Saturday, October 9, 2010

Fedoras, Trilbys, Baby Dolls and Merry Widows

Q: What do the fedora, the trilby, the baby doll and the merry widow have in common?

A: They would all be good costumes for a pinup-girl photo shoot?

Q: That's true... but I had a different answer in mind...

A: They are all items of clothing named after plays! Or operettas, or movies...

Of course theater and, later, film, have always influenced fashion trends. Think of T-shirt sales plummeting after Clark Gable went without an undershirt in It Happened One Night, then two decades later, rising again after Marlon Brando wore his T-shirt in A Streetcar Named Desire. But in this post I specifically want to look at clothing items named after the works of art they appeared in... I mean no one calls a T-shirt a Streetcar or a Kowalski, though wouldn't it be awesome if that were the case?

The fedora and its narrower-brimmed cousin, the trilby, were named after popular Victorian melodramas, Fédora by Victorien Sardou and Trilby by Paul Potter, adapting George Du Maurier's novel. Both of these plays are in turn named after their heroines. When the world-famous Sarah Bernhardt, playing Princess Fédora, wore a soft felt hat, she was quickly copied by men and women alike. A few years later, Trilby came along. This story of a tone-deaf young woman (Trilby) turned into a famous singer through the efforts of a malevolent hypnotist (Svengali) was immensely popular--and introduced the word "Svengali" and the euphemism "in the altogether" to the English language. And introduced a jaunty short-brimmed felt hat to the world of fashion! I can't determine whether the trilby hat was worn by Trilby herself, or another character in the play, though.

(For much more about fedoras, check out my other blog...)


There are actually two kinds of clothing that can be called a "merry widow": a ladies' hat with an enormous brim, and a longline bra or corset. The hat is named after a style worn by actress Lily Elsie in the London premiere of the operetta The Merry Widow, in 1907. Big hats were already popular at the time, so "Merry Widow" proved to be a catchy name for them. Then, in 1955, after the release of a film version of The Merry Widow that featured Lana Turner in lingerie, Warners' introduced a corset called the "Merry Widow," and that name stuck, too.


The nymphet title character of Baby Doll, the 1956 movie adaptation of Tennessee Williams' play 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, spends much of the film wearing a very short, very loose nightgown. In the 1950s, this was scandalous, but a decade later, the baby-doll style was incredibly popular for both nightgowns and day dresses.

These are all the clothing items I can think of that are named after play or movie titles... are there any others that I'm forgetting?

Images: Lily Elsie in a merry widow (and The Merry Widow), Carroll Baker in a baby doll (and Baby Doll).

2 comments:

Dr.J said...

Hi! well that depends on the language of course. Spanish versions of original english titles are crazy, but Rebecca (Rebeca in spanish) is a light jacket with buttons (what you could call a cardigan and by the way Lord cardigan is a work of art by himself) after the one sported by Fontaine in Hitchcok´s movie.
And I think Lolitas are girls slippers but I am into deep waters there.

Marissa said...

Ha! That's terrific about the "Rebeca" jacket/cardigan.