Costume Party is a monthly column exploring fashion, personal style, and historical aesthetics in film.
Later this month, Metrograph will be paying tribute to Marlene Dietrich, the German star whose ability to look striking in a tuxedo and top hat launched a thousand discussions on gender and power. The series at Metrograph features all of Dietrich’s starring roles in films by Josef von Sternberg, and in these films, she frequently appeared in costumes by Travis Banton, one of the great designers of the studio era. In Shanghai Express (1932), the fourth of Dietrich’s collaborations with von Sternberg, Bantam is given the always alluring “Gowns by” credit—a surefire signifier of 1930s glamour. Bantam worked at the breakneck pace typical of the time—in 1932 alone, he had 19 costume credits—which makes the opulence of Dietrich’s outfits in Shanghai Express all the more impressive.
There’s something gloriously old fashioned about looking glamorous on a train. As Shanghai Lily, a seductress on an express train through China in the midst of a civil war, Dietrich wears outfits that, to us, seem far too fussy for travel, but obviously work perfectly on a courtesan (or “coaster” in the film’s parlance) played by a star. Dietrich knows how to make an entrance. We first see her in a veil and dramatically feathered collar. There’s a touch of the gothic to her look. Her covered face invites questioning. Who is this woman?
Lily and her fellow coaster, Hui Fei (Anna May Wong) are, of course, the most interesting people on the train, and they both dress decadently. Hui Fei is a bit more understated, but always wears shining fabrics with elements that contemporary audiences likely recognized as “exotic” as in the case of a high-neck silk dress, or a robe with billowing sleeves.
Lily’s outfits occasionally contain Asian elements that might today be called cultural appropriation. She reclines in a kimono, and even her name is a coy bit of exoticism—we learn early on that her real name is Magdalen.
In Dietrich’s roles, fashion is used as a power signifier. Lily has the power to borrow elements of Asian culture in her garb, and she has the power to saunter through a train bedecked in feathers without appearing ridiculous. Of course, fashion power is closely tied to sexual power, which Dietrich has no qualms about expressing. The train is a sexual metaphor in and of itself, and when Lily encounters a former lover, the British Captain Harvey (Clive Brook), it feels inevitable. When she talks with him, she takes his captain’s hat and puts it on—a classically assertive gesture. Of course, it looks fabulous on her.
In this scene, she’s wearing a wildly plush coat. The softness automatically contrasts with her famously sharp cheekbones.
Lily is always accessorized. There is often a hat, feathers, a pair of gloves. Lily’s accessories set her apart from others on the train. They automatically code her as elegant and possibly dangerous. When a woman brings more than one large feathered collar on a train trip, as Lily does, you know she is not to be messed with.
Even Lily’s slippers are extravagantly fur trimmed.
At one point Lily wears what appears to be a chain mesh bowtie/collar hybrid. It’s an ideal accessory for Dietrich: suggesting menswear, but done up in a glamorous fashion that verges on camp.
Dietrich’s enduring power comes in large part from her ability to wear such accessories with panache. With her large eyes, thin, upward pointing brows, and of course, that bone structure and accent, she consistently telegraphs drama even when she isn’t saying anything, and the veils, feathers, and shimmer just make her stronger.