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An Analysis of Desire as a Product of Fashion in the Persona of Marlene Dietrich Essay

The physical characteristics of fashion and costume design as appropriated in cinema has long veered from their structural and functional purposes to a more influential role, traversing the parameters of illusion, emotion, and desire.

Through the well-chosen vehicles of characters portrayed by actors in films, the lasting effects of fashion as an aspect of the created image have found their way into permutations of social and economic success.  More specifically, in the transaction between film and audience, between actor and viewer, and between message and receiver, fashion plays a profound role in correctly—and sometimes exceedingly—producing a host of perceptions that may be beneficial to celebrity and industry.

Christine Gledhill is known for making the correlation between stardom and desire, as well as the systematic and contained space in which they participate.  This space or industry has long been embodied and emphasized in the continuous presence of films, the introduction of more actors with huge followings, and the availability of occupations related to its production.

Consequently, this mix brings forth the concept of stardom or celebrity, a viable state wherein other related fields such as advertising, merchandising, and public relations also become integral players in the economy.  But at the core of the total equation is still the image projected and consumed, which is brought on by a thoughtful strategy that primarily upholds the contributions of the creative aspects of filmmaking, such as filmic techniques, acting, scoring, and design.  In this discussion, the relevance of fashion in the whole context of desire production is at the fore; the focus is on image, and the persona at the center is legendary actress Marlene Dietrich.

II.        Marlene Dietrich as a Celebrity of Desire

The German-born actress Marlene Dietrich is undoubtedly an icon of international cinema, specifically for her work on stage and in silent movies.  Her remarkable performance in The Blue Angel, Desire, and Shanghai Express revealed and validated her unique capability to project the integral and enviable ideal of glamour most sought after in the 1920s and 1930s.  Apart from superb acting talent and undeniable presence, it was the lure of Dietrich’s image—a combination of physical traits, personality, and fashion—that made her one of the most popular actresses of her time.

This was indeed reinforced by the use of film technology and cinematographic style in vogue during the period, further creating a visual characterization of Dietrich that she would be known for and would be emulated by other actresses, as well as female viewers.  It was also this imagined persona that would appeal to the male members of her audience, thus carving Dietrich’s niche in Hollywood as the ultimate femme fatale—the often controversial and most desired character in a film’s storyline, equated with seduction and lust.

The Dietrich persona was almost always believed by her audience as one that transcends the restrictions of cinema; many of them were of the mind that the actress they saw onscreen, the epitome of glamour, sensuality, and desire, was identical to the person who lived beyond the area captured by the camera lens.  Richard Allen (1995, p. 129) concluded such as phenomenon as a likely product of character identification, in which the audience “ would fuse the traits of the character with those of the star and perceive the character as a person fully embodied by the actor in the world of projective illusion”.

Therefore, the success of the projected image of Marlene Dietrich was not simply a result of effective strategy and acting; it was largely dependent on the appeal of the traits being projected that made people believe that Dietrich and the characters she portrayed were one and the same.  Perhaps this could be logically explained by the need of the audience at the time—both male and female—for a persona of Dietrich’s qualities; glamour and seduction, shown unabashedly and without much restraint, were relatively new in their cinematic use and could have been meaningful to the social conditions of the period.

III.      Dietrich and Sternberg:  A Collaboration of Image

Marlene Dietrich and director Josef von Sternberg worked on the most celebrated of Dietrich’s films, wherein the actress was tasked to portray a variety of characters suited to her increasingly popular image.

Interestingly, one of the duo’s films, ‘Morocco’, had Dietrich in the role of Amy Jolly, a French singer performing in Morocco, expectedly seductive and mysterious—in a surprising yet apparently effective costume that projected androgyny.  While the combination of masculine shirt, waistcoat, black tails and top hat is not always associated with the stereotypical image of a seductress, the image produced by Dietrich and her performance resulted in a remarkable set of binary oppositions:  feminine-masculine, aloofness-availability, domination-submission.

