Ever wonder where baby rumba panties came from? Or why every third film in the early 1940’s felt like it was set in South America? Blame them both on FDR. In one of his many ambitious do-gooder efforts, FDR decided it was important that Americans learn to respect and appreciate the people and culture of Latin America (including Mexico and South America), since our government was trying to get some nice political hands-across-the-border action. FDR was a smart customer–he knew that most Americans got their ideas about “foreigners” from the movies. So, why not use the movies to counter some lingering misconceptions about Latinos?
Up until this point, Hollywood had relied on Hispanics for clowns and banditos (see Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.’s Zorro, et al). Mexicans were either enjoying their siesta under sombreros, or carousing in cantinas, egging on wild-haired girls who were swooping and stomping about for their dubious pleasure.
South Americans were either backwards, mountain-perched peasants, sleek-haired Casanovas and/or shifty conmen (usually imported) or satin-wrapped, tango-ing temptresses.
Which is great if you want your countrymen to believe all Hispanics are lazy, stupid, slutty, good-for-nothings–but not so good if you’re trying to help North Americans to consider them viable “neighbors.” What to do?
Well, FDR, being FDR, didn’t wait long before he drafted Hollywood to help rectify the sketchy reputation they’d help to create. His policy called on the major studios, including Disney, to create an explosion of positive propaganda that showed all the wonderful things about south-of-the-border culture.
Films like The Gang’s All Here, Down Argentine Way, Holiday in Mexico, and Disney’s Saludos Amigos sung (literally) the praises of South American natives as contemporary and intelligent and their cities as modern, clean, and up-to-date, bustling with commerce and modern inhabitants.
Cruise lines refurbished retired ships, re-christening them with names like S.S. Brazil, and presented South America as THE tourist destination.
Cultural ambassadors like Carmen Miranda and Xaviar Cugat helped FDR’s “Good Neighbor Policy” gain traction by being their charming selves and using the irresistible music of their heritage to engage and captivate American fans.
But it was more than just music lovers and tourists falling under the spell of the hypnotic, hip-swung rumbas and ruffles.
Once Carmen wiggled her way onto the screen and the airwaves, fashion designers went daffy for all things Carmen. (If you’d like to know more about Carmen Miranda’s tragic and beautiful backstory, you might enjoy my tribute to this diminutive dynamo here.)
Yes, that’s an outsized Carmen mannequin (and her lively inspiration) promoting Carmenesque fashions in a department store. Incredible, right?
Then, American women were off to the pampas–suddenly, everyone wanted to be Carmen! Or at least, a Latina lovely.
Turbans and other fruit-centric hats, off-the-shoulder tops, ruffled, tiered skirts, and serape stripes were soon THE trends of the season.
Let’s take a fond look back at the era’s major Mexicali and South American motifs and trends–how Hollywood embraced them (for years!) and how the senorita on the street in Des Moines or Dallas surrendered to the lure of South-of-the-Border style.
Let’s say you’re a nice girl from the sticks and you’ve just seen a Carmen Miranda movie and your parents would kill you if you flounced off to school in a cropped top or a fruit-cocktail hat. Not to worry!
Even YOUR parents would approve of a garment that was de rigeur in every 1940’s schoolgirl’s closet–and it could be worn in a come-hither fashion or a classroom-appropriate fashion–the Mexican peasant blouse.
Hollywood had been churning out images of every possible leading lady and starlet in these lace-trimmed numbers for years. Some stars looked downright virginal and sweet in them–girls like Jennifer Jones, Shirley Temple, Jane Powell, and the luminous Teresa Wright.
Other screen beauties, like Jane Russell, Yvonne DeCarlo, Loretta Young (!), Hedy Lamarr, and Linda Darnell managed to make these sweet little blouses look slightly more dangerous. And sometimes, it was the SAME star managing to do both!
(You’ll note the artist’s tiered skirt and peasant-style blouse above. See what I mean about it being an almighty fad?)
Along with the ubiquitous peasant blouse, Mexican peon fashion inspired the modern miss to don serape stripes in everything from playwear to skirts and sashes.
Ava’s got the memo…and note her ruffly skirt and tiered petticoat, too.
Side note: I wish I didn’t have to do this to you, but here goes. Try and get THIS little number out of your head. But I just had to add that you’ll always be happy in a snappy serape.
If you look VERY closely at the girl on the far left, you can see a border design of Spanish dancers. And of course, where big sister goes, so follows little Sally!
Bolero jackets were transplanted from toreadors to teenagers, lending a Spanish accent to youthful daytime suits and more grown-up evening wear.
These cropped toppers graced the screen on men like Ricardo Montalban..(okay, let’s face it. There weren’t many men “like” Ricardo. Still aren’t, for my money.)
