'Katharine Hepburn: Dressed For Stage And Screen' At The NYPL

'Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen' on view at the NYPL for the Performing Arts, October 18, 2012 - January 12, 2013.
'Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen' on view at the NYPL for the Performing Arts, Oct. 18, 2012 - Jan. 12, 2013.

With this post, we introduce our newest DG contributor, Jessica Barber. (If the post's formatting looks odd, please adjust the width of your browser window. TypePad can produce some odd effects with photo placement, and they aren't Jessica's fault.)--vp

Last month I had the great pleasure of patronizing the beautifully curated costume exhibition Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen, in a seemingly unlikely venue for such a topic: the New York Public Library. The exhibition was organized by the Kent State University Museum, which was given 700 items from Hepburn's estate several years after her passing in 2003 at the age of 96. (The museum is renowned for its extensive costume collection, which contains more than 40,000 objects.) In collaboration with the NYPL, the exhibition included not only many of the costumes from the actress's long career in stage, film, and television, but also examples of the casual everyday wardrobe that helped solidify her as an icon of “rebel chic.”

The fashion and costume designers represented in the exhibition were a veritable who’s who of Hollywood names: Valentina, Howard Greer, Muriel King, Irene, and Cecil Beaton, to name a few. Exhibited alongside garments and accessories were other film and stage ephemera such as posters, playbills, lobby cards, and even a makeup kit used by Hepburn, with various brushes, lipsticks, and Max Factor concealor still inside. 

Black silk evening gown by Walter Plunkett, worn by Hepburn as Amanda Bonner in Adam's Rib [MGM, 1949]; Kent State University Museum, KSUM 2010.12.4, Gift of the Estate of Katharine Hepburn. Designed to accent her 20" waist, this gown was colored red by the MGM publicity department for the lobby card, right.
Black silk evening gown by Walter Plunkett, worn by Hepburn as Amanda Bonner in 'Adam's Rib' [MGM, 1949]; Kent State University Museum, KSUM 2010.12.4, Gift of the Estate of Katharine Hepburn. Designed to accent her 20" waist, this gown was colored red by the MGM publicity department for the lobby card, right.
Original lobby card for Adam's Rib [MGM, 1949]; Kent State University Museum, KSUM A2010.3.14, Gift of Christopher P. Sullivan.
Original lobby card for 'Adam's Rib' [MGM, 1949]; Kent State University Museum, KSUM A2010.3.14, Gift of Christopher P. Sullivan.
Katharine Hepburn, Self-portrait as "Coco Chanel," 1970, watercolor on paper; Kent State University Museum, KSUM 2010.12.58, Gift of Katharine Hepburn.
Katharine Hepburn, Self-portrait as Coco Chanel, 1970, watercolor on paper; Kent State University Museum, KSUM 2010.12.58, Gift of Katharine Hepburn

One of the most important points the exhibition illustrated was Hepburn's high level of involvement in crafting her characters' wardrobes. More than many of her contemporaries, Hepburn was acutely aware of the importance of dress not only to the characters she portrayed but to the overall storyline as well. She worked closely with the designers of her film and stage ensembles (famed costume designer Edith Head once remarked that one "did not design for her," but "with her") and she even made sketches of her own costume designs. The muticolored pastel silk organza gown by Valentina that she wore as Jamie Coe Rowan in the 1942 film Without Love was one of many dresses that Hepburn personally sketched, noting details of the fabric choice, the construction, and how the skirt "simply floated."

Hepburn was also known to sketch self-portraits of herself as the characters she played. These captured the qualities she wanted to convey with each. Among the sketches included in the exhibition was her watercolor self-rendering as Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel, whom she played in the stage musical Coco (1969). Chanel was a hardworking couturière who was known for her stern personality, and this trait is skillfully conveyed by Hepburn's characterization.