Seeing the glamorous Dietrich in such an off-kilter fashion, definitions of both expected gender identity and a paradigmatic shift are in place.  Dietrich played the part to its completeness, including its accompanying nuances, by “smudging the defining boundaries of her femaleness” while “simultaneously making herself the point of multiple erotic identification” (Bruzzi, 1997).

Her projected androgyny and the duality of its effects produced desire in both men and women, born out of the presentation of an image that negates all expected traits.  Clearly, without the masculine attire Dietrich would have failed to convey the same message; it was the traits and characteristics associated with her costume that effected the appeal in interest in viewers.

Another unexpected manifestation of the brilliant work employed by the director to promote the actress’ image as an object of desire is apparent in The Blue Angel, heralded as probably the most renowned of Dietrich’s films.  Here, Sternberg appropriates once more the use of duality:  Dietrich, as the cabaret performer Lola-Lola, wore a skimpy, lingerie-like costume that revealed much of her body, paired with black stockings and, once more, the masculine top hat.

While the feminine lingerie echoes womanly and seductive connotations, the use of black in the stockings and hat make the juxtaposition between femininity and death; therefore, the desire evoked in audiences is shrouded by the bigger concept of inaccessibility and danger.  However, when Lola-Lola is shown outside of her performance environment, she is wearing what appears to be fashions befitting the French upper class of the time, conveying seriousness, rigidity, and dignity.  What is produced is, again, a manifestation of Sternberg’s famous dualism, in the creation of two modes of perception—appearance and reality.  In both, the themes of inaccessibility and unavailability still resonate (DelGaudio, 1993).

In Blond Venus, Dietrich’s portrayal of Helen Faraday—a relatively unlucky woman whose travails and decisions resulted in much of the film’s conflict—again took the signature style of seduction through presenting two faces, further interpretations of appearance and reality.  While the film begins with Dietrich’s illustration of Faraday as the typical American mother, dressed in regular and respectable garb common among the middle class, the turn of events and the problems that ensue led her to the same avenue of change and appearance, the cabaret.

Dietrich “saunters onstage, dressed in white top hat and tails, dazzles the audience, and discovers Nick Townsend…seated among the wealthy spectators” (Baxter, 1993).  Later, Faraday’s husband Ned, who had gone to Germany for medical treatment, sees a photo of her in the same costume, albeit now black.  The importance of the opposing shades work further to reinforce the existence of appearance and reality, or family and seduction, of right and wrong.

Concealment and spectacle, a permutation of Sternberg’s signature appearance-and-reality style, were the featured techniques in Shanghai Express, in which Dietrich played the role of the intriguing courtesan Shanghai Lily.  Sternberg utilized editing and art direction combined with appropriate costume design to produce the effect he needed:  a woman judged by reputation, seemingly worldly and wide, yet in truth is forced into the situation by previous decisions made; and a dazzling performer, ready and willing to claim all men within her sight.

To execute these two personalities convincingly, Sternberg relied on the same duality he was known for—plain, almost puritanical dress for the regular woman Magdalen, and a white feathered costume for the fascinating Shanghai Lily.  Dietrich had to shift from one motivation to another, coinciding with  performance and real life (DelGaudio, 1993).

Also in this particular film were discussions of racism prevalent, due to Sternberg’s juxtaposing of Marlene Dietrich as Shanghai Lily, and the Asian actress Anna May Wong as Hui Fei.  Wong was presented of dark hair and eyes, matching her costume, while Dietrich was resplendent and glorious in her white-blond hair—a common ideal of beauty and power in the tradition of European supremacists.  When Dietrich changes later to mirror the image of a black swan, dressed in feathers, the image conveyed still connotes sex, lust, glamour, values all typical of the classic femme fatale.

IV.      Fashion in the Industry of Desire

Negotiating the advantages provided by the coming together of fashion, acting, and film technique will almost always bring to mind the precise meaning of industry; that it exists unto itself, that it is self-contained, and that it has found ways in which it can be sustained and developed into other avenues that are usually dependent on it.  In this case, it is the industry of desire created by the brilliance of direction, performance, and stellar costume design that is in focus; the ability to create and make real personas or, in Sternberg and Dietrich’s case, a combination of personalities, that embody traits both memorable and believable, and extraordinary enough in its nature to communicate and identify with viewers.

