claraglobeThink of the name Clara Bow and the description the ‘It Girl’ probably springs to mind. So-called after the title of one of her most famous films, the star is still associated with an indefinable sex appeal. Bow’s moment in the spotlight coincided with the brief era of the flapper in the mid Twenties and the silent movie actress became a fashion and beauty trendsetter of her era, coming to epitomize the good, and in the eyes of many, the bad of the flapper lifestyle. Frances Ambler takes a look at a genuine vintage fashion icon.

Her story is classic rags to riches, fuelled by plenty of heartbreak. Coming from a troubled family background, in 1921 she entered a magazine competition, the grand prize being a part in a film. She ended up winning and, although her scenes from the film Beyond the Rainbow were eventually cut, she was on her way to stardom.hairband

Bow began to build up her reputation with smaller films. Her role in the 1925 film The Plastic Age saw her dubbed ‘the hottest jazz baby in films’ and this was closely followed by Mantrap in 1926. However, it was It that thrust her into the spotlight.

Based on a novel by Elinor Glyn, it tells the story of a shop employee, Betty Lou Spence. The film was shot heavily from Betty Lou’s perspective and showed her pursuing a man, her handsome boss, who would have been traditionally out of her social league.

In her book, Glyn defined ‘It’ as ‘that strange magnetism which attracts both sexes…entirely unself-conscious…full of self-confidence…indifferent to the effect…she is producing and uninfluenced by others’. With this quality how could Betty Lou (and Bow) fail?

Post World War I, attitudes to women and to sex were changing and, buzzing with vitality, Clara Bow was representative of a new young generation in both her looks and her moral code. Significantly, one of the scenes in the film shows her shortening her dress and illustrates just how closely new clothing styles and hem lengths were linked to these shifting attitudes.

clara-eyesCinema was hugely influential in determining the looks of this period. Because films were all silent, facial expression, especially using the eyes, was crucial to convey emotion. Bow’s huge, wide eyes were crucial to her appeal. Adolph Zukor, then head of Paramount Pictures, said of Bow: ‘She danced even when her feet weren’t moving. Some part of her was always in motion, if only her great, rolling eyes’. No surprise then that these were emphasized using make-up.

Her eyebrows were tweezed and pencilled to a thin, highly arched line and her wide eyes were layered with heavy kohl, reinforcing her reputation for being sexy and rebellious.

In the same way, short hair, though seen as a symbol for female liberation, also could help frame the face for close-ups. Though not visible in the black-and-white colour palette of the films, Bow’s short mop of hair was a distinctive red . Fans would have been able to see this on one of the many movie magazines and posters.

Sales of henna apparently tripled when it was reported it was the secret of her trademark colour. To further frame the face, cloche hats and large scarf headbands were very popular. Fans could order their very own Clara Bow cloche hat through mail order catalogues.

In the look, lips were much less emphasized than the eyes with lipstick often placed inside the natural lip line to minimise their thickness. Bow’s fame also coincided with the boom in the commercial cosmetics industry and rising cosmetics star Max Factor created a heart shaped pout, an entirely artificial look which is style known as the ‘Clara Bow’. Cinema was hugely influential in bringinclara-redg the look of a few to the masses.

Stills from Bow films offer continuing style inspiration and are a role call of the most typical and glamorous fashions of the era.

Read on!








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8 Responses

  1. Hala Pickford

    It irks me to no end that they said she was done in by talkies! Clara was actually a ‘transitioner’ much like Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo. Yeah she had an accent, but it didn’t do her in. She made some of her most popular films in the early talkie years. And she even sang (successfully)! Idiots such as Kenneth Anger need a good slap (I still love how he dubbed Marie Prevost, a Canadian, as done in by talkies because of her ‘Bronx honk’…so stupid.)

  2. Frances Ambler

    Thanks for all your nice comments on my piece. It was a joy to research, though I’m kicking myself about getting her year of death wrong! She truly is a style icon: shortly after writing this I cut off my hair and dyed it red. Sadly don’t look anything like the lovely Miss Bow though!

  3. Elizabeth M

    My grandmother (born 1907) simply loved Clara Bow. I remember her talking about her a lot. Thanks for reminding me of her–both of them!

  4. devdev

    hey! i am doing a research project and i chose to do it on her. this has helped me sooo much! i really appreciate it. great job! and personally i think clara is amazing to have fought through the hardships she faced as a child and to have managed to climb so high in society. she is a great icon, she is beautiful and she has taught women and men to express themselves! (: thanks again!