Multicolored pastel silk organza gown by Valentina, worn by Hepburn as Jamie Coe Rowan in Without Love [1942]; Kent State University Museum, KSUM 2010.12.62, Gift of the Estate of Katharine Hepburn.
Multicolored pastel silk organza gown by Valentina, worn by Hepburn as Jamie Coe Rowan in 'Without Love' [1942]; Kent State University Museum, KSUM 2010.12.62, Gift of the Estate of Katharine Hepburn.
Katharine Hepburn as Jamie Coe Rowan, wearing a multicolored pastel silk organza gown by Valentina in Without Love [1942].
Katharine Hepburn as Jamie Coe Rowan, wearing a multicolored pastel silk organza gown by Valentina in 'Without Love' [1942].

Cream silk georgette and crêpe de Chine nightgown by Irene, Kent State University Museum, KSUM A2010.12.3, Gift of the Estate of Katharine Hepburn.
Cream silk georgette and crêpe de Chine nightgown by Irene, Kent State University Museum, KSUM A2010.12.3, Gift of the Estate of Katharine Hepburn.
Also of particular note was how meticulously well-crafted and in rather good condition many of these garments were, such as this shirred and appliquéd cream silk georgette and crêpe de Chine nightgown designed by Irene and worn by Hepburn as Mary Matthews in State of the Union (MGM, 1948). As any designer for the stage or screen will tell you, this is not always the case. Between the forgiving eye of the camera (or the forgiving distance of the audience from the stage) and the many retakes and rehearsals, the film and theatre costumes in museum collections are notorious for their shabbiness. But even from behind a wall of Plexiglas, it was clear that much care had been put into their detailed construction. This is no doubt also a reflection of how involved Hepburn was in the process of designing and creating them, and of the high standard to which she worked. As the exhibition text noted, she often had recreations of her costumes made for her everyday wardrobe, so it is no surprise that they were made to stand the test of time.
Slacks and jodhpurs worn by Katharine Hepburn at the NYPL. Image credit: The Associated Press.
Slacks and jodhpurs worn by Katharine Hepburn at the NYPL. Image credit: The Associated Press.
Of course no clothing exhibition of Katharine Hepburn's would be complete without at least a passing mention of her well-known preference for trousers in her everyday life. The exhibition included many pairs of slacks and jodhpurs skillfully installed on half-mannequins in poses that playfully evoked her unabashed preference for this masculine style, when it was still unheard of for women to express such sartorial sentiments.

With four Academy Awards for Best Actress (and eight additional Oscar nominations), Katharine Hepburn remains the most decorated actress in American film history. Even ten years after her passing, she continues to charm the public with her style, wit, and enduring performances. As noted in the exhibition brochure, perhaps Calvin Klein summed up Hepburn’s mass appeal best when he presented her with the CFDA’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 1985: “She has truly epitomized the ultimate American woman. She’s vibrant, she’s outspoken, she’s hardworking and she’s independent…and, fortunately for all of us, she’s never been afraid to be comfortable.”

 (Note: The exhibition opened to the public in October 2012, and three months is the generally accepted upper limit on exhibitions featuring costumes and textiles because of their fragility, so the exhibition closed in January 2013. But, you can still download a PDF copy of the handsomely illustrated exhibition brochure here).

Desiring The Unobtainable: Gowns Made Of Paper

Unobtainium. The exotic, unobtainable, and probably mythic substance sought by scientists that would make a resounding breakthrough and success of the scientific endeavor at hand. Borrowing that concept from science, it’s interesting to realize that some of the glamorous things we desire give a convincing illusion of attainability but are, instead, wholly unobtainable.

De Borchgrave dressConsider Belgian artist Isabelle de Borchgrave’s elaborate gowns copied from some 300 years of high fashion, ca. late 17th to the early 20th century. Even the most elaborate of original fabric gowns from those eras are, theoretically, wearable. Certainly recreatable, in approximate respects. But de Borchgrave’s gowns are made of papier-mâché! Life-size, three-dimensional, authentic-looking gowns, robes, and jackets. And shoes – delightful faux-brocade pumps and slippers.

