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Women's Fashion and Dress in Czech Cinema in the 1920s and 30s

Women’s Fashion and Dress in Czech Cinema in the 1920s and 1930s

Markéta Uhlířová

As in other major film centres in Europe and North America, the Czechoslovakian fashion and film industries developed close ties during the inter-war period. Both fashion and film were perceived as quintessentially modern and international forms, and as they grew rapidly in importance, they became intertwined in many and complex ways. Coinciding with a growing investment in commercial advertising strategies, best exemplified by the Baťas’ American-style management of their shoe company in Zlín, the fashion and cosmetics industries recognized film as an ideal form of promotion, one that is far-reaching, popular and seductive.

By the 1920s, film had established itself as a mass medium reaching across all social classes. With the growing influence of Hollywood in Europe after the First World War, film became exploited for the promotion and marketing of commodities, making use of both direct, “hard-sell” and indirect, “soft-sell” tactics. In turn, the film industry after the War actively embraced fashion as a necessary appendage to the star system and an ideal vehicle to attract and sustain female audiences through the display of latest fashion novelties and fashionable lifestyles. From the early 1920s, Czech cinema increasingly thematised and referenced fashion, picturing the dressmaker’s salon, the department store, and the figures of dressmakers, seamstresses and mannequins, as well as shoppers and fashionable men and women-about-town. In addition to its function of displaying, such imagery also played key roles in narratives which, at a period of major social and cultural changes, expressed deep-rooted concerns with issues such as internationalism, materialism, consumption, morality, the gulf between the rural and the urban, and between traditionalism and modernity.

In the same period, American film was well established in Czechoslovakia, with relatively cheap Hollywood imports ending the domination of European film and soon claiming the majority of film exhibition in the country’s growing cinema network. The 1920s were a time of professionalisation and institutionalization of the Czech film industry. For a small country with a population of ca. 13 million (of which only a half was Czech), film production was quite substantial, though unsteady, with as many as 39 films made in 1921, dropping to 10 in 1924, going up to 37 in 1929, and down again to as few as  9 in 1930. The fluctuations in the numbers of films produced gradually leveled during the 1930s. Czech production was solidified by the opening of the smart Barrandov complex in 1933 which offered sizeable, professionally equipped studios with an ambition to attract an international clientele; and Czech film in the 1930s became increasingly popular among home audiences, enjoying a period of relative prosperity with 30 films per year on average.

In search of its own identity, much of Czech fiction film production in the inter-war period was an exercise in assimilating reliable foreign genres into the local context, often drawing on literature and theatre plays already popular at home. Among the most lucrative genres in the silent era were slapstick, romantic and situation comedy, historical drama and melodrama, to which the 1930s added “social comedy” and the musical. Despite the potential the silent era held for international distribution, very few Czech films of this period broke into, and registered any success in the international market. Nevertheless, the 1920s and 1930s were characterized by numerous international migrations and partnerships. A number of Czech actors and filmmakers commonly worked in other European cities – namely Berlin and Vienna – and several films were co-produced in different language versions in collaboration with other European studios and cast.

Hollywood, Prague, and the Star System

With the post-First-World-War enthusiastic acceptance of Hollywood amongst Czech filmmakers and press came a proliferation of magazine articles and translated books that discussed Hollywood studio system and stars. The film community adopted a repertoire of American vocabulary (star, girl, diva) and “Hollywood” became the title of one of Prague cinemas as well as the supplement to Film magazine.

Hollywood film put a new emphasis on the association between film and the consumption of commodities, stimulating audience’s appetite for novelties in interior design, consumer goods and, above all, fashion. Films began to closely examine the dressed body, with the camera often closing in on details of hair, make up, clothing and accessories. This shift towards screen consumption, which happened in Czech cinema in the early 1920s, coincided with the growth of the local star system, embraced as a commercial necessity around which the industry would revolve. In the early days of the construction of the star mythology, actors and directors were keenly validated through comparisons with their American counterparts (mimicking the successful partnership of Pickford, Fairbanks, Griffith and Chaplin, the Czechs even formed their own “great four of Czech film” consisting of the actress Anny Ondra, director Karel Lamač, cinematographer Otto Heller and scriptwriter Václav Wassermann).