…and, weirdly and wonderfully, on Esther Williams in Fiesta.
The elaborate, dazzling embroideries of the matador’s suit of lights flashed on trendsetters in swanky nightclubs, gender-swapped from Ricardo and inspired by how these illuminated garments flattered his swarthy good looks.
This stunning bejeweled 1940 Schiaparelli matador bolero is a perfect example–and could be worn today on the red carpet without raising an eyebrow!
(Years later, the impossibly gorgeous Ava Gardner revisited many of these Spanish influences in The Barefoot Contessa, wearing them to perfection.)
More primitive embroideries were popular with the youthful set, too. The brightly colored felt/wool loose jacket with Mexican motif embroidery was such a hit, versions for every age female were offered by sewing pattern companies.
Here’s a miraculously preserved vintage jacket from the era–the eye-popping color and charming appliques are still as vivid as ever.
Other styles of Mexican embroidery transformed simple peasant blouses into incredible works of art. Of course, it helps if you’re as stunning as Linda Darnell or Yvonne DeCarlo.
But don’t worry! You, too, can recreate these glorious garments at home!
The tiered, ruffled skirt made several appearances during this Mexicali-mad era, for daywear and evening attire– once audiences got an eyeful of the likes of Cyd Charisse being swept up by a bare-chested Ricardo in one or Linda Darnell being romanced by Tyrone..well, what’s a girl to do?
Bubbly, blonde Betty Grable wore a honey of one as she lunged around the dance floor yodeling about going down Argentina way, doing her best 2nd string Carmen Miranda shake.
A slightly less dramatic version, suitable for gossiping in the school cafeteria or going to the sock hop, is here.
We can know something was a popular look when we find it in home sewing patterns. So many ruffly Mexican peasant blouses and tiered skirts show up, it’s obvious the nation’s teens and twenty-somethings (and beyond) were clamoring for them!
It’s just not a Latina wardrobe without a healthy frosting of intricate, hand-worked lace.
While innocent white eyelet and frothy lace off-the-shoulder numbers ruled the day for young and old senoritas…
…the night belonged to the evocative mystery of black lace.
With its faint waft of incense and submissive femininity, black
lace eveningwear took off when American audiences were treated to black mantillas that cascaded from elaborately carved, heirloom-quality tortoise and celluloid hair combs.
Along with glamorous Rita Hayworth’s ubiquitous pin-up nightie that featured a black lace bodice, dozens of other Hollywood goddesses were decked out in this bewitching fabric.
One of the best examples is my favorite Hollywood muse, lovely Loretta Young. Her peek-a-boo peignoir and negligee are spun entirely of black lace–and in this close-up, the Latin influence is undeniable.
Along with mantilla material being used in garments, it was a popular choice for milady’s fan. Every woman instantly became a tango dancer when she wielded a lacy fan.
Even a simple shawl of black lace–worn with the right attitude– conveyed a worldly aura of sophisticated seduction.
The lady with the tutti-frutti head
I’ve always wondered why on earth any woman would wear a turban.
But while you and I might think a turbaned gal looks like a cross between a brain injury patient and a swami, this bewildering swaddling was a HUGE fad in the 30s and 40s.
Aside from the Carmen factor, turbans were downright handy for covering growing out perms, curlers, and roots. Not to mention keeping one’s hair out of the way of the machinery when you’re welding for the war effort.
Other giddy toppers inspired by Latin fashion were sombreros for just hanging out or beaching it.
And, when you weren’t wearing a fruit salad or a small umbrella on your head, some form of the stiff brimmed gaucho hat (popularized by Zorro and others) was adopted to set off the trendy abbreviated jackets.
(Speaking of matador hats, I know this image of Kay Francis is waaaay pre-Good Neighbor days, but isn’t she seriously fabulous in this get-up?)
And when the war effort meant surrendering one’s bonnet for the boys, a flower behind the ear or in the hair was the south-of-the-border way to enchant.
By now, you’re probably predicting that I’m going to point out the non-equity bystander next to Jennifer Jones in the peasant blouse, right?
(If you can’t get enough of ladies headgear in the days when a woman rarely left home without her hat, here’s the archived post for you.)
Like a Good Neighbor…
While the Good Neighbor Policy may have gone the way of FDR’s alphabet soup programs, the sun-baked sizzle of Latina style never loses its appeal.
And if my writing about this hasn’t made you want to run out and snag a peasant blouse…well, I might as well put down my pen!
This post is happily part of the Hollywood’s Hispanic Heritage Blogathon, co-hosted by Citizen Screen (Once Upon a Screen) and yours truly.
PS–Special treat: Here’s how bananas helped the Good Neighbor policy. Yes, you read that right.