5 Times Carmen Miranda Proved She Was Hollywood’s Fiercest Fashionista

Carmen Miranda Header
Carmen Miranda

Lady Gaga? Katy Perry? Madonna? You think those red carpet divas own the market on outrageous fashion?

Amateurs, the lot of them.

During the 1940s, Carmen Miranda owned fashion. I mean, OWNED it. Those Technicolor tropical hats. Those dangerously high platforms. That sexy midriff.  Her larger-than-life fashion complimented her larger-than-life screen persona, and gave new meaning to the words “eye-popping”.  Sure, they weren’t anything a gal would dare wear in public– outside of the Rio Carnivale (which was kind of the point) — and so, just like today’s runway couture, the Carmen Miranda brand of fashion suffered no limitations nor restrictions of any kind. She literally OWNED it.

She was a fierce fashionista who broke fashion rules to invent new ones– a movie star who also was a talented fashion designer in her own right. (She was designing her own costumes for the Broadway stage long before Hollywood came knocking.)

Carmen Miranda Shoes
Imelda Marcos? Read ’em and weep.

What is important to understand about Miranda, is that her flamboyance did NOT start out as a Hollywood gimmick. Miranda is, in fact, one of Brazil’s most culturally significant figures of the 20th century, and was a national star before America could even pronounce “samba.” Throughout the 1930s, the petite dynamo (she was barely 5’0) came to symbolize new ideas on what is known as “Brasilidade”, or “Brazil-ness”: hers was a mixed-race fusion of of European beauty with Afro-Brazilian flavor . Her hallmark gold bangles and turbans were taken from the poor black “Bainian” women of the Bahia, a Brazilian district, who made their living selling fruit.

[pullquote cite=”Lori Hall-Araujo, Indiana University” type=”right”]”Carmen Miranda’s creation took its cue from Hollywood style and demonstrated domestically and abroad that Brazilians are both modern and ‘traditional’, and racially and culturally hybrid.” Lori Hall-Araujo, Indiana University [/pullquote]

The fact that Miranda’s distinct look was taken from real Brazilian culture did not register with the Hollywood execs who seized upon her massive popularity and, as Hollywood is so good at doing, milked it for everything they could. They were hardly interested in respecting the Latin American cultural significance of Miranda’s costumes and sold her as a campy “chaquita banana”, with with all the unfortunate Latin caricatures that came with it. (The Village Voice published a terrific, serious appraisal of the ‘cult of Carmen,’ and is definitely worth a read.)

Regardless of all this, the fact remains: Carmen Miranda invented Carmen Miranda. Hers was a hybrid of tropical exoticism and Hollywood glamour. America had never seen anything like it, and the country could not get enough of her.

The Retro Set celebrates the 106th anniversary of Miranda’s birth, with a greatest hits collection of the Brazilian bombshell’s greatest fashion feats. Of course, you can write an entire post about ANY  of her eclectic ensembles, so consider these just our personal favorites. (And take a minute to remember how talented a performer she really was.)


 

“Chica Chica Boom Chic” (That Night in Rio, 1941)

Designer: Travis Banton

So. Much. Silver. Miranda gives an oomph-atic performance (see what I did there?), living up to her title as “the Ambassador of Samba” in this number opposite Don Ameche from That Night in Rio. The tropical hat is relatively modest, and she is adorned with oversized costume jewelry and a very, uh, ornamental off-the-shoulder midriff. Her sleek, silvery silhouette shines with every chica chica of her boom.


“Give Me a Band and a Bandana” (Greenwich Village, 1944)

Designer: Yvonne Wood.

Eat your hear out, Vivienne Westwood. This is quite possibly the most outrageous thing I have ever seen in my life. Hot pink gloves, a black and indigo sequins gown with fleshy mesh and peekaboo flamingo pink crinoline, bright gold platforms , and some kind of … thing perched atop her head. It is completely out of control, camp of the highest order. And therefore thoroughly fabulous.


“Rebola Bola” (Week-end in Havana, 1941)

Designer: Gwen Wakeling

The shoulder pads give away this design as gloriously early ’40s, as does the wrap waist–amended for Miranda, of course, to show off her super svelte core. The ensemble is wonderfully balanced: the green and red color blocks are balanced by a beautiful, flowing floor-length skirt. Yes, she dances with a tutti frutti hat, but even this one obeys the strict color scheme. This somehow forces our attention to the actual song, a Brazilian folk song, and reminds us what a strong performer Miranda really was.


“Cuanto La Gusta” (A Date with Judy, 1948)

Designer: Helen Rose.

This solid gold gown is a solid gold hit. A considerably “toned down” look for Miranda — absent are all traces of tropical exoticism —  a gal in 1948 might have considered actually wearing this one in public. But there’s still that dash of flamboyance that makes this unmistakable Miranda: gold fringe drapes her body (suggestively hugging her derriere) and hangs from her hair.


“I Yi, Yi, Yi, Yi Like You Very Much” (That Night in Rio, 1941)

Designer: Travis Banton.

Banton’s creation is a sexy, svelte hit. Understated with its black and white simplicity, the Bahia touches are still there with the turban, midriff and  bangles … but they don’t feel overblown. The feather ornament in her turban is highly tasteful and the entire look is quite classy– not a trace of camp to be found. This is the look we would have liked to have seen much more of.

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