TBT: A Woman Rebels (1936)

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The New York Times, reviewing A Woman Rebels in 1936 said Katharine Hepburn‘s title character “is crusading in a cause that was won before she was born.” The movie is nostalgically set in Victorian England, thus the grandparents’ era for those watching this film in the 1930s. So contemporary audiences, like that Times‘ reviewer, could feel smug knowing they were so much more progressive and advanced than the narrow-minded people portrayed in this movie.

Likewise, we may feel superior to the heavy-handed melodrama, silly comedic interludes, and trite ending that Pamela (Hepburn) is subjected to as she tries to make her way as an unwed mother (pretending her child is actually her dead sister’s) and an journalist. The novel this was based on, Portrait of a Rebel, written by Netta Syrett in 1930, really is telling tales from the author’s childhood era, as Syrett was in her 60s at the time of publication. But at least Pamela shows agency and has a relatively independent through-line — her story starts when she’s a rebellious teen and ends when she’s a mature women, and her character is committed to making her own decisions and living with the results of her own choices. While it feels dated in 2017, A Woman Rebels does what it says on the label, it shows a portrait of a woman who rebels against her time.

And the costumes are better than average. Designed by Walter Plunkett in his heyday, the gowns are, of course, beautiful, and they give a vague run from the 1860s through 1880s to the 1890s. It’s in the last scenes where the contemporary 1930s influence is most strongly felt, and Pamela’s niece/daughter Flora wears some “Victorian” gowns that look very ’30s, along with totally ’30s hair and makeup.

A Woman Rebels (1936)

Pamela is a headstrong teen, fighting against her father’s overwhelming misogynistic ideas about not teaching girls anything but obedience and needlework.

A Woman Rebels (1936)

Pamela & her sister have a coming out ball in extremely ruffled gowns. Sis gets a proper proposal, while Pam hooks up with smarmy Lord Gaythorne and gets pregnant.

A Woman Rebels (1936)

The reverse polka-dots seem more ’30s than 1860s, and the tilted hat doesn’t help.

A Woman Rebels (1936)

A catalog photo of the polka-dot costume, a little worse for the wear.

A Woman Rebels (1936)

This outfit is very striking in black and white with the dark embroidery. Compare with Walter Plunkett’s color design below.

A Woman Rebels (1936)

In blue and brown, the outfit looks more subtle. Makes you think about how costume designers had to think carefully and plan for the gradations of black and white film.

A Woman Rebels (1936)

Showing the passage of time, as her niece/daughter Flora grows up, Pamela’s outfits change from hoop to natural-form bustle.

A Woman Rebels (1936)

Then the final scenes appear to be set in the 1890s, as indicated with this stunning white lace gown for a country party.

A Woman Rebels (1936)

Pamela comforts Flora, who looks very 1930s and also the same age as her aunt/mother.

A Woman Rebels (1936)

Final scene between Pamela and her father.

A Woman Rebels (1936)

Catalog image of 1890s costume from the scene above — the dress looks black onscreen!

A Woman Rebels (1936)

I wonder what color this supposedly black stripe evening gown is?

Despite some faults, A Woman Rebels is a decent vehicle for Katharine Hepburn in one of her typical “feisty rich woman” roles, and she always looks good in historical costume. I don’t know why her late ’30s films were such box-office flops at the time because they’re some of my favorites.

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About the author

Trystan L. Bass

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A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. When she’s not dressing up in costumes, she can be found traveling the world with her sweetie and, occasionally, Kendra and Sarah. Her costuming and travel adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also maintains a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

6 Responses

    • Trystan L. Bass

      Good question! I found a few catalog-like images claiming to be the gown, but the lace pattern didn’t match — it’s very distinctive. Could even be recycled period materials.

      Reply
      • Daniel Milford-Cottam

        Looking at it again, I notice that the parasol is covered in the same matching crochet lace, and that is not a period parasol. I actually don’t think I have ever seen a parasol that was just lace, with no lining to the lace, until the 1930s, because the point of parasols was that they shaded and prevented exposure to the sun, so an unlined lace parasol wouldn’t have been terribly functional in terms of what it was meant to do.

        If you look at parasols from the 19th century up until about 1930 they usually have more of a domed silhouette, unless they’re the Japanese style flat paper parasols.

        It’s not entirely impossible that it was a matching dress and parasol cover transplanted onto a newer parasol frame. I’ve definitely seen crochet parasol covers. And also, wearing a 30-40 year old dress in the 1930s would be just like wearing something from the 1970s today – the fabrics (especially a cotton crochet lace) would still be more or less strong and wearable, and there would still be plenty around for dressing up in.

        Reply
  1. Susan Pola

    I’ve seen the film. Mr Plunkett’s costumes were beautiful but I agree that some seemed more 1930s than 1860s-1890. The lace dress was my favourite.
    But I enjoyed how despite the patriarchy view of rebellious women = women who have children out of marriage, Kate triumphs over them.

    Reply
  2. Melinda

    Watched the movie yesterday, The story is pretty dull. I mean, where are the “walls”? We know victorian society and rules were shitty for women, but here everyone seems to go with her plans and ideas instantly! A remake would be great, with more tensions, difficulties, closed doors she has to open wide and “walls” she must undone. Costumewise the first scenes suggest the late ’60s, namely 1867-’68, the transitory years from crinoline to bustle. The crinolines have a very gentle, smooth fall, the skirts have echarpe decorations as on period garments and fashion plates, The waistline is set higher and the sleeves aren’t puffy anymore but fitted, with a little width at the wrist latter. Now the polka-dotted “office” dress looks first bustle, but for some reason the costume designer wholly ignored the tourunre support! Why? If it was there the timeline would be more even and traceable. During the archery scene the girl’s costume took my breath away, more then Pamlea’s tartan gown :) And here we see a huge gap, the ’80s are ignored and we follow the story after the fall of the bustle period, probably early ’90s (I believe ’90-’92), the simple lined skirts, the moderate gigot sleeves, the fitted but plastron filled bodices proove this. And here’s another problem with the dating. If Flora was born in ’68, growing up in the early ’90s she would be around 22-24 years old, not a sweet 16 she appears to be! The story should follow in 1884 if director’s timing wanted to be logical… Also awful bonnets with awkward chin ribbons to tie under the chin and off-balanced, nearly always. The ’90s Gibson girl hair and the ’67s debutante ball coiffures are spot on, but the rest is pure 1930s, including the make-up. So, Hollywood please make a better remake, throw us a bone ;)

    Reply
  3. Abigail Tyrrell

    “I don’t know why her late ’30s films were such box-office flops” ~ Perhaps its the extra large slice of HAM delivered with every scene. I loved her as an autistic child as she made understanding emotions easy. Today, and dressed like that she would prolly win Drag Race. Loved Stage Door where she was more natural and later films where she held back and kept it more subtle.

    Reply

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