That time Chanel went to Hollywood…

Garbo and Chanel, publicity meeting, March 1931

On January 19, 1931, the New York Times reported film producer Samuel Goldwyn’s announcement: “After more than three years of constant effort, I have at last persuaded Madame Gabrielle Chanel, fashion dictator, to go to Hollywood to co-operate with me on the vexing question of film fashions.”

Chanel’s resistance to work in Hollywood was quashed by the realities of the Depression that had dramatically reduced the number of orders being placed with her atelier. The lure of a million-dollar contract and a studio with over a hundred workers at her command was too appealing to turn down. The New York Times outlined the deal: “She will reorganize the dressmaking department of United Artist studios and anticipate fashions six months ahead, solving thereby the eternal problem of keeping gowns up to date…Thus, Madame Chanel may reveal the secret of all impending changes and the American women will be enabled to see the latest Paris fashions, perhaps, at times, before Paris itself knows them.”

Madge Evans in suit by Chanel, 1931

Chanel arrived in Hollywood in March 1931, in the middle of production of Eddie Cantor’s Palmy Days (1931). She created a few garments, mostly for the star Barbara Weeks, including four versions of the same dress with small differences so that the dress looked its best from different angles and positions.

Chanel then went to work on creating thirty outfits for Ina Claire, Joan Blondell, and Madge Evans who were playing gold diggers in The Greeks Had A Word For Them (released February 13, 1932). The film was set in the late 1920s, so Chanel created contemporary looks with a nostalgic flair – not something fashion was doing at the time.

Her next job was to create gowns for Gloria Swanson in Tonight or Never (1931) which was released two months before The Greeks Had A Word For Them.  This was a frustrating experience for both women as Chanel had to contend with Swanson’s unplanned pregnancy during filming. Swanson’s shape had changed in the six weeks between fittings, requiring Swanson to wear a girdle that ended at her knees in order to fit Chanel’s gowns.

With her contract fulfilled, Chanel collected her million dollar cheque and left Hollywood in a huff, never saying anything nice about the experience for the rest of her life.

About Jonathan

Jonathan Walford is a fashion historian and co-founder of the Fashion History Museum in Cambridge, Ontario. The FHM maintains a collection of nearly 12,000 artifacts dating from the mid 17th century to the present. Jonathan has authored various books and museum catalogues, including The Seductive Shoe, Shoes A-Z, Forties Fashion, 1950s American Fashion, and Sixties Fashion.
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