Throughout the inter-war era, actresses were often recruited for film on the basis of their alleged beauty – the popular actress Bronislava Livia was introduced to film by the film company A-B after winning a beauty contest held in the early 1920s and the Croatian actress Štefica Vidačić won a “Miss Europe” in 1927 before being cast in a supporting role in Karel Lamač’s Dcery Eviny (Daughters of Eve, 1928). The most successful beauty-turned-actress was Adina Mandlová who came to film while a mannequin at Prague’s fashion salon Oldřich Rosenbaum. Mandlová’s first screen appearance was for a newsreel item in Aktuality (1931) as a mannequin modeling Rosenbaum’s and Marthe Loeff’s collections at Chuchle races. She was then cast as a mannequin in the 1932 film Děvčátko, neříkej ne! (Don’t Say No, Girl, Josef Medeotti-Boháč, 1932).

The first Czech film actress labelled a “star” was probably Suzanne Marwille (Marta Schulbauerová), a versatile performer cast in both girly and seductress roles. She was soon overshadowed by Ondra who built the strongest star profile during the silent era, greatly helped by her close association with Lamač as well as her international success in Germany and Great Britain. As a fashion icon, the perky blonde Ondra became legendary in the press for her trademark slim legs – an association artfully exploited in many of her films, most notably in Jan Kolár and Přemysl Pražský’s Dáma s malou nožkou (The Lady with the Small Foot, 1920). Ondra herself fuelled this notoriety by posing for studio photographs in shorts and short skirts. The stars with the greatest impact on fashion during the 1930s were Lída Baarová and Adina Mandlová. Baarová’s distinct type of classy yet romantic femininity had great appeal not only at home but also in Germany. The actress, critically acclaimed as a “character” type, signed a contract with Berlin’s UFA in 1934, with her first role in Gerhard Lamprecht’s Bakarole (1935) as “the most beautiful woman in Venice.” Mandlová, another Czech siren with an international sex-appeal, was during the 1930s typically cast as a haughty and fastidious type who frequents mondaine society and makes dramatic impact posing in effective toilettes, sometimes provided by Rosenbaum, as in Martin Frič’s Ať žije nebožtík (Long Live with Dearly Departed, 1935) or Miroslav Cikán’s Komediantská princezna (The Comedian's Princess, 1936). She was able to make her modeling an advantage, and even before she was recognized as a serious actress she was much sought after as a clotheshorse, thanks to her thin boyish figure and impeccable posture.

Czech cinema produced its own versions of Hollywood’s female types, offering newly cosmopolitan images of femininity and glamour: the worldly coquette and the predatory seductress - Bronislava Livia in Krásná vyzvědačka (The Beautiful Spy, Miroslav Krňanský, 1928), Charlotte Susa in Erotikon (Gustav Machatý, 1929), Eva Byronová in Kreutzerova sonáta (The Kreutzer Sonata, Machatý, 1927), Olga Augustová in Tisíc za jednu noc (A Thousand for One Night, Jaroslav Svára, 1932), Mandlová in Komediantská princezna -, the feisty flapper - Livia in Únos bankéře Fuxe (The Kidnapping of Banker Fux, Karl Anton, 1923), Ondra in Dcery Eviny, Marie Grossová in Tisíc za jednu noc -, and its infantile variant, the so-called žabec (girl) with a distinct comedic and fun-loving streak - Marwille in Irčin románek (Irča’s Romance, Václav Binovec, 1921), Věra Ferbasová in Uličnice (Minx, Vladimír Slavínský, 1936), Nataša Gollová in Eva tropí hlouposti (Eva Fools Around, Martin Frič, 1939) -, the sophisticated woman - Lída Baarová in Švadlenka (The Seamstress, Frič, 1936) and the stylish matron - Růžena Šlemrová in Velbloud uchem jehly (Camel Through the Eye of a Needle, Hugo Haas and Otakar Vávra, 1936).

