If there’s anything the fashion world can do well, it’s create hype. When Cover Girl was released on this day in 1944, moviegoers lined up to see big names Gene Kelly and Rita Hayworth, but also to see a bevy of real-life magazine cover girls in their big screen debut. The film stars Hayworth as a leggy Brooklyn chorus girl named Rusty Parker who catches her big break as the winner of a magazine cover girl contest. The role could have been written for the up-and-coming actress, herself a former nightclub dancer from Brooklyn. Rusty is quickly inducted into the charmed life of “the next big thing,” but must choose between stardom and her true love, Danny McGuire (Kelly). If the plot sounds familiar, that’s because actually writing the script wasn’t high on the studio’s to-do list.
Cover Girl began as a marketing idea to appeal to readers of women’s magazines. The executives at Columbia Pictures figured they could generate publicity by showcasing America’s most popular models on film. The magazines jumped on board, held contests to elect their chosen cover girls and ran pages and pages of copy and advertising for the movie. In the end, 15 models from publications such as Vogue, Look, Cosmopolitan, Harper’s Bazaar and, oddly, Farm Journal are featured in the film’s title musical number. To boot,the film’s director David O. Selznick hired 1930s top model Anita Colby as the film’s technical advisor to work with the women and organize a Cover Girl fashion show in New York. Colby not only makes a cameo in the film (along with fellow model Jinx Falkenburg), but she chaperoned a special train dubbed the “Cover Girl Caravan” that whisked the magazine contest winners from New York to Hollywood to promote the film. Once they arrived in Tinseltown, the girls were put up in a mansion and paraded, en masse, to publicity events and otherwise kept busy with photo shoots. The buzz worked. Five months before the picture was released, polls showed that up to 15 million Americans wanted to see Cover Girl. Critics panned the movie’s plot as cliché, but it was a box office success and proved that fashion models could sell more than clothes.
Cover Girl makes its focus on fashion apparent from the opening credits, which are rolled out over a shot of pink silk. Rusty’s rags-to-riches story is mirrored in her Cinderella wardrobe. As her name begins to appear in lights her look becomes more sophisticated and her threadbare coat and revealing stage costumes are replaced with chic tailored suits and evening gowns. Travis Banton and Muriel King shared the duties for the modern day street clothes and stage costumes while Gwen Wakeling created intricate period costumes for the flashback sequences. (Hayworth also plays her own character’s grandmother, Maribelle, a onetime singer/dancer herself.) Banton was a favorite of Marlene Dietrich, but there was an additional challenge to dressing Hayworth: the designer, known for his signature extravagance, had to accommodate her complicated dance routines. Luckily, the actress had no problem with showing a little leg.
The result is a technicolor musical that is, as the hype promised, a lush look into the world of a cover girl. This was all thanks to Colby, who masterminded the magazine crossover and helped four of the featured cover girls land film contracts with Columbia Pictures. Selznick was so impressed that he appointed Colby the “Feminine Director” of his studios. Colby coached stars such as Jennifer Jones, Ingrid Bergman, and Shirley Temple, prompting Time magazine to dub her a “one-woman finishing school,” in 1945. The biggest Cover Girl winner, though, was Rita Hayworth. Thanks to the film’s popularity, Hayworth became one of the most famous film stars of the 1940s and one of the most pined-for pinups of World War II. —Rachel Chambers
Top: the film’s poster, Middle: Leslie Brooks and Rita Hayworth in the film’s opening number, Bottom: Hayworth with Gene Kelly.
Cinemode is OTDIF’s ongoing compilation of the world’s most stylish films, a must-see list for fans of fashion. From Klute to Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Shaft, some of the greatest style inspiration comes from the characters and costumes in film. Bookmark Cinemode and check back often to read the growing list. The reviews, written with an eye specifically toward fashion, are added to On This Day In Fashion on the anniversary of the film’s release date.