Monday, August 26, 2013


Blog researched and written by HUVC's equally iconic intern Ceci Cholst
The Letty Lynton dress by Adrian. Image:The Legendary Joan Crawford

Legendary costume designer Edith Head once said that Joan Crawford’s giant white dress from the 1932 movie Letty Lynton was “the single most important influence on fashion in film history.” This dress forever changed both the 1930s silhouette and the fashion industry.

 I personally think it looks odd and unbalanced—gigantic puffed sleeves and a small ruffled collar paired with a tight waistline and ruffled peplum—but there is no doubt it inspired hundreds, if not thousands, of beautiful gowns and day dresses, some of which are available for rental at Helen Uffner Vintage Clothing.

People often subconsciously link 1930s fashion to Hollywood. It’s no coincidence! Cultural and economic forces actively ensured that fashion and film were inextricable. At the time, young white women made up both the largest consumer market as well as the majority of the movie-going audience. To them, Hollywood, with its tales of rags to riches, represented a vision of accessible wealth.

From a 1934 Sears Catalogue, the green dress on the left is described as "gleaming, twinkling star of fashion.”

The description of the dress on the right from the 1933 Sears Catalogue reads:  Its “new” “tiered puff sleeve” is the “alluring kind of dress that flashes across the screen on your favorite movie star!”

 Around the same time, articles in popular media urged women to “scientifically” assess their personalities based on popular stars’ “types”, and dress accordingly. According to Sarah Berry’s book Screen Style, a popular 1936 self-help guide indicated that Ginger Rogers was the “athletic type,” Katherine Hepburn the “boyish type,” Kay Francis the “sophisticated type,” Janet Gaynor the “ingĂ©nue,” and Marlene Dietrich and Norma Shearer the “romantic type.” By “scientifically” matching your look to a star’s persona, you could dress according to your correct personality!

It didn’t take long for big business to capitalize. In 1930, Bernard Waldman had organized the Modern Merchandising Bureau, Inc., which licensed designs from upcoming films and sold them in Cinema Styles boutiques in department stores all over the country. Shoes, hats, purses, and clothes—anything that could be advertised in a fan magazine (the equivalent of our celebrity gossip magazines)—suddenly became top sellers. Women were not just exercising their economic power; they were making themselves into movie stars and buying the wardrobe to match!

One of HUVC's 1930's gowns w. full bolero sleeves
 The Letty Lynton dress was this system’s biggest success.

 In the film, Letty Lynton (Joan Crawford), is a down-and-out socialite, fleeing by boat from an affair-gone-bad in South America. On the steamship back to the United States, she meets a respectable, wealthy American man and they get engaged. Her former lover is waiting for her in New York, waiting to take her back to Uruguay, and in order to escape his clutches and instead marry the wealthy American for respectability and love, she accidentally murders the ex-lover and gets away with it.  
Another of HUVC's 1930's gowns, with the angelic sleeve
“Dishonored Lady”.

Letty wears the famous white dress aboard the cruise ship returning to New York. Ironically, Letty looks extremely innocent and girlish—the huge white sleeves resemble angel wings—but the silhouette is strong, commanding, and powerful.

 The dress caused such a furor that, when asked why so many people either loved the dress or loved to hate it, the costume designer, Adrian, replied, “In the studio we thought it a trifle extreme.” The dress itself, with its many disparate elements, was a madcap pastiche of neo-Victorian elements, a trend that was gaining popularity as women sought to “re-feminize” after the flapper 20s. It also tapped into the beginning of fashion designer Schiaparelli’s large-shouldered look.
Many costume designers and fashion designers copied Adrian’s dramatic silhouette, creating the so-called “Letty Lynton effect.” The dress proved so popular that Vogue sniffed about how “the country was flooded with little Joan Crawfords.” Thanks to the Hollywood-fashion industrial complex, these copy cats were here to stay.
Letty Lynton nightgown featured in the 1933 Spiegel Christmas Catalogue. (Image from Jezebel)

Macy’s, which had its own “ Cinema Shop” specializing in fashions worn by the stars, copied the dress in 1932 and claimed it sold over 500,000 replicas in its store, with over 1,000,00 copies selling in America alone. Whether or not that’s true, the popularity of the dress shows that American women identified with this girl who can be both innocent and commanding, a woman who could have sexual misadventures and still marry the man of her dreams. All while looking stunning.

The Letty Lynton Effect pictured in British Vogue (Images from the blog Theatre of Fashion)

Today, though we can’t seem go a day without a celebrity designing a new fashion line, film and now TV-inspired fashion trends still inspire: Annie Hall inspired women to wear menswear; Out of Africa inspired safari looks; Mad Men not only inspired a 60s retro fashion revival, the show also spawned a licensed line with Banana Republic and allowed the show’s costume designer Janie Bryant to create a line for QVC.

full sleeved-1930's chiffon dress from the HUVC Collection
 Most recently, Downton Abbey inspired Ralph Lauren’s Edwardian Fall 2012 Collection (in which Helen Uffner Vintage Clothing happened to be instrumental in contributing inspiration for them to copy!) Finally, The Great Gatsby inspired not only successful licensed lines with Brooks Brothers’ “Gatsby Collection”, but Tiffany's "Great Gatsby Collection" as well Gatsby-inspired eyeglasses from Warby Parker!

80 years later, Hollywood and fashion are still bosom buddies. Thanks, Letty Lynton!