Sex » Fashion; Sex & Society » History, Pop culture: "Seminal Styles of the 20th Century, Part Two: A Rumination on Tomatoes, Platinum Blondes and the Rise of Butch Chic"

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Seminal Styles of the 20th Century, Part Two: A Rumination on Tomatoes, Platinum Blondes and the Rise of Butch Chic

Paramount Pictures
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Warning! Dangerous curves ahead. Blonde ambition conquers all…and we ain’t talkin’ Madonna.

  The Big Squeeze

On the threshold of the Great Depression, Americans were facing financial desolation and an uncertain future. The callow flapper fad began to pale in the light of a harsh new dawn. Just as certain religious zealots today lay the of the genesis of the AIDs epidemic squarely on the doorstep of those who abandon “family values” (as defined by their own narrow parameters) and engage in non-heterosexual, non-Church-sanctioned intercourse, some members of the knuckleheaded hoi polloi back in the 1930s firmly believed the stock market crash and the devastation which followed—up to and including the Great Dust Bowl—were “the chickens coming home to roost”, i.e., payback for the sinful, wicked behavior that characterized the previous decade. (Others with more level heads knew better than to confuse an economic catastrophe brought about by the financial hubris of a few bad men with the wrath of God, but getting their voices heard over the tumult of an agitprop, self-righteous, sex-negative tsunami was like spitting into the wind.)

In Hollywood, right-wing backlash, in the form of the 1930s Hays Code, put the kibosh on wanton sex in the movies. As loose women with questionable morals became a scourge on society, in film after film, the homily was hammered home: a gal who engaged in any sexual encounter without benefit of clergy, or worse still, a married woman who carries on an affair, must always come to a bad end.

While the mantra and marching orders of the day may have been that sober times called for serious virtue, many Americans thought they’d been punished enough. Yearning for comfort and distraction, the landscape of entertainment, especially films, to which sound had lately been added, began to evolve to accommodate a growing hunger for escapism. Screwball comedy, slapstick and a barrage of double-entendres—meat pilfered from the pot of Vaudeville that was often sexually charged— made its way to mainstream cinema.

“A man’s only as old as the woman he feels,” quipped Groucho Marx from behind the camouflage of his trademark shoe-polish moustache and baggy suit. Harpo, in his blond fright wig and crushed top hat, may have a serial womanizer, but the aggressive affections of such an obvious clown were never taken seriously. The comedic characters that the Marx Brothers portrayed were so over the top that they became sexless caricatures of men, eunuchs. Sexuality was reduced to a joke—no longer threatening, yet somehow, still evocative. Audiences ate it up, perhaps because they knew on some level, whether they admitted it or not, that under the makeup, costumes and rapid-fire one-liners, there were real men, with real sexual yearnings… and real genitals.

  A Whole New Breed of Tomato

Enter onto this playing field the one-woman carnal juggernaut known as Mae West. A stage and film actress, playwright, radio personality, and screenwriter, West used her wicked wit and keen business acumen to push the erotic envelope and thwart the forces of conservatism on every front, titillating audiences with sex-drenched ripostes, such as, “A hard man is good to find,” and “Every man I meet wants to protect me. I can’t figure out what from.”

West, a seasoned Vaudeville performer, was a woman ahead of her time. Her first starring role on Broadway was in a play, aptly titled, Sex, which she wrote, produced and directed. Although a hit with audiences, the show was panned by critics. It was even less popular with the powers that be. The theater was raided, West and company were arrested, and on April 19, 1927, she was sentenced to 10 days in the hoosegow for “corrupting the morals of youth.” (She served eight, with two days off for good behavior.)

After her incarceration, when West glibly remarked to reporters that while in jail she’d dined with the warden and his wife, and had worn her silk unmentionables underneath her prison gown, she became the toast of the town. (West’s next play, The Drag, dealt with homosexuality. It had a series of try-outs in Connecticut and New Jersey, but when West announced she planned to bring the play to New York, the Society for the Prevention of Vice brought the curtain down before it ever went up.)

  Ascent of the Blonde Bombshells

It was West and her Hollywood contemporary, film legend Jean Harlow, who deserve most of the credit for putting the sin back into cinema. Harlow, another platinum-tressed seductress had a sexual energy so raw and powerful, that even in black and white, it was nearly palpable. Although often stunningly costumed, Harlow had a bewitching aura of always being naked. In this legendary exchange from the 1933 pre-code classic, Dinner at Eight, dowager Carlotta Vance (played by veteran actress Marie Dressler) sizes up the charms of Harlow’s character, nubile-yet-nasty gold-digger Kitty Packard, thusly:

Kitty: I was reading a book the other day.
Carlotta: (double-take) Reading a book?
Kitty: Yes. It’s all about civilization or something. A nutty kind of a book. Do you know that the guy says that machinery is going to take the place of every profession?
Carlotta: Oh, my dear, that’s something you need never worry about.

Platinum blondes with womanly figures, and tongues firmly planted in cheek, became the reining sex symbols of the ’30s. The more the powers of conservatism squeezed these new tomatoes, the more their innate sexuality oozed out. West came to loggerheads with the Hays folks more than once, and although the stick-in-the-muds sometimes won the battle, it was West who eventually won the war.

