Le style Mae West, c’est magnifique! The gowns for She Done Him Wrong (1933) the film version of Diamond Lil (1928)
Mae West’s gowns for She Done Him Wrong (1933), the film version of Diamond Lil (1928), seemingly caused a sensation at the time. But what is the story behind them? And who created them?
During the summer of 1932, Mae West arrived in Hollywood to work at Paramount studios and subsequently scored a huge hit with She Done Him Wrong the film version of Diamond Lil. As early as 1930 Universal pictures had considered transferring Mae West’s Diamond Lil to the screen but it was one of those properties that was firmly on the industry’s banned list.
Then in the summer of 1932 George Raft, the ex-gangster and rising matinee star at Paramount, pursuaded the producer William Le Baron to skip Texas Guinan in favour of securing Mae West as a character player in his nightclub melodrama Night After Night. Raft had known Mae West from his days in New York working for Owney Madden who had been a major financier of Diamond Lil and knew that she would be perfect in the part. As result Mae was signed to a contract and left New York on 16 June 1932 for Hollywood and moved into an apartment at the Ravenswood, which she would retain until her death. Mae altered her role in Night After Night and upstaged all the other players during filming in August but earnt the respect of many of Paramount’s employees for her professionalism and when the film was released on 29th October 1932 it was a smash hit.
This success contributed to Paramount’s decision to go ahead and film Diamond Lil. Despite opposition from within the industry and the Hays office shooting began in late November 1932. Released in February 1933, She Done Him Wrong was so successful that it virtually saved the ailing Paramount Studios from bankrupcy. Mae had become an invaluable asset and one of the highest paid actresses in Hollywood. One of the major facets of Mae West’s adaptation of Diamond Lil for Paramount was the impact of the 1890 fashions, which were admired the world over ‘as a direct result of her beautiful gowns…. woman of fashionable society on two continents are following the style of a motion picture star for the first time in fashion history. Gone are the modes that emphasized narrow hips. Forgotten are the diets that put slimness above good health. Women are women once more – all because of Mae West.’
Even Mae West herself was ebullient about her fashion contribution ‘the film She Done Him Wrong changed the fashions of two continents. The styles of the gay nineties became the rage’ she insisted emphatically. The story has often been repeated that the huge success of She Done Him Wrong with Mae West’s glamorous 1890s outfits started a fashion craze amongst the leading Parisian designers. ‘For the first time Paris was willing to admit that they were copying their styles from Hollywood.’
Schiaparelli, Patou and Mainbocher allegedy saw the movie several times and were so enchanted with Mae West’s feminine attire that they advocated a return to the curvaceous feminity of an early era abandoning the androgynous and mannish styles of the 1920s. Variety confirmed this view by reporting that ‘Paris saw the picture and went wild about it….the result was the greatest style revolution in thirty years. And Mae West is the woman responsible for it all.’ Of course this was vigorously denied by the Parisian designers in question.
The assessment of fashion trends in Europe and elsewhere by Paramount and Mae West herself is a matter of contention since it is generally accepted that the boyish, tubular look was gradually abandoned by many European designers toward the end of the 20s in favour of a more feminine line that included full length gowns and backless and off-the-shoulder features. The return to genuine feminity emphasing curves and the natural figure had already been foretold before the advent of Mae West’s screen career. Patou claimed credit for the longer skirt and the abolition of the boyish figure in the late 1920s but so did Norman Hartnell who claimed to have created a stir at his first Parisian show in August 1927 by de-flapping the flapper with the re-introduction of the long dress. Whilst Elsa Schiaparelli had also voiced her opinion at the end of the 1920s that figure and shape had to be restored.
What Mae West’s screen costumes in fact achieved was a greater degree of legitimacy for a return to the feminine form in fashion and popularised some of the more extreme aspects of 1890s attire that were toyed with by Paris. As a result the tightly laced corset, long feather boas, princess line gowns, large feather laden picture hats and leg of mutton sleeves were absorbed to some degree into contemporary styles along with the revival of a range of accessories such as hats, capes, gloves, jewellery and furs.
So who was responsible for Mae West’s gowns in She Done Him Wrong, which clearly had a major impact on Hollywood costume design and fashion in general? The answer alas, is far from clear. Edith Head asserted she was the designer. Other researchers assign the credit to Travis Banton and Paramount itself remain enigmatic. What is significant and very strange is that unusally the film does not carry a screen credit for costume design. Edith Head was clear about what happened ‘Travis Banton was on vacation in Paris. Mae West came to the studio. We could not wait for him to come back, so I did the clothes. They not only became a style, but it was the only time that Paris admitted that there was a Hollywood. They didn’t mention the designer, but they said ‘Le style Mae West, c’est magnifique!’ It became the rage to have hourglass figures, feather boas and all that stuff. This was an amusing gay, camp kind of thing and Paris was amused by it. But it was definately not fashion.’
