Monday, June 30, 2014

What Does Billie Holiday Wear? (Newspaper Article,1937)

Good morning!

How was your weekend? We had a pretty lazy one hanging around the house, drinking mimosas, and saving a snapping turtle from imminent danger (also, I may or may not be too into Instagram right now). And here I am back at work today to deliver the good word in vintage goings on. Heads up this Monday for a new vintage timewaster on the internet-- Google has a newspaper archive some hundreds of titles strong, and yours truly just last week figured out how to search the database proper, rather than occasionally stumbling across the odd article here and there. I was looking up something or other and came up with this amazing article from a 1937 issue of The Afro-American, a black interest newspaper published out of Baltimore since 1892. Reporter Lillian Johnson sat down with Lady Day herself in her dressing room of the Royal Theater, and dished something delightful over the personal wardrobe and habits of the iconic vocalist.

Take a look:


What a lead, already, by the way-- "I like ugly men...I've always had the idea that good looking men are conceited, that they think they're cute." The Coasters would agree with you! Billie Holiday, born Eleanora Fagan in 1915, would have been twenty-two at the time of this article's publication, and spent 1937 on a difficult tour with Count Basie. I lo-o-o-ove the dishy tone of Johnson's column, and want to rifle through the other issues of The Afro-American from the time to see if I can dig up anything else on the swing/big band era stars of the time. I'm still honing my Google newspaper search skills, and haven't quite figured out how to search one newspaper's run, but somewhere in these 465 issues of the paper from the 1930's, I'm sure I'll find something else good!

Here's a photo of Holiday on stage around the time the article would have run.

Billie Holiday at the Apollo with Count Basie's band, 1937 (source)
If you're more of a visual than a text-based learner, I went through the article and tried to recreate some of the outfits from each of the lavish descriptions for you, in case you wanted to swagger out of the ball room in style like Billie did back in her heyday. I didn't always hit the nail on the head etsy-wise, but I hope I came kinda close? Here's the singer's dressing room ensemble, comprised of:
  • "A peach colored dressing gown, trimmed in turquoise blue"
  • "with satin turquoise mules," and
  • "a ring set with nineteen diamonds".
Wonder who she was engaged to at the time? BH doesn't spill on who the lucky guy was, other to say he's "tall, sharp, and tailor made, though he isn't handsome"...while Billie married her first husband, Jimmy Monroe, in 1941, who's to say who this former beau was. Whoever he was, don't mistake him for cute, Billie seems to be insisting!

dressing gown, shoes, ring
The rest of the article continues to describe her clothes and demeanor here (click for a closeup):

Billie is described as "neat and dainty" and as doing her own hair. I second her sentiment of "I didn't take a course in hair dressing, but I kept trying until I got it just right." Preach! Her favorite colors for her wardrobe include "black, white, and green", but none of those are represented in the streetclothes described as hanging from behind the door of her dressing room. Those items include
  • "A soft fleece sport coat in dark gray with a blue fox collar"
  • "a gray skirt" and
  • "a short woolen jacket of brick". She also wears
  • "a long, slender wristwatch, lavishly set in [diamonds].
Doesn't this ensemble sound chic, chic, chic? Here's what it might look like in person, with apologies for the early fifties' wouldn't believe the time I had trying to find the right fox fur and grey suit, to boot! In the late thirties', the sleeves would have been fuller, the jacket longer and maybe belted, and the skirt a little looser/more flowy. See this image for an example.

suit, wristwatch, bolero

On to what we would have been more familiar with her wearing-- Billie's on stage clothes! I noticed the copy mentioned three gardenias in her hair, and while that sounded like about two too many, here she is rocking the triad of floral hair pieces like it was no big deal, looking gorgeous in the meantime. Again, her stage attire is described as:
  • "a black chiffon, fitted evening gown with a black satin underslip, trimmed in rhinestones at the neck" and 
  • "with it she wore three gardenias".
Two of my favorite songs of hers were recorded in 1937: "A Sailboat in the Moonlight" and "Me, Myself, and I". Though they're all my favorite, this period of her recording history, at least, boasts some of her best numbers. If you're a beginner Billie fan, I would heartily recommend the Lady Day box set, which covers her Columbia recordings from 1933-1944. While later albums are poignant in their own way for her raspier, deeper voice in the late forties' and early fifties', the lilting prettiness and insouciant song stylings of this period are classic Holiday at her best.

dress, gardenias, sheet music (one and two)
How about the reporter outs Billie as having plenty of tearose silk underwear around her dressing room? The article asserts she doesn't keep a maid and tidies up well after herself...yet, how is the reporter privy to the contents of her unmentionables drawer if she didn't have pairs strewn about the place? Inquiring minds want to know. Favorite perfumes and makeup?
  • "Max Factor makeup blender" and
  • "Emeraud and Evening in Paris perfumes".

Max Factor face powder, Emeraud, Evening in Paris, tap pants

Last but not least, the reporter describes Billie as intending to buy a Persian lamb coat and hat...these two in the photo below are from a 1937 catalog advertising the self same! Can you beat that? Billie also goes on to describe her house and being all done up in white furniture and blonde wood-- while I had several Hollywood mansions of the time period pegged to show you what this would look like (I'm almost positive Jean Harlow's bedroom was made up in all white, but maybe I'm thinking of a movie?) I wasn't able to lay hands on any from the time in color. Here's a pretty reasonable facsimile, along with what a 1930's white telephone might look like in its factory version, along with the original model black phone Holiday ruined when she tried to paint it to match the decor (see the article for details)!

coat and hat, bedroom, rare 1930's white phone
You can see the original article as it appeared in the Afro American here (right click then "open link in a new tab" for the full size version):

So! Are you a Holiday fan? What was the most exciting detail of this Baltimore write-up for you? If someone wrote a similar write-up about you, what do you think your fans would be surprised to know about your personal habits or wardrobe? Let's talk!


That's all today, but go have fun looking at all these old newspapers, and I'll be back tomorrow to tell you a little bit about my weekend finds! Be good; til then.

Bonus: Have you seen Carl Van Vechten's 1949 photographs of Billie Holiday in color? They're breathtaking! Here's my favorite, but check out all Van Vechten's work over at his Yale Libraries page:



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