A close look at these gowns, featured in Prêt-à-Papier: The Exquisite Art of Isabelle de Borchgrave, a recent exhibit at the Hillwood Estate in Washington, D.C., revealed the intricate workmanship of the drape, prints, trims, and ornamentation. The heavy drape of an opulent taffeta, perhaps. The gossamer lightness of voile. The impressive illusion of fabric fitted atop hoops and panniers. In certain respects, the de Borchgrave gowns are perhaps more impressive than the originals in that the artist had to not only design, cut and assemble the gowns but also fashion and paint the “fabric.” Each piece is painstakingly crushed, ironed, painted, cut, and constructed. It looks just as if a wearer could be fitted into these splendid fashions by a lady’s maid, or more simply slip into one of the sheath 1920s frocks by Poiret, Lanvin, and Redfern of London. (Virginia wrote about a 2009 exhibit of de Borchgrave's Italian Renaissance gowns here.)De Borchgrave 1920s paper dresses based on originals by Poiret, Lanvin, and Redfern of London

Papier-mâché can be made into wearable, if not especially durable, costumes and masks. The de Borchgrave gowns were not made for that.

Yet, one wants to wear these dresses, designed, as they originally were, for human beings - or at least see someone else wear them. File under “impossible fantasy” because, alas, they are fantasies made of papier-mâché.

(For another, more conceptual take on paper fashion, see also: Petra Storrs on Pinterest and YouTube.)

Blitz Kid Glamour: A Profile Of Alejandro Gocast

Alejandro Gocast

Glamour icon? London-based model, DJ, and scene-maker Alejandro Gocast is making an impressive go at that status. I first stumbled across Gocast on Facebook, as part of the revived New Romantic club scene in London that I’ve long admired and written about here on DeepGlamour. Arising in the early 1980s, the New Romantics represented a creative, dressed-to-impress music and style movement, post-punk, post-disco. Now, more than 30 years later, Gocast is one of a new generation of New Romantic club kids. And he cuts a spectacular image in modeling and club photos. I interviewed him exclusively for DeepGlamour.

CH: How do you describe what you do? I think of you as a model, a glamorous nightclub personality, and a DJ.  But give DG a fuller picture of what you do?

Gocast: I would describe my career as an eclectic one. As well as being known for what you have mentioned in the London scene, I also have a career in luxury events management. My life is not a simple one. It can be challenging at times keeping up with schedules, appointments, club nights, friends, family—the list is endless, but then again life is for the living.  

CH: Where are you from? Your Model Mayhem profile says you are from Latin America, with parents of Mexican and German descent, respectively. How old were you when you moved to Britain?

Gocast: That is one tricky question. I am actually British, although I was born in Mexico. I have lived in London since a very young age. However, my mother language is Spanish, therefore (unfortunately) I do not have the honor of speaking with an English accent. My “genetic” background has indeed German from my dad’s side and Mexican from my mother’s. I hope this all makes sense.

Alejandro Gocast by Peter AshworthCH: You have such a distinct look, one that I would describe as exotic and androgynous.  Not what most people might think of as a typical male model. How would you describe your style image? And how did you discover and develop that image? (Did you get started in the new New Romantic club scene in London, or was it some other inspiration?)

Gocast: My image definitely started in the London club scene. I used to go out to “normal” clubs and bars, but always feeling that I was not quite suitable for them, I started to look for a more arty environment and played around with different looks, which I still do. Since I have always had a thing for the New Romantic style, I decided to become “re-born” into a new way, more in sync with my inner personality and my personal opinion in life, which is a very simple one: be who you are. 

CH: What are the Blitz Kids?

Gocast: The Blitz Kids were a group of young people who frequented the Blitz nightclub in Covent Garden, London in the very early 1980s and are credited with launching the New Romantic cultural movement. Among their number is a good friend of mine, Steve Strange, also Boy George and his friends Marilyn and Alice Temple, Perri Lister, Princess Julia, Philip Sallon, Carl Teper and Martin Degville (later to be the frontman of Tony James's Sigue Sigue Sputnik). The club was known for its outrageous style of clothes and make-up for both sexes, while it was also the birthplace of several pop groups. There is an official website for this, on which I actually also feature, you can visit it here.

