Gloria Swanson

by Olivia Smith

What is it about the 1920s that has an aura of magic? Is it the glistening costumes? The jaunty attitudes? Or that a time we know was so unique in every way imaginable, it will never come about again? Either way when it comes to the revolutionary power and decadent style of Gatsby-era fashion, you just can’t deny the allure of all that freedom-fuelled razzle-dazzle. The gloom of the war years were over, the Representation of the People Act 1918 granted women over 30 with the vote and by the end of the decade the Equal Franchise Act of 1928 granted women over 21 with the chance to vote.

Politically women were becoming free, but they were liberating themselves in many other ways and one method was through their style. As ragtime pumped through their veins and sassy bob haircuts broke out from Paris, it was fashion that embodied the social rebellion.   The flapper style, trousers, waistlines dropping and ankles slowly being revealed. Gloria Swanson redefined the meaning of ‘iconic’, through her style in the decade. 

Gloria made her debut on the film scene with the silent picture film The Song of Soul (1914) aged 14, and not long after signed a film contract with Paramount, in 1919.

Gloria really set much of what we now know of as early 1920s style. Originally she did not choose her costume designers, but the close bond she had with them allowed her to learn from their expertise. Cecil B DeMille was an enormous influence; everything – from the choice of designers to their designs – was directed and chosen by him. It was after this collaboration that Gloria started to direct her own style. She chose her own designers and even claimed designing much of what she wore, on and off screen. 

If you think of turbans; feathers; layers of jewelry, including bracelets worn high on the arm; unstructured gowns made of draped lamé, crushed velvet, or exotic prints, etc. – this is all pure Gloria style. 

As she shot to stardom with lead roles in Don’t Change Your Husband (1919), Male and Female (1919), Something to Think About (1920) and The Affairs of Anatol (1921), it wasn’t just her acting that caught audiences’ attention. It was the gowns Gloria wore. Swanson’s costumes, hairstyles and accessories set trends and female audiences aspired to recreate her looks. The actress helped popularise rising hemlines and brought heels decorated with imitation pearls and stones into fashion.

In Don’t Change Your Husband (1919), Gloria carried a peacock feather fan. In Male and Female that same year, she wore a spectacular peacock costume designed by Mitchelle Leisen. Why Change Your Wife? (1920) showcases some of the best of early 1920s style, seeing Gloria wear an evening gown decorated with peacock feathers, which was very different from the looks that came later in the decade courtesy of stars like Clara Bow, Joan Crawford, and Louise Brooks. This was a transitional time between the Gibson Girl and the Flapper. 

Gloria could have 20 costume changes in one film, so multiple stories of spending range anywhere from $150,000 a year to $250,000 a picture. No matter what you believe, these figures are all the more incredible considering this was a time when the average annual salary was only around $1,000.

Gloria Swanson and Milton Sills in The Great Moment (1921) 

In 1925, Swanson joined United Artists as one of the film industry’s pioneering women filmmakers. She produced and starred in the 1928 film Sadie Thompson, earning her a nomination for Best Actress at the first annual Academy Awards. Her sound film debut performance in the 1929 The Trespasser, earned her a second Academy Award nomination. After almost two decades in front of the cameras, her film success waned during the 1930s. Swanson’s comeback role in the 1950 film Sunset Boulevard earned her a Golden Globe Award and a third nomination for an Academy Award.

Though her style and fashion-filled movies gave her popularity with audiences, the actress tried to separate herself from her clotheshorse image, worrying that the glamorous costumes overshadowed the parts, stating, “I realise the clothes make me what I am, and I dread, at the same time, of becoming a mannequin sort of actress.” In her autobiography Gloria recalls a costume she wore in Male and Female:

“The greatest risk for me was the sheer weight of my costume. Two maids had to help me carry it when I was not on set. The gown was made entirely of pearls and white beads – enough to fill a bushel basket – and the towering headdress was made of white peacock feathers, which were a source of great consternation in the wardrobe department, for many people thought they brought bad luck”.

She wished to have more independence with her career and role selection, craving layered character parts that would showcase her talents. It is sad to think she felt this, especially when in our modern society fashion is seen as a form of one’s own control of their individual  self expression. Doubtlessly, she left a legacy on the iconic fashion we fantasise about today, but hopefully with an undercurrent of realising fashion is all part of a show.

Recommended Reading:

Swanson on Swanson Autobiography by Gloria Swanson 

Gloria Swanson: The Ultimate Star, Biography & Autobiography by Stephen Michael Shearer

Gloria Swanson:

About the Author:


Olivia is a public historian with an extensive historical research background in academic, television and guiding industries. 

Having once been described as a ‘history nut’, Olivia’s passion for history drove her to excel in both Undergraduate and Postgraduate degrees at the University of Essex. 

Her drive for public history stems from her experience as a Commonwealth War Graves Commission intern during the final months of the First World War centenary. Since then, Olivia has worked with Women of London, guiding and researching historical tours focussing on all aspects of female history and is currently working as a historical advisor in the television industry. Olivia is striving towards her careers goal of “the positive promotion of historical education for everyone” 

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