Reality show star Snooki’s hair ‘pouf’ is imitated by the local Wal-Mart cashier, and celebrities like Jessica Simpson and Kim Kardashian continue to amass a fortune thanks to their fashion lines’ followers. Millions of us tune in to televised award shows mostly to look at the impossible-to-afford designer gowns paraded down the red carpet. Is it because of Hollywood’s well-worn theme that fashion has the power to transform lives? Through decades of changing style trends, movies have suggested that women need to realize they are only as attractive (and therefore loveable, capable of fitting in, professionally successful, etc.) as their latest outfit, hairstyle, or makeup is currently in vogue. Fashion matters, movies insist. What you wear has the power to call forth romantic and/or social acceptance or rejection.
As willing and demanding fans, female moviegoers have often been eager to copy and assimilate on-screen fashions into their own lives. For many viewers, witnessing a character’s makeover within a movie plot means vicariously experiencing their own hopes for love and success realized–thanks to changes in wardrobe, hair, and makeup. In any case, the makeover scene has certainly been a popular and common plot device since Hollywood’s early history.
A Depression-era comedy directed by Mitchell Leisen reflects, in part, the transformative power of fashion. For example, what turns a manicurist into a successful (almost) social climber? The right look, of course. In Hands Across the Table (1935), we watch Carole Lombard squeeze herself wearily from the subway each morning. She works in a hotel’s nail salon where she dreams of finding a rich man and avoiding the consequences of her parents who married for love. Lombard explains how she watched her once-pretty mother “count pennies and wash and struggle until she was old and ugly . . . You couldn’t blame anything but poverty.”
When Lombard lands a date with Fred MacMurray’s character, who she thinks is a wealthy playboy, a montage scene shows Lombard draining her bank account to buy a new outfit (and in those days, that meant matching your hat, shoes, purse, and gloves to your dress) as well as visit a salon herself. The irony is that MacMurray’s family fortune has been lost in the stock market crash. In fact, MacMurray is under the impression, with her stylish clothing and sophisticated look, until Lombard lets him know otherwise, that she will be able to support him. Lombard is, of course, a strikingly beautiful woman with shiny blonde hair, high cheekbones, and large eyes, captivating the audience whether she is wearing glamorous evening wear to a snooty restaurant where she suffers a bout of hiccups on her first date with MacMurray, or later in the film, when working-class Lombard lets penniless MacMurray stay at her apartment. She wears a simple belted robe as she lies in the dark on her bed, ignoring MacMurray’s come-hither plea from her living room sofa, eventually facing the fact that she has fallen in love with MacMurray and wants to marry him. Ralph Bellamy, popular second male lead, plays one of Lombard’s clients, who is in love with her as well. He is a wealthy, disabled pilot and can give Lombard the lifestyle she desires. But when he discovers that she is hopelessly in love with MacMurray, Bellamy abandons his plans to propose to her.
By the end of the film, MacMurray decides to pursue a career in delivering milk-if he can find someone willing to hire him. With these decisions in place, the movie couple faces a fate that audience members knew too well during the Depression. We can still identify with women and men who dreamed then of overcoming the fear of debt and the heartache that debt brought to a relationship. In the makeover moments of a Hollywood comedy like Hands Across the Table, moviegoers can sympathize with the young manicurist who wants to avoid the misery of a moneyless lifestyle and so briefly transforms her fashion style to reflect the social status she wishes to attain. Although the film ends by reinforcing the belief in unconditional love between partners and the traditional value in the willingness to work hard for what you want, it also allowed viewers to escape the severity of Depression poverty and indulge in the fantasy of the fashion makeover. Could audience members hope to be transported to a world of more optimistic options, especially if the ticket to that finer world only came down to wearing the right look?
