eleanor Woodruff in a New Vitagraph five-part feature. Miss Woodruff will pose so as to display the costumes to their best advantage. Those who have seen the collection describe them as exquisite creations and will include all necessary apparel from negligée to opera cloak."
Posing to show the costumes must have had a disastrous effect on Miss Woodruff's acting.
1916 saw a very curious experiment in serials. It was called The Adventures of Dorothy Dare and once again was made in the USA. Fashion films had started out by being simple displays of gowns, then progressed to a storyline built round the display. The Adventures of Dorothy Dare tried to combine a plot more suited to a feature film, with a series of fashionable outfits which were "described" in the title card. The plot is very difficult to believe. A young lady in the clutches of a villain is saved from a fate worse than death by the intrepid heroine, Dorothy Dare, and the victim's impecunious sweetheart. Much of the action took the form of a complicated car and train chase to save the victim. If a contemporary reviewer is to be believed, the action was stopped at intervals to describe the gowns. A rather caustic review of the film was written by Thomas C Kennedy who said that he was not much taken with any of the gowns, but supposed that this was the highest compliment the creations could possibly receive. I imagine that this idea of endeavouring to tell an exciting story while also describing the lavish gowns of the female players proved unsatisfactory, because it appears that no further Dorothy Dare stories were released.
In 1917 the American side of the Pathé company made a series of films called Florence Rose Fashions, which were directed by the fashion page editor of the "New York Evening Mail", Florence Rose. Thirty-one of these shorts were issued between 1916 and 1917 and these also have a simple storyline, but the series was promoted with far more care than any previous efforts.
The idea was to release a film every fortnight with a tie-up between a dozen of the leading American newspapers such as the "Chicago Daily News", the "Boston Traveller", "Pittsburgh Dispatch" etcetera, and articles appeared in the relevant papers for twelve days before the film was to be shown at the local cinema. The articles were written by Mrs Radnor-Lewis, formerly managing editor of "Harper's Bazaar", and were illustrated by Winifred I Messer. So, for the first time, the ordinary fashion-conscious woman in America could read the fashion page in her local paper and then go along to the cinema to see the styles modelled. The newspapers must have given all the details of where the reader could buy the clothes, because no advertising was done on the screen.
All clothes used in the Florence Rose Fashions films were American, and reference was constantly made to the manufacturers, not designers, so it seems that the clothes were more accessible than in the earlier examples of fashion films. The titles used at the beginning of the series indicate what sort of simple plots were used. The Beginning of the Social Season, Weekend House Party, Preparing For the South, A Day in New York With Betty etcetera, but the format must have changed slightly, because they began to release the films every week, and the titles of the later issues give the impression that the series had turned into the old formula for fashion newsreels. The last titles were A Glance Ahead, The Season's Novelties, Smart Modes and Style Information.
After 1918, British film companies decided to revive the light-hearted short interest films and from then on, right through the '20s, Pathé Animated Gazette, Topical Budget, Eve and Everybody's Film Review and Gaumont always managed to include some footage of the latest styles. The Gaumont Co. made and distributed a weekly screen review called Around the Town which interviewed people in the worlds of art, literature and science, offered glimpses of popular plays and players, snappy minutes with masters of sport and the world's latest fashions. The seventh edition of Around the Town showed a display of cloaks from Lucille Ltd, each one designed by Lady Duff Gordon.
I doubt that she was pleased by being described as "the charming proprietress", but Lady Duff Gordon was always anxious for publicity, and Issue No. 9 saw her back again describing two of her head-dresses which were for evening wear. No. 11 was described as having the very latest in Lucille frocks and frills. Other items in this series were the latest thing in kimonos from Swan & Edgar, the actress Nora Swinburne modelling hats from Monsieur Lewis (de Paris) and a South American beauty called Gita Bobadilla displaying the latest Paris hats from Paquin Ltd.
Lady Duff Gordon appeared in so many of these weekly screen reviews that a, burlesque item appeared in the Transatlantic Screen Magazine No. 164 showing fashions by Lady Muff Boredon and other novelties. By 1919 Around the Town dropped the other news coverage and became a fashion feature.
In 1925 the Educational Film Exchanges Inc (an American company) announced the release of a new series called McCall Fashion News and this series was to be in the new Eastman Colour Process, which claimed to produce natural flesh tints and to reproduce various shades of red which had previously been impossible. The first edition was called Paris Creations in Color and featured gowns from Poiret, Jenny, Worth and Lanvin. Hope Hampton was the star of this series.
No new ideas for fashion shorts appeared in the late '20s and '30s, although they continued to be part of the programme of supporting news or cinemagazines. But in 1938 a lady who was working at the Fox Studios in Hollywood conceived and directed a series of eight films called Fashion Forecast, which ran from 1938 to 1940. Vyvyan Donner was a fashion journalist and dress designer and had been fashion editor of Fox Movietone News since 1929. The Fashion Forecast series was filmed in Technicolor. Each item ran for about eleven minutes and claimed to feature America's most beautiful models. It was written by Miss Donner and narrated by Ilka Chase. The idea wasn't new but, as this series had a soundtrack, the display of gowns wasn't broken up by the appearance of title cards on the screen. The Fashion Forecasts were widely publicised in the States with extensive tie-ups being arranged all over the USA.
Couture houses have always supplied dresses for feature films, particularly from New York, as quite a lot of filming was done in the East Coast Studios. The couture houses did not, as a general rule, get any kind of screen credit, although news items often appeared in trade and fan magazines telling film-goers that a star would be getting her dresses from a particular fashion house. Many actresses who were rather short on acting talent relied on the lavishness of the wardrobes, because the ability to wear clothes well was just about all they had to offer. Roberta Hickman (who was working around 1915) wore clothes from Lucille and Poiret. Irene Castle used Lucille Ltd. Alice Joyce and Corinne Griffith were faithful to Madame Frances. Many actresses used Hattie Carnegie, but she was smart enough to get a screen credit for the films she did with Constance Bennett.
Excerpted from COSTUME DESIGN IN THE MOVIES by ELIZABETH LEESE. Copyright © 2014 Elizabeth Leese. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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