Gold-Plated Gowns And 8-inch Pumps: The Stuff That Made Starlets Shimmer Actress Mae West was petite, but on screen — thanks to a pair of platform shoes — she looked larger than life. A show in Boston examines the fashion and jewelry of Hollywood's golden age.
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Gold-Plated Gowns And 8-inch Pumps: The Stuff That Made Starlets Shimmer

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Gold-Plated Gowns And 8-inch Pumps: The Stuff That Made Starlets Shimmer

Gold-Plated Gowns And 8-inch Pumps: The Stuff That Made Starlets Shimmer

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Dripping in diamonds, shimmering in silks, movie stars of the 1930s and '40s dazzled on the silver screen. Some of their costumes and jewels are now on view at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg wore sturdy, black oxfords as she toured the exhibit.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: Oh, there's Clark Gable. And who's he talking to?

MICHELLE FINAMORE: He's talking to Carole Lombard.

STAMBERG: A film clip runs on a wall behind gorgeously-gowned manikins lit by sconces and chandeliers. The film is, "No Man Of Her Own," 1932, starring the guy who would become Rhett Butler and the beautiful, blonde comedian.


CAROLE LOMBARD: (As Connie Randall) What kind of book do you want?

CLARK GABLE: (As Babe Stewart) I don't know. What could you suggest?

LOMBARD: (As Connie Randall) Well, there's poetry.

GABLE: (As Babe Stewart) Well...

LOMBARD: (As Connie Randall) Drama.

GABLE: (As Babe Stewart) No.

LOMBARD: (As Connie Randall) Fiction?

GABLE: (As Babe Stewart) No.

LOMBARD: (As Connie Randall) Well, would you like Shakespeare?

GABLE: (As Babe Stewart) Oh, Shakespeare's all right. But you know how it is. Some nights you just don't feel like Shakespeare.

STAMBERG: Near the film clip, Boston curator Michelle Finamore shows the actual down Lombard wore - long, slinky, silk crepe covered in teeny, gold glass beads.

FINAMORE: I felt like we needed at least one completely bugle-beaded dress in the show because it's a very Hollywood style of...

STAMBERG: What's a Hollywood show without bugle beads?

FINAMORE: Exactly, you need bugle beads.

STAMBERG: Stars of Hollywood's golden age were dressed like goddesses in beads and sequins and luxurious materials.

FINAMORE: A lot of French fabrics that are silver with metal-wrapped threads, and the metal is silver. And then it's actually gold-plated on top of it. So it's almost like they're wearing jewelry because they're actually enrobed in this metal.

STAMBERG: In black-and-white films, the fabrics gave off a sheen. They gleamed and shimmered. In the early 1930s, when clunky microphones picked up every passing sound, those fancy fabrics had to be seen but not heard.

FINAMORE: There's a lot of velvets, satins, lames. And there is a lot of silk and chiffon, which are very quiet fabrics.


MAE WEST: ( As Peaches O'Day) And I'm pleased to meet you.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Oh, he informed me you were keeping a diary.

WEST: ( As Peaches O'Day) Oh, yes. My motto is keep a diary, and someday, it'll keep you

STAMBERG: Mae West was a vamp with her curves and wriggles. She was the '30s version of Marilyn Monroe. She's represented in the Boston show by a surprisingly high-necked, purple Schiaparelli gown that shrouds two of her best features. Of course, there is a flowering vine that snakes up her body from hem to neck. Curator Emily Stoehrer says Mae West, a major star, was petite.

EMILY STOEHRER: We've read varying accounts of how tall Mae West was. She was between 4' 11" and 5' 2".

STAMBERG: On screen, she looked larger-than-life. Now we know why. She wore shoes that made her eight-and-a-half inches taller, a feat of foot engineering. Each shoe has two layers - on top, white platform shoes with ankle straps, built right underneath them, silver pumps made of wood.

STOEHRER: Under a long dress, you wouldn't notice that these shoes were being worn. These silver toes would just peep out through the hem of the dress.

STAMBERG: Mae West is said to have worn them all the time, on-screen and off. Her jewelry was also larger-than-life - a ring, pin and bracelet made of massive aquamarines and diamonds.

STOEHRER: And she, of course, would have worn them all together - and likely with other jewels as well.

STAMBERG: Stars used their own jewelry in films. It showed off their wealth and power - a spiffy, sapphire and diamond necklace, a gold bracelet so big it would protect you in a dark alley. More restrained, Joan Crawford's suite of jewelry - a matching necklace, bracelet and pin of gold, diamonds and aquamarines. On or off screen, it was always important for her to look glamorous.

STOEHRER: Joan Crawford once said, I never go out of the house unless I look like Joan Crawford the movie star. If you want the girl next door, go next door.

STAMBERG: Better to go to Boston if you can. The Museum of Fine Arts exhibition, Hollywood Glamour, runs through early March. Clothes and jewels from the days before Manolo Blahnik shoes hit the red carpets, days when the dazzle was on the big silver screen. I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

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