CH: What musicians and bands are atop your current playlist? What musicians and bands are lifelong favorites?

Gocast: I have a wide range of taste when it comes down to music, and also quite extreme. I go from hardcore metal to Kate Bush. My personal music player is full of extremes. I do not really focus my attention to one artist or band. Since you asked, a few on my playlists at the moment are Garbage, JLo, Amanda Lear, Tribal House, Korn, Dead or Alive, Donna Summer, Kate Bush, Siouxie and the Banshees… see what I mean?

CH: You've worked with numerous artists and designers. Perhaps one of my favorite of your collaborations has been with Marko Mitanovski, a favorite designer of Lady Gaga. When I first viewed his fashions, I was truly astonished - they are strange and intriguing and elegant. Anthropomorphic creatures in black and white. How did you come to model for Mitanovski?

Gocast: I met Marko at one of my clubs, “THE FACE.” He was a guest there, and the moment we met we knew we would be working together. It was the right chemistry and we also get along really well. It is indeed a pleasure to work with him. I can’t wait for his next collection!  I love his dramatic design style.

CH:  Is there a designer you wear most often right now?

Gocast: I wear a lot of pieces from various artists, and it is just a question of blending and matching them to create my night-out style. I recently worked with Dane Goulding, who designed for the Spice Girls. He has some truly amazing pieces.

CH: You've been in a few fashion-art short films. I thought "The Dionysian" released in 2011 was really beautiful, and you looked darkly enchanting wearing lace and a high collar. And enormous spidery eyelashes. What was that experience like? What sort of direction were you given in the film, in terms of posing or projecting a certain image?

Gocast: This film was shot in London, in December. It was a very cold night and the director knew exactly what he wanted. Since we shared the same vision, I fit perfectly in the film. This film is going to an exhibition in Paris this year. I have worked behind and in front and the camera for a few years now, and the experience is always the same for me, exciting and always looking forward to seeing the final creation. 

CH: You starred in another fashion/art film called "Perform Nijinsky," which was produced by the very talented cabaret performer Mr. Pustra. Clearly the film was something of an homage to the early 20th-century Ballet Russes legend, Vaslav Nijinsky. Can you tell DG more about that film project?

Gocast: Pustra is a good friend and I am also an admirer of his work. Together with Dorota Mulczynska, the vision of a morphed early 20th Century Ballet Russes was created into a short film, celebrating and honoring Nijinsky. 

CH: Do you often do your own make up for photo shoots and club nights? Or do you more often work with a make up artist?

Gocast: For photo shoots I do work closely with Stephanie Stokkvik, a Norwegian high fashion make up artist. I have learned so much from her. If you have time, have a look for her on the net—she is amazing! When I go out, I normally “paint my face” on my own.

CH: Who is your top style icon?

Gocast: I am afraid I do not have one.

CH: When you travel around on everyday errands, to the grocery and laundromat and whatnot, how do you look and dress?

Gocast: You would not recognize me, that’s all I call say. I try to go under the radar when out and about on my personal life in order to give some space to myself and my close friends and family.

CH: When you aren't working, what do you do for fun?

Gocast: I am a bit of a geek. I own a PS3 and a whole bunch of games. I enjoy also watching horror movies with friends.

CH: What is your dream vacation destination?

Gocast: My other half loves traveling, and I have been lucky to have been to and seen some amazing tropical paradises. My favorite places.

CH: Do you have favorite perfumes/colognes?

Gocast: Yes, I am currently about to finish “Un Jardin Sur Le Nil” by Hermès, and my next fragrance will be from Diptyque Paris.

Alejandro Gocast 4CH: What are your go-to make up and skin care products?

Gocast: Any good moisturizer does, really, not any favorites in particular.

CH: What professional goals do you set for yourself? Are there particular photographers, artists, or designers you long to work with? Or, do you have something else in mind quite different from what you are doing now?

