Murder Mystery Fashions: The Golden Age of 1930’s Cinema

Fashion in this period of Golden Hollywood is showcased in “The Kennel Murder Case” (1933) starring William Powell and Mary Astor.  PHILO VANCE is a “preview” to Powell’s later career as “The Thin Man” that became a major hit well into the 1940’s.   Audiences could not get enough of his crime solving skills and easy debonair manner.  The THIN MAN series was also showcasing beautiful stylish fashion mostly for his wife, played by Hollywood star,  MYRNA LOY.   It’s a favorite series on many TCM lists of Detective genres.   It’s a short skip and a jump to the “Film Noir” genre that is a family relation to this earlier piece. However, the writing, cinematography and direction is much better than the typical Warner Brothers fare in the THIN MAN by Dashiell Hammett,  creator of the original books.

My obsession with these films starts with the look and feel of the atmosphere.  The rooms of high windows, swinging drapes and sweeping staircases.  Shiny satin furnishings that all appear to be upholstered in white.  The columns and neoclassical style or even the Art Deco is liberally spread throughout the living rooms and salons.  These spaces are always contrasted by the dark corners of the crime filled cityscapes. Neon signs, flashing in dark alleys, cars whizzing by and the sounds of police sirens in the distance.

Then, the costumes step into the light as we begin to learn about each of the characters. The 1930’s was the era of the Great Depression.  Movies provided a glimpse into a mythical lifestyle that audiences could  dream about. The influence on popular culture from a movie was just as powerful as social media is now.  What makes up the typical FILM NOIR look? The perfect suit worn by William Powell is in stark contrast to his cohorts down at the police station.  He is clearly a cut above in social class. The big stars of the film would have had their clothes especially tailored for them.  Mary Aster’s costumes would have been created by a studio costume designer to reflect her high social class and taken from the pages of a fashion magazine.  Her designer, was a well known favorite among female stars, ORRY KELLY. 

ORRY KELLY was famous for his elegance and fashionable spin of the current styles for women’s costumes.  His filmography is long and contains some of Hollywood’s most famous films.  This film  (“The Kennel Murder Case”) is on that list.  The looks of the film were contemporary to the time.  A wardrobe mistress would have dressed the remaining cast members, numerous bit players and  extras.  Mr. Powell would have a studio or personal tailor who made his suits (at least 3-4 for the shoot).  Huge costume stocks from studio wardrobe would have dressed the cops, extras, and smaller characters in the film. Hollywood studios had their own costume wardrobe departments. When I started in Hollywood in the 1980’s most of these had been sold off. It was a sad time for Hollywood film creators as the famous clothes of the stars landed in the back dumpsters, many not realizing their social and cultural value.   The 1930s era was also a time of simple and elegant timeless looks that were expertly cut.  There are few cutters today in the industry who can re-create the on-bias looks of the period.

This makes this slice of time so unique as you watch these films. Creative, elegant, full of flair the FILM NOIRE movie has something for everyone. Mysterious and alluring women with heart, or even some that are heartless.  Handsome men in suits who are the new urban heros.  Great bad guys who fire at will from moving cars that careen down the narrow and dark city streets.  What a world, my pretty.  What a world.

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The black and white film is a challenge that is unique to the art of costume and scenic design. Exploring the tones, textures and lines of the clothes is an important aspect to telling the story of the characters. When captured in black and white, the story becomes even more stark as the lights and shadows become as important as the fashions depicted.

What makes the genre of the detective story so fun, is the rooms are often bathed in shadows, characters emerge into the light, their clothes sometimes blending into the background until they are revealed and often with critical plot points. Satins and fur trim are important fabrics of the period as are silk crepes lending the look and feel for the bias cut dresses, coats and gowns; they lend specific textures and play with light which was the second most important aspect of the clothes next to the depiction of character.  Murder mysteries and ‘who-dunnets’  are peculiar in their aspects of “conceal and reveal” of each character in a story line; characters experience a progression as plots unfold and giving things away too soon can ruin the best plotlines.  The art of making sure the characters can both tell their stories and also emerge from the shadows at the right moment is a key aspect of a design.  Orry Kelly was a unique designer in his relationships with female stars as well as his unique ability to design both an ‘everyday’ look that also rises to the heights of movie star style.

The familiar faces of the often repeated cast of actors in this film are like old comfortable sweaters; you are happy to see them as they appear in yet another role perfectly cast for their personalities. The marvelous characters of the film seem to have been lifted right out of the pages of the original novel in their dusty and rumpled clothes; the stars pop off the screen in their beautifully tailored clothes that are a testament to both the designers and craftsmen who created them.

Editor’s Note:  Film historians such as William K. Everson, who pronounced The Kennel Murder Case a “masterpiece” (in the August 1984 issue of Films in Review) consider it one of the greatest screen adaptations of a Golden Age mystery novel; ranking it with the 1946 film Green for Danger.

Mary Astor and Her Dirty Diary https://www.dametown.com/mary-astor-and-her-dirty-diary/ via @DixieLaite

The Kennel Murder Case”  is available to Amazon Prime Members and a fun mystery to watch for the early career for William Powell.

Related Costume Research:  http://americancinematheque.blogspot.com/2015/07/fashion-expert-kimberly-truhler.html

TCM.com for more information on the genre of the Murder Mystery in Hollywood’s Golden Age.

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