Ann-Margaret 's Pin Up Couture in Tommy - Designs by Shirley Russell
(We welcome you to Bernie's Holiday Camp and some of the most marvellous 1950's reproduction clothing ever created. As usual a huge thanks to America Buddha and their screen caps library of Ken Russell's film of Tommy.)
With so much reproduction vintage and Pin Up clothing everywhere you look these days it is easy for even bona fide fashionistas to forget what any drag queen, retro-burlesque artist or clothes -horse collector can tell you; that less than a decade ago all these great swing dresses, crinolines, corsets and rompers you see today were very hard to find and impossibly expensive. Once upon a beaded cardigan, if you actually found your size it often fell apart or had to be altered. A magazine would show a handmade item and you'd never be able to find it. You'd see a picture of a Shaheen wing bust dress or a Cole of California playsuit, dream of having it recreated custom made and quickly find that dream was only for the very wealthy. Now with the internet and especially ETSY, vintage repro and custom CAN come true for anyone. Of course to stand out in a sea of Heartbreaker and Hell Bunny, the best design inspirations come from films and easily the best reproduction 1950's couture in any film is seen in the childhood sequences in Tommy.
When Shirley Russell, the Edith Head of British costume design, created these masterpieces, it was the mid 1970s and just as she'd flawlessly and exuberantly brought the whimsical late 1920s and 30s to life in The Boyfriend, she hearkened back to the British 1950s with equal aplomb. It is clearly evident from many art, fashion, music and films from the1970s, that both the 1920s and the 1950s saw major artistic revivals. Yet where Grease and America Graffiti are all itchy lettermen sweaters and stiff crinolines, the designs for Tommy are fluid and sensual. And while Cha Cha DiGregorio's prom dress (worn magnificently by the recently departed Annette Charles) is one very hot masterpiece (complete with attached matching panties) the rest of Grease features mostly costumes that scream "1950's costume" with the clothes literally making the characters what they are. Unlike Olivia New John's black spandex, Shirley's costumes for Ann melt into the scenery and are actually wearable, making Ann's character, Nora Walker especially believable. (Remember both films are musicals with Tommy having zero dialogue). Nora dramatically ages in the film and goes from the teenager in love wearing tweedy fell pants to pensive early 1950s British Post war widow to nouveau riche chrome camp goddess to doomed alcoholic cult greeter.
As for Annie Margaret she is, along with Rita Moreno, perhaps the only true "singer, dancer, actress" in Hollywood history. Her talent as an actress in Tommy goes leaps and bounds beyond her fabulous hourglass figure and what most of her peers could have done with the role. Ken, known to have a relatively casual coach of actors on the set, was given by AM a performance that includes camp, sadness, adroitness and a female vibration so powerful that no actress should attempt the role on screen again.
Ann-Margaret's Pin Up Couture Wardrobe From Tommy:
1.Palest Mint Pastel Green Tropical Print Swing Dress with Crossover Bust
2.Sky Blue and White Gingham Halter Romper/Swimsuit with matching scarf & attached skirt
3.Pale Blue Floral Ball Gown with Pink Roses on an Organza Overlay (my personal favourite)
4.FlameRed fold over origami wing bust swing dress with spaghetti straps, Bow belt with long centre sash and white batik style roses on the skirt.
5.Cornflower Blue Atomic Galaxy print swing dress with elbow length sleeves and plunging portrait collar neckline
6.Bright Red Asymmetrically tiered pleat crepe floor length Christmas hostess gown 3/4 sleeves and plunging Statement Neckline
(all five dresses are worn with a crinoline or hoop skirt for volume. DO enlarge pictures to see the details)
1. The Holiday Camp arrival dress is more a look. Nora has a shell hat, crochet gloves, dazzling day jewellery, ivory open toe pumps and a pink handbag (see first photo above). As it was in this era, the working class of both sexes in Britain all dressed smartly. Yet she's also a widow and a single Mum who is still very young, romantic and justifiably naive. The Green Coat has already chatted her up ("I'm in chalet number 11") and she's not even unpacked. The dress has that wonderful wrap bust that flatters anyone with a subtle floral print. This ensemble says "I'm young and fetching but not easy".
