Cinema Shops and the Film Fashion Frenzy

Rita Hayworth in YOU WERE NEVER LOVELIER (1942)

Scene: Main Street, U.S.A., 1942. It’s date night in small town America and a fella has taken his best gal to the movies to catch the newest Fred Astaire flick, You Were Never Lovelier. He hates musicals, but his main squeeze is a softy for them so, he complies. Plus, it’s a comedy, which allows for plenty of laughter and — most importantly — coddling. And then, suddenly, the voluptuous Rita Hayworth appears in a drool-worthy, halter top ballroom gown with lots of mesh and plenty of va-va-va-voom.

The Boy: “My god,” he thinks, “look at those [insert euphemism of choice].”

The Girl: My god,” she thinks, “look at that dress!”

She wants it. She needs it. Life simply has no meaning without it.

She is instantly convinced that owning it will make her fella think her [euphemisms] are every bit as noteworthy as Hayworth’s, and that she will be every bit as glamorous as the beauty queen on the big screen.

And Hollywood, that eager opportunist, was ready to oblige.

Enter a start-up by New York entrepreneur Bernard Waldman called the “Cinema Shops”. A nationwide chain of retail outlets dedicated to bringing big-screen fashion to small town retailers.

From the book Movies and Mass Culture by John Belston:

“In 1930, Waldman played the role of fashion middle-man for all major studios except Warner Bros. (Warner established its own Studio Styles stores in 1934). By the mid-1930s Waldman’s system generally operated as follows: sketches and/or photographs of styles to be worn by specific actresses in specific films were sent from the studios to the bureau. The staff first evaluated these styles and calculated new trends. They then contracted with manufacturers to have the styles produced in time for the film’s release. They next secured advertising photos and other materials that would be sent to retail shops.”

By the late 1930s, motion pictures were the most powerful influential means of communication the world had ever known. Its exponential effects were, as of yet still incalculable, but its tremors deeply felt on an international scale.

An MGM short subject from 1940 entitled Hollywood: Style Center of the World (which appears as an extra on the Warner Archive DVD release of The Women) does a succinct job of capturing this cultural zeitgeist at its zenith. Before descending into an MGM parade of studio propaganda, it captures the very spirit of this fascinating—and never to be repeated—time period in popular culture.

Sweet little Mary gets a telephone call from her beau in uniform, Joe. He’s in town and wants a night out. But …

Mary needs a dress. So she drags Papa into town and they both pause in front of the local Cinema Shop.

From Movies and Mass Culture: “Waldman’s concern also established the best known chain of fashion shops, Cinema Fashions. Macy’s contracted for the first of these shops in 1930 and remained a leader in the Hollywood fashion field. By 1934 there were 298 official Cinema Fashions shops (only one permitted in each city).”

Mary sees the placard in the display window …

Mary remembers …

And Mary buys it. (Or rather, Papa does.)

Driving home its point is a montage of middle America fields of grain, waving against the superimposed image of a smartly dressed young lady. The narrator assures that now, even a country girl, can be every bit as fashionable as her Big City sisters.

And who do they have to thank? Hollywood.

For Hollywood is a factory town just like any other– be it Detroit or Milwaukee. Only the skilled laborers in this town happen to be writers, musicians, actors and …artists.

Like this one.

Diligently working with conte crayon and tablet to furnish the natural wonders of his studios’ latest find.

Oh yeah. And his name just so happens to be Adrian:

The innumerable movie fan magazines of the day seized upon this trend and made monthly fashion editorials (featuring, of course, screen starlets) a mainstay fixture. As the MGM short concludes, we get glimpses of factories working overtime to reproduce the fashions created by the black ink and pastel color of Adrian… his canvas creations becoming celluloid dreams-come-true as seen below:

Again, from Movies and Mass Culture: “The sale of these fashions was tremendously aided by the release of photos to newspapers, major magazines and dozens of fan magazines. … In monthly issues of each of these magazine, millions of readers saw Bette Davis, Joan Crawford in a series of roles unique to this period: as mannequins modeling clothes, furs, hats and accessories that they would wear in forthcoming films…”

Photoplay magazine introduced “Hollywood Fashions,” which was their attempt to enter the cinema fashion foray. Photoplay’s routine fashion spread featured styles identical to those being distributed that month to Photoplay‘s “Hollywood fashions”, which was a franchise of retail outlets nationwide. Advertised under banners such as “Now at Modest Prices: Styles of the Stars!” These were, like Waldman’s Studio Shops, non-studio specific organizations.


A Cinema Fashions Shop advertisement in PHOTOPLAY magazine.

The Screen Book magazine shots below illustrate the cinema fashion frenzy, with Anne Sheridan and Priscilla Lane modelling their latest film frocks:

Ann Sheridan

An earlier version of this piece originally appeared at The Hollywood Revue, as part of her annual fashion in film blogathon! Follow its blogmistress, the lovely Angela, on Twitter today!

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