“The Girl Who Learned How to Dress” (Photoplay, February 1941)

An invaluable manual on the style offered by one of Hollywood’s best-dressed women, Carole Lombard. Follow it and you’ll wear clothes that will turn people’s heads

By: Jerry Lane

Carole Lombard was on her knees shaving Robert Montgomery. Doing it expertly in devastating black satin pajamas with white coin dots, neatly topped with a black velvet robe.

She was talking about their marriage. Bob didn’t talk at all — not with that razor slithering around his throat! Then director Alfred Hitchcock called “cut” — and another scene for Mr. and Mrs. Smith was in the bag.

Now this film marks a special event for Lombard: it is the first time in three years that she has worn modern clothes in a picture. The cameraman nearly fainted when Hitchcock told him they would not need to make the customary dress tests. “Miss Lombard,” explained the director, “knows clothes too well. She is one of the most skillfully dressed women in the world.”

He didn’t, of course, know the story of Carole and her clothes (r)evolution.

He had never heard the story of The Hat.

“It was that hat which taught me my first big lesson,” said Carole. “I thought it was such a beautiful hat.”

She was Jane Peters then, just starting out her career, and for weeks she had saved and skimped to buy a particular hat. Very carefully she brought it home and tried it on. Then came the climax: away from the store it was so obviously the wrong hat. That was when Lombard learned Lesson Number One. You save and work for your clothes, but the real trick is to make them work for you. It’s up to them to point up your personality, emphasize your coloring, high-light your best features. The job of a wardrobe is to help you to succeed.

The dress campaign Jane Peters began that day was a big item in making the star Carole Lombard. It’s a campaign that every woman can plan for herself. Said Jane to Carole, “You’re going to study colors and lines, my girl. You’re going to experiment like mad.” Because even if you’re born with a flair for clothes, there are certain things you can learn only through experimenting.

Jane Peters, for instance, wore bright colors. Carole Lombard does not. She wears subtle off-tones instead. Blue-grays, wine, Rembrandt green, coral, lots of black and white. She has discovered the secret of dressing the face, of dramatizing it with color. If your eyes are blue like hers, for example, never kill them with high color. Use soft shades that will make pastel lights of them. On the other hand, if you have dark eyes, just remember the Russian fire song of that name and contrast them with brilliant colors, flame colors.

If you want to deepen like magic the shade of both your hair and eyes, wear a dress in your skin tone. Carole does that. Her skin is a warm honey tone. Often she wears honey sheer wools by day, honey satin or velvet by night.

The next step in Carole’s campaign was getting a line on clothes. A striking line. “I found out that illusion has a lot to do with smart dress,” mused Carole. “You can add inches to your height with sweeping lines and take them away with horizontal lines. But the main thing is to get a line on your outfit that makes it truly distinctive.”

That is easier than it sounds. To illustrate, one of Carole’s favorite suits from her own wardrobe is a lightweight wool in black. Now there are five million black suits walking around the country this season, but what makes this one different is the line of the collar. It’s a big white one that is absolutely Puritan in cut.

Then there’s the black slipper-satin formal, so simple in design with its heart-shaped bodice and wide-spreading skirt. But to give it that distinctive line Carole draped a black lace shawl over one shoulder — and presto, she had drama.

“Every woman goes through a sort of evolution in learning about style,” she asserted. “There was a time when I was always trying to do something fancy with my hair, with bows and so on. Five or six years ago I might have gone in for exaggerated, too formal lines in a costume. You have to be casual and easy in your clothes to make them look well. This is an age where anyone can dress well by simplifying her wardrobe and getting a continuity to it.”

That has become the keynote of Carole’s clothes, simplicity. Take her floral hostess gown. Not one iota of trimming on it except the hand-embroidered scroll running down the front and around the short sleeves. She gives it a fillip with heavy strands of pearls.

“You spend only half as much — and look twice as smart,” said Carole, “if you get continuity to your clothes.” That was another lesson learned early in the campaign. Every girl knows what it is to have a wardrobe of “misfits” in which nothing quite matches. To avoid all that, Miss Lombard worked out a system. She began by selecting a basic color — blue it was at first. Because it was winter, she built her daytime wardrobe around a furless blue woolen coat. (Unless you’re going to buy several coats, don’t get one that is furred, Carole suggests. It’s must better to put your money into a good fur piece).

