Costume Society Ambassadors, Costume Society  |  June 14, 2016

It’s a Man’s World: Marlene Dietrich and her Cross-Dressing Wardrobe

Cool, brazen, and above all else – wearing trousers. Since being propelled into the international film industry, Marlene Dietrich has epitomised the image of a star. With her ambiguous sexuality, femme fatale features, and cabaret background, she is the ultimate rebel. Dietrich was often depicted wearing suits and slacks on and off screen, reinforcing her transgressive and advanced attitudes towards fashion, long before society began to accept the image of a woman in trousers. Masculine-coded garments such as tuxedos and trousers throughout the 1930’s, were no longer confined to men in the workplace. Dietrich – amongst many other actresses of the Golden Age of Film – popularised the trouser suit.

Many thought Dietrich’s sartorial choices were merely a publicity stunt to entice audiences and the press. She masqueraded her sexuality and played with gender conventions, adopting masculine behaviour and dress. Morocco (1930), produced by the director Josef von Sternberg, characterised both personas of Dietrich. Playing the cabaret dancer Amy Jolly, Dietrich appears on the stage of her club depicted in Fig. 1, dressed in a man’s tuxedo and top-hat, smoking, and kissing the female members of the audience. Dietrich used dress to assert her various sexual identities and to manipulate her authority over the spectating audience.

Her tuxedo was designed by Hollywood costumer Travis Banton, and the hat, by milliner Mr. John. The hat framed Dietrich’s face and complimented the set lighting dramatically shadowing her sultry expression. The suit and hat historically signified masculine wealth and social status. Yet these cultural references were abandoned; gender roles throughout the film are reversed through the means of fashion and dress, a direct method to challenge social conventions.

For the 1930’s, Dietrich’s wardrobe was revolutionary. The Die Deutsche Kinemathek – Museum für Film und Fernsehen (German Film Archive and Museum for Film and Television) holds an extensive collection of Dietrich’s costumes. Textile archivist, Barbara Schröter states, that Dietrich was the first to wear trousers openly in the streets as seen in Fig. 2. ‘Her suits were not made more “feminine” through the use of silk fabrics and softer colours. Instead, she insisted on genuine men’s suits […]. Only the bust darts distinguish these uniforms from men’s garments […]. Occasionally, the label even lists the customer’s name as Mr. Marlene Dietrich.’

Although dress reformists such as Amelia Bloomer had begun wearing trousers during the latter part of the 19th century, and Poiret had designed harem trousers before World War One, the trouser silhouette was still confined to leisure activities and not for consumption in the public sphere. However, Dietrich, as seen in Fig. 2, adopted trousers on and off camera throughout the 1930’s; despite fierce condemnation from cinematic journalists and other social commentators. Women were scrutinised for their choice of attire, accused of abnormal psychological behaviour. Their alleged desire to undermine both the autonomy and authority of their male counterparts through the adoption of trousers was ridiculed throughout the national press.

Throughout the interwar years, women emerged into the workplace as a result of World War One. Their physical careers and lifestyles, whether this be within the confines of the office, factory, farm, or as the hardworking mother at home, demanded a change in dress and conceptions surrounding femininity. In the context of her celebrity status, Dietrich undeniably aided to transform the public opinion in regards to trouser-wearing. For Dietrich, trousers were versatile and classic, perfect for travelling and never out of fashion. As seen in Fig. 3, posing for a photograph with male acquaintances for the premiere of The Sign of The Cross (1932), trousers were no longer exclusively for men. In fact at times, Dietrich looked far better in suits than men themselves.

REFERENCES: (1) Schröter, Barbara. “Marlene Dietrich’s Costumes,” Rother, Rainer eds. Deutsche Kinemathek Museum für Film und Fernsehen: The Exhibition. Berlin: Stiftung Deutsche Kinemathek, 2013. Print.  67.
(2) Berry, Sarah. Screen Style: Fashion and Femininity in 1930’s Hollywood (Minnesota: Minnesota UP, 2000) 155.

Ruby Helms, Costume Society Ambassador, 2016.

  • Film set photograph of Marlene Dietrich for Josef Von Sternberg’s film production, Morocco. c1929. IMGUR.
  • Photographs of Marlene Dietrich wearing a suit in public, Hollywood. c1933. Irving Lippmann. Glamour Daze Blog.
  • Photograph of Marlene Dietrich with male friends at the premiere for The Sign of the Cross. c1932. Glamour Daze Blog.