These viewers, the major players in society’s consumer culture, will either embrace or dismiss the images being thrown at them, with the minimum expectation of at least giving an impression.  Through this, the audience becomes an active participant in ensuring the success of a star, including his or her image and commercial appeal.

In the industry of desire created by stardom and fashion, perhaps the most lucrative is advertising and product endorsements.  The ability of a celebrity’s power and standing in the industry is not always just measured by film success; several indicators are necessary to assure the celebrity and audience of status.

These include:  paid attendance, or the number of tickets sold at the box-office; a measured research on the likeability of a celebrity; polling research, traditionally an indicator that summarizes public opinion of the star; rating services, as utilized by major research companies in the country; and incidental indicators, such as size of fan base and number of magazine covers, among others, that would somehow also provide an idea on the popularity of the celebrity (Rein et al, 1997).

Once these have managed to meet the standards assigned, and the question of image has been thoroughly considered, the celebrity may then be approached to be the spokesperson, face, or image model of certain brands and products.  There is much potential and income from associating image with brand, and if both entities enjoy the same positive appeal, the relationship will most likely be fruitful and enduring.

Marlene Dietrich was known for her promotion of Lucky Strike Cigarettes in 1950, which was crystallized in a poster campaign that showed Dietrich sitting on a chaise lounge in a long strapless gown, her gloved hand raising a filtered stick of Lucky Strike to her red lips.  She is even quoted in the ad as saying, “I smoke a smooth cigarette—Lucky Strike” (The American Tobacco Co., 1950).  Dietrich was also featured in several ads for Lux soap in the 1940s. in which she was shown in luxurious fur coats and her trademark seductive pose, endorsing the product through mentions of beauty and daintiness (P & G, 1940-42)—both ideals of the time.

Later, she capitalized on her image of glamour and seduction in her endorsement of Woodbury Cold Cream (Woodbury Soap Co., 1942); in the posters, Dietrich was shown a step beyond the mere wearing of a fur coat—here, she was on a bed, clad only in what seemed like an even more luxurious mink.  Once can just imagine the kind of effect this advertising had on the Lucky Strike, Lux, and Woodbury businesses, considering these were very gender-specific in communication.

Then, as though to echo Sternberg’s style of duality, Dietrich was seen promoting Rheingold Extra Dry Lager Beer (Rheingold Brewing Co., 1946) without a hint of Hollywood glamour or sensuality.  Instead, the images shown of Dietrich were most likely her behind-the-cameras self, dressed in smart, tailored, and expensive clothes and pictured dining with both men and women.  By doing this, the Dietrich persona, while still beautiful and appealing, spoke to both her male and female audiences, giving the product more leeway in sales.

 Looking at this successful transition from film to ads and back, it can therefore be assumed that Dietrich’s established image in her movies managed to carry itself over to material outside the realm of the film’s story. it was able to conquer the field of sales, marketing, and advertising, an industry truly an offshoot of cinema and built to appropriate its properties.  Desire is the foremost element required in any advertising effort, and Dietrich’s association with desire and the subsequent products she endorsed then began a mutually beneficial relationship between brand and actress.

V.        Conclusion

 There is probably nothing more powerful in cinema than the capability of image to create emotion in a viewer; for many filmmakers, it is the concept of desire, at once both real and created, that is often explored.  Celebrities like Marlene Dietrich, clearly a product of correct imaging, has film technique and costuming to thank, aside from her own acting ability.

The appropriation of the various fashions she wore in her iconic films gave her that unique persona and image; it was the right kind of seduction and glamour that the American and international audiences could relate to, which were then translated into desire.  It is this desire, born out of celebrity and stardom, that has in turn created an industry of needs and wants, which soon snowballed into other related fields and industries.

Desire is a difficult thing to create—happiness, sadness, anger, and fear may be arguably easier.  But once this has been introduced, as in Sternberg’s work on Dietrich, it can span generations of adoration, celebrity, and power, which had made Dietrich the legend she is to this day.

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