They don't have wardrobes like Gloria Swanson's any more. It isn't that the stars aren't as big. It's that the closets got smaller.
Or maybe it has to do with style, which is what you needed in the silent movies.
Dialogue, who needs dialogue when you've got boas? Rows of boas. When you've got saffron taffeta gloves and pale blue chambray gloves and gloves with big black polka dots. Hats of black satin plush with an egret feather standing tall as a victory banner. Evening dresses from Valentina and Cardin and Givenchy, black and strapless, draped to break a heart.
Or maybe you are partial to leopard. Gloria Swanson was partial to leopard. Leopard-skin hat, leopard-skin cigarette cases, faux leopard-skin overnight case and car rug and housecoat and caftan and suit--jogging suit. It's true it may seem a little silly now; you would plotz to see even Taylor in Gloria Swanson's leopard capelet, but that, after all, is the point.
"Gloria Swanson was the personification of the Hollywood image," said Los Angeles designer Anthony Machado, sitting in the front rows at the Swanson estate sale here at William Doyle Galleries today. "She was a role model as a celebrity and personality. She reigned for such a long time that you can get an accurate perspective of fashion through her clothes . . ."
He paused and lowered his voice confidentially.
"It's not all good taste, though," he said. "Some of the faux zebra . . ."
But there were things elegant and fine. And why not? From the height of her career, as a silent star in the '20s when she commanded $1,000 a day, to her death last April, at perhaps 86, perhaps 84, she was every bit the star.
A white-jacketed houseman opened the door for her guests, she wore thick gold bracelets on either arm, there were six husbands and the the tales of an affair with the father of a president. She loved clothes and was famous for clothes. She was famous as well for enjoying the grand style. In the '20s, she threw parties that cost thousands.
She had the nerve to parody the style in "Sunset Boulevard," playing a silent film star (heavy on the leopard skin) who lives in a dream world, waiting to make a comeback. But on screen or off, she knew how to make an entrance. Coming back to this country after making a film in France and acquiring her third husband, she wired back to the studio with a directive.
"Am arriving with the Marquis tomorrow. Please arrange an ovation."
Today, the lifetime of clothes, some dating back to the '20s, was sold. It did not reflect the entire Swanson estate: her home furnishings, sold last month, brought $35,000. There have been separate auctions as well of memorabilia and jewels: the Cartier 14-karat gold and enamel compact with her name in seed pearls; the initial bracelets in heavy gold. But today's sale was a fascinating look at a life that has very little to do with the lives of modern women, and it attracted a standing-room crowd; many dealers, some collectors, a few just regular folk who came to look.
Gloria was tiny, barely five feet, her dress size a six, her shoes a four, so all that many ladies could do was look. It was, though, a sophisticated crowd, and the gasps and applause were few. There were gasps at the rhinestone headband with the white fox plume, applause when fevered bidding for one of the non-faux leopard skin wraps brought $3,750, making it one of the highest priced items at the sale.
There was, as well, the equally pleasureful fashion pastime of wrinkling the nose. Pointing out the stains on a chiffon evening wrap. Tittering over a green fun fur. Remarking--this from the mavens--that some of the clothes were "seat sprung." Or that the great film star was not the little housekeeper she might have been.
"One of the suits has aluminum foil where she put it in after one of the buttons fell out," said one of the cognoscenti.
"She kept her clothes for years," said another.
Another eyed a blue wool suit from the '60s, baggy on the size six model, with the same zest she might have spied a gentleman dining with a lady not his wife.
"She must have been fat then," she said.
But those critiques did not dull the passion of the bidding, or the affection of a true fan, a fellow like Lloyd Curry, a wealthy fan from Boston, who was delighted to pay $1,500 for the silver and black overdress worn by Swanson in the bridge-game scene of "Sunset Boulevard," or $200 for a black Valentina cape. He would take them home and preserve them in a climate-controlled environment, he said. They would be cherished.
"She had a spirit," he said. "She provided drama, she provided glamor . . ."
He failed to get the item he had hoped for, a Salome scarf from the final scene in "Sunset Boulevard," in which the mad film star descends the stairs, mistaking the lights of the news crew for the lights of Mr. De Mille. It brought $8,000, the highest price in the show, bringing the total to a $103,000. The folks at the Doyle gallery were very pleased.
"We didn't know what the celebrity provenance would add to an estate of these sorts of goods," a spokesman said. "Apparently it added quite a bit."
Curry could have told them as much. If, looking at this collection, one were so silly as to have felt the need for dialogue.