Saturday, March 12, 2016

Behind the Dress: Jean Harlow & the Bias-Cut

Today's Behind the Dress post doesn't actually cover just one dress, but all the white satin, bias-cut gowns that Jean Harlow wore. Yes, she wore them, they never wore her.

In Edith Head's Hollywood by Edith Head and Paddy Calistro, Head claims that it was she who put Jean Harlow in bias-cut satin for the first time. The film was Saturday Night Kid (1929) starring Clara Bow in her second talkie. In Head's own words:
She was Jean Harlow, a second-stringer in those days, but once Howard Hughes convinced her to bleach her hair [it was a honey-blonde color at the time] she became a star within a year. Of course, when I worked with her I just thought of her as another actress, but I was impressed with her sensuous body and I made the most of it with white satin, cut on the bias. I was afraid of how Clara would react, since Jean really upstaged her in that slinky white gown. Most stars would have resented sharing a big scene with such a sizzling, voluptuous creature as Harlow. Not Clara. She was simply fascinated by her. I won't take credit for Harlow's screen image, but I think I'm entitled to say that what she wore in those scenes inspired others to take a second look and realize her knockout potential.

Calistro adds a little more backstory: "The dress that Edith made for Harlow was actually an adaptation of French couturiere Madeleine Vionnet's latest design. No one had used the sexy bias cut in an entire gown before Vionnet, but it took Hollywood to turn the look into a classic - the slip dress. Harlow wore it, Lombard popularized Banton's version, and Dietrich slinked around in on. It became the uniform of the sex symbols. The gown, with its bodice styled exactly like the top of an underslip, complete with thin little straps, was especially alluring because it was worn with no undergarments. Since fabric cut on the bias - diagonally across the weave - has a gentle, inherent stretch quality, the slip dress clung to every curve and crevice of a woman's body" (16).

That was the only time Head costumed Jean but it set the tone for her following film roles. A Jean Harlow film just isn't complete without a clinging satin gown of some kind.

A fictionalized account of Edith and Harlow's meeting is included in the recently published book Platinum Doll by Anne Girard (which I will be reviewing later this month). It mentions that the dress is grey. This is probably so it would photograph white. A white dress would have too much glare under the strong lights on the set.

To end, here are some photos of Jean throughout her career wearing her signature slinky gown. Just click on the photos to enlarge. Enjoy!




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