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Beauty through the ages - Hollywood's Golden Age

A time of glamor and blonde bombshells

Author: Charlotte Kuchinsky March 2 2008

Veronica Lake portrait

During the Golden Age of Hollywood, from the thirties to the fifties, all-out glamour was the trend, and every woman wanted to look like her favorite movie star. Harlow made the platinum blonde a beauty icon, while Rita Hayworth made redheads popular. But it was Veronica Lake’s peek-a-boo semi-bang that really resonated with the women of the era. It was sexy, mysterious, and powerful; trends that women of that age seemed determined to embrace.

Hairstyles in general became more feminine than they had been the decade before. The new look was long and wavy or slightly curly with loose ringlets, and updos were soft with light curls. It wasn’t unusual for women to toss their hair up loosely in order to accent their necks, and they often allowed a few stray curls to dangle in a seductive manner. But there was only one absolute requirement for the perfect hairstyle - it had to gleam and shine with radiant health.

Men’s hairstyles, on the other hand, didn’t change that much from the 20’s. They continued to go short, often slicking the hair back with oil and eventually a new hairdressing called Brylcream. Many still sported mustaches but they were now well trimmed, a la Errol Flynn.

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Both men and women began to pay attention to what they ate and became more conscious of their bodies. Because many of the fashions of the day accented the arms, women worked hard to make sure that theirs were both shapely and firm. For the first time in history, it became normal for women to use light weights to build the proper muscle tone. Shapely legs were also critical so women worked hard to keep theirs looking picture perfect. Climbing stairs and walking became popular ways of maintaining those gorgeous gams. And the invention of a new stretch fabric cotton brassiere with extra padding allowed women to both shape and accent their upper torsos in a manner that made their male counterparts drool.

Men focused their exercise on weight lifting, walking, and jogging. Upper body strength became a symbol of a male’s desirability. With swim trunks now only covering the lower half of a male’s physique, most wanted to make certain the other exposed half was both tanned and toned. However, men weren’t the only ones sporting tans during this period. It suddenly became a symbol of the upper crust for both men and women to show off beautifully tanned skin. To keep it soft and silky, many used creams and lotions that helped to access those rippling muscles. It also softened the skin and allowed it to look glowing and radiant all day long.

Women’s makeup was still vibrant, but not quite as overdone as in the 20’s. A softer look that matched the hairstyles was preferred, and some women even embraced the fresh-faced, girl next door look that required little or no makeup at all. Foundations came closer to matching the natural skin color rather than the pasty white or light colors that had been popular. The accent, however, was on the lips, which were often blood red. Rouged cheeks continued to be important but weren’t quite as pronounced as in the decade before.

Of course during and even many years after the Great Depression certain luxuries like nylon stockings became scarce, so women developed the trend of wearing ankle socks even with high heels. It was a trend that carried over for a number of years, even into the 50’s. Stockings were saved for special occasions, except for lucky debutantes and Hollywood's glamour girls.

Scarves and turbans disguised roots in blond hair since hair dye wasn’t easily available. Women learned how to mend their clothing since there wasn’t a lot of extra cash for new duds. A few even learned how to sew when fabric was made available.

Trousers became acceptable for women primarily because many of them had worked side by side in factories with men during the Second World War. Cotton button down shirts with a slightly masculine look also proved to be durable and women discovered that by tying them at the waist, they could make them more feminine while also keeping them out of the way of the machinery and equipment with which they worked. Other women cut off their long pants to make shorts that showed off their well-toned legs. Each year, it seemed that the shorts became shorter and more provocative.

Men’s clothing also became more casual since the prices of those well-cut suits were out of range of the average individual. What they did have in dress clothes was saved for special occasions, while dungarees, khakis, and cotton pants became more of the norm. Long-sleeved crisp shirts were worn year round. In the summer the sleeves were rolled up for a cooler look and feel. Some men dared to go without their standard shirt; sporting only their undershirts, which were both sleeved and sleeveless. As a side benefit, this popular look accented all the hard work the men had invested in their upper bodies.

Once the war was over again, women were anxious to get back to a more glamorous look, embracing the flowing satin and silk form-fitting gowns accented with beading, feathers, and flowers with zest. However, that didn’t mean they were ready to abandon the trouser look altogether. Instead, they adopted a more functional daytime look, saving their most glamorous clothing for the night.

Women had grown to like the freedom that wearing trousers provided, so fashion designers responded by coming out with feminine looking suits that mirrored the power of their male counterparts while allowing the female of the species to strut her feminine curves. At last women had the best of both worlds!

Some suits, however, featured skirts. Some were longer, going almost down to the ankle while others were shorter; between the knee and calf. A few even had lengths that were longer in the back than in the front, allowing women to show a little more leg without being considered scandalous. Paneling became popular, as did pleating. Some were cut to be form-fitting, while others draped with elegant grace.

Chanel continued to establish top designs that were coveted by women of all ages and classes, as did her major competitor Elsa Schiaparelli. Many credit Schiaparelli with the invention of the “little black dress” because it was always a staple in her collection. However, she was actually better known for her tailored feminine suits, based on a decidedly masculine design. She invented the strong shoulder look by inserting shoulder pads into her suit jackets; some forty-plus years before they became the staple of the 80’s.

Christian Dior also made his appearance on the scene and quickly captured the hearts and minds of the new, modern woman. Madeleine Vionnet, a popular French designer, made the halter dress a must-have for the woman who wanted to look ultra chic on those rare evenings out. She was also the inventor of the bias cut and cowl necklines; two major additions to the fashion industries.

Style icons of the 30’s included blonde bombshells Jean Harlow, Carole Lombard, and Mae West, but it was also the time of feisty brunettes like Marlene Dietrich, Claudette Colbert and Great Garbo. In the 40’s, sassy redhead Rita Hayworth stepped forward, but the age of the blonde wasn’t over either - Lana Turner ensured that she remained in the limelight. Brunettes were also still going strong with the likes of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. And for the first time, a woman of color took center stage as the stunning Lena Horne showed women how to have both sass and class.

Until television hit the scene in the late 50’s, it was the silver screen that was all the rage. It helped to establish fashion, makeup, and hairstyles for more than two decades and continues to have an impact in the world today. After all, what little girl doesn’t, at some point, dream of being a movie star? And while that dream will come true only for a small number, many can at least accomplish the look and style of their matinee idol - and that is a special gift to women everywhere because every woman deserves to feel beautiful!

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