Frock Flicks note: This is a guest post by our friend Sabrina, a historical costume enthusiast who enjoys sewing historical costumes from various eras. She is currently working on her PhD in English literature.
The Harvey Girls (1946) is a big MGM musical that stars Judy Garland, John Hodiak, Cyd Charisse, Virginia O’Brien, Ray Bolger, Marjorie Main, and Angela Lansbury (yup, Mrs. Potts!). A quick run down of the plot: the “good” Harvey Girls take on the “bad” saloon girls in a Western town in order to forward the progress of white Western patriarchal civilization (which, coincidentally, facilitates the labelling of women as “good” and “bad”).
In Part 1 of this review, we looked at all the “good” girls’ costumes. And the costume folks (Helen Rose as the designer of the women’s costumes under the costume supervision of Irene) made it incredibly evident who is a “good girl” and who is a “bad girl.” To sum up: good girls wear lots of butter churn-y prints and a lot of pastels. Bad girls, in contrast, wear a lot of look, even though they’re not always wearing much else. So follow along to get some good looks of a young Angela Lansbury looking fabulous with a posse of saloon girls and see how well her clothes reflect actual late-1890s clothing (spoiler: not very much)! (Yeah, this is basically a tribute to young Lansbury, but that’s mostly because she’s the star of the saloon girls and the others don’t have much of a role.)
The movie first shows Em (Lansbury) singing at the saloon in this incredibly sparkly gold number. She’s pretty bedazzled and I’m sure it’s referencing evening gowns like this one at the Hermitage Museum, especially with that ostrich feather hem. Lots of the embellishments are really similar to the sort that were popular in the period, like the sequin flowers and the super squiggly pattern that covers Em’s gown, but they didn’t tend to use such contrasting colours and the all-over beading wasn’t really a thing. Also, the odds that some saloon girl in the West is going to be wearing such a heavily embellished gown when even most court gowns didn’t have that much beading are very slim. It’s pretty stunning on camera, though.
This gown pretty much sets the tone for Em and the rest of the saloon girls, who are seen throughout the rest of the film in jewel tones (often using black as a contrast) and visually arresting patterns. They’re much brighter and flashier than the Harvey Girls and also tend to have more elaborate hair and wear fewer hats. Overall, one gets the impression that the saloon girls of the Alhambra are gaudy and unrefined. And maybe they are, but it’s more exciting than gingham.
While the Harvey Girls are getting outfitted in their Puritan waitress ensembles, the girls at the Alhambra are doing a burlesque number that involves an almost obscene amount of ostrich feathers on Em. They’re wearing corset-type bodices with little apron-y swags at the hips. It kind of screams “mid- to late-20th century idea of saloon girls,” the sort of costume you can still get now although with clearly a much higher price point and grade of execution.
But, compare it to this c. 1900 photo of a burlesque performer and there are actually a lot of similarities. It’s still 1940s does turn of the century, but the big ostrich-feather headdress is there as well as the corset-style bodice/bodysuit, swag-y bits around the lady-bits, and a fluffy stole for dramatic effect.
The saloon girls tend to hang out in dishabille when they aren’t performing. (A not-so-subtle hint that they’re also sex workers? Or maybe they just like to sleep in because they’re up late partying with the townsfolk? Or both…) Before a big fight starts up between the saloon girls and the Harvey Girls, Em swans out in black lace and pink satin. She’s all sophisticated coiffed hair and arched eyebrows while Judy/Susan and Cyd/Deborah are swathed in calico and curls.
When the Harvey Girls hold a dance, the saloon girls come over to crash the party. The saloon girls are all in strapless brightly coloured dresses that are just below the knee. And Em is wearing more feathers as well as channelling her inner Marilyn Monroe “Diamonds are a Girls Best Friend” (several years before it ever comes out. Maybe Marilyn’s design is actually inspired by Angela Lansbury? Em’s got a lot of bling). Em is also the only one who gets a full-length gown.
What’s really neat is that the film is actually bookended with train scenes. Near the end, it’s bad girl Em who’s leaving on the train (mirroring the arrival of the Harvey Girl Gang at the beginning of the film). She looks absolutely faaaaaaahhhh-bulous in marabou and emerald green with all kinds of embellishment. Not at all right for train travel, but oh-so-right for a Technicolor musical. This shade of emerald was popular at the time, but for more fancy clothes.
Angela/Em definitely wins the costume contest in this film. Go check it out if you want something fun to watch, but not if you’re looking for a complex depiction of femininity or super historically accurate clothing.
OK, Angela Lansbury vs. Judy Garland — who would win according to you?