Fashion upheaval in the 1930s

Fashion and culture changes over time but once in a while, someone gives it a push to help it along. One shove came in 1930 with the movie Morocco, starring Marlene Dietrich. In the most famous scene from the film, Dietrich appears on camera wearing a tuxedo and during a performance number gives a kiss to another woman. Both actions were groundbreaking in American film. Reviews in national newspapers at that time raved about the movie and Dietrich’s performance with little or no mention about the “risqué” elements of the film.

A marked shift in response to Dietrich’s behavior occurred over a year later at a premiere for the movie Sign of the Cross. Attending the event with several of her close friends, Marlene’s choice to wear a tuxedo this time was discussed widely. Most modern sources and articles place this public appearance by Dietrich in 1932, although newspaper articles (found in ChroniclingAmerica) reference the event from late January of 1933. What we know for sure is Dietrich’s daring had an effect on popular culture and perhaps beyond, as written about in the news as late as 1961.

Daily Alaska Empire, 2/18/1933

Dietrich had gotten away with little blowback from her attire in Morocco, but there was a deafening roar after the stunt at the movie premiere. Article after article about Dietrich’s wardrobe choice appeared, and people could only look on in horror as clothing companies began making and selling woman’s pants and suits.

Coronado Eagle and Journal, 2/14/1933
Brownsville Herald, 3/5/1933
Brownsville Herald, 3/17/1933

Neither policemen nor judges could do anything to stop this trend, and even syndicated cartoons began weighing in and running with the theme of women wearing pants as fodder for comedy. College and school administrators were forced to decide whether they would allow this change in style as female students started wearing pants; many officials were critical but took no action to prevent their students from following the trend.

The Frontier, 3/23/1933
Bringing up Father by George McManus, appearing in the Daily Alaska Empire 3/7/1933
Polly and her Pals by Cliff Sterrett, appearing in the Daily Alaska Empire, 3/8/1933

During a trip to Paris later in 1933, Dietrich was preemptively warned that she would be arrested if she wore pants. Showing no fear, Dietrich did so anyway and apparently quite won over the chief of police to her point of view.

Seward Daily Gateway, 5/24/1933

Some people complained about women wearing pants on the grounds of modesty. Others felt her actions somehow struck against a sacred separation of the sexes and might confuse children; one newspaper published her photo from the premiere with the headline “Mr. Marlene”.

When Dietrich survived a horse-riding accident later that year, some newspapers claimed that it was only her “mannish hat” which had prevented her from serious injury. Some men responded to these new fashion developments by donning skirts in protest, or in some cases as a joke.

Brownsville Herald, 4/6/1933
Brownsville Herald, 2/19/1933

While a few other female celebrities occasionally wore pants, Dietrich’s appearance at the premiere seems to have been a watershed moment in American fashion. The shift to pants in America was perhaps driven by taste and fashion sense but also by a sense of practicality. Women wearing pants would become far more accepted in several years as they increasingly took traditionally male factory jobs, vacated by men who were drafted for World War II. After World War II, fashion became more conservative for women and skirts and dresses returned to their unchallenged position.

A similar phenomenon had happened during World War I, where women began taking male jobs and started wearing pants more frequently. In some cases they were encouraged to wear pants as a wartime measure to save fabric, since wide skirts took more material to make.

Valdez Daily Prospector, 7/9/1917

In the 1960s as women began to wear pants more and it started to become more socially acceptable, some people wondered how it all began; there was debate about who did it first or where, but all accepted that a huge change had happened in the 1930s with Marlene Dietrich donning a tuxedo in Morocco.    

Evening Star, 11/26/1961

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