Monday, Apr. 02, 2012

Jean Harlow

Before Marilyn, there was Harlow. Famous for languid, satin evening gowns that she wore with a knowing wink and not much else, her nickname was the Laughing Vamp. She became a star in precode Hollywood, which lasted until 1934, when studios began enforcing the morally restrictive Motion Picture Code. Those precode films were far more suggestive than movies would be for decades afterward. Strong leading ladies like Harlow appeared in scanty clothing, playing out dramas rife with sexual innuendo. In that world, Harlow was queen. With her bow-shaped lips, famous platinum bob and penchant for going braless in slinky, bias-cut dresses, she was everything the everyday woman wasn't. Nonetheless, young women across the U.S. tried to copy her look. This was not an easy feat. Harlow stripped her hair weekly with a searing mix of peroxide, ammonia, bleach and soap flakes. The procedure was so damaging that she often had to wear wigs. And while she made blond hair famous, she was also known for a 1932 comedy called Red-Headed Woman in which her character unapologetically seduces every man, married or not, in her path. Here was a woman who got to be funny, powerful and sexy all in the same film. Imagine that. A few years later, film censors cracked down, a war began in Europe, and fashions got somber. Harlow didn't make it to the 1940s, however. She died of renal failure at 26 — though rumors still circulate that the real cause of death was all that noxious hair bleach.