Film Costumes in “First A Girl” (1935)

Scrolling through Netflix a few weeks ago, I came upon this British film from 1935, “First A Girl.” The ‘Fashion Show’ mentioned in the introduction initially caught my eye, and I added to my que and promptly forgot about it, until it showed up in my mailbox. Now I consider myself to be pretty well-educated in the history of film – but I had never heard of this or any of the actors in its cast – so of course I was intrigued. When it arrived, I read the description a little more closely and realized the significance of the film:

Turned down at her first audition, shop clerk Elizabeth (Jessie Matthews) thinks her dream of being a music hall singer is over. But when her friend and female impersonator Victor (Sonnie Hale) is unable to perform his musical number, Elizabeth steps into the spotlight. Soon success traps her in a real-life role as a woman playing a man playing a woman — until a handsome suitor comes along. The film was later adapted as Victor/Victoria. (Netflix description)

Watching the film late one evening, I was surprised by how modern it felt (though it does have some gay subtext, its admittedly small in comparison to the more resent version). Gender roles and sexuality were questioned, and the style felt somehow familiar. It proved to be a real treat for historic fashion and film costume buffs. It all started off with an early scene with a fashion show and a workshop, where the fashion designer character’s personality and designs reminded me of Schiaparelli.

This version of the story had been adapted from the German film, Victor Viktoria (1933) and was later remade as Victor Victoria (1982) starring Julie Andrews. According to author and film historian Sarah Street, the gender-bending storyline reflects a trend often found in German films of the early 1930s  (British National Cinema, 58). The star of the film, Jessie Matthews, is little-remembered today but in the 1920s and 1930s she was known as “The Dancing Divinity” (Lee, 95). In a contemporary review of the film, however, the New York Times, however, felt that Jessie Williams didn’t go far enough to try to act like a man :

“Being a woman of vast loveliness, grace and personal charm, her pretty attempts to wear male clothing, smoke cigars and simulate hearty masculinity are about as convincing as Wallace Beery would be in the rôle of Juliet.”

Elizabeth’s first attempt at male impersonating… (image via Ebay)

Sarah Street further notes that this film was made particularly for export to America. Not surprisingly, to achieve popularity in the US, First A Girl draws heavily on established visual conventions and seems to lift many stylistic references [and costumes] from American films. Watching the film, these were easy to pick out, and explained why it felt so familiar. The plentiful dance numbers bore strong resemblence to Busby Berkeley’s choreography, and outlandish costumes, though admittedly the chorus girls weren’t quite up to snuff with their timing (they bordered on the ridiculous, especially in the musical number “Half and Half”-oh that there were a clip of that!).

Marlene Dietrich, 1934 (image via Sefarad)

In this clip below (forgive the quality), Elizabeth/Victor wears a white jacket and hat that strongly resembles Marlene Dietrich’s white tuxedo look from 1932’s Blonde Venus and publicity photo wardrobe of 1934. Other scenes in the film seem to make repeated reference to Dietrich’s costumes, including a very fashion-forward tube hat.

Following that scene, Elizabeth/Victor appears in the ‘birdcage scene’ heavily referencing both Busby Berkeley’s choreography/costumes, and most striking her costumes seem to be a combination of Louise Brooks birdcage outfit and Ginger Rodgers feathers from Top Hat (1935).

Louise Brooks (image via Celeb101) and Ginger Rodgers in Ostrich Feather Dress from Top Hat (1935) (image via Meredy).

Jessie Matthews in “First A Girl” (1935) (image via Bunker61)

The costumes for the whole film are credited to someone named “Marianne” who mostly worked with Alfred Hitchcock. I’ve not yet been able to find out much about her and any leads are much appreciated. Thus far the only real clue I have is from an actress named Anna Lee, who played the Princess in the film. She notes that First A Girl was filmed in the south of France and that “Molyneux and Chanel designed my lavish costumes” (Lee 95). Love to hear your comments, and any leads you might have.

Bibliograpy

Lee, Anna with Barbara Roisman Cooper and Maureen O’Hara. Anna Lee: Memoir of a Career on General Hospital and in Film. Jefferson, N.C. : McFarland & Co, 2007.

Sennwald, Andre. “Jessie Matthews as a Male Impersonator in ‘First a Girl,’ the British Film at the Roxy.” New York Times, January 4, 1936.

Street, Sarah. British National Cinema. Abingdon: Routledge, 2009.

*DVD cover image via Netflix

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    May 25, 2011 - 9:16 am

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