beauty icon, depression-era beauties

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Photo: MGM / John Kobal Collection / George Hurrell

depression-era beauties

There’s nothing sexy about bread lines. And yet, thanks to a bevy of glam 1930’s starlets, the Great Depression decade was more than just soup kitchens, the Dust Bowl, and the collapse of Lehman Brothers (oh wait, that came later). Yes, hemlines dropped like the Dow, but calf-covering skirts couldn’t conceal the appeal of babes like Carole Lombard, Claudette Colbert, Myrna Loy, and Jean Harlow—just ask Clark Gable; he married Lombard and starred with the rest.
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The era’s sinuous siren gowns were as much a result of practical constraints as they were of a nationwide mood change. Fabric was in short supply, meaning not only that tighter silhouettes came in, but also that designers cut corners in the lining department. What’s more—and maybe this is where Lindsay and Britney got the idea—women sometimes skipped underwear. Take Josephine Baker, who often played up her feminine form in nothing at all. Ernest Hemingway dubbed her “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw,” and he saw a lot of her. Nudity aside, present-day designers can take comfort in knowing that fashion as escapism meant a booming business for their Depression-era counterparts. As for present-day women who might be looking for doldrums departure routes, they can take a page out of their predecessors’ book and play up their natural assets. As Claudette Colbert put it in The Palm Beach Story, “You have no idea what a long-legged gal can do without doing anything.”

—Alison Baenen

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Photo: George Hoyningen-Huene

Josephine Baker, a.k.a. La Baker, poses in her usual choice of attire for a Vanity Fair photo shoot in 1929.

Photo: Paramount / John Kobal Collection

Claudette Colbert leaves little to the imagination as Empress Poppaea in The Sign of the Cross, directed by Cecil B. DeMille in 1932. Her equally unclad companion rocks some old-school gladiators.

Photo: MGM / John Kobal Collection / George Hurrell

Jean Harlow, Hollywood’s original Blonde Bombshell, vamps it up for the camera and shows off her namesake flaxen curls in 1933. Rarrh.

Photo: John Kobal Collection / Getty Images

“Queen of the Movies” Myrna Loy in the film that made her famous, 1934’s The Thin Man. Loyal fans later formed “Men Must Marry Myrna” clubs after Loy’s performance as “the perfect wife” in The Best Years of Our Lives. “Some perfect wife I am,” Loy said about similarities with her character. “I’ve been married four times, divorced four times, have no children, and can’t boil an egg.”

Photo: RKO / John Kobal Collection

Barbara Stanwyck, in 1937, gets ready to rumble in Breakfast for Two. Swing ’em, sister.

Photo: Peter Stackpole / Time Life Pictures / Getty Images

Ginger Rogers glams up a soda fountain, in 1937. Bet you wish you were that straw, huh, gentlemen?

Photo: Alfred Eisenstaedt / Pix Inc. / Time Life Pictures / Getty Images

A timeless Carole Lombard, photographed in 1938, shows off her skeet-shooting style in frames to envy. Dick Cheney, watch your back.