Puttin' On The Glitz - Fashion & Film in the Jazz Age

By Sophia Shillito - April 21, 2014

Two of the site's favorite people, Amber Jane Butchart and Lord Christopher Laverty recently teamed up to host an excellent event at the British Library- "Puttin' On The Glitz: Fashion and Film in the Jazz Age." Since I couldn't make the trek across the pond for the event, I was thrilled to have contributor Sophia Shillito attend. Below is her coverage of the event.

Amber Jane Butchart and Lord Christopher Laverty. Puttin' On The Glitz, British Library. (photo credit: Luca Sage)


On the evening of Friday 28th March, the British Library was buzzing with a sold-out audience eager to hear about fashion and film in the jazz age. Two speakers held the talk: Amber Butchart and (Lord) Chris Laverty. Amber is a fashion historian, writer, broadcaster and lecturer at London College of Fashion and don’t forget to check out her newly released book Amber Jane Butchart's Fashion Miscellany. Chris Laverty is the creator of Clothes on Film and a writer and broadcast regularly featured talking about costume design. Both speakers are passionate about their subject and this came across easily in the talk.

Film and Fashion in the Jazz Age

Amber Jane Butchart. Puttin' On The Glitz, British Library. (photo credit: Luca Sage)

Amber started with a look specifically at the correlation between film and fashion in the 1920s and 1930s.

The talk concentrated on three cities and aspects:

  • Paris – the height of couturier fashion
  • Hollywood – the rise of the film industry
  • London – a somewhat middle-ground between these two cities – fashion and accessibility; Hedonism v. economic depression and fashion and film.


Following the hedonism and excess of the ‘20s, the ‘30s took on a very different feel due to the depression, but this was also the period that led to burgeoning affluence, modernity, the rise of ready-to-wear clothes, the rise of chain stores, the importance of mise-en-scène and the decline of couture fashion. This rise in consumerism affected all areas. The cultural industries were boosted with the introduction of the national London press and an all time high attendance at the cinema (average of 18.5 million per week) following the rise of the talkies in the late ‘20s. Cinema attendance also changed with the rise of grand movie theatres built across the country – this wasn’t just in the West End. People could expect elegant cinemas with suited ushers everywhere.

Photoplay, November 1925.


America v. Paris:

A certain dichotomy between America and Paris in terms of style was very much in existence in the ‘30s and, to some extent, still is. Paris was associated with elegance, chic, elite fashion and impracticality, whereas America was seen as more casual, democratic, sportswear and generally more wearable. This wasn’t strictly the case as Chanel revolutionized womenswear by using fabric traditionally found in menswear and sportswear and Schiaparelli’s collaborations with artists (including Dali and Cocteau) led to controversial designs. Paris was not always at the height of great taste.


The “competition” between America and Paris, more specifically Hollywood and Paris, continued when MGM’s hired Erté to design costumes, while Chanel and Schiaparelli dressed Gloria Swanson and Mae West, respectively. At this time the majority of contemporary silent films didn’t use costume designers and the stars were expected to provide their own costumes. This obviously wasn’t true in the case of costume pieces. Cecil B DeMille once remarked, “I want clothes that will make people gasp when they see them. Don’t design anything that anyone could buy in a store.”

Designs by Adrian for Norma Shearer. Vogue, 1938.


1930s Hollywood took on a different feel following the introduction of the Hays Code in 1933. The general public was suffering from economic depression and this affected their tolerance for the “Hollywood lifestyle”. The Fatty Arbuckle incident was one of the last straws. The industry needed to make their films palatable again and their solution was to avoid government regulation by regulating themselves. This is why films from the mid-30s feel much “safer” than those in the ‘20s.


Another effect of the depression was the government’s desire to push for the sale and production of domestic products. Women were seen as the high consumers and they were focused on with advertising. The star system at the time was highly influential, particularly with the rise of fan magazines. The studios created personalities out of performers, making stars that would help ensure the success of a film.


At this time there was also a change in the relationship between costume designers and the media. They were treated as celebrities in their own rights with tips in magazines, radio and TV shows. The main three were Travis Banton for Paramount, Adrian for MGM and Orry-Kelly for Warner Brothers. There was also the furthering of the idea that Hollywood was the originator of fashion rather than a follower.

