Beach pyjamas, or sailor pants, of the 1920s owe their popularity to Coco Chanel and her appropriation of the wide-legged trousers as a functional addition to the female wardrobe. Chanel hit upon the idea of pants for women while visiting Venice during the early part of the decade; she felt they were the only practical way to properly climb in and out of a Gondola.
In The Cats Meow (2001), a rather humdrum murder drama set in twenties Hollywood, Kirsten Dunst plays bright young thing Marion Davies. It’s appropriate that the first time we see her character she is aboard the yacht where ninety percent of the movie occurs (and incidentally she never leaves). Costume designer Caroline de Vivaise dressed Dunst in nautically themed beach pyjamas, which were not just suitable for the location, but also a nod to Marion’s forward-thinking ways.
This boyish ‘La Garçonne’ look pioneered by such designers as Chanel and Madeleine Vionnet was popular yet rebellious for the time (one of the yacht party actually comments on the novelty of Marion’s clothes). The days of Paul Poiret and his fairytale dress creations and hobble skirt were numbered; despite his liberation from the corset, modern women craved still more practicality – and more fun.
For Kirsten Dunst, her natural liveliness and gentle androgyny ensure the beach pyjamas outfit is her most convincing for the whole film:
White long-sleeved overhead beach shirt in silk satin, open necked collar, unfitted, with French cuffs and attached black onyx buttons to match three decorative buttons to either side of the hips. Black and white loosely knotted silk scarf. White straw hat with low, bowl shaped crown, upturned brim and twisted black and white silk scarf around the crown.
This blousy, feminine cut top is in fantastic condition, if indeed it is authentic vintage (apparently virtually all of the clothes featured in the movie were). Even though sleeveless beachwear was more common during the 1920s, this shirt is perhaps more suitable for receiving late afternoon guests. The hat is typically cloche (bell) shaped.
Black sailor pants in silk satin, high cut and wide legged from waist to hem. Black (presumably canvas) court shoes with white contrast trim.
Comfortable rounded toe court shoes were becoming popular, often in luxurious leathers for city wear, after the gradual abandonment of tight laced ankle boots from the Belle Époque. Cheaper package travel helped encourage the rise of resort wear throughout the decade. If the 1930s became about the tanned back, the twenties were all about the legs, whether exposed beneath scandalous hemlines or covered by pants. The legs on these particular pants are wide more than sailor flared. They strongly resemble the cut of gentleman’s ‘Oxford bags’ which arrived in a big way in 1925 (a year after the film is set).
The costumes in The Cats Meow were impeccably sourced and recreated, yet do seem decidedly dark for such a colourful period in history. This is not an oversight on the part of experienced costume designer De Vivaise, a veteran of nearly fifty (mostly French) films, but rather on the implicit instructions of director Peter Bogdanovich. Unable to shoot the movie in black and white as he wished, Bogdanovich hoped to create a similar visual aesthetic by using only black and white costumes instead. De Vivaise had to battle just to be allowed gold and silver on the party frocks.
Bogdanovich was especially keen on white, as evident on Dunst’s shimmery evening dress with uneven hem. This colour emphasizes her false innocence, just as the high white ermine fur coat collar she wears during the film’s epilogue conceals her guilt. The overall success of Bogdanovich’s approach is debatable; after a time the subdued colour palette can appear less nostalgic and revealing and more flat and dreary.
With so much colour in both women and men’s fashion from the 1920s, De Vivaise had difficulty sourcing costumes in only black and white. Women’s decorative hats were most problematic so she largely made her own, including an impressive green butterfly evening hat and butterfly broach which ultimately prove her infidelity. If Kirsten Dunst’s beach pyjamas are the best and brightest outfit in The Cats Meow then it is not for want of De Vivaise trying elsewhere.
Yet this loose fitting La Garçonne ensemble is as important as any number of tulle net evening dresses or fox fur wraps; it represents a freedom of movement in female fashion that would not resurface again for thirty years. With the collapse of Wall Street in 1929, women’s clothes would no longer be about fun, but form.
© 2009 – 2013, Christopher Laverty.