Marlene Dietrich as Amy Jolly, sultry French nightclub singer
Essaouira, Morocco, Summer 1930
Release Date: November 14, 1930
Director: Josef von Sternberg
Costume Designer: Travis Banton (uncredited)
The white tie dress code dates to before the turn of the 20th century, designed to make any man look his best when appropriately tailored, so there’s considerable irony in the fact that one of the most iconic film appearances of a white tie, top hat, and tails was worn by a woman: Marlene Dietrich, the German screen legend born 120 years ago today on December 27, 1901.
As previously featured on this site, today’s post continues the blog’s regular focus on menswear but here memorably worn by a woman, specifically the impeccable evening ensemble that Dietrich wore for her Academy Award-nominated performance as the brassy club singer at the center of the intrigue in the pre-Code drama Morocco, her second of seven eventual collaborations with director Josef von Sternberg.
The Berlin-born actress was no stranger to menswear, though her particular talent for wearing it so well was most famously celebrated in Morocco, during the groundbreaking performance scene that culminated in Dietrich’s Amy Jolly “scandalizing” a woman in her audience with a kiss.
“The house is packed, this is a great night for you! If you make a hit, you can stay here as long as you like,” excitable club owner Lo Tinto (Paul Porcasi) had hyped up Amy, though his enthusiastic words could also be retroactively interpreted as a meta-commentary on Morocco providing Dietrich with a Hollywood debut that could make or break her career in American cinema. (Spoiler: she makes it!)
What’d She Wear?
Costume designer Travis Banton remains one of the most reputable costume designers from the early years of Hollywood’s “Golden Age”, having extensively collaborated with the era’s celebrated style icons from roaring ’20s “It Girl” Clara Bow to Carole Lombard, Mae West, and Marlene Dietrich. Unfortunately—and somewhat ironically—costume designers were rarely credited during these years, so Banton received no screen credit for what would be one of his most enduring costumes: the white tie and tailcoat worn by Dietrich for Amy Jolly’s debut cabaret performance that subverts gender expectations in more ways than just her attire.
Dietrich’s penchant for menswear wasn’t limited to the character of Amy Jolly, as the actress lined her real-life wardrobe with an extensive range from glamorous gowns to tailored suits traditionally associated with menswear. According to Elyssa Goodman for CR Fashion Book, “she also had all of her clothes—the men’s suits she became known for as well as her womenswear—custom-made to balance out what she called her ‘unusual shape: broad shoulders, narrow hips.'”
Enter Banton, tasked with tailoring Dietrich in an elegant evening ensemble for her first U.S. screen appearance.
The sequence begins backstage, with Amy adding the finishing touches to her white tie kit, worn with note-perfect execution. Aside from the modified cut to be effectively worn by a woman, the ensemble is nearly identical to how it would be traditionally worn by a man, right down to the left-over-right buttoning.
Amy’s white cotton formal shirt has a stiff bib that curves with Dietrich’s ample chest, with two small metal studs shining from the front. An additional stud fastens the wing collar to the neckband, though this goes appropriately unseen behind the substantial wings of her white cotton marcella “pointed butterfly”-shaped self-tied bow tie. The long, starched single cuffs are also fastened with links.
The white marcella formal waistcoat has a full-bellied shawl collar that flares out over her chest, leaving a deep “U”-shaped opening over the shirt bib over the narrow swath of waistcoat fabric where the four mother-of-pearl sew-through buttons are arranged in a double-breasted configuration of two columns, widely spaced between the columns but closely positioned within them. The waistcoat is cut straight around the hem, covering the top of the high-rising trousers at Dietrich’s natural waist.
One of the most crucial “make-or-break” elements of white tie is the harmony between the tailcoat’s cutaway front, the waistcoat’s bottom, and the trouser rise. The ideal relationship between these pieces are that the white waistcoat does not show below the bottom of the cutaway portion of the coat, as neatly illustrated by Dietrich’s rig once she slips on the tailcoat.
A deliberate effect of raising the waist line in the white tie dress code is to lengthen the appearance of the wearer’s legs, intentionally creating an elegantly lean and dramatic silhouette. The appropriate trousers for white tie are made from the same black or midnight-blue barathea wool as the tailcoat, detailed with silk braid (galon) down the side seams. These are generally two narrow braids to distinguish from the single braid of black-tie trousers.
Amy’s formal trousers are rigged with double reverse pleats that contribute to a generous fit over the hips, through the thighs and legs down to the plain-hemmed bottoms. She often slips a hand into one of the side pockets, cut behind the braided seams.
