Today, I'm looking at actress Dorothy Lamour's influence on the fashion industry. Her trademark sarongs, which were originally designed by Edith Head, became a fashion craze in the late 1930's.
This article is part of Dorothy Lamour: The "Dot" Blogathon hosted by Font & Frock and Silver Screenings.
The next time you wear a sarong, you can thank two old Hollywood icons. The talents of designer Edith Head and the exotic beauty of actress Dorothy Lamour made this obscure Southeast Asian wardrobe item an international sensation that is still a fashion staple. Like many things in old Hollywood, Head and Lamour's little Polynesian dress came from a combination of luck, timing and talent. Here's the story behind one of the most recognizable costumes in movie history.
Lamour's journey to old Hollywood icon began in 1935 when she was unknown contract player at Paramount Pictures. The studio was having trouble casting the female lead for a B movie called The Jungle Princess, a goofy Tarzan knock-off that was part of the mid-thirties craze for South Seas movies. Actress Evelyn Venable was the studio's first choice, but she flatly refused. Studio executives then turned to Lamour, a popular big band singer who just had a bit part in her first Paramount movie, the comedy College Holiday (1936).
|Dorothy Lamour and her sarong sisters in The Hurricane (1937).|
The task of designing Lamour's costumes fell to Edith Head, who was then one of Paramount's top three costume designers. The Jungle Princess presented her with a unique challenge: she had to make Lamour look sultry and culturally appropriate and satisfy the movie censorship code. Head decided to adapt a traditional Southeast Asian wardrobe item, the sarong, into the perfect costume for Lamour.
|Dorothy Lamour and a baby crocodile in a publicity still for The Jungle Princess (1936).|
The Jungle Princess was a huge hit, and both Lamour and Head followed up with another sarong-athon in director John Ford's disaster epic, The Hurricane (1937). Soon, the costumes Head designed became a national sensation. Women everywhere donned sarong-draped evening gowns and dresses and skirts in bright floral patterns that imitated Lamour's glamorous look.
|Pals Dorothy Lamour and Edith Head at Hollywood hot spot, The Brown Derby.|
Despite Lamour's misgivings about her sarong-draped image, she and Head were always fond of each other, according to David Chierichetti's biography, "Edith Head: The Life and Times of Hollywood's Celebrated Costume Designer." Head designed Lamour's wedding dress and the star told Chierichetti that "she [Head] is the kind of person that I may not see for several years and then I run into her, and we start talking, and it's like we had been talking just the day before."
Head's design is still iconic today and one of the sarongs Lamour wore even made it into the Smithsonian Institution's costume design collection.
Click here for my second Dot Blogathon entry on The Road to Singapore.