“Certainly No Clark Gable” – Reflections on the Journalistic Discourse about Hollywood Character Actors, ca. 1915-1949

Linn Lönroth, Stockholm University, Sweden

8 April 2020

In a reader’s letter entitled “Character Actors are the Greatest” published in Picture-Play Magazine in 1926, an anonymous film fan criticised the allegedly much too predominant journalistic focus on Hollywood’s leading stars. “Always I read of stars – stars – stars!” the fan objected, and declared that leading actors were better understood as “merely a set of rather good-looking nonentities.” While emphasising the brilliance of players such as Dale Fuller, Cesare Gravina and Joseph Swickard, the letter suggested that film fans of the day were starved of stories about “the true artistes of the screen” – the character actors.[i]

Albeit not representative of the views of the editors and writers of Picture-Play Magazine, this reader’s letter is nevertheless indicative of a more widespread cultural fascination with the “non-star” in Hollywood, and particularly with the character actor. Consistently in US fan magazines and newspapers from mid 1910s and onwards through the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, character acting was a significant point of journalistic interest that gave rise to lively discussions about the hierarchies of the star system and its effect on the profession of film acting. Typically framed within discussions of stardom, character actors were imagined as embodiments of difference that offered contrast to the leading stars and a glimpse into a less glamorous side of Hollywood. Distinguished by their alleged peculiarities, individual quirks, unremarkable lifestyles and run-of-the-mill presence on screen, these actors were celebrated as quintessential examples of “non-stars” in Hollywood.

Drawing on a wide array of articles, interviews, films reviews, gossip columns and other types of journalism from Hollywood fan magazines and US newspapers from the classical era, this essay explores the significant popular discourse that emerged around the character actor.[ii] While previous research has shown how such national press coverage helped to create and sustain the notion of the film star and affirm its place within US film culture, I will argue for how the notion of the “non-star,” as exemplified by the character actor, was similarly established within this film culture.[iii] Because of the close ties between the film industry and the fan magazines in particular, as emphasised in previous studies, this discourse arguably also indicates the overlooked importance of the “non-star” to the industry itself and to classical Hollywood filmmaking.[iv]

Personality vs. Versatility: The Silent Era

In order to better understand how the notion of the “non-star” gained in cultural significance in the US, it is worth going back to the emergence of the star system and the development of the many non-starring categories of actors that this system brought about. In her study of typecasting in US cinema, Pamela Robertson Wojcik has shown how the development of the star system in the early 1910s indeed gave rise to a more hierarchical division of labour among film actors. While the stars were positioned at the top of this hierarchy, the majority of actors rather had to settle for filling the many non-starring, supporting roles that the movies required. The character actor emerged at this point as a “mid-level player,” as Robertson Wojcik suggests, as it was ranked above a number of other non-starring actors, such as bit players and extras. It was, however, invariably ranked below the star. Although a certain level of movement up and down the star system’s hierarchy was possible for some actors, Robertson Wojcik notes that is was unusual for character actors in particular to ascend in the ranking. Despite their status as mid-level players, then, character actors were perceived as possessing qualities that ultimately prevented them from attaining starring roles.[v]

This dividing line between stars and character actors is worth emphasising, because it very quickly made its way into the popular discourse of the time. Already in the mid 1910s but increasingly so in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, the character actor was very emphatically imagined as existing in a dichotomous relationship with the leading star. Although journalists found various ways of addressing and conceptualising this dichotomy over the years and decades, there was a notable consistency within the discourse and a prevailing sense that character actors deviated from the prevailing Hollywood ideal.[vi]

In journalism from the silent era, this perceived difference between stars and character actors was primarily expressed in terms of acting technique and personality. Curiously, the majority of reporters also sided with the character actors and emphasised their alleged superiority over the stars. While the latter tended to be described as mere figures of beauty whose personalities were simply repeated across films, character actors were instead perceived as versatile in their roles and as possessing tangible acting skills. As the New York Times put it in 1920, character actors are the “true highlights of photoplays.” Their acting style involves the “art of impersonation” and of allowing their individuality to become “absorbed” by the character in question.[vii] Stars, on the other hand, only ever rely on their good looks and personality. As such, they have to confine themselves to playing only one type of role: “that of being themselves, as they have become known to the public.”[viii]

Arguing along similar lines, many other newspaper reporters and fan magazine writers suggested that character actors were the “bright fellow[s]” or “fine old actors” with “real merit” and “skilled artistry.”[ix] Contrary to popular perception, the story went, it was the character actors who gave the most “splendid” performances; invariably a step above those of the “stars they support[ed].”[x] Indeed, within this discourse, the stars were conceived as having little to show in terms of acting technique and were rather described as “Greek gods,” “modern demigods or goddesses” or “vivacious little dolls who play silly flapper roles,” and so on.[xi]

Closely associated with the notion of the character actor’s versatility was also the idea of physical disguise. Repeatedly when discussing the character actors’ skills in impersonation, journalists emphasised the actors’ physical appearance and ability to disguise themselves in convincing ways. While the stars had to look natural in order to be recognised as the personality with whom the public had become familiar, most writers maintained, the character actors were instead free to experiment with costume and make-up in order to obscure their own “self.” As the character actor Theodore Roberts put it himself in Photo-Play Journal in 1920, the character man is someone who “carries his personality in his make-up box.”[xii]

For Roberts, the fact that his profession indeed required him to actively disguise himself was in fact something he deemed as a blessing. In his article, which was given the title “The Happy Lot of the Character Actor,” Roberts imagined the stars as being in constant worry about their looks and personalities. Character actors such as himself, however, never felt tied down by Hollywood’s constrictive beauty norms and ideals. As he put it:

I thank my stars that I have no need to be “Lean and Slippered,” but can grow fat with no fear of the shrivelling of the salary envelope. I am on my knees in gratitude that the fates decreed me a personality that did not lend itself to the fluff and pulchritude but called upon me to clothe myself in the habiliments of other personalities than my own.[xiii]

Figure 1: Theodore Roberts, “The Happy Lot of the Character Actor,” Photoplay-Journal, June, 1920, 22. Accessed via The Media History Digital Library

Contrary to Roberts’ positive outlook, however, most writers were critical of the fact that character actors were unable to attain starring roles. There was also a strong sense that the star system had destroyed the art of acting in favour of an emerging personality cult. While criticising Hollywood’s growing obsession with young and pretty film stars with popular personalities, many reporters called for change and envisioned the character actor as taking centre stage in this process. As Screenland argued in 1923, “golden curl[es]” and a “perfect profile” doesn’t do it anymore, “the public is actually demanding that actors act!”[xiv] On a more radical note, The Los Angeles Times even went so far as to proclaim that the “rise of the character actors” would come with the inevitable demise of the star system.”[xv]

Although this kind of rhetoric had little effect on the realities within the US film industry, it is nevertheless notable that certain strands within this silent-era discourse about character actors evidently formed a critique against the consolidation of the star system. Because the character actors were perceived as representing different (and, according to many journalists, better) values than those of the stars, they were repeatedly singled out as symbols for change. In this way, the character actor became central to the imagination of a film industry in which versatility was valued higher than beauty and personality. Consistently, reporters also positioned themselves, and indeed the publication they wrote for, as active agents in this change and as champions of the underdog who advocated a different Hollywood.

