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Hollywood Head Game


Ava Gardner had rich lustrous hair, but in this glamor photo from the 50’s, Ava is transformed into a sensual bird of prey.

Step into an Orthodox synagogue on Shabbat, the Sabbath, and you’ll notice that married women cover their hair, donning hats, scarves, or sometimes just an elegant patch of lace. Hat variations are endless, and to yours truly, fascinating.

In Israel, you can usually pinpoint a woman’s religious and political ideology–Modern Orthodox, Right Wing Hasidic, Hippie Hasidic, Orthodox Feminist, Black Hat Orthodox, Gun Toting Settler (totally hot!)–by noting the head gear she favors.

Now, step back in time to Hollywood’s Golden Age and you will discover that an astonishing variety of hats are part of almost every wardrobe, and frequently used in studio generated publicity stills. Unlike today, classic Hollywood understood that elegant and creative millinery conveys multiple meanings that are a valuable part of a star’s glamorous arsenal.

Gloria Swanson became an international star and fashion icon under the direction of Cecile B. DeMille. Here, as the notorious Sadie Thompson, Swanson shows that they didn’t just have faces in the silent era, they had hats!

George Hurrell, the greatest of the Hollywood studio photographers, doesn’t just plop a hat on Anita Page. He transforms it into negative space, thereby framing Page’s alabaster skin and creating a truly iconic image. No wonder Benito Mussolini fell in love with the young star, proposing marriage in one of his many fan letters.

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Betty Grable was best known for her legs and for her tempestuous marriage to band leader Harry James, a mosaic of infidelity, violence and booze. But here, the pin-up queen of WW II, looks solidly middle class, like a perky N.J., yenta.


Dolores Costello was one of the most beautiful women in early Hollywood. Tragically, Costello’s lovely but fragile skin was ravaged by the heavy make-up used in silent films. She spent her final years in seclusion, running her avocado farm. This finely spun hat adds to her mysterious allure. Costello, briefly married to bad-boy John Barrymore, is actress Drew Barrymore’s grandmother.

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Mae Murray, a self-destructive star of the 20’s, appears incredibly modern. Only the bee stung lips date her look. Murray walked out on her MGM contract when she married a phony European nobleman. She ended her days impoverished and stark raving mad, wandering the streets mumbling that she was still a great star. By the way, if you’re a retro kind of girl, Perpetual Flapper has a step by step tutorial on how to create those bee stung lips.

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Kay Francis, a pre-code Warner Bros. star, looks like a modest milk maid in this shmatte. Ironic, because Francis kept a diary, written in code, in which she detailed her numerous affairs with men and women–and her eight abortions.


Merle Oberon sports a somewhat tilted nautical theme. Oberon always looked elegant and frostily upper class. She hid the fact that she was of mixed race parentage. Her mother was Anglo-Sri-Lankan and her father, probably British, but so far, unknown. When the press or her Hollywood friends were around, Oberon made her mother pose as a house maid.


Recently, beauty pageants have been in the news because of the unconscionable leftist assault on Carrie Prejean. There were no hats in the 2009 Miss U.S.A. contest, but take a look at the Miss America contestants of 1933. Times and skirt lengths have definitely changed.


Not a Hollywood actress, but Chana Gittel was always a star to your faithful screenwriter. Here, my maternal grandmother, age 17, models an outfit that she designed and sewed, with matching hat, perfect for a stroll in the park. Photo approximately 1909.

Copyright Robert J. Avrech

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