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On July 1st, 1934, Hollywood glamour died.

 

That day, the American film industry implemented a strict policy of self-censorship that would limit the visibility of illicit and/or criminal activities onscreen for decades after. One of the particular targets of the Production Code Administration was the explicit and/or suggested representation of sexuality in movies.

 

Unfortunately (but not surprisingly) it was the representation of female sexuality that suffered the most under the Code.  The reason: in the pre-Code era, both onscreen and off, women threatened the double standards and social/sexual status quo which PCA religious-conservatives sought to preserve.

 

Disconcerting, perhaps, was the fact that glamour queen idols paid industry bills. Valentino might have been big in pre-Code Hollywood; but Swanson, Garbo, and Dietrich were altogether bigger, badder and more beautiful. Draped with furs and dripping in jewels, they glowed through gauze as carnal exotics but no less high-maintenance. Above all, they oozed a pure, unadulterated sexuality – even (or especially) if the sex was adulterous.

 

Actresses and the women they played polished their charms for fiscal and sexual reward. They presented themselves in such a way as to stand out as successful and yet hungry for more. And audiences lapped it up: men wanted to be with them, and perhaps more ‘dangerously’, women wanted to be them:

 

Witness Joan Crawford in Letty Lynton (1932), all chiffon and ruffles, romance and yearning. Or Possessed by Clark Gable, the next best accessory to diamonds. Kay Francis having Trouble in Paradise and no problem with pelts. Dietrich and Hepburn enjoying pants but no less chic or (in the context of time) perversely gorgeous. And Norma Shearer, just your everyday Divorcee. They define glamorous.

 

Glamour, after all, is about clothes and attitude. It is not – emphatically not – about titillation, or worse, T&A. Jean Harlow might have worn a see-through number or three, some artful drapery from time to time, but her clothes were an accent, a decoration on a beautiful body that could and should be admired.

Glamour is about being a knockout in one’s own right. About appreciating what’s there on women’s bodies, what they choose to wear – not what’s underneath or removable. It’s about how a woman presents her sexuality, not an attempt to (re)create or prove it.

 

The PCA didn’t set out to censor costume per se. But in limiting women’s sexual freedom on film (essentially, post-Code premarital sex by a woman would mean death, jail, destitution, or a dead baby), censors did limit the number of roles and situations in which the potential for glamorousness could manifest itself onscreen.

 

In films released after July, 1934, ‘glamour’ has always seemed a little less glamorous than before. For decades post-Code, when a woman showed skin on the screen, she was usually either a chorus girl (of the Ginger Rogers sort) or a bathing beauty (Esther Williams). Sultry film noir types a Veronica Lake, an Ava Gardner – wore impressive clothing and hair, but they were also femme fatales who tended to end up dead at the end of movies.

And dead, glamour is not. So where did it go? (I’d look everywhere but the centerfold.)