Blouses of Every Kind. Butterick Fashion Book, 1934.


From a fashion magazine of the time:

“It exemplifies the typical Hollywood line which Paris calls new but Hollywood created.”

Hollywood took a different route to Paris in that commercial reproduction was encouraged rather than seen as counterfeiting. The Modern Merchandising Bureau was set up where sketches were produced and sold, and then Cinema Fashion Stores were set-up. The cult of fandom had begun and what better way to promote a film than by promoting the fashion of its stars? Costume became an integral part of the dream factory of Hollywood and was responsible for the fashion show sequence.


A clip from Roberta from 1933 was played; costumes designed by Bernard Newman. The sequence is long, featuring plenty of lingering shots of clothing details. It was rumored that 15 of the costumes featured were reproduced by the Modern Merchandising Bureau and sold in Cinema Stores. The film starred Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and showed that even box office winners were required to take on fashion. The subject of the film is fashion and even makes a few digs at the impracticalities of Parisian couture. Hollywood v. Paris was still in evidence. The costume designer Bernard Newman was also the head designer of Bergdorf Goodman, further cementing the bond between fashion and film.


One turning point in the fashion and film relationship came with the release of Letty Lynton in 1932. The film hasn’t been seen since 1936 due to a copyright trial but the film has gone down in Hollywood fashion myth – particularly for one dress. The dress in question, designed by Adrian and worn by Joan Crawford, was a white organdy dress with large ruffled sleeves. Over 500,000 copies of the dress were sold by Macy’s and it has a fabled influence on the shoulder fashion trends of the ‘30s and ‘40s.

Letty Lynton, 1932. Costume design by Adrian.


Back in London, Hollywood was still associated with the vulgarity and hedonism of the ‘20s and didn’t share the morality of middle England. During the silent era, costume designers focused on symbolism and spectacle rather than realism, but with the talkies came a closer look at realism. The rise of cinema attendance in middle-class Britain (the “taste-makers” of the country) meant that the importance of Hollywood couldn’t be ignored. After Letty Lynton, British Vogue took America seriously in fashion and published an article in April 1933 called “Does Hollywood Create?” Costume designers were compared to Parisian couturiers that were noticeable by remaining nameless. Letty Lynton was a clear reference in the article.


The coverage of Hollywood in fashion magazines increased and is still prevalent today. You only have to look at last year’s The Great Gatsby to see fashion being used as a marketing tool. This trend doesn’t look to be on the outs, but having a resurgence.


Gangsters in the ‘20s: Boardwalk Empire as a Costume Design Focus

Lord Christopher Laverty. Puttin' On The Glitz, British Library. (photo credit: Luca Sage)

Chris focused on John Dunn’s costume design in Boardwalk Empire and the way it challenges our perceptions of the 1920s gangsters clothing.


Colour is not traditionally seen as masculine but a wild and colourful look defined gangsters in the early ‘20s. They were dandies (in the 1910s context, rather than 18th century). Boardwalk Empire was chosen for its authentic and beautifully produced costumes for men in the 1920s.


In the 1900s, the sack suit was the suit of the day. It was called that because of the way that it hung. It wasn’t necessarily fitted and was fairly non-descriptive. With the development of men taking up more sporting activities, the suit evolved to fit with the evolving body shape. (The Gillette safety razor was also invented and led to a split between young and old men regarding their facial hair care.)


During this time, the much slimmer suit with waist darts, sloping shoulders, narrow trousers with small turn-ups and little to no break become popular. For the purpose of the talk Chris termed this the ‘Boardwalk Empire suit’.

Boardwalk Empire. Costume design by John Dunn.


Nucky Thompson

Nucky (based on real-life gangster Enoch Johnson) started as the county treasurer in Atlantic City but his illegal sidelines eventually led to becoming a full-time gangster. Johnson was infamous for being an ostentatious dresser who liked to wear his wealth. He always wore a fresh carnation and had a chauffeur driven powder blue Rolls Royce. The only photos we have of the period are in black and white and this has led to the belief that the gangsters (and other suit wearers) always wore black and white. Dunn’s research led to the discovery that this was not the case.


