top of page

Going to The Beginning: Movies, Style, and Individuality – 1910s

But the rule stands that the length of a film's life may be determined with certainty and surety by the rule of clothes. - Photoplay magazine, 1914

A page spread from the Photoshop magazine (February, 1916)

Back in 1910s, the movie making was synonymous with innovation, style, and individuality. Women and men from all walks of life came together to create a new form of art. The rules were few, the unploughed field of self-expression in the medium was vast. And the masses were eager to support the new art form.

It happened so that the majority of movie goers at the time - 80%, - in cities, towns, and even some villages, were middle-class and working-class women. These women went to movies not only to enjoy 'photoplays', as movies were called then, and admire their favourite actresses, but also to pick up on fashion trends. For, movies were made ‘ahead of times’. So, preparing for their roles, actresses had to anticipate fashions of the time when the films they starred in would be shown.

I don’t’ rely too much on today, for pictures taken today must represent tomorrow’s fashion. Else, they will be out of date when the film is shown.’ – Mabel Normand (1892-1930), an American actress.

In the early teens, actresses would bring their own clothes on set, and not always the first choice ones, but second or even third, not paying too much attention to whether they would be in trend or not, since films were shot on ad hoc basis with a mere story idea at hand. So, everything from story lines to locations, to costumes were of a spontaneous nature. There was a great freedom in self-expression, but, at the same time, movies had a great mishmash of styles in them.

However, by the mid-teens, movie making process had become more structured and organised. The story ideas transformed into one-page synopsis or scenarios with better defined scenes. Each scene would require a different gown to be worn, and actresses would take time to prepare their wardrobes for the role in advance. To be in trend, they paid for exclusive fashion hints and sketches, and received advanced copies of fashion magazines from New York, Paris, and London. As a rule, all garments except the ones for costume plays were paid by actresses themselves, as their ample salaries could allow it.

She has to make a ‘dress plot’, a sort of scenario for her own guidance which sets down all the garments that she has to wear in the course of the photoplay.’ - the article ‘Dressing for Movies’ (Photoplay magazine January,1915)

Actresses like Marry Fuller, Pauline Bush, Barbara Tennant, Grace Cunard, Ethel Clayton, Clara Kimball Young, and Beverly Bayne, each had their own style and approach to ‘dressing up’ for their roles. These women wore charming clothes with distinction and had definite theories of style. To all of them dressing for a role required as much art as did the acting. They knew about psychology of colours and their influence on the mood and depiction of a character. They paid attention to the garments' lines and cuts, so they would ‘speak’ on screen. They experimented with textures and shades, so to have the best possible outcome in the black and white picturing. They knew what suited them and what did not, and how each costume effected the portrayal of their characters. In other words, they were true artists that visualised, created, and depicted.

Clara Kimball Young (1890-1960), an actress, producer, and founder of her own production company Clara Kimball Young Film Corporation, believed in the psychic effect of certain clothes for the expression of moods and emotions. She was convinced that colours affected the mood and emotions to such extent that even though appearing in the movie as shades of black, white, and grey, their influence was still apparent to the audience.

‘Purple always suggests the regal magnificence. It is therefore a color to be used in gowns for those scenes which call for stately effects. Dark green suggests the outdoors, and gives a freedom of thought that no other dark color gives me. Brown has a domestic element of quiet that may be utilized in those plays that demand that particularly. Blues are a very difficult color for wear in photoplays, although lighter blues suggest spiritual feelings that cannot be set down exactly but which may be shown slightly by wearing this shade. Pale green gives a thought of wide distances of sea and also of an ethereal feeling. Blacks are to be used, of course, only for grief, for mourning, for poverty, for despair, although white may be used effectively to suggest grief. Yellow is a difficult color to use in the movies, although it is the basis of much psychological emotion.’ – Clara Kimball Young (1890-1960)

Ethel Clayton (1882-1966), an actress and a lover of books, combined the psychology of colour with the psychology of line ‘effectively gowning in her parts that brings out not only her personal charms but also the particular emotions demanded by the roles. She is one of the women who never dress haphazardly for any part, giving quite as much attention to the costuming as she gives to the study of the scenes.' (Photoplay magazine, January, 1914)

Mary Pickford (1892-1979), an actress, screenwriter, producer, and cofounder of United Artists distribution company, advised not to smother one’s individuality in clothes: ‘many of my gowns come from London and Paris, but if they do not suit my personality, I have them made over. Times have changed. We used to save our clothes for the pictures. I knew a leading woman when I first went into pictures who used to change her dress carefully when she came down to the studio, donning her second-best clothes even if she was playing the part of a millionaire's wife. Clothes should be made subtly to express the supposed character of the wearer too. And to do this, the styles must always be adapted.'