As far from stick thin as a body could get, zaftig sirens such as West and Harlow re-introduced the feminine form to the vaunted halls of fashion. “Cultivate your curves,” West said. “They may be dangerous, but they won’t be avoided.” Her lush figure sheathed in shimmering gowns was like sexual comfort food; a feast devoured by a starving nation hungry for succor and a luxurious lap in which to enjoy it.

In her autobiography, A Shocking Life, iconic ’30s fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli, a fierce rival of Coco Chanel, recalls that when West desired one of her creations, the ultimate blonde sent a life-size plaster cast of her own torso to Paris to be sure of the fit. Shiaparelli must have been impressed. Like Chanel, Schiaparelli, too, had a signature fragrance, but while Chanel Number Five came in a discreet bottle, Schiaparelli’s Shocking was packaged in an exclusive hourglass-shaped vessel, whose design was a tribute to the figure of none other than the voluptuous West.

  The Dawn of Butch

Schiaparelli, a confrere of artists Man Ray, Salvador Dali, Jean Cocteau, Marcel Duchamp, Christian Berard and Francis Picabia, paired her affinity for high-end fabrics with an eclectic whimsy that rendered her body of work truly unique. Although viewed by some as a beloved eccentric, Shiaparelli was responsible for putting Marlene Dietrich into the padded-shoulder, man-tailored ensemble that would become the actress’s trademark, and bring butch chic to the mainstream. Other members of film royalty, such as Katherine Hepburn and Greta Garbo quickly followed suit—or suits.

A woman wearing pants: It was a fashion statement with repercussions that sent shockwaves reverberating around the world. While Rubensesque feminine archetypes saw a renaissance in the ’30s, the boyish prototype so much admired in the flapper era didn’t disappear, it simply morphed. The boyish charm of the flapper had grown up into a new, sleek masculine ideal. That such an ideal was tailored to a feminine form engendered a gender conundrum if there ever was one. Could a woman be butch and sexy? You bet your trousers, she could.

Although Dietrich and Garbo both had the reputation for being bisexual, once women discovered the practical advantages of wearing pants, any negative stigma that might be associated with “a gay trend” was obliterated by an overwhelming outpouring of common sense, so it’s also a good thing that we have Schiaparelli to thank for the zipper. While she didn’t invent the toothy closure, the zip was pretty much of a novelty item until the designer to took a liking to it in 1933, and began using it ways both decorative and functional—and thankfully, wildly copycatted. After all, what’s a Zipless Fuck without a zipper?

  The Great Fashion Divide

As the 1930s drew to a close, the effects of the Great Depression were beginning to fade. Women of the middle and upper classes found themselves more socially active, and, thanks to birth control, less inclined to make babies (and therefore, keep their figures). They soon discovered the need for more practical attire. Whether they were working gals or society wives, daywear—clothing designed to be chic yet functional, allowed them to move freely about their business and conduct their affairs in style and comfort.

Eveningwear began to evolve as well. French designer Madeleine Vionnet was the queen of the cross-cut bias, that, according to, can “make a piece of fabric hang and drape in sinuous folds and stretch over the round contours of the body…Using her technique designers were able to produce magnificent gowns in satins, crepe-de-chines, silks, crepes and chiffons by cross cutting the fabric, creating a flare and fluidity of drapery that other methods could not achieve. Many of the gowns could be slipped over the head and came alive when put on the human form. Some evening garments made women look like Grecian goddesses, whilst others made them look like half-naked sexy vamps.” Vionnet’s innovations are most closely associated with musical film vixen, Ginger Rogers, whose bias-cut gowns seemed to take on a life of their own, partnering with her in the most seductive of ways as she danced.

The ’30s also debuted a craze for fitness and sunbathing. Stylish socialites spent hours bronzing themselves in order to better show off their tawny flesh in backless full-length evening gowns (little suspecting that in a few scant years, their sun-drenched hides would come resemble alligator suitcases). But a new breed of butch female was also coming to the fore: the woman athlete. Babe Didrikson Zaharias, along with aviatrix Amelia Earhart (whose jaunty leather flight gear and trademark silk scarf presaged the military influence on fashion of the coming World War), took mannish charms to places and heights never before dreamed of, bending a whole generation of gender along the way.

  All About the Eve of Conflict

In 1927, an inventor named Wallace Carothers came up with an ingenious synthetic polymer he dubbed polyamide. By 1938, the product, by then known as Nylon, was being manufactured commercially by the Du Pont Corporation. A scant year later, silkworms around the world heaved a universal sigh of relief, as Nylon became the material of choice for ladies’ hosiery. “As strong as steel, as fine as a spider’s web,” Nylons made their official debut at the 1939 World’s Fair, which was aptly themed, ‘The World of Tomorrow,’ since these sheer, flattering leg casing were certainly a portend of the shape of things to come. However in, 1939, there were more pressing matters to attend to than the fate of women’s hosiery.

In August of that year, Hitler marched his troops into Poland. In a few short months, everything changed. While the world waged war, trends born out of necessity and desperation, desire and obsession would coalesce and take flight. Decadence and dearth danced together in a perverted tango, and oh, my children, what strange and wonderful styles were born.


Amazing article! I love the historical lesson on this topic.



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