A slim skirt of the same material went with the coat and Carole chose arresting little scarves, chic little blouses to go with it.

A velvet ascot and chinchilla cloth beret did noble duty for business. For afternoons or “dressy” occasions she wore the coat with a demure gray frock, gray accessories and a cross-fox fur.

But where Carole’s ingenuity really came into play was with the sleek black formal dress she bought. You know how evening clothes can bulge to the bursting point? The secret is to make one formal service a triple purpose. Carole’s black dress went to dinner with a smart overblouse of matching material. It went dancing with a dusky pink chiffon scarf. Carole simply draped the scarf across the front and over the shoulders, held it in at the waistline with a clip, then let the chiffon panels foam clear down the floor. It went dining out in restaurants with a tight-fitting lamé jacket that had a surplice cut.

Even today Carole plans her wardrobe along the same principles. She goes into a huddle with the famous designer Irene. They plot out line…color…”She never comes in here two days before a party,” Irene told me once, “and say she wants something terrific to wear at it. She buys the clothes she needs once or twice a year — and every costume is planned in advance down to the last detail. There’s a certain symmetry and blending in her wardrobe that makes it outstanding and she probably has started more vogues than any two women in the world.”

For instance, months ago Carole tired of short jackets. “Let’s do something different with them. Let’s make them three-quarters,” she said. Thus the high fashion in three-quarter length coats was born. She wears at least two of them in Mr. & Mrs. Smith.

It was Carole, too, who brought back the old-fashioned gold setting for jewelry, who reintroduced beaded dresses, who created one of the most popular styles that swept the country, the shirtwaist dinner dress.

This latter creation came about because of a pair of sapphire cuff links. They were a present to her and she didn’t know what to wear with them. They were too beautiful for a mere shirtwaist. “They ought to go on a tailored dinner dress,” thought Carole. Whereupon she and her studio designer created the shirtwaist formal and six months later every girl in America was clamoring for one.

If it is becoming, it’s good for you: that is Carole Lombard’s style slogan. Take the new Lombard hats. Are they the dizzy, daffy mode of the present? They are not! They’re on the crushed-turban effect and they pull down over the eye in a way that’s flattering as a frame.

“Headgear has gotten to the point where it’s idiotic,” declared Carole. So she is designing her own.

No dominant prints in her wardrobe. No bold plaids. No bulky materials like heavy wool. They’ve been as taboo on her dress program as clothes that fit too tightly. “If girls only knew how much better they appear in a dress that fits easily,” she said.

Carole previews every new costume at home, even to purse and gloves, for a one-man audience — her husband, Mr. Gable. And Mr. G., who didn’t know gingham from velvet in days gone by, is an appreciative spectator.

One of the most interesting style secrets that Carole discovered was how to “spotlight” a costume. “A touch of color or trimming should be used as much as you would use a spotlight,” she explained. “But you can’t ‘spotlight’ too many things or you divide the attention. That’s why, if your neckline has special interest, elaborate gloves should never be worn. If your hat is particularly good looking, don’t wear fancy shoes. Only one color or jewelry note should be played up on a costume.”

For example, on Carole’s black crepe dinner dress with the bloused tunic and long sleeves, the “spotlight” is held entirely by the lovely clips and matching bracelets.

On her formal of floating white mousseline, a corsage of gay carnations at the waist — with clips just below the shoulder straps repeating the color note — is the attention-riveter.

If you have ever watched Carole try on a new dress, you realize there are more tricks in doing it than meet the eye! She doesn’t just stand in front of the mirror; she does exactly what she’s apt to do in that dress. She walks, strides, sits down — twirls, if it’s a dancing frock. The thing is to see what the dress will do for you in action!

“A candid-camera shot is the acid test of the well-dressed woman,” said Carole. “If your clothes look right in that snap-shot the family took when you were not looking, then you’ve passed a hundred percent!”

It’s a long step, sartorially speaking, between the girl who was Jane Peters and Carole Lombard. But it’s a step that every woman can learn to take…