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Fashion in American Popular Culture

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When Mae West set her play Diamond Lil and the later Paramount adaptation She Done Him Wrong (1933) in The Gay Nineties, she chose wisely. First, she knew her figure was far better suited for the curves, corsets, and bustiers of that era. The flapper fashion with flat chests and straight lines didn't display her assets - as she might have phrased it - and didn't have the same stage presence or panache of the 1890s styles. But more than the benefits and the look of it, the nineties fashion worked in ironic juxtaposition to the content of the scripts by bringing Victorian womanhood into the progressive contemporary storyline of the 1930s, thus forcing audiences to compare the societal mores as well as the roles of women in the two time periods.

She Done Him Wrong follows the life of a saloon singer Lady Lou (Mae West) who falls in love with Captain Cummings (Cary Grant), the Salvation Army worker next door. In the opening montage of the Bowery, two women in high-necked, plush Victorian fashion turn their noses up and continue walking. One imagines they saw someone like Lady Lou, passed judgment, and moved on, holding as tightly to their Victorian moral codes as they do to each other. In contrast, the first time we see Lady Lou, she's in an oil painting on the wall of the saloon - reclining - and totally nude.

When she pulls up to the saloon in a carriage, on older woman in run down clothes with a little boy passes Lady Lou and tells her she's "a fine gal, a fine woman." Lady Lou pats the head of the little boy, and we sense that the singer must have helped him in some way, perhaps through the mission next door. Lou undercuts the praise by replying, "one of the finest women ever walked the streets," which carries the infamous Westian double entendre. Lou is a woman of the streets in that she's one of them; she rose from the lower classes of the Bowery; and she helps the mission. (We know later that she buys the building to aid the missionary work going on as well as to help Captain Cummings.) These facts are placed alongside the obvious sexual connotation of a "streetwalker."

Lady Lou enters the saloon and shows her friends some photographs she had posed for, asking Serge (Gilbert Roland) if he would like to see them. "Don't be backward," she tells him. "I'm not." This comment places her progressive sensibilities in contrast to the Victorian garb and surroundings; it is also followed by her remark that her quarters above the saloon are "like heaven" reasoning that's why you have to take steps to get there. Again, we can see Lady Lou has risen above the traditions of the past, quite literally.

When a young woman wanders into the bar and tries to kill herself, it is Lou who helps her. She doesn't criticize and, indeed, helps the troubled girl, Sally (Rochelle Hudson), getting her new clothes and a job. The singer understands the people of the Bowery, their troubles and needs. Rather than convicting them for acting outside of societal propriety, she helps them to improve their lives. "Mens all alike...It's their game. I happen to be smart enough to play it their way. You'll come to it," the singer advises the girl. Lou also works to make Sally laugh and is rewarded when the girl finally does. "That's the spirit," the singer tells her.

Of course, Lou has more progressive sensibilities in other area as well. As Serge leaves her rooms, she tells him, "Come up and see me. Anytime." He replies he hopes she'll be alone. She answers that she hopes so, too. Then her maid calls her to her bath and the singer says, "You take it. I'm indisposed," as Serge kisses her hand before leaving. West deconstructs the Victorian codes scene by scene, fashioning the New Woman along the way. In addition, as Jill Watts notes in her biography Mae West, "For one of the first times, an American film actress dared to use an authentic working class accent [born in Bushwick, New York] rather than the unconvincing blue-collars dialects or upper-crust stage affectations common in early talking films."

As Rick DesRochers states in The New Humor in the Progressive Era, "Female comedians used the new humor to challenge standard Anglo-American middle-class notions of womanhood." Likewise, in The Comic Offense, DesRochers asserts, "The new women on the comic stage, as represented here by Mae West, resisted and flouted censorship during the first decades of the twentieth century...and disturbed preconceived definitions of the feminine. Their comedy came about during an era when the new women began to redefine gender roles and their place in American society." By placing this comedy in a Victorian setting with the Westian body literally swathed in Victorian styles, the actress forced audiences to examine the two worlds side by side, undercutting traditionalists with every sway of her hip.


February 2015

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