Marlene Dietrich honored in Paris

BY Advocate.com Editors

June 13 2003 12:00 AM ET

Paris pays tribute to bisexual film legend Marlene Dietrich with the renaming Thursday of a square in her honor and an exposition showing off a stunning collection of clothes that enhanced her mythic status. The expo, "Marlene Dietrich: Creation of a Myth," opens Saturday at the Galliera, the Fashion Museum of Paris, and features items from the closet of one of Hollywood's most exotic actresses. "The clothes tell us about Marlene's personality," said Catherine Join-Dieterle, the museum's director.

The museum has borrowed more than 250 pieces of the late star's wardrobe and accessories from a collection at the Filmmuseum in Berlin, where Dietrich was born in 1901. The pieces are being exhibited in three large darkened rooms, with the clothes mysteriously lit and her songs playing in the background--just as the sultry screen siren would have liked it.

Arranging the pieces by what she wore in public and private hasn't been easy, considering that Dietrich unconventionally let the two domains overlap. While wearing mostly pajama-type silk pants in the house, she would always dress up outside, even while going shopping, just in case a photographer passed by, Join-Dieterle said. "She not only was 'a la mode,' she also influenced fashion directly," she said. While top tailors and fashion designers, like Dior, created her dresses, Dietrich made them famous—and made them her own. Barbara Schroeter, who restores textiles for the Filmmuseum, said Dietrich would stand still in a dress for 10 hours at a time while tailors improved it under her direction.

"Glamour, shock, provocation, elegance" are some of the words that best describe this distinct Dietrich style, according to Werner Sudendorf, director of the collection in Berlin. Dietrich was ahead of her time and served as inspiration for a generation of fashion designers. One of her pantsuits was later picked up by Yves Saint Laurent and now constitutes common attire for women. In Dietrich's day, women didn't wear pants, especially not in public--so her trousers and male accessories like hats and canes were particularly shocking. One Parisian hotel in the 1930s wouldn't even allow her to walk through its main entrance in pants, Schroeter said.

The final piece in the exhibition, Marlene's famous white swan-feather coat, leaves a final sense of the myth she created around her: that of a queen, self-confident and icy--but above all, glamorous. The coat contrasts with a uniform exhibited earlier, which she wore while singing for American troops during World War II. Dietrich renounced Nazi Germany in the 1930s. She became a U.S. citizen in 1939.

Later Thursday a square was to be named in her honor in Paris, where she spent the last 17 years of her life, until her death in 1992 at age 90. Arriving in Hollywood in the 1930s at a time when the film capital was importing exotic actresses, Dietrich outlasted most of them. She reached the height of her career in the 1930s and 1940s with Shanghai Express, Morocco, Blond Venus, The Blue Angel, and Destry Rides Again.

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