Godlike Beauties vs. Everyday Eccentrics: The Sound Era

As sound came to US film industry and the studio system was further consolidated, the hierarchies of the star system were reinforced rather than undermined. The discourse about character actors, however, grew stronger. Not only was there more written about non-starring actors more generally in the 1930s and 1940s, many reporters were also becoming increasingly persistent when it came to differentiating between stars and character actors. As focus shifted from the versatility of character actors and the set personalities of stars, journalists were now increasingly concerned with the supposedly unconventional nature of character actors and the ways in which their physical appearances differed from those of the stars. Although reporters continued to celebrate the character actor and to position themselves as rooting for the underdog, the sometimes reactionary tone of the silent-era discourse nevertheless faded. Rather than envisioning or calling for radical change, journalists were now reinforcing the hierarchies of the star system by persistently establishing the character actors as figures that diverged from Hollywood’s constrictive beauty ideals.

In particular, notions of physical attractiveness, glamour and youth were held as counterpoints to that which defined the character actor. There was also a growing tendency to pathologise the bodies of these actors and to foreground their traits and attributes as flawed. Numerous writers for instance drew attention to the character actors’ weight (which was typically just brought up if the actor was considered overweight), purportedly strange or asymmetrical facial features, old age or quite simply what was thought of as their unattractive (or at very least plain) bodies, especially when defined in contrast to the svelte, taught or sculpted physiques of the leads. While the stars were described as otherworldly, extraordinary and beautiful, then, character actors were rather defined according to their alleged shortcomings and imperfections. This could, for instance, include their “chubby” or “fat” bodies, “pop-eyed” and “potato pan” faces, “un-actorish-looking” appearances, “stooped shoulders,” “long nose[s],” “thick and bushy” eyebrows, “thinning hair,” “mush mug” faces, oversized Adam’s apples or more generally their lack of “sex appeal.”[xvi] As Gladys Hall put it in reference to the character actor Walter Connolly in an article published in Modern Screen in 1934, “[h]e is certainly no Clark Gable.”[xvii]

Figure 2: Gladys Hall, “Average But Wonderful: A grand story about a great actor, Walter Connolly,” Modern Screen, December, 1934, 37. Accessed via The Media History Digital Library

Descriptions such as these were typically also accompanied by comments about the character actors’ peculiar behaviour, acting styles and personalities. Frequently, writers emphasised the eccentricity of the character actors’ mannerisms and commented on their posture, gestures or facial expressions. Writing in 1937, a reporter in Hollywood for instance drew attention to the “excitable” and “neurotic” foibles of Edward Everett Horton. His fellow character actor Henry Ametta was similarly noted for his “extremely nervous,” “fidgety,” and “worried” manner.[xviii] Various other reporters emphasised traits or “idiosyncrasies” such as “flutterings,” “jitters,” “bewilderment,” “occasional wheezes” or the “nervous” temperament, “snooty reserve” or “whimsical” nature of specific actors.[xix] Weighed against the otherwise naturalist, restrained and subtle acting styles that permeated Hollywood, as explored by scholars such as Roberta Pearson and Cynthia Baron, it is notable that character actors were perceived as so prone to exploring more ostentatious or eccentric forms of performance.[xx]

The blatant body shaming and othering that invariably also characterised these kinds of conversations were usually, and very much indifferently, justified as a way of stressing the alleged “humanness” or “ordinariness” of the character actor. This might seem contradictory, but the eccentric traits and attributes that many writers associated with these actors were also believed to make them into recognisable figures from everyday life. In comparison to the “unearthly” and “glamorized” “pretty boys” and “eye-filling gals,” as a reporter in Photoplay described the leading stars in 1938, the character actors were rather perceived as “real human beings.” As the writer put it, it was their job to provide the “human background” of the otherwise fairy-tale like worlds of the movies.[xxi] Although the discourse about these actors was growing increasingly problematic, then, the journalists were nevertheless in agreement that the characters actors brought something unique to the movies, and crucially something that the stars could not provide.

Struggles for Attention

Besides this continuous dialogue about the perceived difference between stars and character actors, the 1930s also saw the emergence of a conversation in press about an imagined power struggle between the two parties. In these discussions, character actors were described in a rather jarring language as reporters drew analogies to theft or burglary when referring to what they saw as a particularly arresting performance.[xxii] Variations of the expressions “stealing the show” or “stealing someone’s thunder,” as they are still known and used today, were hence beginning to be used in reference to the performances of certain non-starring actors.[xxiii]

The figurative use of language within this context cannot be emphasised enough. Metaphors, analogies and hyperbole were invariably used to amplify the reporters’ points and to add a sense of drama, comedy or fun to their writings. Typically, journalists reached for words such as “picture stealing,” “scene stealing,” “screen theft,” “lens larceny,” “cinema-swiping,” “film lifting,” “plundering” or the like while simultaneously referring to the character actors as “bandits,” “muggers,” “thieves,” “larcenists,” “pickpockets” “star kidnappers,” “film falcons” and even “rascals.”[xxiv] It was also common to describe successful character performances as though the actors were “turning the tables,” “outsmarting,” “upstaging” or even “eclipsing” the leading stars, thus evoking a sense of Hollywood being turned on its head.[xxv] It is important to note that the term “character actor” was occasionally used in conflation with, for instance, “minor actor,” “supporting actor” and sometimes “bit actor” within this context. The primary aim appears to have been to shed light on the alleged power struggle that played out between stars and non-stars in Hollywood at large.

