Dressed to Kill: Film Noir Fashion

This Mildred Pierce suit worn by Joan Crawford is on display in the exhibition Light & Noir, on view through March 1. With the mirrors behind it, you can appreciate the costume design fully. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Corporate Archive.

This Mildred Pierce suit worn by Joan Crawford is on display in the exhibition Light & Noir, on view through March 1. With the mirrors behind it, you can appreciate the costume design fully. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Corporate Archive. 

Taking a historical and aesthetic approach to film noir fashion, educator Kimberly Truhler has connected the dots between the realities of American life in the 1930s and 1940s (a harsh economic climate, social and cultural trends, wartime struggles) and the amazing resourcefulness and creativity of cinematic costume designers. Her informative and visually appealing website GlamAmor demonstrates how these classic trends have endured and continue to influence today’s fashion. In conjunction with the exhibition Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933–1950, Truhler appears at the Skirball on December 7 to give a lecture on “The History of Fashion in Film Noir.” Below, we ask the style maven about the origins of her passion for film fashion history and for a sneak peek at some of the films and designers she’ll be discussing.

What was the first film noir you watched, and what did you think of it at the time?

My father has been a police officer all of my life, and he loved to watch film noir when he came home from work. As a result, I saw movies like The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, and The Thin Man when I was just a child, and I absolutely adored them. I was drawn to the mood and mystery of these films first, and then started to really appreciate their overall style. Film noir was my introduction to classic cinema and it began a lifelong passion for it. I suspect it’s that way for many other people as well. Continue reading

The Cameraman Always Shoots Twice: Enter to Win

Old-school signage (and hey, look, a pay phone!) can add a retro feel to your photos. Submit yours to the Skirball’s “Shoot Your L.A. Noirscape” photo contest today!

Old-school signage (and hey, look, a pay phone!) can add a retro feel to your photos. Submit yours to the Skirball’s “Shoot Your L.A. Noirscape” photo contest today!

I knew I was in trouble the minute this contest walked through my door. Suddenly my random, obsessive photography of my surroundings acquired a sinister focus. I saw shady characters everywhere—thick-necked loan sharks chomping cigars, aspiring starlets with murder in their eyes, barflies in disheveled suits with a story to sell, stage-door Johnnys, short-order cooks, ex-boxers with prison tattoos, nosy landladies, guys with five o’clock shadows who spent all day studying the daily racing form—the city was chock full of ‘em, and I got them all in front of my camera, one way or another. I prowled the city at night, getting lost in a twisted warren of steam-shrouded back alleys, on the hunt for fresh material. Two filters fought tooth and nail for dominance in my photo stream—Tonal, Noir, Tonal, Noir, Ansel? No, Noir! I was spiraling out of control, shooting everything at Dutch angles, falling headlong into the crazy, disorienting shadows I once composed artfully from a safe distance. I was a goner, a stiff, a patsy, and then at the very last second I was pulled back from the brink. By a dame, no less.

“You’re not eligible for this contest. See right here in the contest rules? It’s not open to relatives of staff.” Continue reading

Songs of Freedom: In Honor of Veterans Day

National Jewish Welfare Board, Selected Jewish Songs for Members of the Armed Forces, 1943. Gift of Herman and Polly Alevy, Skirball Museum, Skirball Cultural Center, Los Angeles, CA. 71.102.

National Jewish Welfare Board, Selected Jewish Songs for Members of the Armed Forces, 1943. Gift of Herman and Polly Alevy, Skirball Museum, Skirball Cultural Center, Los Angeles, CA. 71.102.

On Veterans Day, as we honor the men and women who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces, I was inspired to look into our Museum collection for artifacts that reveal interesting stories of the wartime experiences of soldiers. Of the many items from which to choose, this small songbook struck me as a fascinating example of how World War II American Jewish soldiers doubly identified with the struggle to defeat Nazi Germany. United behind a common cause, soldiers and the American people at large shared a deep sense of patriotism. For Jewish servicemen and women, defeating Germany and the Axis powers was more urgent still: the survival of European Jewry was at stake, as well as the defeat of hatred, discrimination, and ethnic persecution.

Two symbols on the cover reveal who published the songbook and hint at its purpose. “JWB” stands for the National Jewish Welfare Board, formed at the start of World War I to support Jewish soldiers in the U.S. military. The JWB supplied ritual objects and miniature prayer books, as well as food packages complete with gefilte fish and honey cake.

National Jewish Welfare Board, Military Passover Seder Menu, 1945. Gift of Isidore and Shirley Erenberg, Skirball Museum, Skirball Cultural Center, Los Angeles, CA. 71.23.

National Jewish Welfare Board, Military Passover Seder Menu, 1945. Gift of Isidore and Shirley Erenberg, Skirball Museum, Skirball Cultural Center, Los Angeles, CA. 71.23.

In 1941, the JWB joined with five other service organizations—including the YMCA and the Salvation Army—to strengthen the morale of the Armed Forces. This consortium quickly became known as the United Service Organizations, or USO—the other symbol on the cover. The songbook, we can gather, was meant to bolster both the spiritual and emotional well-being of the troops.

