Considering her vast influence over the fashion world for almost three decades, it is an unfortunate quirk of fate that Hollywood legend Joan Crawford is now mainly remembered for a tirade against wire hangers. Quotations from her daughter Christina’s salacious biography, “Mommie Dearest,” have forever enshrined the perception of Crawford in terms of camp excess: “No wire hangers, ever!” “Tina, bring me the axe!” “I’m not mad at you, I’m mad at the dirt!” Joan Crawford deserves far better than this. Even the most casual survey of her glittering film career, from her debut in 1925 to her final movie in 1970, makes clear that here was a woman who used her workaholic nature and her innate fashion nous to constantly stay ahead of the pack, forever striving to find a new look or a new approach. She was a true original – always a dictator of trends, never a follower. As such, she remains today a timeless icon of fashion, elegance and style.
The secret of Joan Crawford’s prolonged success lay in her ability to capture the mood of the times: from the very beginning, her on-screen image was that of the modern girl. Arriving in Hollywood in the mid 1920s, she quickly rose to fame at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios by personifying the spirit of the “jazz age” on the screen. With her cropped hair, natural style of acting, and her all-signing all-dancing party attitude, she became, in the words of author F. Scott Fitzgerald, “the best example of the flapper, the girl you see at smart nightclubs, gowned to the apex of sophistication … Young things with a talent for living.” Her costumes of the time also immortalised the popular garb of the flapper, with movies such as “Our Dancing Daughters” (1928) and “Our Modern Maidens” (1929) showcasing Chanel-inspired sleeveless, embroidered frocks, with symmetrical lines, slim waists and short hemlines, as well as more ostentatious accessories such as ostrich feathers and rhinestone trimmings.
With the Roaring Twenties derailed by the sucker punches of prohibition and the stock market crash of 1929, Joan Crawford’s image underwent a significant transformation at the start of the new decade. No more the good-time girl, instead she returned as the atypical working class female, caught up in the depression like the rest of her audience, and seeking a life beyond her limited means. Here, we see the classic Crawford identity take shape – tough, ambitious, determined, yet also vulnerable and radiating enough sex appeal to seduce any man she desires. In tandem with couturier Gilbert Adrian – commonly regarded as the greatest costume designer in Hollywood history – Crawford also establishes her iconic look, both in style and fashion. Using make-up to emphasise her best facial attributes (saucer-wide eyes, broad slashed lips, and chiselled high cheekbones), she treats clothes in a similar manner, incorporating wide padded shoulders into her costumes to accentuate her broad back, which also serves to create a V shaped torso, topping off the effect by wearing a variety of peekaboo and wide brimmed hats to focus attention upon her eyes.
Joan Crawford’s partnership with legendary costume designer Gilbert Adrian is without equal in Hollywood history. Over the duration of 31 movies made between 1929 and 1941, the duo achieved a high watermark in the presentation of glamour, style and sophistication, producing an array of dazzling costumes, with many featuring Adrian’s trademark asymmetric patterns, contrasting black and white fabrics, puritan collars, tapered waistlines and diagonal fastenings. Accessories formed an essential part of the overall look too, with wide buckle belts, fur wraps, elbow length gloves and decorative bow-ties all adding to the decadent splendour. Invariably sleek, sexy and sassy, these were clothes with attitude – with the end results leaving women aspiring and men desiring. Typical of their work is the classic white, starched organdy dress with ruffled shoulders designed by Adrian for “Letty Lynton” (1932). Such was the popularity of this particular dress, manufacturers across the land wasted no time in selling budget replicas to the public, with Macy’s department store selling 15,000 copies alone and Vogue reporting how “every little girl, all over the country, within two weeks of the release of Joan Crawford’s picture, felt she would die if she couldn’t have a dress like that.”
Perhaps more than any other actress, Joan Crawford understood that her image was the key to her success. At the height of her career in the 1930s, she strove to mould and cultivate her look, and devoted her life to maintaining her appearance. She was known to endure a punishing exercise schedule and a strict skin-care regimen every day, massaging her whole body with ice cubes. Crucially, Crawford also employed the studio’s top stills photographer, George Hurrell, at every available opportunity. Recognising the importance of projecting herself in the best possible light (quite literally), she would spend countless hours sitting for publicity portraits with Hurrell, while dressed in Adrian’s finest designs. As a consequence, these classic, timeless stills taken during the 1930s are today in many ways Crawford’s most enduring legacy. Even more than the movies she made, the images of Crawford produced by Hurrell convey all the intensity, vitality and magnetism of her personality, while solidifying her reputation as a fashion icon for all-time.
Following her departure from MGM in 1943, Joan Crawford would never again reach the stylistic heights of her 1930s heyday. Yet she still insisted on portraying modern women, and in keeping with the post-war, downtrodden characters she would play in future, her emphasis switched to plain, simple costumes. Her first role for Warner Bros., “Mildred Pierce” (1945), saw Crawford purchase her own wardrobe from Sears Roebuck department store, in order to achieve an authentically dowdy look – far removed from the glamour and luxury of her MGM years. However, elements of her old style remained, causing director Michael Curtiz at one point to bemoan, “You and your damned shoulder pads!”
In a later twist to her on-screen appearance, Crawford’s apparel in Johnny Guitar (1954) pioneered a new androgynous, sexually ambiguous look, sporting leather boots, high fastening breeches and tight buttoned shirts, and topped off with a severely cropped coiffure. Never willing to play the role of submissive female, here Crawford proves more masculine than any of the male characters, with her clothing visually signalling the dominant authority she displays over the masculine world in the movie.
Her sense of style and choice of attire in “Johnny Guitar” serves to illustrate a crucial point about Joan Crawford and her affinity with fashion and clothing throughout her career: whether using her garments as a means to threaten male sexual identity, or to demonstrate her rise in social status, or merely as a ploy to snare her next man, Joan Crawford relied upon her wardrobe as a constant source of power in her movies. Nobody wore a designer gown or a gun holster with more panache, nor stared down a camera lens with more assertion. She deserves to be remembered for her enduring artistic legacy and for her lasting contributions to the world of fashion, rather than the hysterical, exaggerated caricature that “Mommie Dearest” portrays. No wire hangers, ever? Well, at least the sentiments were correct.
Cowie, Peter. Joan Crawford: The Enduring Star. New York: Rizzoli, 2009.
Thomas, Bob. Joan Crawford, A Biography. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978.
Gutner, Howard. Gowns by Adrian: The MGM Years 1928-1941. New York, NY: H. N. Abrams, 2001