For my World Cinema class, i'm currently writing a paper on the use of close ups to paradoxically humanize yet glamorize Marlene Dietrich in "Shanghai Express," and how these uses of the close up both support and subvert the plot's and director's competing agendas. It's great to write about something that truly interests me and that allows me to look at gorgeous clothes. Dietrich is one of cinema's greatest star presences, and if you haven't seen her in a film, you're really missing out. In her six collaborations with director/Svengali Josef von Sternberg, Sternberg immortalizes Dietrich as the ultimate icon of glamour, and her wardrobe in "Shanghai Express" helps create this image. Dietrich plays famed courtesan Shanghai Lily, and
From her entrance, Dietrich is made visually distinct by her fantastical costume. In a sea of gray and black, she wears black feathers that, along with a veil, partially cover her face:
Veils and curtains play an important role in the film, which is torn between enshrining Dietrich the actress as a goddess and domesticating Lily, her character. Veils and curtains keep her unknowable and inscrutable, a visual motif that changes as Lily becomes increasingly dependent on a man's love
Otherworldly and elusive, Dietrich's wardrobe is apropriately luxurious, replete with diamonds and fur. Fur was traditionally worn as a marker of power, and when Lily wears it she is in command of her emotions.
I'd never advocate for wearing fur, but that's why faux fur exists. This faux fur vest/black lace combo captures the film's aesthetic:
Dietrich's exaggerated,almost surreal glamour makes her a true cinematic legend.