Selected Jewish Songs for Members of the Armed Forces includes hymns and songs in English, Hebrew, and Yiddish “suitable for Sabbath and festival days and other social and cultural group meetings.” The book mixes patriotic songs (“God Bless America”), liturgical music (“Sh’ma Yisrael”), and even old-time spirituals (“Go Down, Moses”). The songs reflect the democracy of national, cultural, and religious identities of the soldiers who sang them. Most important in the dark years of World War II, they represented—and served—the cause of freedom.

 

Two of my grandparents— Gloria Forster Clancey and Harry "Pat" Clancey—served in the Marine Corps during WWII.

Two of my grandparents— Gloria Forster Clancey and Harry “Pat” Clancey—served in the Marine Corps during WWII.

 

How We Made the Light & Noir Holiday Pop-Up Shop… Pop!

The Skirball is delighted to present this holiday pop-up shop, now open through January 4, inspired by the new exhibition Light & Noir. On opening night, these eager first shoppers discovered the array of merchandise, from wearables to home décor, books and kid-friendly novelties. Photo by Steve Cohn.

The Skirball is delighted to present this holiday pop-up shop, now open through January 4, inspired by the new exhibition Light & Noir. On opening night, these eager first shoppers discovered the array of merchandise, from wearables to home décor, books to kid-friendly novelties. Photo by Steve Cohn.

In January, when I began reading about our upcoming exhibition Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933–1950, I was instantly inspired. Due to my personal interest in fashion and design, I was very aware of the influence film noir has had in these areas. I was eager to explore the possibility of a holiday pop-up shop to complement the exhibition. It was the beginning of an exciting journey.

We had many questions. Where would I find vintage items from the period? How much vintage vs. reproduction should make up the product mix? With a very limited budget, how would we create an evocative environment? Many existing relationships needed to be engaged, and new ones pursued and cultivated.

GlamAmor Shares Noir Essentials—Early during the research stage, I came across a six-part webinar series on The Style Essentials: History of Fashion in Film, by Kimberly Truhler, Woodbury College professor, author, film and costume design expert, and creator of GlamAmor. Each webinar covers one decade, and I signed up for the session on the 1940s. After viewing Kimberly’s informative and enjoyable presentation, I contacted her and was pleased to learn that she is passionate about film noir! Even better, she was willing to give us informed suggestions for our project.

Come hear GlamAmor founder Kimberly Truhler—pictured above left in a fabulous green vintage coat (above left) on opening night with me—give a talk on the history of fashion in film noir (including the classic Mildred Pierce, pictured above right)—Sunday, December 7, at 1:00 p.m. A valued consultant to us on the pop-up shop, Kimberly has studied film and costume design history for more than twenty years. Photo on left by Steve Cohn. Film still on right from Mildred Pierce © Warner Bros.; courtesy of Warner Bros./Photofest.

Come hear GlamAmor founder Kimberly Truhler—pictured above left in a fabulous green vintage coat (above left) on opening night with me—give a talk on the history of fashion in film noir (including the classic Mildred Pierce, pictured above right)—Sunday, December 7, at 1:00 p.m. A valued consultant to us on the pop-up shop, Kimberly has studied film and costume design history for more than twenty years. Photo on left by Steve Cohn. Film still on right from Mildred Pierce © Warner Bros.; courtesy of Warner Bros./Photofest.

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A Noir View of Los Angeles

In celebration of the new exhibitions Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933–1950 and The Noir Effect, we asked photographer Helen K. Garber—who has several pieces on display in The Noir Effect—to walk us through some of her favorite places in Los Angeles to shoot. Garber is also the instructor of “Urban Noir: Night Photography in Los Angeles,” a six-session course starting this week, offered by the Skirball in partnership with Otis College of Art and Design. Garber is known for her striking nighttime landscapes, including A Night View of Los Angeles, a five-foot-high, forty-foot-long, 360-degree panorama of the entire city taken at night.

The Santa Monica Pier is my favorite location to shoot, especially at night and in the fog. It was a very creepy place when I first moved to Santa Monica in the early 1980s. Back then, soon after sunset, the area would turn into a real Night of the Living Dead. The tourists would flee and some of the shady characters who populated Palisades Park would rise and approach anyone around. Things started to change in 1989, when Cirque du Soleil began to set up at the pier and attract people with money. The addition of a police station, new restaurants, and the redesign of Pacific Park made it a tourist mecca. Now the pier is as packed at night as it is during the day, and no one feels threatened (unless you find people dressed as cartoon characters scary).

The Santa Monica Pier is my favorite location to shoot, especially at night and in the fog. It was a very creepy place when I first moved to Santa Monica in the early 1980s. Back then, soon after sunset, the area would turn into a real Night of the Living Dead. The tourists would flee and some of the shady characters who populated Palisades Park would rise and approach anyone around. Things started to change in 1989, when Cirque du Soleil began to set up at the pier and attract people with money. The addition of a police station, new restaurants, and the redesign of Pacific Park made it a tourist mecca. Now the pier is as packed at night as it is during the day, and no one feels threatened (unless you find people dressed as cartoon characters scary).