Robert La Vine re-inforced Head’s claim ‘when Banton left the studio for a buying spree in Paris, the responsibilities shouldered by his assistant (Edith Head) included the costuming of Mae West in She Done Him Wrong. Although West’s hourglass figure had already been well established, Head’s gowns continued to play up the actress as the screen’s super courtesan. With her pouter-pigeon bosom and generous hips relentlessly boned and corseted, West made movie history.’
However, the press kit for I’m No Angel depicted a different story ‘Mae West has always admired the lovely. alluring curves of the Gay Nineties. She introduced them to New York society about five years ago when she staged Diamond Lil. But at the time New York was unprepared for the hour glass waist, the curvacious sweeping the floor jewel embroidered gown. ‘I was simply dressing in a way that would show my own rounded figure’ Miss West declares. ‘Naturally I selected gowns that would show me off to the best advantage.’ At any rate, at the time she went to Dorothy Tree, well known theatrical designer, who planned them according to her suggestions from gowns worn thirty years ago by Mrs John Jacob Astor and the late Lillian Russell. Then came She Done Him Wrong in the motion pictures. Travis Banton famous Paramount designer, created new styles in addition to the gowns planned by Dorothy (Dolly) Tree.’
Given that Edith Head was quite convinced that she had designed Mae West’s gowns, why should Paramount’s publicity department insist that the job was done by Travis Banton and why did they make it abundantly clear that it was Dolly Tree who created the unique Mae West image in the first place? And finally, what does the comment that Banton ‘created new styles in addition to the gowns planned by Dorothy Tree’ actually mean?
Initially, Tom Tierney who re-evaluated the evidence when preparing an unpublished book on Hollywood costume design, was convinced that there was some strange goings-on with regard to the costuming of She Done Him Wrong. He believed that ‘Banton based his designs on those which Dolly Tree had done for the Broadway production. Edith Head was brought into the picture because Miss West objected to Travis Banton designing her costumes because his uncle was the judge who had sent her to jail for her lewdness conviction for the stage production of Sex. I dearly doubt that Edith designed anything for that production (although she always listed it in her credits) but was merely the studio’s ‘designer of credit’ to appease Miss West.’ In later conversations Tierney believed that Dolly Tree could have been brought into Paramount on Mae West’s insistance to recreate her Diamond Lil gowns for the screen and that neither Travis Banton or Edith Head were involved but in the end no-one got screen credit and ‘Dolly got aced out by studio politics.’ This is not inconceivable since the filming of She Done Him Wrong took place from 21 November to December 1932, pre-production would have taken place from September and Dolly Tree was available for freelance work at this time since her contract at Fox expired 14 October 1931 and she did not start work at MGM until early 1933.
There were in fact at least seven changes of costume for Mae West in She Done Him Wrong as opposed to five in Diamond Lil and although each outfit was from new designs they were very clearly based on the set styles of the original stage costumes. The one big difference was that for the screen the issue of modesty became an issue so that the original strapless and low cleavage gowns for the stage were modified with more fabric covering what must be covered along with the addition of ruffles to be less revealing for the censors.
Whatever happened it was Dolly Tree and not Travis Banton or Edith Head that created the timeless Mae West ‘look’ first seen in the costumes for the stage production of Diamond Lil. If indeed she was not brought into Paramount it still doesn’t alter the fact that either Head or Banton adapted Dolly Tree’s basic Mae West style formulae for the screen and then claimed all the credit. Why else would it be mentioned in the press kit? The importance of this issue is highlighted by a pertinent comment from Norman Norrell who felt that Travis Banton is underrated and that his talent surpassed Adrian’s, since Banton’s costumes were timeless and established many famous images as with the Mae West look. Banton’s talent was no doubt equal to Adrian’s but Norrell has missed the point – on this particular score Norell should be praising Dolly Tree and it is she who has been underrated.
All images and text © copyright Gary Chapman / Jazz Age Club and must not be re-used without prior consent
Women’s Wear Daily, Vogue, Variety and Screenbook
The History of 20th Century Fashion by Elizabeth Ewing
The Dame in the Kimono by Leonard J. Leff & Jerold L. Simmons
Goodness had Nothing to do with it by Mae West
Silver and Gold by Norman Hartnell
Hollywood & History by Edward Maeder
The Dress Doctor by Edith Head
Those Glorious Glamour Years by Margaret Bailey
Letters and conversations with Tom Tierney
Press Kit I’m No Angel