The Ninotchka Hat Blog

Eroticism and Pandora’s Box
February 8, 2010, 2:38 am
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Louise Brooks is one the Silent Film era’s most enigmatic creations. She was an actress who was a dancer, a hedonist who was an intellectual, an independent woman who was a drunk, and a star who was writer. Two decades after her film career ended, Louise Brooks became a writer, a chronicaller of Hollywood’s hardscrabble early days when its stars were slum babies and taxi dancers and its moguls were barbers and junk dealers, a low class establishment whose stock and trade were sex, beauty, and glamour. Louise Brooks wasn’t like that. She came from a decent, educated Midwestern family and she could read. She read voraciously. She read Schopenhauer for kicks and didn’t care that other people knew it. It’s a peculiar irony for a woman who, 90 years on, is readily recognized for her enchanting face and razor shop bob, rather than anything she ever said or did.

Brooks derided snobbishness of any kind in film criticism. For her, Clara Bow, was the most important star of the 20s, her and Greta Garbo. Film historians have not been particularly considerate of Bow. She isn’t really considered an artist or even much of an actress, but watch any of her films, she’ll take it an run away with it. She had a tremendous physical energy, a startling vulnerability, and a completely natural pluckiness, as well as “It”, a phrase coined for her, the unquantifiable quality of star power. Her films also made oodles of money. Like Brooks, Clara Bow was driven out of Hollywood after a scandal involving her assistant. Contrary to popular belief, Bow’s voice was fine. Her voice suited her, with a cute little Brooklyn twang, but Bow herself was terrified of sound, and her fear of the microphone expedited her exit from film.

Brooks also wrote poignantly about Humphrey Bogart as we’ve now forgotten him — Bogie the sensitive, and gifted actor, treading the boards as he did in those days before he became Hollywood’s tough guy. She wrote about WC Fields, about Garbo, and Marion Davies. Mostly she wrote about Pabst, the Germanic genius behind her masterpiece, Pandora’s Box. The story goes Brooks was battling with her Hollywood studio about salary demands, when they refused to capitulate she picked up the script that Pabst had sent her and announced that she would do it. It didn’t matter that she knew nothing about Pabst, Germany or the script itself, she was going to go. When she arrived, Brooks the American was plunged headlong into the unbridled decadence of Weimar Germany with its pimps, bordellos, cabarets, and transvestites wandering the street. Lulu was already a bona-fide German cultural icon by time Pabst’s film was made but in Berlin in 1928, Lulu became Louise Brooks.

Conventionally, it’s the other way around, but Louise Brooks was already Lulu, a beautiful, jazz-age nymphomanic, an egoist, a woman who understood her sexual power. Brooks may have been considerably more self-aware than Lulu but she always asserted that she was no actress. All she was doing was “playing herself”. Brooks was, however, a dancer and not just some chorus girl, but a dancer professionally trained in modern dance and ballet. She knew absolutely how to move her body on screen, a trait she shares with many of the Greats. Cary Grant and Burt Lancaster started as acrobats. Audrey Hepburn and Shirley Maclaine started as dancers and many great stars were fantastic athletes. Gary Cooper graduated from stunt man to actor when he fell so eloquently that he was suddenly promoted. Billy Wilder once instructed William Holden to “jump slower” during his famous staircase leap in Sabrina.

Lulu walks through the film like a cipher. She is an instrument which wreaks destruction upon men, but she is oddly unaware of her own power. For her, sensuality is natural and seduction second nature. Witness the scene she has with her older lover, Dr Schon, who has decided to cast her off in favour of his proper, virginal fiancee. A petulant Lulu refuses to appear on stage at a revue at which Shoen is present with his fiancee, and holing herself up in a storage closet she throws herself onto a pile of pillows, an animal pelt and exotic tapestries decorated the mise en scene. It is now that Schon approaches, trying to reason with her. Her dress exposes her graceful back and her arms and legs are flailing as she throws herself into a childish tantrum. The audience knows that this is the scene for seduction, that the weak-willed Schon has really no option but to succumb to Lulu’s charms. The furious Schoen raises his hand to strike her in anger, but demurrs, all too late because the wily Lulu wraps him in her embrace like a spider. He’s doomed and he knows it. The interplay between the two of them is intensely erotic, as they battle one another back and forth for for physical and sexual control.

At the end of the film, the whole thing comes full circle. Lulu, whose compulsive sensuality provokes nothing by violence in those around is undone by a man whose compulsive violence provokes sensuality in those around him. That Lulu should die by violent means is not some kind of Victorian justice but the natural consequence of Lulu’s descent into progressively more nefarious sexual liaisons and the end result of her own self-destructive eroticism. To die for sex would be the ultimate thrill. With this final liaison we see Lulu displaying genuine and almost beatific tenderness. In the moments before her death by the Ripper’s knife, Lulu has attained a type of divinity, bathed in soft light and with a wreath placed over her head that ressembles a halo. The Ripper is visibly moved by Lulu’s beautiful innocence, but he can’t deny his inherant drive to violence just as Lulu can’t deny her inherant drive to sensuality, and so Lulu dies, no struggle, no pain, the life just leaves her. Poor Lulu!


“… A civilization that permits women to wear such things on their heads. It won’t be long, comrades”
January 9, 2010, 4:35 am
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Some people, of course, would consider me a heretic for lopping off half of the immortal Miss Garbo’s face, but that hat she is wearing is such a whimsical and fabulous piece of millinery. The Ninotchka hat is in itself an example of a startling trend in women’s hats that emerged among the fashionable set in the 1930s. It’s not so much strange that the Ninotchka hat existed but that other Ninotchka type hats seem to pop up in 30s films like my much beloved “Holiday” 

Doris Nolan

Doris Nolan sporting a fashionable 1930s hat with Cary and Kate

Some of these contraptions still exist like 

Grey 1930s velveteen conical hat

Other fabulous examples can be found on the Conde Nast blog which is here

Between about 1932 and 1947 was what could be called the Golden Age of Hats. The uniform and ubiquitous 1920s cloche gave way to the architectural marvels of the 1930s and 40s. Platters, dunce caps, doll sized top hats, stripes, birds, buttons, foot and half long feathers, placemats, fezes, tassels, yard long veils, golly, NOTHING was safe. 

There were two major competing forces in women’s fashion in the 1930s, Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli. Chanel’s name  is instantly recognizable today and why not? She started a revolution. She was the first one who used jersey in women’s clothing. She brought the idea of the active woman into her designs and her clothes always facilitated ease of movement. She was economical where her predecessors (Poiret, Worth) had been ornate. She was a smart businesswoman. She lived her work. She was demanding. She was brilliant. Schiaparelli wasn’t like Chanel, who had a hardscrabble early life, abandoned by her father, and singing in music halls. Schiaparelli was the daughter of well-off parents. She was a surrealist. She hung around with the greats like Dali and Cocteau, though  her first big break in the fashion world came in her knitwear design. Knitwear had always seemed so incredibly bourgeois and 15 years earlier, the idea of knitwear in women’s couture would have been considered absurd, but Chanel changed that and Schiaparelli ran with it. Schiaparelli is also credited with the invention of “shocking pink”, bright, whimsical, but not vulgar. Rosalind Russell’s gorgeous suit from “His Girl Friday” was made by studio costume designer but the colour of the suit was alternating black and shocking pink. It makes my heart flutter imagining what that suit must have looked like. The film is, of course, in black and white. This page gives a wonderful overview of Miss Russell’s costume

Hello world!
January 9, 2010, 1:38 am
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