Fashion in Films

As a number of Czech films swayed towards the notion of the cinema screen as a shop window, the film viewer began to be systematically educated in modern lifestyles, tastes and fashions. Frequent scenes centered around shopping and the acquisition of new clothing showed women who modernized themselves through their embrace of fashionability - Do panského stavu (Rise into Gentility, Karl Anton, 1925), Když valčík zní (When the Waltz Strikes, Oldřich Kmínek, 1939), Pražské švadlenky (Prague Seamstresses, Přemysl Pražský, 1929), Velbloud uchem jehly. Such narratives at the same time betrayed unease with the cosmopolitan image of the “new woman,” showing her as artificial, calculating and immoral. Films began to employ the marketing device of exclusive tie-ins between fashion salons and films, and even direct product placement, e.g., Bon Ton and Lavecká salons in Lásky Kačenky Strnadové (The Loves of Kačenka Strnadová, Svatopluk Innemann, 1926) and various companies in Děvčátko, neříkej ne!. A mixture of European and American influences, disseminated through Hollywood cinema, were seen in newly ambitious set designs and decorations, in actors’ and actresses’ changing wardrobes, hairstyles, silhouettes and mannerisms. Contemporary dress, used as film costume, became a subject of great interest and served as a fashion guideline for dressmakers. Film made explicit the link between the possession of fashionable clothing and social status. The theme of social mobility through a character’s self-transformation into an elegant urban individual became a major concern, as in Lásky Kačenky Strnadové, Do panského stavu, Když valčík zní and Kristián (Martin Frič, 1939).

The array of films produced at this time which focused on fashion, or contained major fashion sequences, testifies to the popularity of fashion as a theme among women. Films such as Pražské švadlenky, Děvčátko, neříkej ne!, Švadlenka, Anita v ráji (Anita in Paradise, Jan Sviták, 1934) and Slečna matinka (Miss Mother, Slavínský, 1938) were set in the fashion salon or fashion store, although their rendering was distinctly more modest than that of their counterparts in American, French or German films. Švadlenka parodied the pomposity of haute couture with the ostentatious figure of “Francois Lorrain” (Hugo Haas), a pretend-Parisian couturier. Lorrain, surrounded by the entourage of five identically dressed mannequins, was a parody of the grand male couturiers before and after the First World War. Lorrain’s character may have directly referred to Paul Poiret who was legendary in Prague not least because he had staged fashion shows here during the 1920s, and appeared, together with his six mannequins, as the “king of fashion”, “Leon” Poiret, in Karl Anton’s 1923 detective comedy Únos bankéře Fuxe.

The most manifestly fashion-oriented of these films is Děvčátko, neříkej ne! which, unusually, credits Mimi Rathová as the “fashion adviser.” Set in the “Femina” fashion salon, the simple plot follows a group of gold-digging mannequins in search for a rich husband. The film’s centerpiece is a substantial fashion show sequence of ca. 8 minutes which showcases a range of fashion merchandise through blatant product placement. The lavish show features collections by renowned Czech companies such as Maximilian Weiner, Krása, Reiner and Semira Praha-Chicago.


Due to its modest scale and unsteady investment, the Czech film industry couldn’t match the efficiency and competitiveness of Hollywood’s big studios, nor their complex advertising and promotional machineries. But it did soon have a film fan culture, thanks to numerous illustrated film and society magazines. These became an important platform which cross-promoted in a very explicit way the universes of fashion and film. Presenting the two as a seamless unit, magazines actively propelled readers’ desire for the emulation of the look, style and dress of the film elite. These included film-specific titles such as Film and its supplement Hollywood, Filmový svět – later to become Český filmový svět (Czech Film World), Filmová Hvězda (Film Star), Filmový přehled (Film Overview) and Kinorevue which would typically combine film stills and studio photography of Czech and international actresses with texts covering a wide range of subjects on film, the latest trends in fashion, cosmetics and beauty, star profiles and gossip. All this was interspersed with advertising of cosmetic brands, beauty salons, fashion labels and clothes shops. Film fashions and styles were also discussed in society, popular interest and entertainment periodicals such as Elegantní Praha (Elegant Prague), Pražský ilustrovaný zpravodaj (Prague Illustrated News), Pestrý týden (Lively Week), Letem světem (At a glance), Ahoj (Hello), Salon and Svět ve filmu a obrazech (The World in Film and Pictures), and occasionally in fashion and women’s magazines such as Eva and Hvězda (Star).