Gocast: I am shooting a few more fashion films this upcoming year and planning on starting some sketches for my own collection. However, I must keep this under wraps. I am pretty much open to work with anyone - as long as the chemistry is there, anything is possible.  

CH: What are your New Years Eve plans?

Gocast: I am spending New Years Eve with a good friend of mine. She runs a club in Bricklane, from which I will also be throwing another infamous club night soon. It is a very intimate space with limited capacity, which is just what I like.

LAST DAY to enter our special Makeover Week giveaway of IntésivEye eye-makeup remover pads. Deadline is midnight Pacific Time 1/31/012. Details at the post below.

The Garbo Aura Endures...And Is Worth A Lot Of Money

Julien's Auctions in Beverly Hills just conducted a two-day auction of property from Greta Garbo's estate. Although a superstar in the 1930s, Garbo made her last movie, the flop Two-Faced Woman, in 1941 and died in 1990. Before Friday, it wasn't clear that she maintained enough of a fan base to make her property especially valuable solely on the basis of provenance. Julien's pre-auction valuations were, in fact, modest enough that when my friend Kate Hahn (whose Forgotten Fashion: An Illustrated Faux History Of Outrageous Trends And Their Untimely Demise, excerpted here and here, is a DG favorite) and I visited the preview we actually bid on a few items.

An early sign that we needn't have bothered was this set of Garbo's driving caps, which had a pre-auction estimate of $150 to $200. They sold for 100 times that: $15,000.

Lot104626 Greta Garbo driving caps Juliens Auctions

Kate resisted the temptation to bid on Garbo's silver cocktail service, estimated at $800 to $1200. It went for $34,375.

Lot105973 Greta Garbo cocktail set Juliens Auctions

One of the most strikingly strange items in the collection was a pink clown hat, which the auction house said was, "Known by the family to have been made by Valentina for a privately staged production in which Garbo played a clown with friends in the 1950s." Estimated at $150 to $300, it sold for $8,125.

Lot105817 Greta Garbo pink clown hat Juliens Auctions

For full auction estimates and results, go here. A short article on the auction results is here.

The New Romantics And Martin Fry: A 30 Year Return To Glamour In Pop Music

The Lexicon of Love album cover
The Lexicon of Love album cover

Some 30 years ago, the New Romantic music movement reignited a return to sophisticated glamour and elegance in pop music sound and style. Next Tuesday, December 18, one of the quintessential New Romantic bands, ABC, will celebrate that moment in time with a special performance at London's Theatre Royal Drury Lane. Fronted by the blonde, statuesque singer Martin Fry, the band will perform its 1982 debut album, The Lexicon Of Love, backed by a full symphony orchestra.

“Thirty years is insane but the album still purrs along like a Bentley,” Fry recently told the Daily Star, drawing a comparison to another sort of glamour icon.

The album is lush and romantic, even without an orchestra. Readers might recall hits off the Trevor Horn-produced album, such as "Look of Love" and "Poison Arrow." But one need not even care for the music to appreciate the grand vision put forward by the artists and, indeed, the genre—both then and now.

At the height of disco, punk, and guitar-rock dominance in 1978, the band started out in Sheffield, England as an unremarkable-looking experimental electronica band called Vise Versa. But, as lore would have it, Fry's band mates suddenly discovered he could sing, and the band completely remade its sound and image, replete with skinny, matching 1960s-style suits and perfectly coiffed waved back hair. As the frontman, Fry pushed the style statement further by dazzling audiences in a now-iconic gold lamé suit.

It's interesting that so many years later, Fry's music aesthetic may have evolved beyond the New Romantic Lexicon sound, but his on-stage fashion presentation remains one of thoughtful elegance: expertly tailored suits made on Savile Row. Some are made of brightly colored dupioni silks in blues, purples, and oranges. As often, they are more subdued charcoals and periwinkle-grays. All are usually paired with simple ties and an ornate, statement belt buckle. The overall effect is that someone has made a very deliberate and respectful effort to dress for a specific special occasion—an audience, a show.

