The Ziegfeld Follies: From Ostrich Feathers to Objectification.

By Connie Slater

In this week's blog, CS Ambassador, Connie Slater, explores the costumes of the Ziegfried Follies.

Upon his death in 1932, Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. was proclaimed by The New York Times as the "glorifier of the American girl"[1], a statement celebrating the glamour he created on stage surely at the expense of objectifying those women lucky enough to call themselves ‘Ziegfeld Girls.’ Ziegfeld's work on Broadway between 1907-1931 interrupted the established mainstream ideal of women's beauty as, with the help of costume and stage lighting, he curated a new illusion of femininity. Inspired by the Folies Bergère of Paris, Ziegfeld opened his own Follies, The Ziegfeld Follies, in 1907 on Broadway, New York. The shows were made up of a series of ‘revues’ - performances ranging from classical song to choral dances. These 'revues' ran annually, often satirizing the previous year's political and social events, and as such, were never repeated. Whether acknowledged or not, the Ziegfeld Follies undoubtedly contributed to definitions of beauty for the period. Although Ziegfeld was infamous within the industry for his extreme audition standards for showgirls – he ostensibly detested any girl with grey eyes, contesting that "they're too intellectual and belong only on a college girl"[2], the most obvious sign that a showgirl was a Ziegfeld girl was through her clothes

 

Although during the 1920s, Ziegfeld would go on to work with artist and designer Erté on some of the revue's most iconic looks, early on in his career, he partnered with Lady Duff Gordan; a British designer known primarily for her overtly feminine couture as head of her design house Lucile. In the late 1890's Duff Gordan's designs had catered to high-society women, who flocked to her boutique with the hopes of snagging one of her infamous 'personality dresses'. These were bespoke gowns, adorned with silk ribbon flowers, embroidery, and chiffon, made especially for the most powerful, beautiful and above all wealthy customers. She transformed the shopping experience, training young female models to become mannequins for her so-called 'Rose-room'. In a voyeuristic fashion not dissimilar to today's Victoria Secret shows, Duff Gordan would have her mannequins clad in scanty but glamorous undergarments for her predominantly male customers; the intoxicating smell of wealth overpowered only by Lucile's own perfumes. Indeed, it was in 1915 at Lucile's 'Dream Dresses' parade that Duff Gordan and Florenz Ziegfeld met for the first time. These parades are widely thought to have been the first official 'catwalks'; invitation-only, theatrically lit, with orchestral music – a precursor of the Fashion-Week catwalks of today.

 

From this chance meeting, not only did Ziegfeld gain a superb costume designer for the Follies, but in Duff Gordan's mannequins, he found inspiration for his showgirls. Gone was the triple-threat showgirl, and in came the Ziegfeld Girl. Her professed only talent was to be able to look calm and collected despite being carried across stage by an ostrich dripping in jewels, flying over the audience in a miniature plane while tossing roses, or walking with ease down the famous Ziegfeld Staircase, nude other than a pure silk negligee and chinchilla-fur throw. These showgirls took their job title at face value; girls to be shown. As former Ziegfeld showgirl, Paulette Goddard put it: "girls were far more frivolous then because . . . nothing was expected of them. I could tap [dance], but I was never given the chance. Ziegfeld used to say I was a great sitter. I sat and I walked"[3]. Much like Lady Duff Gordan's mannequins, who, often from lower-class backgrounds, were told to remain silent during shows less their accents shatter the illusion of high-class glamour, Ziegfeld cultivated the vision of a showgirl, even if just an illusion. The most obvious way in which this illusion was created was through costuming, which frequently verged on the absurd: "in 1909, the girls wore miniature battleships on their heads in a tribute to the forty-eight states. When the stage lights darkened, the ships lit up against a background of Manhattan's Tallest buildings. Ten years later… the girls paraded as Lettuce, Spice, Oil, Chicken, Vinegar, Salt, and Pepper" [4].

The costumes departed significantly from what would be classed as 'tasteful' within the Parisian Folies Bergère, but this was America, where new money, and lots of it, could make up for any gaudy sins. Certainly, Ziegfeld spared no cash when it came to the costuming budget: "Ziegfeld insisted on costly petticoats of Irish linen for the showgirls. Someone asked, "But why? You can't see them." "I know," he answered, "but Irish linen does something to their walk." He believed the quality of the fabric against their bodies made them feel and act more feminine and enhanced the grace of their movement on the stage" [4]. In essence, Ziegfeld was refining what it meant to be feminine, and perhaps damagingly, his definition was an illusion. Showgirls' time on stage was even limited for fear that if they were seen for too long, they might be recognized as 'real'.

During the 1920s, Ziegfeld commissioned Russian born French-artist Erté to design the costumes for two of the revues, and it is these masterpieces that have become synonymous in popular media with the shows. Erté is perhaps most famed for his work with designer Paul Poiret between 1913-1914 and his subsequent contract with Harper's Bazaar magazine, designing front covers and fashion illustrations for them over a span of twenty-two years. However, his designs for the Follies were just as brilliant: "he recalled that one costume for a Ziegfeld set called Gold required six-and-a-half miles of gold lamé, made for Erté in Lyons" [6]. These costume designs inspired numerous adaptations, ranging from the 1941 musical film Ziegfeld Girl, featuring Hedy Lamarr and Lana Turner, to the 1945 Ziegfeld Follies, starring Judy Garland, Fred Astaire, and Lucile Ball. More recently, the musical Follies has been performed even up to 2018 in London, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. The fascination with the American Jazz-Agee is relevant as ever.

The reputation of the Ziegfeld Follies goes down in history as the epitome of 1920's glamour due largely to the magnificent costumes and their designers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

References 

1:“Florenz Ziegfeld Dies in Hollywood after Long Illness”. The New York Times. July 23, 1932. Accessed 2nd April 2021.

2: Lasser, Michael. “SHOW BUSINESS: The Glorifier: Florenz Ziegfeld and the Creation of the American Showgirl.” The American Scholar, vol. 63, no. 3, 1994, pp. 444. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41212271. Accessed 29 Mar. 2021.

3:  Lasser, Michael. “SHOW BUSINESS: The Glorifier: Florenz Ziegfeld and the Creation of the American Showgirl.” The American Scholar, vol. 63, no. 3, 1994, pp. 443. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41212271. Accessed 29 Mar. 2021.

4: Lasser, Michael. “SHOW BUSINESS: The Glorifier: Florenz Ziegfeld and the Creation of the American Showgirl.” The American Scholar, vol. 63, no. 3, 1994, pp. 444. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41212271. Accessed 29 Mar. 2021.

5: Lasser, Michael. “SHOW BUSINESS: The Glorifier: Florenz Ziegfeld and the Creation of the American Showgirl.” The American Scholar, vol. 63, no. 3, 1994, pp. 444. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41212271. Accessed 29 Mar. 2021.

6: Ormiston, Rosalind. “Erté, Art Deco Master of Graphic Art and Illustration”. Flame Tree Publishing. 2014. Pp. 93.

 

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