Figure 3: “Picture Stealers,” Silver Screen, August, 1937. Accessed via The Media History Digital Library

A number of journalists of the time even took it upon themselves to act as detectives of sorts in order to identify the many guilty offenders among the non-starring actors and to call attention to the alleged danger they posed to the status quo. In a photospread entitled “The Most Dangerous Men in Hollywood” published in 1938, for instance, Hollywood presented a list of what they called “the screen’s worst scene stealers.” Each of the eleven actors (one of whom, curiously, was a child actor) were presented with a thumbnail story as well as a photograph in the style of a mugshot. Among those accused were Charles Ruggles, who was noted for his “long record of picture stealing,” Leo Carrillo, who allegedly “terrorized many quiet dramas” and Edward Everett Horton, whom the reporter suggested was “particularly dangerous to romantic scenes where the heroine and hero wish to be alone.” Notably, the listed actors were also conflated with their on-screen characterisations and described as though they were deliberately plotting to hijack the movies. Their various physical traits, mannerisms and acting techniques were further described as devious “disguises” or “appearances” that were “assumed” in order to “gain access” or “entrance” to the most important scenes.[xxvi]

Figures 4 and 5: “The most dangerous men in Hollywood,” Hollywood, October, 1937, 38-39. Accessed via The Media History Digital Library

However extreme these usages of hyperbole appear to be, they were by no means unique or stand-alone examples. Some journalists even assumed a faux point-of-view of a judge or prosecutor and argued that, to put it in the words of Katherine Alberts, the character actors should be “charged” with “grand larceny” and “[handed] over to the audience for sentence.”[xxvii] Other reporters referred to the actors as “pirates” or “little devil[s],” suggested that they were part of the “Hollywood underworld” or compared their alleged scene thefts with “kleptomania” and even “cradle snatching.”[xxviii] The Chicago Daily Tribute went so far as to suggest that the FBI agent Edgar J. Hoover and Attorney General Frank Murphy would probably have to make an “emergency trip” to the East Coast in order to “combat the wave of scene stealing.”[xxix]

Caught up in the midst of this chaos, of course, were the stars, and they were typically described as defenceless, victimised or outright scared of the presence of their supposed subordinates. A reporter in Modern Screen suggested that movie stars were haunted by a sense of “terror” whenever they found out that a “picture stealer” was “on the lot.” The best thing for the poor stars to do, the journalist suggested, was to simply say a quick “don’t-let-him-steal-my-picture prayer” before shooting commenced.[xxx] Similarly, a journalist in Silver Screen suggested that the stars did what they could to “protect themselves” in the “dog-cat-dog business” of Hollywood filmmaking. With “hawklike eyes,” the stars watch the rest of the cast to see that they are not “photographed too glamorously, that they are not given the choice lines, that they are not given scenes that are ‘fat’ in dialogue content.”[xxxi]

Despite the typically problematic wording of this conversation and the somewhat ridiculous claim that the stars were the real victims, the majority of the articles were nevertheless jesting in tone and the reporters were evidently rooting for the character actors to come out victorious in their fight for the limelight. There was also a clear intention of bringing these actors into the public eye and to suggest that the success of movies often hinged on the presence of non-starring actors. The general idea was that a certain degree of scene stealing was necessary in order to break up the movies’ otherwise unrelenting focus on the leading stars. As Silver Screen put it in 1935, the entrance of a character actor on screen is like “a ripple of joyous expectations” sweeping over an otherwise “dying party.”[xxxii]

Even so, the idea of scene stealing of course implied ownership and it arguably affirmed the idea that the limelight did not belong to the character actor, but rather to the leading star. The whole narrative of there being struggles for attention on screen was presumably also a dramatic (in a narrative sense) and engaging way of illustrating the hierarchies of the star system and the tensions it gave rise to. Not only did it allow readers to familiarise themselves with certain non-starring actors and to recognise their place within the hierarchy. Arguably, readers were also encouraged to interpret film performance on a meta-level in the sense that the acting styles of non-starring actors could be read as calculated attempts to upstage the leading stars. That is, as deliberate schemes of resistance that challenged the status quo.

On the whole, the significant journalistic focus on character actors during the classical helped establish their place within US film culture. Because the actors’ appeal was persistently traced to how they differed from the stars, the discourse also consolidated the value of the “non-star” more generally to contemporaneous fan culture and to the Hollywood filmmaking tradition. In an article published in The Ogden Standard in 1918, the American screenwriter Al Giebler attempted to shed light on precisely this alleged indispensability of small-part actors. In his article, entitled “The Supporting Cast in a Movie Film,” Giebler curiously tried to prove his point by comparing the movie business with baking pudding. Just as you need a variety of ingredients to make a tasty pudding, he suggested, you need a variety of actors to make a successful photoplay. As he put it, “the two stars could no more pretend to be the whole show and get away with it than the two eggs could say, ‘Behold us! We are pudding!”[xxxiii]

Figure 6: A. H. Giebler, “The Supporting Cast in a Movie Film,” The Ogden Standard, Jan 19, 1918. Accessed via Chronicling America: Historic American Newspaper, Library of Congress


[i] S. H. P., “Character Actors are the Greatest,” in “What the Fans Think,” Picture-Play Magazine, September, 1926, 115.

[ii] The material for this essay has primarily been collected from digital repositories. In particular, I have gathered material from the Media History Digital Library (MHDL) and ProQuest Historical Newspapers. A limited number of articles have also been retrieved from the Library of Congress digitised newspaper database, Chronicling America as well as the Internet Archive. The fan magazines I have accessed range from leading periodicals with extensive runs in the MDHL database, such as Photoplay, Modern Screen and Motion Picture Magazine, to those with shorter life spans and with less extensive runs in the database, such as Movie Classic and Motion Picture Classic. When it comes to newspapers, I have primarily found relevant material in papers such as The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Daily Tribune and The Washington Post. I have also gathered material from fan magazines and collections of clippings from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences at the Margaret Herrick Library.

[iii] See e.g. Richard Abel, Menus for Movieland: Newspapers and the Emergence of American Film Culture (Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2015); Richard DeCordova, Picture Personalities: The Emergence of the Star System in America (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990); Richard Dyer, Stars, 1. ed., (London: BFI, 1979).

[iv] See e.g. Anne Jerslev, “American Fan Magazines in the 30s and the Glamorous Construction of Femininity,” in The Nordicom Review (No. 1, 1996), 195-209; Anthony Slide, Inside the Hollywood Fan Magazine: A History of Star Makers, Fabricators, and Gossip Mongers (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2010).

[v] Pamela Robertson Wojcik, ‘Typecasting’ in Movie Acting: The Film Reader, ed. Pamela Robertson Wojcik (New York: Routledge, 2004), 177-181.

[vi] It is important to note that terms such as “character actor,” “supporting actor,” “minor actor” and, to a lesser degree, “bit player” were often used interchangeably during these decades. While this variation of terms partly appears to have been a way for journalists to simply vary their language when referring to non-stars, “character actor” was by far the most widely used definition within this context.

[vii] “Actors and Stars,” The New York Times, April 25, 1920, X4.

