“It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily.”
The name Dietrich conjures an image of mystery, intrigue and allure, wrapped up in a sophisticated layer of seduction and glamour. The Dietrich ‘package’ was cultivated with care by director Josef von Sternberg (who directed Dietrich in seven films) and costume designer Travis Banton; according to gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, ‘before Dietrich met Banton she looked like a hausfrau’. For von Sternberg, the actress represented a blank canvas on which he projected his feminine ideal, careful rendering in shadows and desire transformed the actress from a plump unknown to an enigmatic screen siren.
In the spy thriller Shanghai Express (1932), von Sternberg and Dietrich’s fourth film together, Dietrich played the notorious courtesan Shanghai Lily, cementing her position as the go-to for femme fatales with a penchant for destructive behaviour. Encouraged by von Sternberg, Dietrich had lost a lot of weight since Blue Angel, the director and with cinematographer Lee Garmes, played up to her angular face and strong jaw with dramatic chiaroscuro lighting (the latter winning an Oscar for his efforts in the process). The plot veers towards to the unbelievable, but that’s the point; this is von Sternberg’s world, and he’s created it purely for the audience’s visual and sensual delectation.
Banton was Paramount’s chief costume designer from 1927 to 1938, and was responsible for the costumes in over 100 films – including I’m No Angel and Morocco – during which he moulded popular perception of the so-called Golden Age. As a designer, Banton created an understandable persona for Dietrich that worked on and off stage; his ability to cultivate an image and understand the language of publicity and the creation of an icon were his strongest assets. Stories about Banton’s and Dietrich’s working relationship abound. In Hollywood Costume (Deborah Nadoolman Landis’ excellent catalogue from the V&A exhibition of the same name) Dietrich’s daughter Maria Riva recounts that, ‘Day in and day out, they worked, sometimes for 12-hour stretches. My mother never tired, such normal things as breaking for food, bathroom and rest did not exist while Banton prepared clothes for a film.’
Banton looked to contemporary fashion, and then reworked it with character in mind. Alongside von Sternberg’s and Garmes’ lighting, he worked to frame Dietrich’s face with fitted caps made from smoothed-out feathers, half-veils and oversize fur collars (note the emphasis on opulence and luxury, this lily favoured the gild). Full-length dresses were cut on the bias to emphasise Dietrich’s figure, and embellished with yet more feathers, chain-mail effect collars and sleeves, draped crystal beads, kid-leather gloves or decorative buttons – simple outfits elevated from the everyday with made-for-screen details. In keeping with the character of Shanghai Lily, many of the costumes evoked pure theatricality, yet Dietrich wore them with admirable aplomb.
Unlike Adrian, the other costume designer du jour, Banton preferred subtle designs with subtle textural nuances to strong tonal contrasts. Paramount publicity department made sure Banton was on hand to give fashion advice to the adoring female public, who flocked to the cinema to see his gowns on their favourite stars. Banton died in 1958 at the age of 64, a victim of his own excess, but the gowns (and stars) he created live on in his memory.
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