A Brief Look at Fashion and the Consumer in Hollywood’s Golden Age

A wide shot of Macy’s in the 1930s

At the turn of the 19th Century, (American) big businesses were preoccupied with the production of manufactured goods. It reached a point of overproduction, for which there were no buyers — an imbalance great enough to dramatically shift sales tactics in an effort to save the economy. At the same time, the film industry was transitioning into how we know it today — an entertainment industry backed by the largest corporations in the country. These corporations now had the power to include Hollywood in their capitalist ventures and eventually changed the route of consumerism.

“Tie-ins,” or what we would now refer to them as “Product Placement(s),” functioned in films as living, breathing advertisements to generate desire for material goods aligned with the film stars operating with them. According to Benjamin Hampton, European manufacturers saw a decline in the demand for their own goods in comparison to the goods being advertised on American film screens. “They began to complain to their governments that audiences saw American sewing machines, typewriters, furniture, clothing, shoes, steam shovels, saddles, automobiles and all sorts of things in the cinema shows, and soon began to want these things…” (Eckert 103) Motion Pictures acted as a service to American business, giving the economy hope for a stable future. “A Government study in 1929 revealed that foreign sales of bedroom and bathroom furnishings had increased 100 percent because of movies.”

One of the most famous filmmakers of the time, Cecil B. DeMille, pioneered the essence of modernity in this era of film. Rather than producing “dated” costume period dramas, DeMille brought a fashion-conscious film setting to Paramount studios where he hired designers, architects, makeup artists and hairdressers who knew how to incorporate the latest and most modern styles into his films. This became known as the “DeMille Style,” a style meticulously curated to satisfy the audience’s desire to see lavish fashion and furnishings on screen. During this DeMille era, some of his studio designers opened up shops that catered to the wealthy, fashion-conscious moviegoers, leading to the copyright of styles modeled by film stars which employed their names. This birthed the line, “Miss Hollywood Junior,” that featured costume replicas that had been seen on the big screen. This line was sold exclusively in one store in every major city. Hollywood fashions had penetrated the psyche of the American consumer and soon dominated department stores.

Cecil B. De Mille

In 1930, Bernard Waldman at the Modern Merchandising Bureau became fashion’s middle man for all the major film studios. “By the mid-1930s, Waldman’s system generally operated as follows: sketches and/or photographs of styles to be worn by specific actresses in specific films were sent from the studios to the bureau (often a year in advance to the film’s release). The staff first evaluated these styles and calculated new trends. They then contracted manufacturers to the styles produced in time for the film’s release” (Eckert 107). Waldman’s involvement established Cinema Fashions, an exclusive shop inspired by fashion in film, marketed to women who could afford to spend $30 or more on a gown. However, due to its exclusivity and popular demand, competitors and cheaper versions (passed on to mass production), led Waldman to create lines within the shops to be sold at more “affordable” prices.

Print magazines featured editorials and advertisements of the major films stars modeling the clothes, hats, and furs that that they would be wearing in their forthcoming films. Studio designers such as Edith Head of Paramount and Edward Stevenson at RKO were also mentioned in these magazines, gaining them a cult following and making them household names; similar as to how we view couture and ready-to-wear designers today.

Edith Head, Paramount Pictures’ Head Designer

The film industry’s commitment to consumerism proved to be a time where women dominated the majority of the purchasing of most of the consumer items. Studies taken place in the late 1920s and early 1930s showed that women made all of the purchases for family use including drugs, cars, dry goods and raw products. This, on top of a film industry dominated by women film stars had a great influence on the films that were being made at the time. Hollywood in general developed a preference for modern, “Women films,” as they provided greater opportunities for tie-ins and product placements. As women staked their claim in the economy, this began to reflect on the silver screen. The importance of women as consumers was a distinct market point, as shooting locations were shaped around hair salons, department stores, kitchens, and vanity rooms — settings that were/are typically considered to be “female spaces.”

Celebrity culture used to navigate our own methods of conspicuous consumption has had a direct influence on the market economy. The psychological gratification is instant, aligning the consumer with celebrity, generating an emotional fantasy. While product placement now isn’t as much as a forced effort as it was during cinema’s golden age, the opportunities for it today have maximized. We now have internet celebrities, reality television stars and famous chefs to endorse the things we desire like cellular phones, fashion, cosmetics, apps, and lifestyles.

Actress, Joan Crawford whose fashion presence in film was coveted by women across the world

“I would suggest that we were not, that Hollywood, drawing upon the resources of literature, art, and music did as much or more than any other force in capitalistic culture to smooth the operating of the production-consumption cycle by fetishizing products and putting the libido in libidinally invested advertising” (Eckert 121).

Like what you read? Give Scarlett ♡ a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.