20s/30s style icons

1920s & 1930s Fashion Icons

With so many impeccably dressed women to choose from, we somehow managed to decide on featuring the following handful of actresses, socialites and models. We hope you enjoy reading about their lives and the influence they had on the fashion of the day. 

Joan Crawford, Actress 

Joan was born Lucille Fay LaSueur and began her acting career with travelling theatre companies. She became an internationally known Flapper in the 1920s, rivalling Clara Bow. Her first major success in Hollywood came with 1928's Our Dancing Daughters.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote of her:
"Joan Crawford is doubtless the best example of the flapper, the girl you see in smart night clubs, gowned to the apex of sophistication, toying iced glasses with a remote, faintly bitter expression, dancing deliciously, laughing a great deal, with wide, hurt eyes. Young things with a talent for living."

She was often pared with costume designer Gilbert Adrian for her roles, which set trends for women all over America. One such trend was for the ruffled shoulder 'Letty Lynton dress' of 1932, a film in which she plays a socialite. The romantic ultra-feminine Neo-Victorian organdy evening gown was a huge departure from the flapper look of the 20s and even from the dominant slinky figure-hugging gowns of the 30s. It is said that between 50,000 and 500,000 knock-off versions of her dress were sold at price points for every budget across America! Even Parisian designers were copying it. The Motion Picture Herald declared “The gowns which Miss Crawford wears will be the talk of your town for weeks!” The success of this prompted movie producers to believe that Hollywood could be more influential than Paris when it came to fashion. They began working with retailers to tie-in movie fashions with ready to wear clothing. Macy's department store established a 'cinema shop' to sell these trending designs. Puffy sleeves popped up everywhere. The influence this particular dress had on American fashion cannot be understated. Edith Head quipped that the dress was the "single most important influence on fashion in film history". Many designers in the decades since have created their own versions including Valentino, Karl Lagerfeld and Elie Saab.  

Joan was known to have broad shoulders which worked to her advantage in 1920s flapper dresses which could make even thin women's waists and hips look wider. 1930s bias cut gowns proved similarly challenging- this is cited as one reason for the success of the Letty Lynton dress- the large ruffled shoulders helped to make hips look smaller.

By the late 30s, her star was waning until the release of Mildred Pierce in 1945, which earned her an Academy Award. At this time, Joan was exaggerating her shoulders in her costuming even more and is seen as one of the pioneers of the wide shoulder-padded look so popular in the 40s. 

Her famous rivalry with Bette Davis was dramatized in season one of the 2017 TV series Feud, where she was played by Jessica Lange. She was also portrayed by Barrie Youngfellow in the 1980 film The Scarlett O'Hara war. 

She starred in her last film in 1970 and passed away in 1977.

Marlene Dietrich, Actress  

Marie Magdalene Dietrich was born in Berlin in 1901. Her first job was playing violin in a pit orchestra for silent films. She then worked as a chorus girl in Berlin. Her first film acting role was in The Little Napoleon in 1923. She continued to work in stage and on film throughout the 1920s. She had her first breakthrough in 1930 and consequently moved to the United States and became a major film star. She learned how to assume control of her image at this time. She created an elegant and mysterious persona. She had all of her clothes tailored to counteract what she called her 'unusual shape' with wide shoulders and narrow hips. 

In her film Morocco, she appeared wearing a men's tuxedo by designer Travis Banton.

She later arrived at a train station in Paris in 1933 wearing a pant suit where the police attempted to arrest her for her illegal attire. Along with the likes of Katharine Hepburn, she helped to make pants acceptable for women to wear in the 30s. 

She was approached by Nazis just before WWII to come back to Germany to be a foremost German star but she refused and applied for American citizenship. Dietrich received the Medal of Freedom in November 1947, for her "extraordinary record entertaining troops overseas during the war".

She was not only a screen icon, but also a muse to fashion designers. Edith Head remarked that Dietrich knew more about fashion than any other actress. She influenced designers like Yves Saint Laurent and Azzedine Alaïa. Dior was one of her favourite designers. 