 

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President’s Greeting: Nov/Dec 2014

The Herscher family, San Jose, CA, 1958

A rare photograph of the extended Herscher family, San Jose, CA, 1958.

Memory is meaning. It is how we understand existence. It is how we locate ourselves in time. It is what we learn and how we learn. Amnesia is a tragedy, for in severing us from the past, it severs us from ourselves. Who are we without that frame of reference? How can we know where we’re going if we don’t know where we’ve been?

The debut of the Skirball’s new exhibition Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933–1950 prompts these reflections.

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Welcoming America at the Skirball

Whether our families are recent immigrants or our ancestors journeyed to this country 200 years ago, sharing our stories helps us learn from each other and build bonds with one another. During the week of September 16–21, 2014, as part of National Welcoming Week, the Skirball hosted an interactive event where visitors shared their family immigration stories in the Noah’s Ark gallery.

The Skirball partnered with the online storytelling group Immigrant Nation to create story cards that visitors filled out with their family histories, their ideas about the meaning of home, or details about their family traditions. Once the cards were completed, staff members snapped photos of the visitors and displayed the cards in the gallery for others to read and enjoy. Below is just a sampling of more than 100 cards that were created over the course of the week, highlighting the rich cultural diversity of Skirball visitors.

Where does your family’s story begin?

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Hollywood: The War Years

Austrian émigré Fritz Lang’s potent anti-Nazi film Hangmen Also Die!, co-written with eminent playwright Bertolt Brecht, came out in 1943. After Jan-Christopher’s Horak’s illuminating lecture on German exile cinema, stick around to watch a screening of the film.

In anticipation of the opening of the new exhibition Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933–1950, we asked Dr. Jan-Christopher Horak, UCLA Film & Television Archive Director and expert on German exile cinema, a few questions about how and why Europe’s exiled filmmakers (most of whom were fleeing Nazi persecution) made such an indelible impact on Hollywood’s history, throughout the war era and afterward. Arriving from their war-torn countries, filmmakers like Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, and Ernst Lubitsch found American audiences to be a receptive market for their perspectives on the dangers of German Fascism. The unique styles they brought to the States, influenced by both the dark and light aspects of their experiences, directly affected the development of the film noir genre. The enduring effects of that genre are explored in the complementary exhibition The Noir Effect. 

Learn more about the relationship between Hollywood and European émigrés at Horak’s informative talk “Hollywood: The War Years,” on Thursday, October 30, at 7:30 p.m. The talk is followed by a screening of Austrian émigré Fritz Lang’s Hangmen Also Die! (1943).

You are a veteran in anything concerning German exiles in Hollywood. Can you talk a bit about the notion of German exile cinema?

German exile cinema refers to films made by German-speaking—mostly Jewish—refugees who were blacklisted after 1933 in Germany by the Nazis and then moved abroad, producing work in France, England, Holland, Italy, Spain, and, of course, Hollywood. In Germany they lost everything, usually having to forfeit all their personal wealth, and often had to start from scratch in their new homes. Some, like Robert Siodmak, reestablished themselves in France, then had to flee again when World War II broke out. Continue reading

Harvest and Hospitality

sukkot2_skirball

Stop by the Skirball’s sukkah October 8–16, except October 9 and 13, to enjoy some snacks from Zeidler’s Cart or to just spend a quiet moment.

The Jewish holiday of Sukkot begins this evening. Lasting seven days, Sukkot commemorates the fall harvest and the desert sojourn of the Israelites following their liberation from slavery in Egypt. Like many Jewish holidays, it also connects Jews to the cycles of nature. During Sukkot, Jews traditionally spend time enjoying meals with friends and family in temporary shelters called sukkot (sing. sukkah), the Hebrew word for “tabernacle” or “covering.” The sukkah is built of natural materials such as bamboo, wood, and tree branches. Its temporary, fragile nature reminds us that the bounty of summer is behind us and that the autumn season will soon bring the shedding of leaves and the dying of greenery. As summer turns to fall in Southern California, we can also take this opportunity to focus on what it means to live in a drought-stricken area—hoping that nature will bring much-needed rains to us soon. Sukkot is a time to acknowledge climate change—be it the annual cycle or the pressing issues facing the world’s population today. Continue reading

Go Ask Alice (Russell)

AliceRussell_skirball

Photo by Kenny McCracken.

Alice Russell’s most recent album, To Dust, is a collection of soulful torch songs about unwavering tenacity in the midst of spurned love. Her live shows are raw and gritty affairs—her vocal acrobatics flying effortlessly across funky grooves and R&B beats. In celebration of indie label Tru Thoughts Recordings’ fifteenth anniversary, Russell performs live at the Skirball on October 24, with openers Lost Midas and The Seshen. I asked Russell to share some thoughts about her music career, her songwriting process, and where in L.A. she’ll be visiting while she’s here.

It’s been ten years since you released your debut album, Under the Munka Moon. How has a decade affected your music? 

Time has sprinted past. I have opened up over time. Over this decade I toured a lot, and that, bit by bit, forced me to really open up on stage and, in turn, in the studio. I have had the privilege to visit amazing places to perform and record, and these experiences can’t help but affect the music that I am now making. Continue reading