By Yolanda Perdomo, CBS Digital Producer

CHICAGO (CBS) — While internet “influencers” cover the digital landscape, the powerful and sometimes provocative impact of American designers in Hollywood is still being watched, copied, Instagramed and emulated, decades after glamorous gowns graced motion pictures.

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It’s the focus of the Chicago History Museum’s “Silver Screen to Mainstream” exhibit showcasing major American costume designers including Adrian, Omar Kiam, Howard Greer and others.

The clothing worn by the Hollywood stars of the era made a huge impact on what women wanted to wear and how they wanted to be seen.

(Credit: Chicago History Museum)

“It was profound,” said Virginia Heaven, curator of costumes at the Chicago History Museum. “In the early 1930s 80 to 85 million people a week went to the movies. Of all social classes. The movies were a place where women had unusual power.”

Actresses were not only protagonists but played everyone from family matriarchs to femme fatales. Think Greta Garbo, Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford, Irene Dunne, Ginger Rogers, Marlene Dietrich among others who wore everything from structured suits to ethereal gowns that floated onscreen.

Because these movies were primarily in black and white, designers used texture and contrast to make their designs stand out on the silver screen. Heaven said women looked up to Hollywood stars, particularly what they wore.

(Credit: Chicago History Museum)

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“There was a tremendous amount of social change going on, a lot of it precipitated by the Great Depression. So a lot of people would go to the movies to get a respite from a really dire circumstance in their actual lives,” Heaven said. “Partly what it did was provide hope. So to dress like your favorite movie star was aspirational.”

That hasn’t changed, according to Heaven, who noted that celebrities, reality stars and lots of people in between still wear things to see and be seen in, whether it’s on TV, in the movies or on social media.

“The exhibition highlights that it was not only the wealthy that cared about their appearance. Even the thriftiest could emulate a Hollywood starlet,” Heaven said.

“American style is about the woman. Whereas French style is about the designer. It’s about you wear French clothes everybody knows what they are. But American style is about a woman being ready for action, for work, for cocktails, for dancing, for being out and about,” Heaven added.

(Credit: Chicago History Museum)


While hemlines and silhouettes can change from decade to decade, or from season to season, Heaven said that timeless designs still have their place for people of any social strata.

“There was some beautiful and really influential designs coming out in American that were influenced by the movies. And the costume designers had an effect on American designers that were already making clothes for a very elegant, glamorous style,” said Heaven.

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The Chicago Art Deco Society is hosting a special tour of the exhibit Tuesday night October 29. Click here for more information and visit the Chicago History Museum website for details on the exhibit.