Screen to Store: Husker research shows ’30s Nebrascans embraced film fashion | Nebraska today
At the end of Gone With the Wind, Rhett Butler didn’t care about Scarlett O’Hara, but millions of American women did—and paid rapt attention to her varied costumes.
The mid-19th-century fashion depicted in the film, with its corsets and hoop skirts, was not particularly practical for 1939, when the film debuted. But details of Scarlett’s many dresses and other costumes from the 1930s movies — the prints, trims, fabrics, and fasteners — entered the fashion zeitgeist even in Nebraska, according to research by Husker grantee and alumna Anna Kuhlman.
Kuhlman, who grew up in Andover, Kansas and attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln as a graduate student in Fashion Merchandising and Design, has long had a fascination with historical fashion and popular culture. As a child, she volunteered at a living history museum near her hometown, where she dressed in period clothing and remembered it as one of the “coolest things of all time.” She was also drawn to the American Girl line of dolls and books, which followed the stories of fictional girls living through a very real American history, along with the clothes they wore.
As a Masters student in Material Culture and Textile Studies, she continued her studies of historical fashion practices, trends, fabrics and embellishments.
“I’ve always had a personal interest in early 20th-century fashion,” Kuhlman said. The Great Depression and the World War II later really changed the way fashion was interacted, bought and viewed. There was already a lot of existing research on World War II II fashion, but less on the depression. I’ve focused on Nebraska because of our collection here and other resources, but also because less is known about the Midwest there. I had never seen what fashion for women looked like here back then.”
In her thesis, she discovered that although 1930s fashion magazines were often the first to pick up on industry trends, the popularity of cinema propelled these styles into department stores everywhere.
“A common pattern observed in the research was detection of a trend at least a few months prior to a film’s release, then its exaggeration by costume designers for specific films, which were then modified by manufacturers/retailers to sell to consumers that suit their tastes, needs, and price points,” she wrote in her thesis, The Making of Everyday Hollywood: 1930s Influence on Everyday Women’s Fashion in Nebraska.
Seeing movies in theaters has long been a popular American pastime, even during the Great Depression when 46-68% of US Population watched movies weekly – with most viewers being women, according to a 2001 research article by R. Butsch. Additionally, more ready-made clothing was adopted by the middle class around the turn of the century.
To understand how film fashion was transmitted to the state’s middle-class women, Kuhlman delved into the archives of Vogue magazine; five films from the 1930s and their accompanying promotional material in film magazines; the clothing collection in the department of textiles, merchandising and fashion design; and more than 500 photos from Nebraska’s history.
The films Kuhlman chose based on their popularity, the number of screens in Nebraska, the year they were released, and the fame of the starring actors: Letty Lynton (1932), It Happened One Night (1934) , Mannequin (1937), Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938) and Gone with the Wind (1939).
“Joan Crawford and her film ‘Letty Lynton’ was well known among scholars as the one that started the film craze of fashion copies, particularly the dress,” said Kuhlman. “A lot of previous research has pointed to this film as a starting point. Similarly, for Gone With the Wind, the grill dress from that film, a green floral dress, is also cited as one of the most copied looks.”
Kuhlman found that this was also the case in Nebraska. She noted that 25 photos taken after the release of Letty Lynton showed clothing resembling the film’s fashion, including the famous dress with its voluminous sleeves and slim fit. “Gone with the Wind,” meanwhile, delivered similar styles in 20 photographs.
“(The) overall picture is that fads that had more ads and more screen time were the ones that tended to be copied the most,” Kuhlman said. “There might have been a very cool dress in a movie, but if it was only on screen for two minutes, then none of the magazines or other promotional materials really had a picture of it.”
For example, Kuhlman noted that “It Happened One Night” — in which the main character, played by Claudette Colbert, spends most of the film in a striped top and black skirt — likely played a role in introducing stripes and more comfortable business attire from knit fabrics.
“Knitwear has definitely gotten more popular, but I think Hollywood and this movie made it even more popular,” Kuhlman said. “With the success of the film, that look, especially with the stripes, became more copied and I think it perpetuated the idea of knitwear. It became more socially acceptable to wear clothes that were a little more comfortable and probably preceded casual wear.”
Few fashions were exactly copied, Kuhlman said, but they could be traced back to the movies of the era.
“They were made practical for what these women did in their lives,” she said. “They were mothers, teachers, nurses. They made this film fashion fit for what they were doing.”
Kuhlman, who completed her master’s degree in May, continues to work with the Historical Textile and Costume Collections in the department of textiles, merchandise management and fashion design. She also uses her knowledge of historical textiles and clothing at the Stuhr Museum on Grand Island, where she reproduces period costumes for the living history museum.