Long ago, a friend told me that he once imagined himself as Martin Fry, an elegant, mysterious man off on any manner of James Bond-style international intrigues and adventures.  Perhaps that image also sprang from an oddly-conceived spy-thriller short film called Maptrap intended to promote Lexicon.  Directed by Julien Temple, the film featured the band traveling in danger and intrigue behind the Iron Curtain. I think that captures as well as anything the vision Martin Fry and ABC intended to inspire—the illusion of a beautiful, glamorous life.

How Gordon Parks Made Fashion Photography Glamorous


Model wearing nursemaid's kerchief by Lilly Dache. Photo: Gordon Parks, courtesy the Gordon Parks Foundation

At the New York Times' Lens photo blog, Deborah Willis, of the Photography and Imaging Department at New York University, looks at the fashion work of the late Gordon Parks, who would have turned 100 this year. 

Parks is best known for his socially conscious documentary photography—he was the first black photographer for Life magazine—and for the 1970s blaxpoitation film Shaft, which he directed (and which is quite stylish too). But Parks largely got his start in the glamour industry, shooting portraits of society women in Chicago before eventually landing at the ne plus ultra of fashion magazines, Vogue, where he freelanced from the mid-1940s to the '60s.

Parks produced some of the magazine's loveliest images: models draped in furs and waiting for a bus; a woman dashing across an office, her sorbet-colored gown trailing behind her; girls in pert hats jumping in and out of taxis, or deep in conversation at a Parisian cafe. Willis writes:

With a clear understanding about how to “look” on city streets, in cafes and society balls, Parks’s fashion photographs are about the experience of being dressed. He communicated beauty, vanity and pleasure in his photographs of fashionably dressed women. ...

But there's something else that makes Parks's images so arresting, and that made them so radical at the time, and it's that they are alive. At the time Parks was beginning his career at Vogue, most fashion photography was done in a studio, with models posing like mannequins in front of artificial-looking sets or painted backdrops. Parks—along with Martin Munkácsi at Harper's Bazaar and Richard Avedon—was among the first to bring the model onto the streets, showing her interacting with the city and its inhabitants. And it made fashion photography more glamorous, because it allowed women to get lost in the narrative of a photograph, and imagine a world in which waiting for a bus or going to work was filled with romance and excitement and dramatic possibility. Before, fashion photography was about clothes; Parks and his peers made it about the women and the lives they lead in those clothes.

Click on the link to read Willis' article and see a slide show of Parks's work. 

Alison Goldfrapp's Glamour, Grit, And Gaze

Described by The Independent as a "glamorous gold chameleon," British singer-songwriter Alison Goldfrapp projects strong, stylized imagery in all her performances, whether on screen or on stage.

I suspect she's just showing off here in demonstrating that with super-slick audio and visual production values—and the right pair of legs—glamour can even shine through gritty images of ashtrays, toilets, and garbage:

The retro Studio 54 stuff doesn't hurt either.

Whatever else she has going for her, she seems to have the glamorous art of being photographed with an indirect gaze and obscured eyes down to a science:


The Leading Man: Hollywood And The Presidential Image, Featuring Herbert Hoover And An Autogiro

The Leading Man by Burton PerettiIn his new book The Leading Man: Hollywood and the Presidential Image, historian Burton W. Peretti traces the ways 20th-century U.S. presidents developed and mastered a “cinematic brand of leadership, turning the occupant of the Oval Office, whoever that might be, into a lead actor”—the  star, in factin the nation’s drama. “Despite the heightened cynicism and divisions in today's political culture, Americans of all persuasions perceive the president through the amorphous yet familiar cinematic image that has developed over the past century, Peretti writes in the book’s introduction. “It is an image we must understand and critique if we are to understand our political culture more clearly, and if we are ever to come close to realizing effective and wise self-government. Over the next three days, DG will run excerpts from chapter two of The Leading Man, focusing on the earliest presidents of the cinematic era: Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt.

Whether he was politically strong or weak, a twentieth-century president benefited from the status he enjoyed in Washington society; the perception of the power of the office around his person; public relations, advertising, mass periodicals, radio, and the other machinery of modern celebrity; and the innovative example of Theodore Roosevelt, who infused his time in office with dramatic gestures, theatrical oratory, and evocations of aggressive masculinity.