[viii] “Actors and Stars,” The New York Times, April 25, 1920, X4.

[ix] “The Character Actors are Getting all the Bouquets,” Photoplay, November, 1927, 24; “Thirty Years a Trooper,” The Washington Post, January 15, 1928, F5; Lillian Blackstone, “Frozen Echoes,” Motion Picture Magazine, August, 1917, 126; “Thirty Years a Trooper,” The Washington Post, January 15, 1928, F5.

[x] Scoop Conlon, “Character Actors Come into Their Own After Long, Hard Struggle on Silver Screen,” San Francisco Chronicle, June 18, 1922, D1.

[xi] Conlon, “Character Actors Come into Their Own After Long, Hard Struggle on Silver Screen,” D1; “Actors and Stars,” The New York Times, April 25, 1920, X4; “Thirty Years a Trooper,” F5.

[xii] Theodore Roberts, “The Happy Lot of the Character Actor,” Photoplay-Journal, June, 1920, 22.

[xiii] Theodore Roberts, “The Happy Lot of the Character Actor,” Photoplay-Journal, June, 1920, 22.

[xiv] Eunic Marshall, “Grand Larceny: Anent the gentle art of stealing the picture,” Screenland, October, 1923, 40.

[xv] William Foster Elliott, “The Character Actor’s Boom: Claude Gillingwater Talks on Recent Developments,” The Los Angeles Times, June 11, 1922, III35.

[xvi] Mary Weisse, “Guy Kibbe’s Case” in “Fan Mail,” Hollywood, August, 1936, 16; “Here’s One Fat Man Somebody Loves,” Photoplay, January, 1935, 47; Larry Reid “Accidentally Funny,” Movie Classic, December, 1936, 77; Carlisle Jones, “Picture Stealer No. 1,” Screenland, August, 1936, 88; Cyril Vandour, “He Supplies the Background,” Photoplay, April, 1938, 33; Fanya Graham, “Man Behind the Medals,” Picture Play, Oct, 1934, 29; Jones, “Picture Stealer No. 1,” 58, Hamilton, “Roundup of Characters,” 21; Gladys Hall, “Average But Wonderful: A grand story about a great actor, Walter Connolly,” Modern Screen, December, 1934, 37; Jones, “Picture Stealer No. 1,” 88; Hamilton, “Roundup of Characters,” 20; Fanya Graham, “Man Behind the Medals,” Picture Play, Oct, 1934, 29.

[xvii] Gladys Hall, “Average But Wonderful: A grand story about a great actor, Walter Connolly,” Modern Screen, December, 1934, 37.

[xviii] “The Most Dangerous Men in Hollywood: Thumb-nail stories on the screen’s worst scene stealers,” Hollywood, October, 1937: 38-39.

[xix] “Screenland Honor Page,” Screenland, November, 1936, 6; Larry Reid, “Accidentally Funny,” Movie Classic, Dec, 1936, 77; Reid, “Accidentally Funny,” 77; Fanya Graham, “Man Behind the Medals,” Picture Play, Oct, 1934, 29; Maude Cheatham, “For Laughing Purposes,” Silver Screen, September, 1937, 54; Ralph Wotherspoon, “Edward Everett Horton” in “What do You Think? Letters from our Readers,” Picturegoers, April, 1946, 14; Judith Ann Ice, “These Charming Thieves: Insight into the lives of active players you read little about,” Picture Play, June, 1934, 60.

[xx] Cynthia Baron, “Stage Actors and Modern Acting Methods Move to Hollywood in the 1930s,” Cinémas, 25:1, 2014, 109-129; Roberta E. Pearson, Eloquent Gestures: The Transformation of Performance Style in the Griffith Biograph Films (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992).

[xxi] Cyril Vandour, “He Supplies the Background,” Photoplay, April, 1938, 33.

[xxii] It is worth noting that there are occasional examples of these expressions being used in a similar context already in the 1920s. However, these types of articles appear sparingly in the early 1920s and it is only towards the end of the decade and much more so in the early 1930s that a trend begins to emerge.

[xxiii] The expression “stealing someone’s thunder” itself dates back to theatrical traditions of the early 18th century. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term goes back to an utterance made by the English dramatist John Dennis, whose method for simulating thunder on stage was “stolen” and supposedly used more successfully in someone else’s play. See: “To steal (someone’s) thunder,” Oxford English Dictionary, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

[xxiv] See e.g.: C. L. “Occupation – Picture Stealer.” Picturegoer, July, 1943; “Special Art Section: Scene Stealers! Pat and Jo – by request,” Screenland, May, 1936; Dwight Evans, “An Open Letter to Jack Oakie,” Screenland, February, 1941; Herbert Cruikshank, “Forty Thieves of Hollywood,” Modern Screen, May, 1931; Judith Ann Ice, “These Charming Thieves: Insight into the lives of active players you read little about,” Picture Play, June, 1934, 31; Shelia Graham, “Piracy on Film Seas Involves Notables,” LA Times, September 1, 1936, 14; M.A.C. “Scene Stealer!” Picturegoer, November, 1943, 11.

[xxv] Mack Hughes, “Tricks of the Trade,” Modern Screen, Sep, 1937, 10; Hughes, “Tricks of the Trade,” 10; Review of The Flame Within in “Reviews,” Modern Screen, August, 1935, 6; Samuel Richard Mook, “Empty Honors: Scene stealers are given their due, but their artistic thefts bring them little,” Picture Play, February, 1933, 40.

[xxvi] “The Most Dangerous Men in Hollywood: Thumb-nail stories on the screen’s worst scene stealers,” Hollywood, October, 1937: 38-39

[xxvii] Katherine Alberts, “Caught with the Goods,” Photoplay, April, 1932, 37.

[xxviii] “Picture ’Pirates’,” Picturegoer, August, 1932, 16; Paula Berc, “Our Eugenes Off to Una,” in “Movie Classic’s Letter Page,” Movie Classic, December, 1931, 8; Ed Sullivan, “Looking at Hollywood: Scene Stealers,” Chicago Daily Tribune, August 19, 1939, 9; Georges Kay, “Not Guilty!”, Picture Play, January, 1933, 22; Georges Kay, “Not Guilty!”, 22.

[xxix] Ed Sullivan, “Looking at Hollywood: Scene Stealers,” Chicago Daily Tribune, August 19, 1939, 9.

[xxx] Herbert Cruikshank, “Forty Thieves of Hollywood,” Modern Screen, May, 1931, 46.

[xxxi] Ed Sullivan, “Picture Stealers Spotted,” Silver Screen, November, 1938, 76.

