Drop Dead Stylish


The dead shall live again in the fashions they created: this Hallowe’en Seán McGovern and Amy Walsh look at how Hollywood legends Joan Crawford and James Dean iconised both film and fashion in their lives – and deaths

Sharp shoulders, nipped waists, defined eyes and lips: the look of autumn/winter 2009, reminiscent of high-powered fashions of the 1980s. But look further: back to Joan Crawford, a Hollywood icon both for her films and her kalaidescopic personal life, whose look was entirely of her own creation.

Emerging from the silent films of the twenties with the look of any pretty but silent starlet, Crawford reinvented herself completely: Lucille LeSoeur was renamed, rebranded and redefined. In order to succeed, Crawford knew that a defining look was as important as the talent she could bring to her roles. Her spark of originality allowed her to create a style that was unconventional and all of her on, with sharp and dark eyebrows, and mouth perfectly sculpted into a red creation. Crawford understood that to overcome her naturally broad hips she needed to sculpt her image into something entirely unique and unforgettable.

Mildred PierceCrawford decided to exaggerate her shoulders: all her dresses, suit jackets and formal gowns of the 1940s and beyond were padded to extraordinary detail. This inflation of the shoulders did not make her look more masculine; by nipping all the dresses at the waist to excentuate smaller hips and emphasise her shoulders, she made Hollywood notice that Joan Crawford was as much in control of her look as she was in her construction of persona.

The look of Joan Crawford has evolved after her own incarnation. Joan Collins told the costume designers of Dynasty in the 1980s that Joan Crawford in the 1945 film Mildred Pierce was the epitome of glamour and style. The 1980s is remembered for as a decade with so many identifiable looks, all of varying quality, but shoulder pads defined the decade just as they defined the image of the women who wore them. Princess Diana’s wedding dress is an internationally recognised over-emphasis on the shoulders.

Today, the look originated by Joan Crawford has evolved again. With contemporary thinking, a streamlined version of her original styles have emerged, featuring clean lines, tight cut and a focus on shoulders that does not verge on the ridiculous of the 1980s, but takes the exaggeration of 1940s Crawford and plays with it.

Balmain and Alexander McQueen are only two of the majorly acclaimed fashion labels that are paying homage to style that has gone before them in a playful, sexy and new take on one woman’s classic. Joan Crawford died alone in suspicious circumstances in 1977 but it is certain that her look has lived on and reborn, decade after decade.

James Dean is regarded as one of the most influential cultural icons of the twentieth century.

His famous mantra of “live fast, die young” certainly does not refer to the endurance of his style, which has undoubtedly influenced and inspired fashion for decades after his tragically premature death.

The 1950s was the decade when the word teenager was coined. This era was about youth, their icons, their aspirations and their style. James Dean’s “bad boy” attitude, popular films and controversial death made him an idol amongst young people who identified with his rebellious and moody demeanour.

Denim jeans, in their early years, were worn exclusively as work clothing. During the fifties, film and rock stars such as Elvis Presley, Marlon Brando and James Dean all exhibited the “jeans look“. Inspired by these stars, teenagers began to revive denim. By the 1960s denim jeans had been incorporated into mainstream fashion.

James Dean wore his jeans branded, perfectly fitted yet entirely casual. His position as a “denim icon” inspired Lee Jeans to add a replica of his style to the Lee Originals collection. His contribution to the long-standing association between denim and rebellious youth has inspired designers for more than half a century.

james-deanLike antiheroes Marlon Brando and Steve McQueen, Dean “owned” the leather jacket look, making it a must-have for future rebels, with or without a cause. Dean is also celebrated as having popularised tight white t-shirts, a look that has been recycled by designers time and again.

Dean’s “look” is as much about attitude as it is clothes. His outward appearance captured his infamous bad boy philosophy, exuding confidence and timeless sex appeal. This ideal has carried his image and style to the altar of immortal stardom, which he shares with contemporaries like Marilyn Monroe. Dean captured the imagination of a rebellious and idealistic generation, and as long as teenagers trademark themselves with casual denim and fitted shirts, Dean’s style legacy lives on.

This season, leather has made a comeback on the catwalk. Leather jackets, both biker and fitted, feature in Calvin Klein and Armani autumn-winter collections. On the high street, TopMan and Tommy Hilfiger are advocates of the leather jacket, casual shirt and denim jeans combo.

If you want to reflect what’s in this autumn, look to the legend and absorb some of the angst.