From the early 1950s until the mid-1970s, Dietrich worked almost exclusively as a cabaret artist, performing live in large theatres in major cities worldwide.

In 1953, she performed weekly in Las Vegas wearing a daringly sheer "nude dress"—a heavily beaded evening gown of silk soufflé, which gave the illusion of transparency—designed by Jean Louis, which attracted a lot of publicity. 

She often performed the first part of her shows in one of her body-hugging dresses and a swansdown coat, and changed to top hat and tails for the second half of the performance, allowing her to sing songs associated with male voices.

Her use of body-sculpting undergarments, nonsurgical temporary facelifts (tape), expert makeup and wigs, combined with careful stage lighting, helped to preserve Dietrich's glamorous image as she grew older. 

She said in 1960 "I dress for the image. Not for myself, not for the public, not for fashion, not for men. If I dressed for myself I wouldn't bother at all. Clothes bore me. I'd wear jeans. I adore jeans. I get them in a public store—men's, of course; I can't wear women's trousers. But I dress for the profession."

Her health declined in the 60s and 70s, accumulating in her falling on stage in 1975 and breaking a thigh bone, which marked the end of her stage career.

A documentary about her life was released in 1984, which was nominated for an Academy Award. 
The Council of Fashion designer's of America awarded her the Lifetime Achievement Award in 1986. 
Madonna referenced her in her hit song Vogue in 1990.

She died of kidney failure in 1992 and her clothing was sold by public auction in 1997. 

In 2017, Swarovski commissioned a $60,000 Art Deco-style dress inspired by her famous "nude dress", from Berlin-based fashion tech company ElektroCouture to honour Dietrich 25 years after her death. It contains 2,000 crystals in addition to 150 LED lights. ElektroCouture owner Lisa Lang said that the dress was inspired by electrical diagrams and correspondence that took place between the actress and fashion designer Jean Louis in 1958: "She wanted a dress that glows, she wanted to be able to control it herself from the stage and she knew she could have died of an electric stroke had it ever been realized." The dress created by Lang's company was featured in French-German broadcaster Arte's documentary Das letzte Kleid der Marlene Dietrich ('The Last Dress of Marlene Dietrich').


“Glamour is assurance. It is a kind of knowing that you are all right in every way, mentally and physically and in appearance, and that, whatever the occasion or the situation, you are equal to it.” - Marlene Dietrich. 

Wallis Simpson, Socialite 

Bessie Wallis Warfield was born in Pennsylvania in 1896 and grew up in Baltimore. She divorced her second husband and married King Edward VIII in 1936. Edward's decision to marry a woman who had two living husbands caused a constitutional crisis in the UK and lead to his abdication of the throne. Edward presented her with an engagement ring that consisted of an emerald mount in yellow gold set with diamonds, and the sentence "We are ours now" was engraved on it. She wore a 'Wallis blue' Mainbocher dress and Caroline Reboux hat at their wedding.

The couple became the Duke and Duchess of Windsor though Wallis was not allowed the title of 'Royal Highness' nor was she accepted by Edward's family.

She posed for Cecil Beaton in 1937 wearing the Schiaparelli-Dali lobster dress for Vogue. 

Vogue reports that "Her clothes were as thought-provoking and individual as her approach to royal etiquette. When Coco Chanel’s boyish Breton tops and trimmed boxy jackets were de rigueur, Simpson was wearing American couturier Main Rousseau Bocher’s corsetry."

Wallis did not believe herself a beautiful woman and so used fashion as armour. She said "I’m nothing to look at, so the only thing I can do is dress better than anyone else." 

Besides Mainbocher, Madame Grés and Christian Dior were among her favourite designers. She was also a fan of footwear designer Salvatore Ferragamo. 

In the 40s, 50s and 60s, the couple lived a life of luxury as society celebrities. Wallis was often seated in the front row of fashion shows. She cultivated an unrivalled jewellery collection.

"I began with my own personal ideas about style and I've never again felt correct in anything but the severe look I developed then," Simpson told her friend Fleur Cowles, the magazine editor and society hostess, in an interview for Bazaar in 1966.