[xxxii] Patricia Keats, “The Picture Savers: Edward Everett Horton, Henry Armetta, Ned Sparks,” Silver Screen, March, 1935, 32.

[xxxiii] A. H. Giebler, “The Supporting Cast in a Movie Film,” The Ogden Standard, Jan 19, 1918: no page number.

Linn Lönroth is a PhD student in Cinema Studies at Stockholm University in Sweden. Her dissertation is an archival study into the histories of character actors in Hollywood during the classical era. In addition to exploring the popular discourse and fan culture that emerged around these actors, the thesis examines how the industry defined, typecast, employed, credited and promoted their non-starring actors during this period.

Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

Working in and with German Archives on German-German Media History

Mandy Tröger, University of Munich (LMU)

27 March 2020

This blog post addresses international media scholars whose research focus is Germany and German-German media history. The term ‘German-German’ refers to the history of cross-border media relations between both German states, the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) and the German Democratic Republic (GDR), until German unification in 1990. This research leads you to working in German archives. I want to share my experience of doing archival research for my doctoral thesis on the transition of the press in the GDR 1989/1990. The focus of my thesis lay on structural conditions and shifts; I was particularly interested in the political and economic influences of different interest groups from the FRG. I tried to access archival material showing the dealings of West German political and economic players, however this became a problem and I want to show you the different ways I used to get around it.

In the end, the findings of my dissertation were entirely based on primary and semi-primary sources; I used secondary literature only if primary sources left gaps in the overall narrative. I worked in eleven public and non-public (publishers, association etc.) archives, and seven private collections. In addition, I held seventeen non-biographical interviews. This blog post summarizes what I have learned from this process.

The “Politics of Memory” in Germany

In various ways, archives are places of institutionalized “politics of memory” (Brown and Davis-Brown, 1998). In Germany, the policy of national archives is such that all files classified as “GDR” are generally open to the public (even if they contain material from after 1990). The National Archive in Berlin (BArch) holds the majority of “GDR” records. Files of the same time period labeled “FRG” are closed for at least thirty years to protect individual rights and potentially sensitive information of economic and political interest groups. The consequences of this imbalance for historical research are serious and well-known among archivists and historians in Germany. They relate to a broader political agenda to the writing and construction of German-German history. They also partly explain the often one-sided and GDR-centric approaches in current German-German history writing.

The holdings of the Wendemuseum in Los Angeles

Three ways to access archives

However, the transition period in the GDR in 1989/1990 cannot be thought of without the political, economic and social relations, pressures and affiliations to the Federal Republic. Not having had access to these files, made it necessary to adopt different strategies.

First, the filing of “requests to shorten the term of file protection” (Antrag auf Schutzfristenverkürzung) to be granted access to classified federal documents in the National Archives in Koblenz and Berlin. The archive in Koblenz holds the files of the Federal Ministry of the Interior (Bundesministerium des Inneren, BMI) responsible for media related issues. Berlin holds, for instance, those of the trust agency Treuhandanstalt. These requests are generally complicated and can take years. I was granted access to files of the BMI at the National Archive in Koblenz; two requests for the trust agency Treuhandanstalt in Berlin have been in process for four years and were just recently granted.

Second, the issue of classified access made the archives of political foundations affiliated with individual parties (Stiftungsarchive) more important. These archives are in general dispute with the national archive over new acquisitions. At times, they hold files of politicians who worked on a federal level. For instance, the Archive of Liberalism of the Friedrich-Naumann Foundation for Freedom, affiliated with the liberal Free Democratic Party (Freie Demokratische Partei, FDP), holds the record of several members of the FDP’s federal media commission. The Green Memory Archive (Archiv Grünes Gedächtnis) of the Böll Foundation and the Green Party in Berlin holds the estate of Gerhard Bächer, former representative of the Green Party at the Media Control Council (Medienkontrollrat, MKR) founded in 1990 (see Becker-Schaum, 2009). The Archive of Democratic Socialism (Demokratischer Sozialismus, ADS) of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation and the leftist party DIE LINKE in Berlin holds the estate of interim prime minister and later member of the German Bundestag, Hans Modrow (see ADS, n.d.). These archives have individually negotiated classified periods, and are generally easier to access.

The third way around the issue of access lay in the “GDR” files themselves. Since classification matters, not content, detailed communication between various East and West German interest groups can, if traced thoroughly, be found in these files. The part of my thesis telling the complicated story of early West German market interests in the building of a monopoly-like press distribution in East Germany was based on the files of the East German Ministry of Postal and Telecommunication (Ministerium für Post- und Fernmeldewesen, MPF). Labeled “GDR,” these files are open for research, even though several still-existing German interest groups might have good reasons for wanting to keep this communication off record.

Other relevant archives

Another important archive for GDR-media in 1990 was the ID-Archive at the International Institute for Social History (IISH/ID-Archive MKR) in Amsterdam. It holds an extensive collection (forty-two boxes) of the East German Media Control Council (MKR). This collection was transferred to the IISH/ID-Archive MKR in 1997. It contains minutes of the MKR-meetings, correspondence and documents regarding the reshaping of the media landscape (radio, television, newspapers and publishing houses) in the GDR in 1990, and an extensive collection of press clippings 1989-1990.

Also, the extensive library on media (policy) books in the corporate archive library of Axel Springer Publishers and the collection of the Wendemuseum in Los Angeles were valuable. Both allowed access to a variety of media-related sources.

The holdings of the Wendemuseum include the estate of the former General Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED), Erich Honeker, including his library

In particular the private (personal) collections took a central role in the original research. During the transition period, with fast institutional changes, it was common for those working at ministries, newspapers, publishers or in civic groups to take files home once the job was done and no archive was in charge of storing documents.

Expert interviews

Expert interviews further contributed greatly to my thesis. The communication with over twenty interview partners was, at times, extensive. The interviews were non-biographical, my questions related to a specific subject matter at hand, such as the dealings of a ministry, a newspaper or media policy institution. My goal was to fill gaps that could not have been filled based on archival material alone. This is important, especially for the transition period. During this fast-paced period, much of the communication happened verbally and/or was not documented systematically but noted by hand on pieces of paper. This was partly due to the grassroots like character of reform institutions (such as the Round Table or the MKR) and the often non-professional background of their members, as well as to institutional shifts more generally. Thus, archival holdings often contain numerous pieces of hand-written notes and papers that require context to make sense of them, and this context can often only be provided by those who were directly involved. This is an encouragement to step out of the archive and reach out to them.


ADS, n.d., ‘Bestände/Findbücher, Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung’, https://www.rosalux.de/stiftung/historisches-zentrum/archiv/bestaende-findbuecher/ (accessed: January 10, 2018).