Another Mitchell Leisen directed comedy, Midnight (1939) features a Cinderella-like makeover of the movie’s star, Claudette Colbert. As the movie opens, Colbert’s chorus girl character has gambled away her money in Monaco (money given to her by a wealthy young man’s family to break up with him) so she takes a train to Paris with only the clothes on her back-a lamé gown. She attempts to get a job singing in a nightclub, and persuades male lead Don Ameche to drive her from one club to another in his taxi-but only gains his unwanted proposal (platonic for now) to share his small apartment. Colbert runs away from Ameche and joins a group of well-dressed party goers. In line at the entry to the party, she hands the befuddled doorman a pawn ticket in place of an official invitation and slips inside. There, she meets aristocrat John Barrymore who saves her from being exposed as a party crasher when the real ticket holder, a baroness, shows up.
Because he is still in love with his wife, Barrymore propositions Colbert with a scheme to steal the affections of his wife’s lover who is clearly already interested in Colbert’s charms. To enable Colbert to entice this gigolo further, the wealthy Barrymore encourages her to impersonate a Hungarian baroness and provides her with a lavish suite at the Ritz, the use of a car and driver, and, of course, a fabulous assortment of clothes. In her hotel bedroom, a stunned Colbert clasps the bedcovers to herself, her naked shoulders revealed, as two eager hotel porters offer to hand her something to put on from the trunks of chic clothing they have just delivered. In one of her new stylish ensembles, Colbert wastes little time finding the shop where Barrymore’s wife (Mary Astor) is trying on hats while accompanied by her attractive lover. Commenting on Astor’s choice of hats, Colbert slyly suggests that one she is wearing doesn’t flatter her chin. Calculating Colbert then leaves the shop on the arm of Astor’s lover. She snags the gigolo’s heart and an invitation to Barrymore’s estate for the weekend only to have her real prince (cab driver Ameche) show up and pretend to be her husband, the baron, to bail her out when she is about to be exposed as an imposter for the second time in the movie.
Although Colbert is in love with Ameche, she refuses to give up the charade that she is a baroness because she fears what a life together sharing Ameche’s small paycheck will do to their chance at any lasting happiness. Ameche, deciding to beat Colbert at her own game, continues the pretence that he is her eccentric husband, and refuses to give her a divorce so she can marry Astor’s ex-gigolo. Ameche’s character reflects working-class virtues of honest work and loyalty, although he also just so happens to be descended distantly from nobility.
After the courtroom scene at the end of the film, Barrymore and Astor are shown leaving arm in arm, having rekindled their marriage. The judge has upheld Colbert’s and Ameche’s “marriage” as well, but as they leave the building, this couple is all smiles, too. Midnight is cautionary, but playful, in its handling of the fairytale theme of transformation. Colbert ends up with a man from her own social class-yes, happily, the moviegoers are assured. However, although she’s allowed to play in the aristocratic world that few in 1939 would ever gain entry to, her midnight arrives and she must turn back into the now wiser chorus girl. This Cinderella will not become a real baroness, so designer clothes, chauffeured car, and country estates will be memories only. However, the movie’s message reinforces that she will have, most importantly, true love.
Hollywood movies from its golden era, like Leisen’s Hands Across the Table and Midnight, allowed viewers to imagine themselves as members of upper class society, wearing the right clothes and attending fashionable events in a world of luxury beyond their more humble and often humdrum lives. These films offered women, in particular, a view of Cinderella-like options beyond their realistically more limited ones. A fashion makeover, movies like these argued, could take the films’ leads to a place that-without connections-they couldn’t inhabit in the real world. Today’s moviegoers still want to copy the stars. According to Stylist.com, a clothing line designed to imitate Julia Robert’s Indian-inspired costumes worn in her most recent film, Eat, Pray, Love, is now available to fans of the film.1 The film, based on the non-fiction bestseller, features one woman’s quest for meaning (and includes finding love in a romantic, foreign setting). It seems the hope for a more glamorous life is imbedded in some movie goers’ fashion choices, and thanks to Hollywood, the promise of the makeover remains with us still.
1 Jennifer Paull, “Sue Wong Designs Eat, Pray, Love Clothing Line,” July 9, 2010, Stylist.com. http://www.stylelist.com/2010/07