The Women: style in film

“The women” of George Cukor: amazing dresses and incredible story, for one of Tom Ford’s most loved movie.

First of all the date: 1939: the golden year of Hollywood golden age, the most productive of all. “The Women”, director George Cukor, was released in 1939 along with Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith goes to Washington, Ninotchka, Stagecoach, Wuthering Heights: a very prolific production. The Great Depression was finally over, although sadly, in September, Hitler invaded Poland. The golden year of the golden age of classic Hollywood was also to be its last.

“The Women” has two locations: New York (or rather, 5th Avenue) and Reno, Nevada, the paradise of “quick divorce”. Mary Haines (Norma Shearer) is happy with a husband, daughter, maids, little dog and her mother’s periodic visits. She’s about to leave for “Canada” where she spent her honeymoon, when her cousin (Rosalind Russell) informs her that, according to the manicurist, her husband is having an affair with the shop assistant in the perfume and lingerie department (Joan Crawford).

Her mother’s advice is to ignore the gossip, not to trust her friends and to carry on as usual because that’s the way men are: Mary does just the opposite, ending up in Reno where she bumps into other divorcees (amongst whom Paulette Godard). Two years later, the antics start all over again! Three-fold thinking. The first one: more than the story, what counts is the beginning of gossip as an obsession, (even casting Hedda Hopper, Hollywood’s royal “bitch”, as herself). The second one: Lots of chicken lit, and all our own chicken journalism should be immensely grateful to the film. The third: if we compare the older version with the remake Women (2008), then we are on another planet.

The Women is the cinema of words and custom, as well as that of costumes. It is explosive avant-garde filmmaking and not only because everything, from the suits, to the little hats, to the printed fabrics is pure allusion to Salvador Dalí and Elsa Schiapparelli inspired by Jean Cocteau. A game aimed to kill traditional fashion anticipating John Galliano, Yves Saint Laurent, Philip Treacy and Alain Mikli. At a first glance, what in fact was outstanding were the “gowns by Adrian” (and likewise in the credits: the number one costume designer for cinema).

Artist, stylist, costume designer, king at MGM, Adrian created (three/ four minutes per sketch, to be discarded at the end of the filming) all the outfits for his women (leading ladies, supporting stars and stand-ins), leaving his assistants to design those for the male cast. He believed that the clothes made the film and the character: just observe Russell’s flounces, Shearer’s twin sets, Joan Fontaine’s military jackets, Joan Crawford’s padded shoulders. Donna Karan, Giorgio Armani and all the jacketed working girls of the 1980s owe him thanks. The Women is avant-garde feminism mixed with a modern twist to the myth of the Greek Amazons.

A super-sophisticated black and white comedy in which there are 130, all female, speaking roles. Men are the topic of the day (every God-given day, one might want to add), although there are none on screen. It is the triumph of 130 women who insatiably tear men apart, armed with jungle red nail-varnish, little girls dressed in black, the indiscriminate use of pre Botox, wearing watches on top of cuffs. Nearly 10 minutes of a real fashion show, which the leading lady (and we) attend, filmed in technicolour, is a tribute to all of Adrian’s creations.

More than 250 films and a love/hate relationship with Greta Garbo, so strong that, when in 1941 she stopped, he also left Hollywood to create his own fashion house (after all, he had been the first to launch a line inspired by his creations, on sale at Macy’s). 130 females directed by George Cukor, dressed by Adrian and floating about in Cedric Gibbon’s sets. The copyright on the words is however entirely feminine, from scriptwriters Anita Loos and Jane Murfin. Especially Clare Boothe Luce, ambassador to Rome in the fifties but, in 1936, author of the inspirational piece: socialite at Park Av, journalist (Vogue) and director (Vanity Fair), divorced fashionista. Women was his world …

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