Chris was given a costume sketch of Nucky that shows his suit silhouette that has remained consistent throughout the series. It is a tapered line suit with high button placement, narrow shoulders and gauntlet cuffs – traditionally an Edwardian style. Nucky is an older character and his silhouette would reflect that. He didn’t blink and suddenly enter the ‘20s full throttle.


Dunn’s research into the suits was based heavily in museums and through old patterns. His main concern was using fabrics of the right weight. This sounds easy but it is nearly impossible to buy fabric of the heavy weight that was used in the ‘20s. Because of this, they had to arrange to have many fabrics specially woven in Scotland.

Boardwalk Empire. Costume design by John Dunn.


Jimmy Darmody

Jimmy is the young up and coming gangster who has the most obvious costume arc. He came back from the war and wanted to make money. Jimmy is the only character not based on a real person.


The first image shown of Jimmy revealed him wearing tweed, flannel and knitwear. Although this would be seen as smart nowadays, back in the ‘20s it was associated with workwear and shows Jimmy’s low position in their hierarchy. The next image showed him wearing a Norfolk coat, belted with a box pleat at the back, designed for practical sportswear. Chris compared this to a modern day tracksuit or zip up hoodie.

Norfolk historic research, Feb 1900.


When Jimmy moved to Chicago to become a gangster in his own right, his first move was to get a tailored suit. Although there was nothing particularly wrong with his old clothing and his finances were so low that he was living in one room in a brothel, the suit was a necessity. He had to dress like a gangster to be taken seriously in that world. One key element of the look came from the soft collar of his shirt. This was another sign of young v. old. Nucky favoured a stiff collar as did many of the older generation. The thought at the time was that soft collars encouraged poor posture.

Boardwalk Empire. Costume design by John Dunn.


Chalky White

Chalky White was the unofficial leader of African Americans in Atlantic City.


His clothing needed to make a statement like Nucky’s, but his clothing takes on a different role because of his race. He wears clothes from his oppressors, but subverts them to make them his own. We saw him in an Edwardian silhouetted suit with bright colours and patterns – brighter than those worn by Nucky. He always wears a bow tie, just like Nucky always has a fresh carnation, and usually has a wide-brimmed hat and a tweed suit.


Chalky’s costumes look similar to those of Blaxploitation characters in the ‘70s as the suits of the ‘20s heavily inspired the ‘70s, but Dunn regards his suits as a precursor to the Zoot suits of the ‘40s. Chris also made the comparison between Chalky’s costumes and those of the Sapeurs featured in the most recent Guiness advert.

Boardwalk Empire. Costume design by John Dunn. 

Real-life Gangsters v. Film Gangsters

Then there was discussion about where gangster fashion came from. John Dillinger was the first movie-star gangster and he spent money in the same way that Nucky and Chalky do – to show his wealth. Dillinger was apparently inspired by James Cagney in The Public Enemy. Cagney, in turn, was inspired by real-life gangster Dean O’Banion, who was known for his fancy suits; going so far as to have extra pockets sewn in to hide guns without damaging the line of the suit. By the 1930s, real-life gangsters were copying the screen and we enter a never-ending circle.


Boardwalk Empire’s research has shaped our knowledge of gangster clothing and has also inspired fashion. Ralph Lauren’s men’s and womenswear of the past few years have shown clear Boardwalk Empire inspiration. The show has legitimized the colourful look for men and has brought dandy dressing back to fashion.


The evening was a resounding success and fascinating in all aspects! To finish off the celebration of the jazz age there was a cocktail party hosted by The Vintage Mafia.

Party goers. Puttin' On The Glitz, British Library. (photo credit: Luca Sage)

Party goers. Puttin' On The Glitz, British Library. (photo credit: Luca Sage)


Thank you to Sophia (@sophiashillito) for her wonderful contribution. If you are not currently following Amber and Chris, you are missing out! Check out their websites and follow them on Twitter!

Amber Jane Butchart

Associate Lecturer in Cultural & Historical Studies: London College of Fashion 

Research Fellow: University of the Arts London


Twitter: @AmberButchart


Lord Christopher Laverty

Writer. Editor of Clothes On Film, featured on HBO television, BBC radio, live for Orange Film Night, plus written for countless mags and websites including MR PORTER, Stylist, Moviescope and Empire.


Twitter: @ClothesOnFilm