There is a brilliant moment with Marlene Dietrich in Morocco, the romantic drama that opened on this day in 1930. As cabaret singer Amy Jolly, Dietrich leans back during her opening number onto the railing separating herself from a table in the audience. She barely surrenders any body weight to the rail before kicking one leg over, bringing it lightly to the ground and then swinging her second over in suit. It is a killer move that would be hardly manageable in a dress or skirt.
This story is the second Cinemode I’ve written for On This Day In Fashion, and I already seem to have gotten myself into an early pattern: Women in pants. It seems that throughout cinema history, when a woman puts on a pair of pants, it’s bound to get us talking. And Amy’s pants weren’t just any old pair; they were the definitive pair in cinematic history. So, let’s talk. Let’s talk about these pants.
On December 6, 1930, movie-goers watched Dietrich saunter onto the stage of Lo Tinto’s cabaret in Mogador, Morocco, in nothing less than a top hat and full tuxedo. In the film, the audience erupts into a chorus of boos for the woman in pants, and one has to wonder if moviegoers were equally alarmed. Although, and perhaps because, the film was Dietrich’s American debut, Paramount Pictures expended considerable energy generating publicity about her enviable gams. Which is, of course, part of the genius of her pants. Not only does Amy Jolly tease her audience by wearing a man’s costume; Dietrich teased American audiences by concealing her legs. In the end, director Josef von Sternberg knew exactly what he was doing. By putting her in a tuxedo, von Sternberg established a certain mystic that followed, and was perpetuated by, Dietrich throughout her career. Amy, and Dietrich, establish control over, and distance from, their audiences. The tuxedo acts as a layer guarding themselves from others, while simultaneously planting a desire to know, and see, more.
Much has been written about Dietrich’s opening act, including quite a lot of consideration concerning her famous kiss with a woman in the audience. Dietrich’s own inclination to wear pants in her everyday life has generated significant speculation to the very meaning of that first pair, and to Dietrich’s own personal life.
The actress was quoted as saying, “I am sincere in my preference for my men’s clothes—I do not wear them to be sensational…I think I am much more alluring in these clothes.” After Dietrich, many of Hollywood’s leading ladies followed suit, so to speak, including Greta Garbo and Katherine Hepburn and, later, Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn. These are some of the most alluring ladies of their times; further proving the seductive power of a woman in pants, particularly in the years when doing so was taboo.
Amy’s first number is the only scene in which Dietrich sports a pair of pants. Indeed, the audience at Lo Tinto’s and in cinemas alike are awarded many glances of Dietrich’s famous legs throughout the film. But even as Amy dons more feminine clothes, her body language remains decidedly masculine: cool and detached. She is often slumped over, gazing off in the distance, avoiding eye contact; her body relaxed or, perhaps, simply resigned. Amy embodies the control and confidence that is associated with wearing pants. That is, until she meets legionnaire love interest Tom Brown (Gary Cooper).
As the story progresses, and Amy falls deeper in love with Brown, her wardrobe evolves. It becomes lighter. She dresses in pale colors, and her face, too, seems barer. In the final scene, clothing shreds any final implications of providing a protective layer between person and reality, as Amy kicks off her shoes to trudge barefoot through the desert after her true love.
But despite this ending, despite Amy foregoing all of her cool and detached control, she forever remains the person we first see. The woman in complete control, who remains gloriously unfazed through the initial boos and taunting of her opening act. She wears that tux like no man or woman before or after (despite numerous attempts, perhaps most memorably, Madonna’s channeling of Dietrich in her music video for “Vogue”). She is unconcerned with this less-than-welcoming beginning. We see it her eyes and her body that she already knows the outcome, she already knows that her tuxedo will leave her audience mesmerized for 80 years and counting. —Katrina Ernst
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.