Becker-Schaum, Christoph, 2009, ‘Der Archivbestand Gerhard Bächer und die Grüne Partei in der DDR’, Grünes Gedächtnis, pp. 71-76, http://www.boell.de/sites/default/files/uploads/2014/06/jb_2009_-_cbs_archivbestand_gerhard_baecher.pdf (accessed: May 25, 2016).

Brown, Richard Harvey, and Beth Davis-Brown, 1998, ‘The making of memory: the politics of archives, libraries and museums in the construction of national consciousness’, in History of the Human Sciences, 11/2, pp. 17-32.

Mandy Tröger, PhD, is an Assistant Professor at Ludwig-Maximilians-University in Munich, Germany. Dr Tröger received her doctorate from the Institute of Communications Research (ICR) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) in 2018. From 2015 until 2017, she was a PhD-Fellow of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Berlin, Germany. Parts of her dissertation, ‘On Unregulated Markets and the Freedom of Media: The Transition of the East German Press after 1989’, have been translated into German, and have been published in a German-language book, Pressefrühling und Profit, in 2019.

Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

Glamour: The Influence of Vivien Leigh’s Film Costumes on Dressmaking Patterns of the 1930s and 1940s

Victoria Haddock, Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM), Exeter

20 March 2020

This blog piece aims to investigate the cultural influence that Hollywood film costumes of the 1930s and 1940s had on women’s fashions, by focusing especially on dressmaking patterns produced during this period. By concentrating on the interplay between film and fashion, it examines the impact that actresses and films of the Golden Age of Hollywood had on women’s dress. This will be discussed further by focusing on the stardom of actress Vivien Leigh, and her Oscar winning role as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939). The film was immensely popular, having a huge effect on fashion trends, which Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer exploited through merchandise and ‘tie-in’ products, including a range of Gone with the Wind inspired Hollywood dress patterns. At a time when ‘keeping up appearances’ was so important, dressmaking was an affordable way in which women could aspire to the ‘glamour’ and ‘style’ that Hollywood prescribed through its films. Using a range of archives and collections, including the Commercial Pattern Archive at the University of Rhode Island and the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, this piece will investigate the importance of film on fashion.

During the 1930s and 1940s, working-class women had a disposable income for the first time. Women spent this income by attending leisure activities and by increasing their power as consumers. One of the biggest influences on society was the American cultural ‘invasion’ that saw Hollywood films and American actresses replace society women as trend-setters. By the 1930s, the cinema was the most popular form of mass entertainment. The American film studios attempted to counteract the harsh economic climate by spending large amounts of money on beautiful stars and glamorous costumes that depicted a silver screen of luxury that became known as the golden age of Hollywood cinema. It is thought that 75% of adult cinema audiences were female, and through working with manufacturers the studios actively encouraged the cinema audiences to physically consume items they saw on the screen. The passing of the Webb-Pomerene Act in 1918 by Congress legislated Hollywood’s ability to act as a cartel, thereby internationally advancing America’s trade strength by offering an attractive product and a vehicle to promote American consumer lifestyles. The President of the MPPDA, Will Hays, recognised the film industries’ promotion of fashionable goods in a speech he gave to advertising executives in 1930; ‘we are accused abroad of selling American goods and it is true that every foot on American film sells $1.00 worth of manufactured products some place in the world.’ One of the main ‘goods’ that Hollywood sold was fashion. Women were targeted by Hollywood marketing and in her book, Screen Style (2000), Sarah Berry discusses how the resulting overlap in the target markets of the fashion, cosmetics, and film industries gave rise to a culture of cross-promotion that would now be called ‘synergy’: a boom in star endorsements, the merchandising of film costumes through Hollywood ‘tie-in’ labels, product placements in movies, and the extensive use of fashion publicity for upcoming films.

In stark contrast to 21st century Hollywood films, many large-budget films of the 30s and early 40s were focused around a female star, which resulted in a decade fascinated by powerful women both on and off the screen. One of the most popular actresses of the 1930s and 40s was the stage and screen star, Vivien Leigh.

Leigh was nicknamed the ‘fame in a night girl’ after her breakthrough role in the 1935 production of The Mask of Virtue. Leigh was regularly featured in the film magazines of the period (especially for her relationship with her second husband, Laurence Olivier) but she also frequently modelled and publicised her career in Vogue magazine. She starred in nine films between 1935 and 1938 before being cast in the coveted role of Scarlett O’Hara in the adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel, Gone with the Wind. The publicity for the film had been huge, ever since producer David O. Selznick began his search for an actress to play Southern Belle, Scarlett. In England, the film played constantly in cinemas throughout World War 2 and was extremely popular with a female wartime audience who could see themselves reflected in Leigh’s portrayal of a woman trying to survive in war. Sarah Berry describes Leigh’s performance as Scarlett as exemplifying the ‘rewriting of history in terms of (white) feminine power and emotion.’ Costume was a central vehicle for fans’ engagement with these roles and copies of the iconic barbecue dress were sold by countless department stores and wholesalers, whilst dress patterns were produced for fans to make their own piece of Gone with the Wind at home.

The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, based at the University of Exeter, has an amazing archival collection of film magazines, dating from the 1920s to the present, which are extremely useful primary sources to research how film costumes and fashions were publicised. My following magazine sources are from this collection. In an article titled Film Fashions for Fans, published on 2 January 1932 in Picturegoer Weekly, Janet Montgomery states that ‘the costumiers at the various studios vie with each other in creating original styles, and many of these are destined to create a vogue when they are shown on the screen.’

The importance of cinema attendance is highlighted in this article as ‘all styles may be followed with confidence by Miss Nineteen-thirty-two, who goes to the movies quite as much to pick up ideas for her holiday suitcase as to see the film.’ Film costumes led to Hollywood becoming increasingly independent from the style capitals of New York and Paris. The French designer, Lucien Lelong, declared that ‘We, the couturiers, can no longer live without the cinema any more than the cinema can live without us.’

Walter Plunkett was the chief designer at RKO from 1926 until 1939, specialising in period costume. His most famous designs were for Gone with the Wind. More than 5,500 costumes for the 50 cast members and thousands of extras were created using 35,000 yards of fabric for the women’s costumes alone, according to Caroline Young in Classic Hollywood Style (2012). The historical authenticity of the costumes played a large part in the film’s promotion. Plunkett had meticulously researched the fashions of the period by using archives himself and scouring copies of the Philadelphia-based women’s magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book and visiting Southern states to speak to residents who owned period garments and fabric samples.