Deemed as the new fashionable figure more appropriate for modern times, the film actress joined the theatre actress in replacing the society lady as a style role model. Her elevation to the position of a fashion leader took place during the second half of the 1920s, and had its heyday in the 1930s. Popular stars such as Marwille, Livia, Ondra, Baarová, Mandlová, Hana Vítová and Truda Grosslichtová provided the new models of up-to-date fashionability in dress and hairstyles, as well as silhouette, posture, mannerisms and social protocol, and were called upon to endorse merchandise ranging from underwear to cosmetics.

Women, who formed a substantial portion of the magazine readership, were avid consumers of articles and photographs promoting star styles and sex appeal. Titles such as  “Who Dresses Hollywood Stars” or “Film Stars and Fashion” (both Kinorevue, 1934) provided detailed information on popular actresses’ styles and dressmakers, often pitched as revealing actresses’ private beauty and glamour secrets. The magazines circulated photographs of Czech actresses supplied by several Prague’s photo-studios specialising in glamour photography, most significantly Ströminger, Langhans, and Balzar.

Popular magazines as well as “serious” newspaper columns carefully cultivated the notion of the film actress as an image, with commentators typically fusing performance with appearance: on-screen, as well as off-screen. A star’s successful career was expected to depend on following a disciplined regime, with great emphasis on appearance. Actresses were thus under substantial pressure to sustain their star status through careful grooming, diets, exercise, attention to posture and the ability to secure impressive wardrobes. Through regular contact with dressmakers and through the need to master the art of dressing, they were turned into fashion consumers par excellence, ones which the industry and fan magazines naturally honed into fashion icons.

Commercial Tie-ins

Films of the silent era favoured glamorous flapper dresses and capes which created dramatic light effects through the use of sequins, metallic lace, embroidery and beading, outfitted with oversized accessories such as feather headpieces, metallic scarves and shoes, fur boas and coats. The late 1920s marked a gradual departure from this spectacular approach (such outfits would now be more appropriate as eveningwear), introducing instead a more wearable wardrobe. Gustav Machatý for example pushed for a more modernist look in his Erotikon and Extase (Ecstasy, 1933), showing his heroines Ita Rina and Hedy Kiesler (Lamarr) in simple white dresses. 1930s films such as Anita v ráji and Švadlenka show a more Czech, wholesome type of an active and independent working girl, dressed in elegant yet practical office clothes while women in Naše XI (Our Eleven, Binovec, 1930) and Tři muži ve sněhu (Three Men in the Snow, Slavínský, 1936) appear in fashionable sports clothes. 

The profession of the costume designer in Czechoslovakia was only emerging during the 1930s, essentially remaining anonymous throughout the inter-war era. This was with a marked delay from Hollywood’s “wardrobe masters” and costume designers of the 1920s. For contemporary productions, Czech film and theatre actresses were expected to source their own costumes and on the whole received little assistance with wardrobe preparations. In the absence of a costume designer, or an in-house wardrobe designer, actresses had to become extremely resourceful. They sought assistance from their family seamstresses or dressmakers, the so-called “modistka(s),” and as their budgets rose with their star status, they could opt for one of the handful of Prague top-class salons such as Hana Podolská (Maison Podolská), Arnoštka Roubíčková (Salon Roubíček) and Rosenbaum, or purchase clothes while traveling abroad. Although uncredited as such, Salon Roubíček for example provided dresses for Poiret’s mannequins in Únos bankéře Fuxe while Poiret himself probably only presented his dresses in the now lost fashion show sequence. The most popular choice among Czech actresses was arguably Rosenbaum’s rival Hana Podolská, the most significant Czechoslovak couturière. In addition to Mandlová and Baarová, Podolská’s salon counted among her regular clients numerous other theatre and film stars such as Anna Sedláčková, Olga Scheinpflugová and Hana Vítová. Podolská provided costumes for several films including Maskovaná milenka (The Masked Lover, Otakar Vávra, 1940) and Kristián. Another Podolská collaboration, Katakomby (The Catacombs, Martin Frič, 1940) features a scene in which Mandlová’s character tries on dresses delivered from a fashion salon while a shot rests on a box lid inscribed with “Modelový dům Hanna (sic) Podolská.”

