Glamour girls of the 1920s & '30s

Written by keely brown
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Glamour girls of the 1920s & '30s
Hollywood stars strongly influenced women's fashions of the day. (George Marks/Retrofile/Getty Images)

In the 1920s and 1930s, women's roles changed significantly, thanks to their active involvement in World War I. Because of the restrictions of the war years, however, the desire for glamour was strong. Hollywood fed into this yearning, and many stars were as famous for their beauty as they were for their acting abilities. However, these Hollywood stars did more than grace the silver screen; they also influenced the popular culture of the times, and women everywhere emulated their fashions and hairstyles.

Clara Bow

The star who most epitomised the 1920s was Clara Bow, the star of the 1927 movie version of novelist Elinor Glynn's best seller, "It." This role, of a flapper whose persona was the embodiment of 1920s sex appeal, catapulted Bow to iconic stardom, and she became known as the "It Girl." With her flapper fashions, bobbed hair, party-girl roles and wild off-screen antics, Bow exuded a devil-may-care joie de vivre that embodied the spirit of the times. By the late 1920s, however, a star had emerged who became so famous, she was known by one name: Garbo.

Glamour girls of the 1920s & '30s
1920s women smoked, partied and idolised the free-spirited Clara Bow. (Jupiterimages/Comstock/Getty Images)


Swedish-born actress Greta Garbo was among the finest screen actresses of the day, garnering four Academy Award Best Actress nominations during her career. In 1999, the American Film Institute ranked her fifth in their list of the most legendary American film actresses. Garbo's fortune was in her face; so much so that, in 1954, the Guinness Book of World Records deemed her "the most beautiful woman that ever lived." When filming Garbo, directors vied for ways to perfect the close-up, as her face expressed a combination of mystery and haunting allure, echoed in the femme fatale roles she played.

Glamour girls of the 1920s & '30s
Garbo's mysterious face was often compared to the Sphinx, which she resembled. (Jupiterimages/ Images)

Jean Harlow

One of the most influential glamour queens of the 1930s was Jean Harlow, who reigned as Hollywood's leading sex symbol until her tragically early death at 26 of renal disease. Harlow was the original blonde bombshell, thanks to her acting ability, stunning looks and special platinum-tinted hair dye which lit up beautifully under Hollywood lights, influencing women everywhere to become blonde overnight. With a gift for comedy, Harlow could deliver the wittiest double entendre with an almost childlike expression on her face. Throughout her career, she played to perfection the "good girl/bad girl" type of character beloved in Depression-era movies.

Glamour girls of the 1920s & '30s
After Jean Harlow, women dyed their hair to become blonde overnight. (George Marks/Retrofile/Getty Images)

Norma Shearer

The 1930s brought sophistication to Hollywood via adult-themed movies such as "The Divorcee." The Academy Award Best Actress winner of this movie, Norma Shearer, had an appealing acting style and a natural beauty that enabled many women to relate to her more easily than they could smouldering, exotic types like Harlow and Garbo. Shearer excelled in "women's dramas" where her character was often forced to choose between revitalising a stale marriage or following a dashing romantic hero. Women revelled in the sheer fantasy of seeing Shearer's good girl enduring temptation while draped in stunning backless evening gowns created by Hollywood designer Adrian.

Glamour girls of the 1920s & '30s
The backless evening gown favoured by Shearer epitomised 1930s glamour. (George Marks/Retrofile/Getty Images)

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