A documentary of the life of Mae West, the vampy Brooklyn-born actor and writer premiered last night on American Masters. While it seems easy to dismiss West as being simply OTT—especially after having been schooled in all things camp in the lead up to last year’s Costume Institute exhibition and gala—her influence on fashion cannot be dismissed. In 1937 Elsa Schiaparelli launched her fragrance Shocking in a bottle in the shape of West’s famously curvy silhouette. Schiap pal Salvador Dalí was also a huge fan of the actor.
Like Jean Harlow, West set the stage for generations of blonde bombshells including Marilyn Monroe and Madonna, but at a time when the French set the mode—“fashions originate in Paris,” the star once told Vogue—it’s perhaps even more impressive to see how her unapologetic style, which harked back to the “Gay Nineties” (as in the 1890s) trickled up after the 1933 release of She Done Him Wrong. This is the film in which the unapologetically seductive West uttered the line “Why don’t you come up sometime and see me?”
With the American Masters doc in mind, we charted West’s influence on fashion as it was reported in Vogue. Aesthetics aside, it’s the symbolism that is most interesting here. The First World War begat a nihilistic and Gatsby-like generation who lived like there was no tomorrow. After the crash of 1929 the future looked bleak indeed. America was in the midst of a Depression when West appeared in She Done Him Wrong, and her love of excess, her oozing femininity was something to revel in. (It's interesting to note, too, that the corseted hourglass shape she made fashionable, was revisited post-World War II and called the New Look.) All the more so because there was nothing saccharine about the silver-tongued Brooklynite.
Here, a timeline of Mae West’s fashion takeover in Vogue.
“Vogue’s Spotlight on the Current Shows,” by David Carb, April 15, 1933
“When Mae West says ‘Come up to my room sometime,’ the temperature in the movie theater goes up twenty degrees. For this amply cushioned lady of the yellow hair and the leering lip has It to an overpowering extent. She literally hurls it at you.”
“Midsummer News from Paris with a Prophetic Slant,” by Marcelle McGuane, June 15, 1933
“Maybe jazz is losing its grip on the world or maybe Mae West, whom Paris currently idolizes, has something to do with it— but the Café de Paris these Friday nights (every one goes on Friday) has a distinctly new rhythm. Syncopation has given way to dreamy waltzes and tangoes—and the floor is an enchanting picture of whirling and twirling tulle dresses, billowing white cotton point d’esprit ones, and crisp, flower-like organdies.”
“Vogue’s Eye View of the Mode,” by Marya Mannes, July 1, 1933
“Mae West in She Done Him Wrong created a furore in Paris, convincing the French that the hefty bosom, the opulent hip, and the glittering facade were the natural attributes of women and due for a comeback. With Mae, a tidal wave of correspondingly big gestures rolled in: enormous bags, huge blobby crystal bracelets and rings, mammoth hats, and cigarette-cases bigger than the Lucky box for fifty. In other words—and in a coconut-shell—Inflation.”
“Paris Goes Mae West,” by John McMullin, August 1, 1955
“Paris parties, this summer, have been gay with beautiful ladies in ostrich-feathered capes, organdie ruffles, little capes of osprey made by Schiaparelli that tickled my ears at dinner, and flowery dresses in many colours, competing with the floral decorations in the white-and-gold Paris drawing-rooms….
At the Etienne de Beaumonts’, the women sitting on big cushions on the floor to watch the ballet (which the host himself arranged for the season at the Chatelet, looked like groups of ladies in the Winterhalter pictures, with their spreading skirts overlapping one another. Not long ago, such costumes could have been seen only at a costume party—now, they scarcely differ from ‘fancy dress.’
But, amid the voluminous, extravagantly beruffled femininity, I fancied that I heard the faint tinkling of a bell—a bell announcing the lady of to-morrow. I have caught a fleeting glance of her in the form of the Marquise de Paris, wearing a tight sheath dress (with a skirt that was almost a hobbled skirt) from Augustabernard, and Lady Abdy at the Opera in a new white dress from Mainbocher, with a long tight skirt, a little fish-tail train wiggling behind her, and a tight short-waisted Empire jacket with pailletted raglan sleeves and a pailletted cravat that made a high neck-line. This, I think, is the silhouette of to-morrow —a return, if I am not mistaken, of the ladies of 1908.
With the return of the 1908 lady, I predict the ‘come back’ of big hats, very much trimmed with feathers, flowers, or tulle. Mae West in ‘Lady Lou’ (She Done Him Wrong, in New York) has become the idol of the cinema fans in Paris, and ‘Lady Lou,’ with her big hats and her big ways, has superseded the Greta Garbo-Marlene Dietrich school. She has brought on a craze for masquerading in pre-War attire. One has only to look at the photographs of the big hats worn at these parties….to see how becoming they are. And, after all, they are the hats that were worn with the sheath dress of 1908— so why shouldn’t they return with the sheath of 1933? In my opinion, nothing is more flattering than a big hat drooping with feathers or supporting a garden of flowers and butterflies.”Mae West in She Done Him Wrong (1933).Photo: Bettmann / Getty Images
“Mae West Reveals the Foundation of the 1900 Mode,” by Cecelia Ager, September 1, 1933“Out in Hollywood, Mae West smooths her ever-so-gently undulating hips, swells her bosom, and, jiggling easily on one knee, hearkens to the tales of a Paris gone Mae West with the quiet equanimity of your true zealot vindicated—a crusader now suddenly become prophet, who can take it. ‘So Paris is beginning to understand about the freedom of the knees— hmmmm,’ she murmurs, smiling a little. ‘My ‘corseted’ silhouette—what is it but a return to normal, the ladies’ way of saying that the depression is over? Just a tug at the waist-line, and you have it—an optical illusion, really.’ ...
Always, Miss West has believed in fundamentals—honest, straightforward things like Nature. Always, she’s appreciated the worth of Nature’s beacons. When, as a girl, she used to look upon the Venus de Milo (and she did it often, she says), her whole being fired with the ambition to emulate her celebrated measurements.
The Mae West silhouette so unselfishly revealed in She Done Him Wrong is not, then, chance—but the ultimate triumph of a lifelong conviction. Miss West’s childhood instincts, it turns out, have not betrayed her.”
Protest— (To Mae West) [Excerpt], by Frances Shattuck, October 15, 1933
“Mae, we’ve worked for years and years,
With diets, girdles, and brassieres,
As Lady Lou
Have made the latest Paris rage!”
“Fashion Inhibitions,” by Marya Mannes, October 15, 1933
Mae West : “I have hundreds of suppressed fashion desires. I yearn for the return of the bouffant skirt, hats with large, drooping, and flattering brims, and lingerie that is ridiculously lacy and absurdly feminine. I actually pine for the return of negligees that submerge the wearer in ribbons and ruffles and display a hint of slips beneath, likewise weighted with more ribbons and more ruffles. In short, I want the fashions of Gainsborough’s ladies to return. When a large rose could be worn at a deep neck-line of a frock without causing rude stares and giggles, when a woman could swathe her hat and features in a dramatic veil without accusations of affectation—those are the modes I would have revived. Femininity is making definite attempts to return to the mode, and I hope this means a trend back to the frivolous fads we have ignored for so many years.”