In addition to assistance from private seamstresses and established fashion salons, it was not uncommon for actresses to have the skills to make, alter or mend their costumes and accessories. The boundary between an actress’s “civilian” wardrobe and film costume was often blurred. Ambitious actresses understood that their on- and off-screen glamour played equal importance in building a successful star image, and acquired their dresses and accessories with the prospect that they may double as film costume – and vice versa. The less memorable items could even be worn more then once, especially when slightly altered, as did Truda Grosslichtova in Žena, která ví, co chce (Woman Who Knows What She Wants, Václav Binovec, 1934) and the Baťa commercial Kolem dokola (Round and Around, Elmar Klos, 1937).

Fashion in Czech Commercials

In addition to fiction films featuring contemporary fashions, Czech cinema produced a considerable number of fashion commercials. The most significant of these is a sizeable group of shorts commissioned during the 1920s and ’30s by the Baťas’ booming shoe empire in the city of Zlín. Masterminded respectively by Tomáš and his step-brother Jan Antonín Baťa, the company boasted a sophisticated media network for promotion and social propaganda. Film commercials were first commissioned by Tomáš in 1927 and made by various filmmakers in Prague’s film studios. In 1936 Jan Antonín concentrated production in-house by opening Filmové ateliéry Baťa (FAB) as part of the Zlín factory complex. He appointed his own film production team including the emerging director Elmar Klos, the avant-garde photographer and cinematographer Alexander Hackenschmied, and the producer Ladislav Kolda.

The company commissioned around 170 short films in total. As well as commercials these included documentary films promoting the Baťa production style and philosophy to a mass audience (e.g. Střevíček/A Lady’s Shoe, Klos, 1935) and training/instructional films for factory workers which also had a secondary promotional function. The Baťa commercials typically combined shots of shoe displays with narrative sequences that sometimes featured well-known actors. These were often shot on location, appropriating a variety of genre conventions such as detective (Hledá se paní Polášková /Seeking Mrs. Polášková, Klos, 1935), comedy (Podzimní rozmary/ Autumnal Caprices, Jiří Musil, 1936, and Kolem dokola), and melodrama (Posel míru/ Messenger of Peace, 1934, directed by Frič and starring Mandlová), or used borrowed footage (Jednou v kině/ Once Upon a Time in Cinema, Jan Kutil, 1936). As was usual at the time, the commercials placed great emphasis on the products themselves – the shoes and stockings –, showing them off to the camera in inventive ways which included geometrical compositions, unusual angles (influenced by the new photography) and various forms of movement and change achieved mechanically or through clever lighting. The commercials emphasized typical Baťa values such as good standard of product at a low price, social responsibility and above all an enthusiasm for the modern production and business principles of mass manufacture, standardization and rationalization.

Further references:

Benkovská, Zuzana. “Socio-cultural Contexts of Fashion Styling in the Period of 1st Czechoslovak Republic,” Slovak Ethnology 01/2006.
Čáslavský, Karel; Merhaut, Václav a Zahradníček, Ondřej, Hvězdy českého filmu, Brno: Fragment, 2002.
Jiras, Pavel, Barrandov I: Vzestup k výšinám, Praha: Gallery, 2003.
Jiras, Pavel, Barrandov II: Zlatý věk, Praha: Gallery, 2005.
Jiras, Pavel, Barrandov III: Oáza uprostřed běsů, Praha: Pavel Dobrovský /BETA, 2006.
Vávra, Otakar. Podivný život režiséra: Obrazy vzpomínek, Praha: Prostor, 1996.
Szczepanik, Petr. “Die Avantgarde im Dienste von Handel und Industrie. Die Baťa-Werke und die praktische Nutzung des tschechischen filmischen Modernismus der 30er Jahre”, Das magische Auge. Zur tschechischen Filmavantgarde der 20er – 40er Jahre. Ed. Thomas Meyer, Schüren, 2006. Shortened in: “Filmová avantgarda ve službách průmyslu a obchodu,” Literární noviny, 11/6/2006: DR.
Uchalová, Eva. Česká móda 1918-1938, Praha: Olympia, 1996.

This text will be published in The Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion, edited by Joanne B. Eicher (Oxford:  Berg, forthcoming).  Copyright Berg Fashion Library Ltd.  This excerpt is reprinted by permission of the Publisher.