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The Biggest Little Fashion City Ithaca & Silent Film Style

Silent Film Style: A Fashion Timeline 

Ithaca earned the moniker “The Biggest Little City” when, from 1914-1919, it was home to Wharton, Inc. Studio, a bustling movie production company that produced dozens of films and serials starring some of the best-known movie actors of the day: Irene Castle, Lionel Barrymore, and Pearl White. The Biggest Little Fashion City: Ithaca and Silent Film Style is a play on Ithaca’s well-deserved title, and explores how silent film revolutionized dress and fashion communication in the 19-teens and 1920s. We begin with fashions from the 1910s and end with the late 1920s, thus spanning the heyday of the silent film era. Film showed, through moving pictures, changes in dress, accessories and hair. By including garments worn by silent film stars like Irene Castle and Minnie Madden Fiske, and featuring designers who dressed silent film stars like Lucile (Lady Duff Gordon) and Paul Poiret, we show how silent film enabled new fashion possibilities, which were later adopted by the masses and came to epitomize 1920s style.

Fashion and Silent Film

We take for granted the prevalence of moving image in our daily lives, whether television, film, or online videos; however, moving pictures were a brand new medium in the early 20th century. Silent films emerged as a new, immediate, and democratic means of communicating fashion information. In the early era of motion picture production costume departments were a rarity—it was the actors and actresses who put together wardrobes and selected their favorite fashions. Silent film stars were important arbiters of fashion and profoundly affected the styles we imagine when we think of 1920s fashion.

Minnie Maddern Fiske

Minnie Maddern Fiske (1865 – 1932) spent almost her entire life acting. She started at age four, and much later in life at 58 began a short-lived but successful silent film career. She starred in Tess of the d’Ubervilles (1913), an Adolf Zuker production, and Vanity Fair (1915), produced by The Edison Company. This dress dates to the era Fiske made films and features opulent decorative detailing prominent in high fashion of the period.

Lady Duff Gordon (Lucile) and Maison Paul Poiret

Lady Duff Gordon (designer of Lucile) and Paul Poiret were contemporaries and rivals. Gordon was a British-based designer and opened her first store in the West End of London in 1893 and was operating in Paris by 1911. Early on she dressed both theatre actresses and society women in London’s West End and would continue dressing actresses on Broadway in the early 1910s. Broadway was her runway of choice, which was eventually supplanted by motion pictures. Lucile dressed the early reining silent film stars, including Irene Castle, Mary Pickford, and Pearl White, both on- and off-screen.