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Culture in History of American Fashion

Film and Fashion

In the twentieth century, the fashion and entertainment industries became deeply interconnected. Once clothing trends were broadcast across the country in motion pictures and, later, in television shows, fashion took on a new meaning in America. Lana Turner became famous for the bombshell "sweater look," in which her clingy tops revealed every curve of her busty figure beneath—Turner's bra was composed of two cones that were stitched in concentric circles. When Turner starred in The Merry Widow in 1952, her strapless black corselette with attached garters sparked a fashion craze that was named after the movie. Alfred Hitchcock channeled the symbolic paradox of female purity and seductiveness when, in his 1960 film Psycho, he initially dressed star Janet Leigh in a white bra and slip before showing her in black underwear after she had committed embezzlement and moved into the motel where the murderer lived. Marilyn Monroe had already combined the concepts of innocence and allure in her iconic white dress in the 1955 movie, The Seven-Year Itch, in which she stood over a subway grate that blew her clothing skyward, revealing her legs and white panties beneath. When Diane Keaton donned the layered and androgynous looks of her title character in the 1977 classic Annie Hall, she sparked a major fad among women who were living through the Second Wave of the Feminist Movement. Keaton, who was styled by costume designer Ruth Morley and a team of five others, seemed to hit on an irreverent, bohemian combination of style elements (from vintage men's bowler hats and vests to oversized jackets and equally baggy pants) that spoke to women of the period.

Male stars were equally capable of sparking trends and gaining notoriety from their fashion firsts on film. In It Happened One Night (1934), Clark Gable took off his shirt and revealed a bare chest in place of the traditional undershirt; the entire undershirt industry suffered as a result. Then the white cotton T-shirt, previously a hallmark of working-class garb, became the uniform of the male sex symbol after Marlon Brando donned one in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and James Dean embodied the look for teens in Rebel Without a Cause (1955). This trend has continued through successive generations, from the tattered garb of the counterculture heroes in Easy Rider to the flashy suits and open-collared shirts of John Travolta's Italian-American character in Saturday Night Fever and the pastel collarless shirts and sport jackets of the detectives in Miami Vice. Both reflecting and sparking fashion trends, these cultural icons are remembered as iconic because they seem to have captured the look of their generation. Subsequent generations of moviegoers are usually able to place those films within the decade of their creation, just by observing their outfits. It is perhaps a testament to the power of generational trends that few individuals realize how period-specific their clothing actually is, until they look back on old photographs of themselves after several years have elapsed.

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