Writing in the New York Times, Lillian Churchill commented that: ‘As an influence of screen entertainment, Gone with the Wind is causing a magnificent splash in the cinema sea, and as an influence on women’s dress it has created a great stir in the pool of fashion [… The] bouffants, girdles, minute waistlines, and ostrich-feather trimmings […] are sure to have an influence on the creations of Paris and New York.’

It seemed extremely natural that the Big Five Hollywood studios would associate themselves with glamourous costumes and the marketing opportunities they brought, as studio moguls such as Paramount’s Adolph Zukor and Columbia’s Harry Cohn had links to the textile industry. The leading Hollywood costume designers, many of whom had begun their careers working for couturiers, became household names in the 1930s. Three of the top names in a survey of the favourite designers of one thousand American buyers in 1940 were Hollywood costume designers: Travis Banton, Adrian and Howard Greer.

Hollywood studios used the popularity of costumes to their advantage by actively promoting them. A costume exhibition for Gone with the Wind – including some 36 costume changes for Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara (the most to date for any actress according to the film’s publicity) – travelled around America in advance of the movie’s opening. The unprecedented success of Gone with the Wind produced a merchandising blitz unequalled in the history of period film publicity tie-ins. Corsets, dress patterns, hats and veils, snoods, scarves and jewellery were all marketed and sold as ‘inspired’ by the film. Even the cover of the 1 May 1940 edition of Vogue featured a model in a Gone with the Wind inspired full-skirted dress with a ruffled skirt.

In 1930 the film magazine Motion Picture told its readers that: ‘The modern woman is a screen shopper.’ In the same year the Modern Merchandising Bureau was founded in New York by the entrepreneur and advertising agent Bernard Waldman. The bureau was not affiliated with a certain studio and mass-produced work from a wide range of Hollywood costume designers. The purpose of the Bureau was to manufacture and merchandise ready-to-wear copies of garments that were adapted from costume designs featured in the movies, and then publicize them through tie-up campaigns with other manufacturers and shops. Using the brand name ‘Cinema Fashions,’ the bureau took a modest commission and supplied garments and accessories to shops including R. H. Macys. According to Modern Screen magazine, the Cinema Shops carried dresses priced between 15 and 35 US dollars. The most famous costume to be recreated and sold was the white, organdie dress with voluminous sleeves worn by Joan Crawford in Letty Lynton (1932). There seems to be some discrepancy over the success of the Adrian designed dress, as whilst Macy’s claims to have sold 50,000 copies of the dress, there is no empirical proof existing in museums or in private collections. The costumes worn by Vivien Leigh in the role of Emma, Lady Hamilton, in the 1941 film, That Hamilton Woman, were also publicised widely. A range of clothes based on the film’s costumes were available to buy from department stores such as Bonwit Teller. The Grecian style gown shown in the slide was made from white crepe which draped over the bodice and shoulders and was decorated with embroidery and diamantes.

The 18th century costumes designed by René Hubert were marketed to a wartime audience as ‘clothes you can wear, copied from Vivien Leigh’s, in her role of Lady Hamilton’ in a two page spread in the 15 March 1941 issue of American Vogue.

Inevitably, competitors appeared offering cheaper lines. Film fan magazine, Photoplay, introduced “Hollywood Fashions,” a chain of costume retailing franchises in 1931. The chain credited the designs of Gone with the Wind designer Walter Plunkett at R.K.O, which were advertised in issues of Photoplay by placing emphasis on their affordability with headings such as, “Now at Modest Prices: Styles of the Stars!”

Gone with the Wind produced one of the most copied dresses of the 20th century. Margaret Mitchell describes Scarlett on the first page of Gone with the Wind (1936), sitting in the April sun – ‘Her new green-flowered muslin dress spread its twelve yards of billowing material over her hoops’. This was the basis for the now iconic ‘Twelve Oaks’ silk organza barbeque gown. Caroline Young states that the screen printed design for the dress was copied from an authentic 1861 fabric, but Plunkett doubled the size of the sprigs so that they would be visible on camera.

Vivien Leigh’s svelte 5 foot 3 frame helped to show off Plunkett’s designs to perfection as her small stature was more similar to that of women of the 1860s. The dress was produced and sold in over a dozen variations, many of which bore little resemblance to the original costume. Costume historian Edward Maeder found that the dress was manufactured in a wide price range, and copied in rayon, seersucker and flocked organdie. The development of glamorous fashions from the films that were not only made from inexpensive and practical fabrics, but also simplified to retain only small features of the original costume whilst keeping the style of a Hollywood garment, must have been the stuff of dreams for women during wartime.

Dressmaking was an extremely popular pastime and skill in the 1930s and 1940s, allowing working-class women who worried about maintaining social standards a chance to improve their wardrobes. Dressmaking was ‘often shared, done collaboratively, or exchanged for another essential commodity’ and, as an activity, allowed women to learn from each other and pass on new skills which helped to develop their feminine identities. Dressmaking could be both rebellious and liberating as it enabled young women the opportunity to create their own identity and appearance, without interference from their mothers. Curator Keith Lodwick, claims the green Reconstruction period ‘curtain dress’, that Scarlett gets Mammy to make for her to visit Rhett in jail, was even more poignant in war-time Britain as it echoed the ‘make do and mend’ philosophy that would come to dominate millions of women’s lives during the war years. Home sewing was emphasised as a way to be frugal during clothes rationing and Scarlett’s request of Mammy to go up to the attic to get down the ‘old box of dress patterns’ must have struck a chord with many women of the period.

Pattern companies in the 1930s began to offer an ever-widening range of garments inspired by the latest fashions from Hollywood and Paris. As early as 1915, the film magazine Photoplay published an article highlighting the new opportunities for women to try out the latest fashions by sewing their own copies of film costumes. Even though patterns were sold in local shops and department stores, patterns also became an integral part of women’s magazines, targeting the rising ‘feminine’ market that also included hair and make-up products. Pattern companies typically produced around 350 to 450 different pattern styles each year, but during the 1930s, this number rose to 600 or more for brands such as Vogue, McCall’s and Butterick. The process of dressmaking also became increasingly simplified and standardized, assuming a wider audience with less dressmaking skills. Patterns, according to Joy Spanabel Emery (the late curator of The Commercial Pattern Archive), supplied women with the latest styles to aspire to and with the aid of fashion magazines, ‘the sewing machine, and greater accessibility to dress patterns… women could make fashionable as well as serviceable garments. Thus, patterns are credited with the democratization of fashion.’ A pattern could be re-used, copied and shared, which helped to rationalise the cost that on average, ranged between 30 and 50 cents. It is interesting that in a decade when ‘a loaf of bread cost five cents, the price of a pattern represented serious money’ for most women.