The modern cult of personality, advanced by the theater and exploited by public figures such as Theodore Roosevelt, reached its apogee in Hollywood’s crafting of its most charismatic leading actors and actresses. Much of the movies’ power derived from what early Hollywood producers and directors were fond of calling their “verisimilitude”—their apparent, ultimate success at turning real sights and sounds into art, using real people and real locations—the ideal to which realist literature, painting, the phonograph, radio, and even photography had separately aspired but could never reach.

Herbert Hoover poses for movie camera
Herbert Hoover poses for “talking motion picture”

The movies, though, also exploited fantasy, creating exaggerated visions of space, time, and personality that often pulled the medium away from realism. Motion pictures’ precarious straddling of both reality and escapism, interestingly enough, was roughly equivalent to Americans’ highly conflicted feelings about politics: leaders and voters alike simultaneously struggled to confront ugly realities and to pursue seemingly fantastic goals of national unity and harmony, with the voters often putting their faith in politicians who made unrealistic promises and ran on platforms of utopian change.

As the United States struggled through the Great Depression and fought World War II, presidents and motion picture actors fulfilled similar cultural roles and increasingly crossed paths in both work and play. The presidencies of Herbert Hoover (1929–1933) and Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933–1945) illustrate how the new cultural dominance of the movies affected the leisure activities of the chief executives, the business that came across their desks, and the evolving image of their office. Both men were inquisitive and alert students of their times, which brought economic distress and painful change to average Americans. Out of necessity, they looked to the movies for new tools and examples of leadership.

Mayer, like other founders of Hollywood, had traveled far in life. He left his native Ukraine in childhood, grew up in St. John, New Brunswick, and made an early living as a theater owner in Boston. In the 1920s, he was the head of production at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. MGM’s very name illustrated the merger mania among studios in the 1920s—a dynamic business situation that was certain to attract the attention of the Commerce Department. Mayer and Secretary Hoover assiduously cultivated each other’s loyalty. Mayer wrote Hoover in 1924 that he wished that all Americans “could know you intimately as you deserve to be known,” while the secretary of commerce assured the producer “that I have you in mind many times a day.”

Louis B Mayer and family visit White House
Louis B. Mayer and his family visit the White House

As a Californian and as the U.S. Secretary of Commerce during the 1920s, just before he ascended to the White House, Herbert Hoover was well situated to witness the growth of the motion picture industry. Much of his perception of the industry was shaped by his close relationship with one of its most important early figures, Louis B. Mayer.

Mayer called on Hoover whenever he visited Washington, and Hoover reciprocated during his travels out west. During the 1928 campaign, Mayer sent MGM photographers up to Palo Alto, California, to take portraits of Hoover and his wife, Lou Henry Hoover, at their home. In the days before Hoover’s election as president, one of his aides reported that Mayer, “unable to contain himself longer, called me up last night to ‘bubble over.’”

Even more than his immediate predecessor, Calvin Coolidge, Hoover found himself framed by the lens of the motion picture camera. During his years at Commerce Hoover’s background as a celebrated humanitarian had already made his image an appealing (and often unauthorized) element in advertisements. His presidential campaign in 1928 represented a major leap forward in the use of public relations techniques in marketing a presidential candidate. The campaign was also the first to make significant use of movie technology as a promotional tool. Prints of a silent biographical film entitled Master of Emergencies, produced by Hoover’s friend, the journalist Will Irwin, were made available for showings nationwide. “WHY WE SHOULD VOTE FOR HERBERT HOOVER TOLD IN TALKING MOTION PICTURES,” proclaimed a billboard on the side of a truck that brought the film to towns across the Midwest.

