Remembering Marlene Dietrich’s Fashion Legacy on Her Birthday

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“I dress for the image,” Marlene Dietrich famously said in a 1960. “Not for myself, not for the public, not for fashion, not for men.” The celebrated actress, who rose to fame in the 1930s, claimed she had no interest in fashion and if left to her own devices she would simply wear jeans all the time. But legendary costume designer Edith Head said Dietrich’s fashion knowledge surpassed many actresses she’d met. In fact, she had learned how to impeccably craft her image early on in her career. In doing so—during her decades in the spotlight—Dietrich became known not just for her sultry, femme-fatale characters, but her refined and daring style choices that make her an enduring fashion icon.

Dietrich learned how to assume and maintain control of her image from Josef von Sternberg, who directed her 1930 breakout film The Blue Angel. With lighting, film editing, costuming, and makeup, she developed the tools to create visuals of herself that perpetuated an elegant, mysterious on- and off- screen persona. Later 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.”

Von Sternberg assisted Dietrich in cultivating her image at the onset of her career, directing her in Morocco, her 1930 American cinema debut. In the film, the actress performs onstage dressed as a man, wearing a tuxedo by costume designer Travis Banton, and kisses a woman on the mouth. While today this wouldn’t make headlines, at that time it was quite the opposite. Though stars like Katharine Hepburn and Joan Crawford had already appeared in menswear, Dietrich’s reach extended beyond theirs. It was also one of the first lesbian kisses to appear on screen. Openly bisexual at a time when public non-heteronormative sexuality was barely an option, clothing for Dietrich became not just adornment but subversion. Traveling on a steamer to Paris in 1933, Dietrich wore a suit of head-to-toe white. The Paris police chief received word of this and threatened to arrest her upon her arrival because it was technically illegal for women to wear pants in Paris until 2013. Unfazed, Dietrich not only arrived in Paris wearing the ensemble, but also wearing a men’s coat, sunglasses, and beret. She grabbed the police chief by the arm and escorted him off the platform.

As the decades went on, Dietrich’s bold attire and attitude continued to be a stylish signature. In 1986, she was even recognized for her fashion contributions by the Council of Fashion Designers of America with a lifetime achievement award. She would go on to influence, directly and indirectly, designers like Yves Saint Laurent and his historic Le Smoking; a pre-fame Azzedine Alaïa, who custom-made her clothing; and, later, Jason Wu and Peter Som, who were both inspired by her for their Fall/Winter 2012 collections. She was also the subject of two 2017 exhibitions, one at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. and one at Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris; and a 2018 book of collected portraits, Obsession: Marlene Dietrich.

Upon her death in 1992, Dietrich was called a “symbol of glamour.” It was a headline perhaps inspired by another of the actress’ famous quotes: “Glamour is assurance. It is a kind of knowing that you are all right in every way, mentally and physically and in appearance, and that, whatever the occasion or the situation, you are equal to it.”

Decades after her death, both remain true.

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