Stepping out in her black patent leather oxfords, Amy remains stoic in the face of a generally angry reception from the Légionnaires and their dates, all aside from Tom Brown (Gary Cooper), enthusiastically applauding from the front row much to the chagrin of his bought-and-paid-for date. Her socks appear to be thin black silk.
As the hapless, sweaty Lo Tinto—who looks comparatively pitiful in his own rumpled white tie kit—builds his credentials that his club is “patronized by the finest of society in Morocco!”, the laconic Amy needs only to wordlessly pop the crown of her flattened black silk top hat in response to put the obsequious club owner in his place. (This being a pre-Code film, where innuendo could be far less subtle, the symbolism is obvious that Dietrich’s Amy has the proverbial BDE—to borrow today’s parlance.)
Amy completes her look with the dress tailcoat, which she—again, wordlessly—demands Lo Tinto help her into. The immaculately cut evening coat is likely made from black or midnight-blue barathea wool to match the trousers, with fashionably wide shoulders and broad silk-faced peak lapels with slanted gorges that reposition each peak as an arrow pointing to the roped sleeve-heads that are just an inch away. Each sleeve is finished with four-button cuffs.
The tailcoat is fashioned in the traditional double-breasted configuration of three tapered buttons on each side, positioned above where the skirt is squarely cut away in the front, though these buttons are purely vestigial as the coat is not meant to be closed. The elegant tails extend down the back to Dietrich’s knees, with the two silk-covered vestigial buttons around the back of the waist a remnant of the tailcoat’s equestrian origins. Dietrich completes the appearance when Amy pulls a white cotton handkerchief from her trouser pocket and casually folds it into the welted breast pocket, which had evolved as an acceptable addition to evening tailcoats by the early 20th century.
As the orchestra plays behind her, Amy coolly smokes her cigarette and watches Tom arm himself with a bottle to “encourage” the booing crowd to turn those jeers into cheers. By the end of “Quand l’Amour Meurt”, she’s won almost everyone over to the point that she’s being offered free drinks… though there’s still one woman in the crowd a little too giggly at the idea of a woman dressed like her date. Amy strolls up to the young woman’s chair, pulls a flower from her hair, and asks “May I have this?”
“Of course,” answers the young woman, whom Amy promptly thanks with a kiss on the lips… converting one last reluctant audience member fully onto Team Amy. (Not only had Dietrich suggested the scene be added to the script, she also saved it from being cut by the censors when she remarked that the significance of Amy giving the flower to Tom would be lost if the audience hadn’t seen how she “earned” it in the first place.)
While Amy addresses the applauding crowd with a few debonair doffs of her hat, she spies Tom leading the applause as his own date scowls. She furthers Tom’s intrigue—and his date’s resentment—by tossing him the flower that he subsequently slips into his hair.
Two years later in Blonde Venus, also directed by von Sternberg, Dietrich would again don a menswear-inspired white tie and tails, this time with an all-white evening suit detailed with sparkling lapels and trouser trim.
What to Imbibe
“Quand l’Amour Meurt” wins over the crowd so much that an adoring mustached fan in his own evening suit raises his glass, “may I offer you this glass of champaigne, mademoiselle?”
Not one to turn down a free drink, she flicks away her cigarette—as only Dietrich could—slides over the rail, and takes the coupe, toasting before she downs the bubbly:
À votre santé!
How to Get the Look
You can tell Marlene Dietrich is enjoying herself in her men’s evening dress suit as she swaggers from leaning on one railing to the next, hiking up her trousers and plopping that perfectly tilted silk hat farther down atop her head for emphasis at just the right moment in “Quand l’AMour Meurt.”
- Black or midnight-blue barathea wool evening dress suit:
- Formal cutaway-front tailcoat with wide silk-faced peak lapels, “double-breasted” 6-button front, welted breast pocket, 4-button cuffs, and two vestigial back buttons
- Double reverse-pleated high-rise trousers with silk double-braided side galon, on-seam side pockets, and plain-hemmed bottoms
- White cotton shirt with detachable wing collar, stiff front bib (with two studs), and single cuffs (with links)
- White cotton marcella “pointed butterfly” self-tying bow tie
- White cotton marcella formal waistcoat with shawl collar, 4×2-button double-breasted front, straight hem, and adjustable back strap
- Black patent leather oxford shoes
- Black thin silk dress socks
- Black silk top hat
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie.
You can have it for nothing, if you like.