Autogiro lands at White House

Hoover’s White House aides were in regular contact with the newsreels, planning access to events featuring the president. They arranged, for example, to allow multiple newsreel services to cover Hoover’s attendance at the Thomas Edison birthday celebration in Dearborn, Michigan, organized by the public relations pioneer Edward Bernays. On another occasion the newsreels covered the landing of an autogyro on the White House lawn. Various organizations wrote to the president asking him to film greetings for their conclaves. Others proposed starring roles for Hoover in non-journalistic productions. One filmmaker requested his assistance in making a series of short films “that will glorify the United States President.” White House aides declined almost all requests for the president’s appearances in such filming, but they did agree to let Hoover appear in Paramount’s inaugural newsreel, and in 1932 they allowed a filmmaker to plan a documentary about the president’s daily routine (which apparently was never realized).

Next: Hollywood, FDR, and the vogue for presidential movies.

Text from The Leading Man: Hollywood and the Presidential Image, by Burton W. Peretti, Rutgers University Press 2012 and used with permission.

[Photos from Library of Congress. Video licensed from CriticalPast.com.]

From The Archives: Capes On The Runway: Glamorous But Impractical?

With the WSJ reporting that fashion is having a "superhero moment," we revive this post, with minor tense changes, from a similar moment back in 2010.

Concealing the body and arms in a dramatic sweep of fabric, capes are among the most glamorous of garments. Yet they haven't been popular for quite some time. As Fashionising noted in a guide to the 2010 cape craze, "Since the humble poncho had its hippie revival, the cape in its more sophisticated forms has seen nothing of a major comeback on the streets--that is, until now."

Jason Wu cape Saks Fifth Avenue

Perhaps that's because the cape's mystery and drama come at the price of practicality. Even most superheroes have abandoned them. "Capes have been an object of scorn among discerning superheroes at least since 1974," writes Michael Chabon, "when Captain America, having abandoned his old career in protest over Watergate, briefly took on the nom de guerre Nomad, dressed himself in a piratical ensemble of midnight blue and gold, and brought his first exploit as a stateless hero to an inglorious end by tripping over his own flowing cloak."

When I was just out of college and living in Philadelphia, my grandmother gave me a beige wool cape she'd bought for herself but found too heavy for Georgia. I thought it quite glamorous and happily substituted it for my rather boring winter coat.

There was just one problem. You can't carry a purse on the shoulder of a cape. It slides off. In fact, with your arms covered by the fabric and small slits for your hands, you can't carry much of anything at all, especially when commuting by bus. My solution was to put my purse, and anything else I needed to carry, under the cape, against my body. That worked, and it had an unexpected benefit.

For some reason, whenever I was standing up on the bus, people offered me a seat. It took three or four such incidents before I figured out that I looked pregnant.

 [Jason Wu lace-trimmed cape available at Saks Fifth Avenue.]

Taylor Swift's Time-Traveling Costume Mashup: Mr. Darcy Meets Dangerous Liaisons

Eating lunch in the mall food court the other day, I happened to see this Taylor Swift video from 2008. I was struck by the costumes. The men and women's clothes were inspired by completely different periods.

Taylor Swift Love Story male still

The man, who seems to have stepped out of a Jane Austen novel, is channeling the Regency styles of the early 19th century.

Taylor Swift Love Story female costume ballgowns

But instead of the clingy empire-waist gowns of the period, the women wear dresses that call to mind the mid-to-late 18th century--vaguely Versailles. See this picture of Madame Pompadour or this Copley painting of Mrs. Benjamin Pickman for comparison.

Taylor Swift Love Story couple dancing

The video isn't, of course, a period piece. Its imagery is meant to evoke a fairy-tale romance. Vaguely 18th-century court garb spells "princess," while a black suit with a bit of ruffle at the collar and cuffs says "olde time gentleman lover" without being too jarring to contemporary eyes. (You don't want him looking like Adam Ant or Roger Daltrey in the highwayman post below.) Plus there's the Jane Austen connection.

Taylor Swift Love Story couple costumes horse

Completing the mashup are the song's lyrics, which compare the high-school lovers not only to a prince and princess but also to Romeo and Juliet, who were from a still-earlier period. I suppose it all just proves that young love is timeless.