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  • Coco Chanel in HollywoodSelling Movies through Fashion

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Coco Chanel, Paris, 1937, photo by Lipnitzki © Getty Images.

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Since being introduced to fashion designer Coco Chanel in 1929 in Monte Carlo by Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, studio mogul Samuel Goldwyn had been trying to lure her to Hollywood. He admired her clothing designs and called her "the biggest fashion brain ever known." In 1931, after pursuing her for three years, he made a statement to the New York Times: "I have at last persuaded Madame Gabrielle Chanel, fashion dictator, to go to Hollywood to co-operate with me on the vexing question of film fashion." He would pay her a million dollars for a year's work.

There was method in Goldwyn's madness. The United States was in the grip of the Great Depression, with a quarter of the workforce unemployed and many people's assets severely reduced. Going to the movies had become America's favorite form of escape. During the '30s, Holly-wood's Golden Age, 65 percent of Americans went to the movies weekly, paying an average ticket price of a quarter. Female audiences bought tickets for films that featured their favorite stars in part to see what they were wearing.

The mass production of affordable clothing and an increasing number of working women meant film-inspired fashion was within reach for many. Fan magazines—Photoplay, Screenland and Movie Mirror—and fashion magazines—Vogue and Harper's Bazaar—resembled a consumer guide to the latest styles, publishing multipage photo spreads of stars in costumes for upcoming movies. Some films inserted six-minute montages of stars modeling everything from floor-length gowns and furs to bathing costumes and athletic wear. Studios became players in the ready-to-wear industry, making fashion tie-ins big business by authorizing copies of clothes seen onscreen.

Using a performer's individual style to fill seats has its roots in a variety of theatrical entertainment: tableau vivant, cabaret, nightclub revues, vaudeville, and plays. French actress Sarah Bernhardt's unique fashion sense made her a trendsetter on and off stage. Her tight-fitting costumes embellished with feather boas, ruffles, and jewels were the envy of late-nineteenth-century Europe. On the streets of Paris, women imitated her high-collared ermine capelets and chinchilla coats. In the 1890s, Macy's department stores supplied gowns for several New York stage productions and invited the female audience to buy the play-inspired "ready-mades" off the rack. In between film serials, fashion newsreels showed how women could integrate clothing from the [End Page 114]

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Barbara Weeks, Palmy Days, United Artists Pictures, 1931, courtesy of the George Eastman Museum.

[End Page 115] pictures into their wardrobes. Photoplay and other fan magazines followed up with articles encouraging women to buy or sew copies of the film costumes, often making patterns available. By the 1930s, fashion tieins were a regularly anticipated feature of the moviegoing experience. Product placement was as common as tie-ins. Studios created special departments to manage their contracts with General Motors, Coca-Cola, and General Electric, among others. The revenue generated from these relationships helped the movies make up for the loss of revenue during the Depression.

By dressing his starlets on- and offscreen in cutting-edge, high-end designs, Goldwyn believed that he could capitalize on the era of "fashion madness." Yet the lag between a movie's production and its release date made it difficult for Hollywood costumers to keep up with high fashion's rapidly changing trends. By the time movies premiered in theaters, actresses' hemlines, fabrics, and silhouettes were dated. Because Paris, the epicenter of haute couture, set the trends rather than followed them, Goldwyn understood the necessity of hiring a French designer for his coterie of actresses—Norma Talmadge, Clara Bow, Gloria Swanson, Lillian Gish, Ina Claire, and Greta Garbo.


At forty-seven, Chanel was at the top of her game. Having initially freed women from corsets and hobble skirts, she had more recently popularized the little black dress, costume jewelry, sportswear, jersey suits, silk pajamas, and the year-round tan. Despite the...


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