Silks, velvets, satins and flowered materials are the best in pictures. I often have materials photographed before I make them up. I get many fashion tips from my mother, who lives in New York, and is in touch with the leading fashion firms there. It is not hard if you watch the tendency of fashions to prophesy what the next thing's going to be. Mabel Normand (1892-1930), an actress, screenwriter, and film director.

Style was regarded as a must for any aspiring or already successful actress. In fact, many actresses became popular because of their sense of style, originality, and character on and off stage.

Style is something which cannot be learned, and all the money in the world will not buy it. It is a question of personality. And just as it is the actress’ work to depict various personalities and to become each of those women, so it is also up to her to dress each personality according to the style which that personality would naturally have. The woman of spirit and originality dresses that way, the business woman dresses in simple tailor-made things, and the adventuress dresses to lure’. – Ruth Roland, ‘Personality in Dress’ (Photoplay magazine, 1915)

Actresses loved their gowns, for they were their allies. They acted together with their owners and could emphasize just the right thing for them. No detail was ignored. Especially so, that the limitations of black and white imaging encouraged actresses to learn about transformation and depiction of colours in grayscale. And, indeed these women became masters of 'portraiture' on screen. Gowns were as much actors as the actresses who wore them.

Marguerite Courtot (1897-1986), an actress of a Swiss-French descent who started her career as a child model, made her gowns 'cooperate' with her by studying the capabilities of different fabrics and variety of their colour tones. She compared the role that clothes play in an actresses' life to the role that a frame plays in bringing out the advantages of a painting. Marguerite Courtot always endeavoured to make her outfits play with her and not against her, 'framing' her own individuality as well as personalities she acted out.

The thing I have had to study most carefully is the tone value of my clothes. Not in their own lovely colors must I consider them, but as regarding their tone values on screen. Literally, there is no color in the photographed gown, yet through tone value different colors in the same gown do seem to exist on the screen. I must help lance of the camera by considering how various tints and shades will register. I have had people say to me: I' liked that little blue serge frock you wore in the play so much.' How did they know it was blue? They didn’t. It might really have been blue or any of half a dozen other shades which would all register the same tone value.’ – Marguerite Courtot (1897-1986)

'The screen is the fashion magazine of the masses.' - Photoplay magazine, 1915

Bessie Barriscale (1884-1965), an actress, producer, and a founder of her own film studios Bessie Barriscale Feature Company, believed that the film stage had become the fashion book of the people: 'Men of course don't know or care what style of dress a woman is wearing so long as it's becoming. But women do. We help the great designers and modistes, for a woman who will scoff at a mode in a book, will often accept it when carried off by some graceful screen artist. Women love to sit at picture shows and spot antedated gowns on a woman. I know it, for I've heard them do it.'

Apart from making and ordering clothes for the roles, actresses sourced out some of their garments from their friends, families, as well as communities where a movie was shot. Such approach added to creativity and sharing and allowed women who were not part of movie making make their contribution to the development of this art form.

Anita King in the Hawaiian gown, and Blanche Sweet in the Montenegrin costume & a gown of her design

Anita King (1884-1963), an actress, a stunt driver, and the first woman to driver a car unaccompanied across the USA, in one of her interviews to the Photoplay magazine recalled that the Indian dress she wore in 'The Girl of The Golden West' was loaned to her by an old Indian woman at Kean's Camp in the San Jacinto Mountains where the movie was shot. The actress had a dress but when the Indian woman saw it, she said that it was not quite right for the tribe that Anita’s character represented, and so she brought the right dress in which Anita King appeared in the movie. Anita's other dress - the one she wore as the Countess Harcastle in 'The Man from Home' - was given to her by a friend who in her turn received it as a present from Queen Lilioukalani in Hawaii, and was made by the natives.

Another silent era star, Blanche Sweet (1896-1986), who designed all of her gowns, shared that the gown she wore in 'The Warrens of Virginia' movie, based on the De Mille family history, was made by a descendant of the coloured mammy who served Grandmother De Mille. The dress was the exact replica of the one worn by the elder Mrs De Mille in war time - The American Civil War. And the Montenegrin gown which the actress wore in 'The Captive' belonged to the Montenegrin woman from Los Angeles, who sold it to her.

The movies of the silent era were regarded as pictures being wholly made for the eye, well, they still should be, and, thus, clothes actresses wore on screen played an important role. Limitations such as absence of sound and colour on screen prompted creativity and developed artistry in depicting scenes and stories. In them, lines, materials, and tones of colours counted more than anything, as they spoke out in forms, shapes, textures, and shades to the eyes of the audience, providing an enjoyable visual experience. Movies of 1910s entertained, excited, but most of all set trends and provided cultural role models for aspiring young women of the middle and working class.

Seraphima Bogomolova

bottom of page