After Edward's death in 1972, Wallis lived in seclusion with ill health, a controversial figure in British history.

Hubert de Givenchy, who became close to the duchess after her husband's death, remembers making her a cotton dress with wool-embroidered monkeys.

She died in 1986 but left quite a legacy. 

Madonna wrote and directed a film about her in 2011 called W.E. starring Andrea Riseborough. Christian Dior re-created three dresses for the film that the house had previously made for Wallis. Arianne Phillips was costume designer on the film.

Designers such as Vera Wang, Jonathon Simkhai and Roland Mouret have all drawn inspiration from Wallis in their work. 

Mona Von Bismarck, Socialite  

Mona Strader was born in Kentucky in 1897. She was twice divorced by the time she opened a dress shop in New York in 1925. She married Harrison Williams the following year, who was perhaps the richest man in America at the time. She lived a life of luxury travelling around the world and was a foremost member of Café Society.

In 1933, Mona was named "The Best Dressed Woman in the World" by a group of haute couturiers including Chanel, Molyneux, Vionnet, Lelong and Lanvin, becoming the first American to be so honoured.

She was one of the most revered socialites of her day. Salvador Dali painted her portrait in 1943.

After the death of Williams, she married again and took up residence at the Hotel Lambert in Paris. 

She was named to the International Best Dressed List Hall of Fame in 1958.

She was widowed again in 1970 and married Count Umberto De Martini. 

When Cristobal Balenciaga, who used Mona as his muse, closed his atelier in 1968, Diana Vreeland quipped that Mona did not leave her bedroom for three days in mourning. Once, when much of her wardrobe was lost in a train accident, she ordered 150 pieces from Balenciaga in a single season.

Mona donated her papers and photos to the Filson Historical Society in 1976, which included several correspondence with Hubert de Givenchy and other figures in fashion.

Several items of unique jewelry were also donated to the Smithsonian Institution, including the Bismarck Sapphire Necklace.

She died in 1983 at the age of 86 and was buried in a Givenchy gown. 

In Truman Capote's Answered Prayers (1987), she was the model for the character Kate McCloud.

The Mona Bismarck American Center was open in Paris from 1986 to 2022, and fostered artistic and cultural Franco-American relations.

She is remembered as one of the most stylish women of the 20th Century for her colourful and bold taste. 

Marion Morehouse, Model  

Marion was born in Indiana in 1903, said to be of Choctaw ancestry. She is often cited as the first major supermodel.

Her sister and brother worked in theatre and Marion starred in at least 5 Broadway shows. 

Jean Patou visited New York in the early 20s and decided to run a competition with Vogue to find American models that were just as good as European ones. It was a turning point in the modelling industry. Marion didn't end up winning the competition but photographer Edward Steichen noticed her and she was consequently booked for fashion magazine shoots, which shot her to stardom. 

Steichen said of her that she was “the greatest fashion model I ever shot”.

Cecil Beaton said that “It was not until Miss Marion Morehouse was discovered by Steichen that photographic models became so well known that they exerted an influence on the public. The aim of models at this time was to be grand ladies, and Marion Morehouse, with her particularly personal ways of twisting her neck, her fingers and feet, was at home in the grandest circumstances.”

In 1932, she gave up modelling at the onset of a relationship with the poet E.E. Cummings which lasted 30 years until his death, though they never married. She turned to photography instead. 

Above: Marion modelling a dress by Louise Chéruit. It is today housed at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. 

In 1953, Cummings wrote that Marion (now in her fifties) was ‘young, lovely & gifted with beauty — as a deer in a glade, unconscious of anyone else, is beautiful.’

She died in New York 1969. 

Her tall, willowy, aristocratic figure convinced many to adopt the androgynous flapper look that the 20s is now famous for. Steichen's photos of her remain some of the most striking fashion photos of the the 20s and 30s, often dressed in Chanel and Chéruit. She is the first model to exert true influence on the public's fashion choices. 

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