2. Ken now has Nora in the ultimate Pin Up Playsuit; wholesome and staying joyously a float with Frank's eager help. This is the most light hearted gingham romper ever! Though seen only in retro-style Pin Up photography these days, you can actually swim in one of these and most are so well made that they still hold up. Nora's is in my preferred playsuit cut as a small waist, wide hips and long legs like I have don't rock a boy cut nearly as well as an attached full skirted micro-mini. During the "Lovely Legs Contest" which Nora wins, Ken ensures that the other bathers (most likely married women) wear boy cut suits while she stands out almost like a water ballerina, the only one in a matching head scarf . As Tommy cheers nearby and Frank Hobbs passive aggressively comes on to her she looks particularly vulnerable.
(I reversed the order of the last two pictures so you can see the suit clearer)
3. We now cut to a glittering ballroom with Nora in a lavish formal evening gown. She is getting caught up in being desired after being alone for so long. Once again Nora is dressed as the picture of class; her hair is swept up and decorated with a pink rose to compliment the floral embroidery on her organza gown and set off her dazzling earrings. The gown is floor length with wide regal shoulders and a flattering mid cut neckline. The look can easily be misread as "Easter Lamb" after she's so easily seduced in her holiday chalet later that night but she clearly told Frank "until I'm one my heart won't rest..." This scene breaks the "Frank Hobbs is evil and Nora Walker is a victim myth" regarding Tommy and establishes that these are two people falling in love. (In this scene you see a haze which looks like cigarette smoke but it was in reality the pier itself they were filming on had caught on fire! The whole crew was evacuated needless to say and Ken included the exterior shots in the final part of the film.
4. And the newly marrying war widow bride wore scarlet with pride! Love how Ken has Nora bouncy and cheerful in flaming red the day after her one day relationship was consummated. No walk of shame here. The dress is a classic take on the Shaheen wing bust but with the points worn delicately up. Between the batik scattered white roses and the long sash (rarely seen in reproductions today), black hose and pumps, the whole ensemble (nearly sans jewellery) has that oriental minimalist feel so popular in the 1950s. Oliver Reed makes the ultimate ageing Ted down to the brothel creeper soles come to life with each swagger. Perhaps picking up psychically that his step father's ensuing folly will ultimately lead to a labyrinth of pain and mis-adventure for his young mind, Tommy loudly announces the plan for his own camp "when I'm big" to his oblivious folks.
5. Now he is deaf, now he is dumb, now he is blind and now they must save face after shocking him into severe autism. Russell has the family inside a tunnel walking in step like troops. What better way to paint the image of the "perfect family" then outfits made from the same whimsical and carefree print?! I see sun eclipses, atomic looking nine pins, stars and all manner of merry futuristic things. I love how Nora is not corseted and pushed up and out. She's natural and feminine. Honestly, those two get a bad rap; they were in love and had no idea that Tommy's father would return. The murder of course was wrong but it was also a crime of passion.
6. With it's extensive ruffled portrait collar, hoop skirt and seemingly endless pleated tiers, this lavish but stiff Christmas gown below signifies that Nora is now fully entrenched in keeping up appearances. This is the diamond accentuated transition piece for now after this scene, nearly all of Nora's clothing will over the top/ nouveau riche, futuristic and decadent- the 70's via the year 5555. Nora is now scarlet for good and we leave her lavish vintage pin up wardrobe to climb the mountain and find excitement on our own wish-lists.
In honour of those who tirelessly researching, sewing , creating and thus carrying on the loving tradition of Shirley Russell (aka The High Priestess and Alchemist of Vintage Costume), I've included a list of what I feel are today's première bespoke and Pin Up clothing revivalists:
(All made in the UK and the USA of course.)
Fables By Barrie Made in San Diego. I am confident that there is nowhere on earth with more beautiful and dazzling whimsy and such flawless customer service. My Tolie Du Jouy one piece will be rockin this summer!
Dainty Rascal Reproduction Vintage does not get any better outside of Pinewood Studios. Almost a dozen of Marilyn Monroe dresses lovingly recreated are just the start-Suzy Berricone can do anything. Expect her to be a major player in the international fashion someday. Made in beautiful Sonoma County.
Tara Starlet Creates the UK's premier vintage reproduction clothing. Whereas many of the big names in Pin Up Clothing go for a hyper-buxom 1950s Varga look, Tara Starlet offers clothing for the more mysterious, sensible, modest and wholesome. Designs are historical (Land Army dungarees), professional (30s and 40s suits you can wear to the office) and of course Sailor Pants in a dozen colours. Clothing for all sizes and body types UK sizes 6 (US 4) through 16 (US 14).