Patterns based on film costumes had appeared on sale in the 1920s with companies such as the Elite Pattern Company offering patterns based on costume designs by David Cox for Joan Crawford and Anita Page in the 1928 film Our Darling Daughters. Film magazines featured articles on clothes from Hollywood films, whilst also offering photographic and illustrated sources for paper patterns for readers to make their own. The fan magazine, Silver Screen, sold patterns for a wide age range, including Shirley Temple patterns for children. In 1932, publishing company Condé Nast began to suffer competition from the less expensive pattern companies. The companies’ range of Vogue patterns were priced between 40 cents and $2, a steep price range for consumers during the period, yet Nast was fearful of reducing the price and cheapening the image of Vogue. So, in 1932, Nast started the cheaper Hollywood Pattern Company that appealed to the national fascination with the movies by offering a line modelled after clothes worn by Hollywood movies stars. The line was sold in stores such as W.T. Grant at the more affordable price of 15 cents, and they were an immediate success. The Hollywood Pattern envelopes usually featured the name, affiliated studio and photograph of the actress on whom the clothes were based, a small piece of text about their latest film and an illustration of the pattern garment.

The patterns were produced like Vogue patterns with small instruction sheets and were aimed at women aged seventeen to thirty-five, which was in keeping with the Hollywood Patterns motto, ‘Patterns of Youth.’ In 1933, Condé Nast introduced the Hollywood Pattern Book, which Joy Spanabel Emery (2014) describes as including ‘promotional photos from new films, articles about what the stars were wearing, and information about the designers, as well as a catalog of new Hollywood patterns.’ The patterns insinuated that the featured Hollywood star was wearing the garment from the pattern, but the clothes were not copies of those worn in the films. The April/May 1935 edition of the Hollywood Pattern Book stated that the designs are inspired by the clothes of the smartest stars, not copies from them. The dress which may be perfect for the camera may be too dramatic in the office or home. Our staff studies the best previews, then creates clothes in the same spirit, but easier to wear.

A series of dress patterns, ostensibly based on the film costumes of Gone with the Wind, were produced by Hollywood Patterns, featuring street-length, hoopless versions of the dresses, which used less than one-tenth of the yardage of the screen costumes.

Five patterns were produced, four of which were based on costumes worn by Vivien Leigh, and one based on a dress worn by Ann Rutherford as Carreen O’Hara. The patterns numbered 1987, 1988, 1989 and 1993 featured Vivien’s face in a small circle on the front of the pattern alongside the words ‘Vivien Leigh as “Scarlett O’Hara” in Gone with the Wind‘. A Selznick International Picture, produced by David O. Selznick. A Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer release.’ Patterns 1988 and 1989 are obviously stylised versions of the iconic ‘barbecue’ dress and the ‘prayer’ dress worn by Leigh in the opening scenes of the film, whilst patterns 1987 and 1993 are for early 1940s dresses that are loosely based on the designs of the film costumes.

Even though viewers left the cinema convinced they had seen a true reflection of the Civil War period, as a fashion historian it is quite clear that many aspects of the film’s costume styles are rooted more in the 1930s than in the 1860s. In all the dresses for the film, the bodices were cut to conform to the shape of the bosom, when in actual fact the corset formed the basis for the fashionable shape in the 1860s, and the bosom conformed to it. The crinolines in the film are also exaggerated, designed in the dome-shaped style that is larger and wider than that found in surviving examples from the 1860s. These touches made the costumes more appealing for the late 1930s/early 1940s audiences and therefore something they would wish to recreate for their own wardrobes.

Vivien Leigh’s Gone with the Wind costumes can be seen to have influenced fashion trends through the evidence available in The Commercial Pattern Archive at The University of Rhode Island. The database of dress patterns provides a unique tool for researchers and designers to recreate or date clothing from 1847 to the present. They hold a large collection of Hollywood Patterns in their collections and it is interesting to see the influence of Gone with the Wind film costumes on other patterns produced in the 1940s. For example, Pattern No. 1059 (showing Marjorie Woodworth, a ‘Hal Roach Star’), that was produced in 1943, and the Anne Shirley of R.K.O Radio pattern produced in 1940 both feature a full-skirted evening dress with puffed sleeves that have a distinctly Victorian inspired style to them.

The Hollywood Pattern Company was running at an operational loss in 1935, but the Nast Corporation persevered, with manufacturing only finally ceasing in 1947. In her article, ‘Dress Like a Star’ (Dress, 2001), Joy Spanabel Emery examined how film costumes proved to be extremely popular marketing tools for pattern companies of the 1930s and Hollywood Patterns ‘spawned a number of subsidiary pattern names such as Butterick’s Starred Pattern, Screen Star and Photoplay,’ which gave women an inexpensive way to recreate the glamourous fantasies they saw on the screen.

The influence of Vivien Leigh and her film costumes, especially those from Gone with the Wind, had a far reaching impact on fashion trends in the 1930s and 1940s. I will conclude by stating that even though there is a lack of evidence for how clothing culturally influenced by Hollywood was consumed in the 1930s, it is clear through the primary archival and secondary source material that I have referenced that women did aspire to the glamorous images they saw at the cinema. The existence of dress patterns inspired by film costumes is evidence of this. Vivien Leigh’s fame and her female central roles in films such as Gone with the Wind and That Hamilton Woman inspired women’s fashion as women wanted to not only emulate Leigh, but her strong characters. The Hollywood Patterns that were produced over fourteen years allowed women on limited budgets, either because of the Depression or war, a chance to have their own piece of Hollywood glamour. The main reason Hollywood Patterns was one of the more successful pattern brands may have been because their patterns were not straight imitations of film costumes, which costume designers stated were made to be photographed, and were therefore more accessible for women to wear, especially reproductions of period film costumes. I think David O. Selznick was correct when he claimed that Gone with the Wind’s costumes were responsible for 50% of fashions at the end of 1939. ‘All of this is trivial and laughable in a world that is shaken by war,’ he said. ‘But women being what they are, I think it could make for excellent publicity.’

Victoria Haddock graduated with a BA (Honours) History degree in 2016, before undertaking a Masters degree in the History of Design and Material Culture from the University in Brighton, graduating in 2019. Victoria’s dissertation focused on the topic of fashion tie-ins inspired by film costumes during the 1930s. She works as a Freelance Collections Care Curator for Zenzie Tinker Conservation, working on the Royal Courts of Justice Legal Dress Collection, and has previously worked for the Gallery of Costume, Platt Hall, and the National Trust’s Killerton House. Victoria also volunteers with the Costume/Textile collections at Killerton and RAMM.

Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

  • Archives