Top 5: Jean Harlow’s Negligees

It seems fitting that my first post be about Jean Harlow’s lingerie.

For my first week of the fourth grade, I was told I had to prepare a book report in the form of a mobile, creating little pictures to hang from a clothes hanger and some twine, on which the back of the pictures would contain key facts about the book I read. What did I choose? Those Glorious Glamour Years, or “The Fashion Bible” as my mother and I called it.

I’ll never forget my sad little 9-year-old attempt at drawing Jean Harlow’s famous negligee she wore in Dinner at Eight for the project. But almost 20 years later, I still dream about it at a maybe disturbing frequency. And thus, my first post: Jean Harlow’s top 5 negligees.

5. The First Negligee in Dinner At Eight – 1933
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Perhaps one of my favorite movies of all time, Dinner at Eight was an MGM star-studded spectacle. Starring alongside Harlow in an ensemble cast that included both Barrymore brothers, Wally Beery, Marie Dressler, Billie Burke, and more, it was Jean who makes the picture. In 1933, she was still just getting comfortable in her role as comedienne after some slightly cringe-worthy attempts at playing more dramatic roles. And here she really shines as the manipulative, fast-talking and downright insulting Kitty Packard, wife of equally deplorable Dan, played by Beery.

Directed by George Cukor, who even by 1933 had a reputation for directing glamorous women and making them even more glamourous, and with legend Adrian as the designer, this film was equally a vehicle for Harlow’s comedic skills as well as an opportunity to show how over-the-top glamorous she really could be. This negligee demonstrates both those attributes, with its elegant silk satin, body-hugging silhouette combined with its exaggerated, almost comical ruffles.

4. Red Dust – 1932
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In Red Dust, Harlow plays a prostitute on a rubber plant in East Indochina during monsoon season. Her second film co-starring Clark Gable, it’s the chemistry between the two actors that makes this film so enjoyable to watch, and clearly audiences agreed as the two starred in a total of six films together.

In this marabou-trimmed, slightly see-through negligee, Harlow teases Gable seductively. Despite the film’s heavily adult themes and dialog, Red Dust managed to get by the Hay’s office.

3. Libeled Lady – 1936
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By 1936 the Hays code had passed, meaning films had to adhere to a strict code of “morality.” This in large part resulted in a boom in “screwball” comedies, where comedies became much sillier and more physical as a way to make up for the inability to write anything too “adult.” And so gone were the days of Harlow’s openly sexy banter and see-through costumes. Lucky for her, though, her gift for comedy more than kept audiences satisfied.

In the screwball comedy Libeled Lady, Harlow plays Gladys Benton, whose passion for outrageous clothes is only matched by her desire to at last marry her fiancee, Warren Haggerty, played by Spencer Tracy. As the managing editor of a newspaper, Haggerty barely has time to see his fiancee as he does everything he can to prevent a libel case from hurting his career, which leaves us with many scenes of Harlow sulking around in stunning clothes.

Many historians note that it’s around this time that Harlow began showing the signs of serious physical illness that would ultimately lead to her death from kidney failure in 1937 (more on that another time). Serious fans will notice that the usually tiny star looks bloated here, and that her costumes were constructed (again by Adrian) in ways that both conceal and distract from her sudden weight gain.

2. The Iron Man – 1931
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Few would believe that a negligee like this would be allowed to appear in a movie from the 1930’s. Harlow famously refused to wear underwear of any kind, and that’s never been more evident than in this scene from The Iron Man, in which Harlow stars opposite Lew Ayres.

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This fur-trimmed, completely see-through extravaganza provides much drama to the already melodramatic storyline, in which Harlow leaves her prizefighter husband to go to Hollywood.

1. That Negligee in Dinner At Eight – 1933

And here you have the subject of my very first book report. This negligee has achieved legend status over the years with its 22-inch ostrich feather cuffs and endless silver bugle beads. It should be noted that costumes lined entirely in glass bugle beads were all the rage in the early 30’s, and were also incredibly uncomfortable to wear due to the heavy weight the glass gave them. On a similar note, many bugle-beaded gowns from this era are now completely destroyed, as the materials used could not withstand the weight of the beads.

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Just like the first costume from this movie, this negligee is both ridiculously outrageous and seductively sexy, as was the character Harlow was playing. And thanks to both Adrian’s remarkable design and Harlow’s understanding of how to wear a piece this visually dominating, this costume lives forever in Hollywood history.

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