Friday, January 8, 2010
MENTAL MONTAGE: Fame and Fashion
In this month's edition of History Repeating Itself, I examine my Star of the Month, Wallace Reid, vs. the eternal King of Hollywood, Clark Gable. Both men were treated like Hollywood royalty and were larger than life to their fans-- riveting onscreen and influential off. But while their contemporary audiences emulated them in behavior and manner, trying desperately to copy their confidence and swagger--grace or gruffness-- the truth is that you just can't replicate the immaculate "X" factor. In silent cinema, men wanted to be Wally Reid. In the Golden Era, they wanted to be Clark Gable. At these different epochs, both men symbolized what it was to be masculine, sexual, and adored. What is unfortunate is that, while Gable is still remembered and revered today, Reid has sadly slipped into the cracks of anonymity. In his heyday, Wally was equally as popular, if not more so, than the man who would be Rhett Butler.
Evidence of the effect these compelling gentlemen had on their audiences can be measured in different ways: box office receipts, fan mail totals, or biographical attentions and inquiries lapsing long after their deaths. One of the most interesting ways to gauge the weight of a man's power, however, may lie in something as simple of the trim of his dinner jacket. Just as kids always dress up and pretend to be their favorite hero, so grown-ups copy the styles of their favorite celebrities. When Louise Brooks hit the silver screen, ladies wanted the Buster Brown; when Jennifer Aniston's star began to rise, everyone wanted "the Rachel." Movie stars, with the help of their stylists, change the way we look, speak, and act. Magazines give us tips all the time on how to "Steal This Look," or instruct us "Where to Buy" this or that, so we can mimic the man or woman of the hour.
Clark Gable had a special quality, a charisma and endearing sparkle in his eye that made him, not just the 'man of the hour' but a man for forever. Larger than life, handsome as a devil, and as untouchable as God himself, Gable lives on still. To imagine living in a time when he was still the reigning 'King' is mind boggling; with Gable so present after his death, imagine the fuss before! A well recorded example is the result of his disrobing scene in the classic 1934 film It Happened One Night. As Gable went through his demonstration-- to the increasingly uncomfortable Claudette Colbert -- on how a man gets undressed, audiences got a load of his bare chest, which had suspiciously not been adorned with an undershirt! The result, at least in movie-land lore, is that undershirt sales plummeted, allegedly by 75%. If Gable didn't wear anything between his chest and his dress shirt, why should any other guy?
The death of the undershirt "Happened One Night"
The same life-altering situation occurred when Wallace Reid's film The World's Champion premiered in 1922. In this movie, it could be seen that Wally was wearing a shirt that lacked the customary, detachable collar. Before, men wore these inserts to keep their collars stiff and pristine looking. Wally's more relaxed and less complicated approach was rumored to have caused another fashion shift. His was more monumental. A few minutes of film, and Wally was said to have put collar makers completely out of business!!! It seems he must have, for this bit of fashion is so completely foreign to us today, that it seems ancient... Mythic! This was another example of fashion as revolution; as liberation! Slowly, men and women were peeling off layers and preparing for the free-rolling age of Jazz and Flappers. The sound of Wally's collar hitting the floor was the soft thud heard round world. Men started going for the new, starched collar shirts-- all in one piece-- and never looked back.
Collars prior to Wally's liberation
Of course, there isn't any documentation to support these declarations of fashion uproar. It's all rumor and word of mouth. It could very well be that fashion was simply changing, and because these men made particular movies at particular moments, the responsibility for the phenomena is placed on them. Also, in Gable's case at least, the depression could have played a big hand in men not buying undershirts anymore. If there were ever a way to cut economic corners, it would be over a piece of clothing the public doesn't generally see. It is certain that these men influenced the way men dressed, but just how cataclysmic their intervention was is debatable. The mere fact that we are still talking about it boasts the incredible power of both superstars. If Gable didn't start a trend toward a life without undershirts, he still started a trend of people talking about his chest...
A collar-less Wally
It is interesting to note, that despite the arguable effects these men had on the clothes buying economy, Gable and Wally's simple fashion statements, brief as they were in both films, made a mark. The public noticed; the public remembered. I doubt there is a star today who could start a controversy over the type of shoes he wears for example, at least not one that lasts longer than a couple of days. This was a power that the Golden Gods alone possessed. And since all this gossip is still up for discussion, I guess that means that deep down, we still all want to be a Gable or a Reid.