Iconic Hollywood star was the queen of style

Marlene Dietrich pictured in the famouse gold gown.
Marlene Dietrich pictured in the famouse gold gown.

It’s one of the most
iconic and alluring dresses in film 
history.

A simple, form-fitting gold sequined column, with a discreet net inset at the top, to give the impression of a strapless gown, this dress is a replica of one worn by movie goddess Marlene Dietrich – described by John Wayne as ‘the most intriguing woman I’ve ever known’ – when she toured the world with her cabaret act in the late 60s and early 70s.

Born in 1901, the actress was by then a septuagenarian, but still oozed glamour – her daughter Maria Riva later commented: “That basic design of that gold sequined dress that had served her so well during her ‘army years’ that had called forth those wolf whistles from adoring GIs, was now pressed back into service.”

A queen of style, the German-born star had always looked fabulous in anything, including the most masculine of outfits – she’s probably most familiar in tuxedo and top hat as singer Amy Jolly in Morocco (1930).

When she appeared as Jamilla in the film Kismet (1944), performing a dance considered so erotic that it was cut from the film when it was originally aired on the TV and only restored in later years, she had her legs painted gold.

Initially the costume designers had made fine mesh tights for her, using a chain mail technique. After spending several hours encasing her in the tights with jeweller’s pliers, it was discovered that she couldn’t actually move, so the gold paint was employed instead.

Despite a general belief that she had a pair of the most beautiful legs in the world, Marlene herself was pleasingly self-deprecating about them, once saying: “Darling, the legs aren’t so beautiful – I just know what to do with them.”

Marlene’s personal style was as eclectic as her on-screen style – she would appear in public at times in sharp masculine suits, at others drop-dead feminine in designer gowns.

In her cabaret career in later life, she would employ her androgyny to dazzling effect, switching from gorgeous gowns and furs to top hat and tails depending on the song.

Her allure was summed up by writer Francis Wyndham, describing one of her concerts: “What she does is neither difficult nor diverting, but the fact that she does it at all fills the onlookers with wonder ... It takes two to make a conjuring trick: the illusionist’s sleight of hand and the stooge’s desire to be deceived.

“To these necessary elements (her own technical competence and her audience’s sentimentality) Marlene Dietrich adds a third – the mysterious force of her belief in her own magic. Those who find themselves unable to share this belief tend to blame themselves rather than her.”

The gold gown was designed by legendary Hollywood designer Jean Louis, and our pictured version, with equally glamorous (fake) fur – in the 70s, she often wore a full-length, pure white swansdown coat – can be seen at Scarborough Art Gallery from this Saturday until September 13 as part of the SJT at 60 exhibition, celebrating 60 years of productions at Scarborough’s world famous Stephen Joseph Theatre.

The exhibition includes various costumes from production through the years – Dietrich’s dress is from the theatre’s 2011 production of Marlene by Pam Gems, starring Sarah Parks in the title role and directed by Chris Monks.

It’s a (temporary) part of the Scarborough Collections, the name given to all the museum objects and artwork acquired by the borough over the years, and now in the care of Scarborough Museums Trust. For further information, please contact Collections Manager Jennifer Dunne on Jennifer.dunne@smtrust.uk.com or 01723 384510.

Scarborough Art Gallery is open Tuesday to Saturdays from 10am to 5pm, plus Bank Holidays.

There will be a programme of supporting events around SJT at 60 including lunchtime and evening talks, and guided walks taking in the theatre’s three homes at the Library, Westwood and the former Odeon. For further information, please visit the Scarborough Museums Trust website: www.scarboroughmuseumstrust.org.uk