Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Shanghai Gesture (1941) Dresspiration

Josef von Sternberg... man, alive. One of the MOST talented directors of the silent era had plenty of stops and starts in his sound-era career... collaborating with Marlene Dietrich on six films, including The Blue Angel and Morocco, the man was a master of using lighting to create shadows that took a beautiful face like Dietrich's and turned into something ethereal. I was familiar with his work from the silent movies Docks of New York and Underworld, as well as the Dietrich pictures, but I hadn't heard of The Shanghai Gesture (1941) until it popped up on a black and white film channel on Youtube.

Cast? STELLAR. Gene Tierney, Walter Huston, Victor Mature, and Ona Munson (GWTW's Belle Watling). While the plot's credibility was badly maimed by the limitations of the Hays' Code, the atmosphere of film-noir, underworld China and the truly top notch visuals made it worth the time it took to watch, for sure. I took some screenshots to show you some of wilder aspects of costume, and tried to think of ways you could recreate the looks at home with the help of even more Etsy window-shopping. Take a look!

Here, "Mother Gin Sling" (originally "Mother Goddamn", the character Bette Davis said she'd most liked to have played and from which she took her autobiography's title) makes a typically arresting entrance. DO. YOU. SEE. THAT. HAIRPIECE. The Medusa coils continue throughout. I particularly like the ones at bottom right which look like typewriter ribbons come un-spooled. Also note at left how she creates the look of a plunging neckline without showing an ounce of flesh by the creatively draped, large stone necklace.

Forties' noir Chinese madam? Coming right up, thanks to Etsy:

(fascinator and dress and haircomb) The peacock. That's all I have to say about that.

Phyllis Brooks plays "Dixie Pomeroy, the Chorus Girl", who, you could imagine by her name, is a little American forties' spitfire if ever one graced the screen. Now it LOOKS like the woman is revealing her modesty in the shot above left, but actually, the dress has a nude colored illusion panel that goes all the way up to her collarbone. I, for one, am still slightly scandalized. Dixies does the dip into decolletage again here:

Are you not impressed by how cheekily these costumes skirt the production code by dressing the girl all the way to the neck, but forcing the eyeline somewhat lower?

To recreate her more "demure" look, you'd mostly need a cute little beret and a little livening up in the lapel area with a fur collar:

(hat and suit and collar)

You might have noticed the be-fezzed man in the pictures with Phyllis Brooks. In another spiritedly strange example of miscasting, Victor Mature plays the role of Doctor Omar, an Arabian playboy and sawbones. Now, seeing as the man's career was largely comprised of Bible/sword and sand epics, I've seen Victor Mature in a lot of far-out costumes-- usually shirtless, sometimes in what is essentially a biblical mini-dress. This, however, does take the cake, for the fez. Not that I have anything against fezzes! But its appearance is a little odd in this movie. I suggest you do some self-evaluation before attempting this costume, then, if you are first as handsome as VM, you can secondly try and rock a fez AND a full length cape over a man's suit. Did I mention he snares both ladies in this movie? Look at him. IN A CAPE AND FEZ, he manages these seductions. That's star power.

(fez and cloak annnnd... you're on your own after that. A good eyebrow pencil might help! But it might not.)

Last, but not least, the impossibly lovely Gene Tierney:

Tierney's character, Poppy, starts out the film as a kind of Gilda like character, cool, mysterious, soigné, but soon falls into a gambling addiction and a weirdly possessive situation with the eel-ish Omar that transforms her into a harridan-woman. I still love her elegant, all curls updo and the way clothes sit on her slim shoulders. Such a girl! And some of those closeups, especially when she's angry, are just framable. The necklace becomes a plot point in the last act, and how do you like HER take on the illusion dress...still all the way up to the collarbone, but so smoky and noir-ish!

(dress and curls and necklace and earrings and shoes)

You can check the movie out on Youtube, I'm sure, if you search the title. Not a perfect gem, but very watchable and not a bad performance amongst the cast.

Do you have any movies on your "dresspiration" radar? Do dish!

Til next time.


  1. This post reminds me of the feature "Living In:" that I've seen on apartment therapy. They take a stylish movie, say Royal Tennenbaums and do a inspiration style sheet like you have done here! You have done a great job here. I think my fave is that black dress in the last panel. So stunning! I also think the Fez/Suit/Cape combo is hilarious but hey it was working for him. He got the ladies after all!

  2. @ Amber: Thanks! I'll have to check that segment out, I lo-o-o-o-ve the idea of taking wardrobe from one movie and running with it. I just saw "Old Acquaintance" with Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins, and the CLOTHES are so great they almost overshadow the melodrama.

  3. Such a lovely post! LOVE old movies :3

  4. I recorded this movie off of the Turner Classic Movies channel last nite and I am going to watch it tonight--thanks for the heads up!!

  5. Great post! I have to watch this; it looks amazing!



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