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MFA looks back at Hollywood fashion

A silver lame gown designed by Travis Banton.Museum of Fine Arts

During the 1930s and '40s, Hollywood used fashion to create images for the stars that were as unforgettable as the movies themselves. The Museum of Fine Arts will look at the drama — both on and off screen — in its new exhibition, "Hollywood Glamour: Fashion and Jewelry From the Silver Screen," which opens Sept. 9 and runs through March 8. Curator of Fashion Arts Michelle Finamore, who co-curated the show with Emily Stoehrer, the MFA's curator of jewelry, gave the Globe a first look at the costumes and baubles that defined that era of classic cinema — and influenced American design.

Joan Crawford suite of jewelry by Verger Freres.Museum of Fine Arts

Q. I'll go to anything about legendary Hollywood designer Edith Head. What made you want to curate an exhibition on the golden age of Hollywood?


A. [MFA jewelry curator] Yvonne Markovitz was writing a book, and one chapter was about Trabert & Hoeffer-Mauboussin, a jewelry firm going out to Hollywood and adorning the stars. The '30s and '40s are the epitome of what we consider glamorous Hollywood.

Q. Today everything surrounding the movie industry is orchestrated. Was is true back then?

A. In that era, costume design had really reached its height. The [movie] studio system was in place, and all the studios had costume departments. This idea of formulating a very specific image for actresses was very much a part of how studios were presenting themselves to the public. It was very carefully calculated.

Q. Does "Hollywood Glamour" tell that story through specific stars or specific gowns?

A. We tried to hit upon some of the major starlets, and one of the best is Marlene Dietrich. We have a dress she wore for the film "Desire," in which she plays a jewel thief. It's a lounging dress trimmed with fox fur. [In the film] it's back lit with the lights coming through this very sheer fabric. She has this iconic face people describe as being art deco itself.


Q. Did studios put the same thought and planning into the jewelry actresses wore?

A. That's a difference. In "Desire," the jewelry was Dietrich's own gems. The dress was designed by Travis Banton, who was employed by the studio. But the starlets were, sometimes, still supplying their own jewelry. That gradually changed by the '40s.

Trabert & Hoeffer-Mauboussin brooch.Museum of Fine Arts

Q. What will surprise visitors to "Hollywood Glamour"? Which actress was not as she appeared?

A. The amazing thing, particularly of Mae West, were these platform shoes. They're so big and she was so petite. We had to cut the mannequin down significantly. She was about 5 feet. These gave her about 9 inches. She [also] wasn't as buxom as we think. She was probably a C cup bra, rather than the image she projected. Her aura was all about this sexiness and grittiness, and she played it up to the nth degree. The dresses were curvaceous and her jewelry was so oversize. It's the most dramatic of anything we have.

Q. Are you expecting as many cinephiles as fashionistas?

A. Oh yes. A lot of movie buffs are so into their subjects — even about lesser-known starlets such as Mary Ellis [an actress and opera singer]. She was brought into early-1930s film when they were shifting over to the talkies, and fans have incredible knowledge of the minutiae of these actors and films.


Q. Jeweler Neil Lane, who has designed pieces for Elizabeth Taylor and Charlize Theron, will be here for the opening. Are his pieces part of the exhibit?

A. He's been a collector of star-worn jewelry, and probably has the best out there. The depth of his collection is so broad and rich, and I wanted to get something worn by Gloria Swanson ("Sunset Boulevard"). Her jewels are spread out with one piece owned by one person. It was nice to have something that represented her.

Interview was edited and condensed.
Jill Radsken can be reached at