Silver-screen star Marlene Dietrich was more than a pretty face and a set of legendary legs. “She made these really interesting decisions about self-representation, about image,” says Kate Lemay, curator of “Marlene Dietrich: Dressed for the Image,” an exhibit opening Friday at the National Portrait Gallery. More than many stars of her era a century ago, the German-born actress styled herself in a way to send a message to the camera and the public at large — and that message was often that she didn’t care what people had to say about what she wore. “She knew who she was, she didn’t apologize, and if people criticized her for it, she didn’t care,” Lemay says. “She remained who she was, and was powerful enough to get away with it.”
National Portrait Gallery, Eighth and F streets NW; Fri. through April 15, 2018, free.
This 1918 portrait of a high school-age Dietrich by Joel-Heinzelmann Atelier looks tame only because we’re seeing it through 21st-century glasses. “To our eye, she’s not flamboyantly dressed, but for the time, she’s making a statement,” Lemay says of the photograph (which will be on display until around Sept. 15). “That huge bow [shows] she’s confident, sure of herself. And she’s allowing that curl on her right shoulder to fall out of the chignon — she’s demonstrating her femininity, her sensuality in a way that would have been very eye-catching to her peers at that time. This is a very forward-thinking young woman.”
Dietrich’s androgynous style of dress, seen in this 1933 photo taken by Paul Cwojdzinski while Dietrich was travelling on the SS Europa, is one of her most enduring legacies. “Dietrich could only really do this because she had the star power,” Lemay says. “When this image was wired to the French press, she was warned she would be arrested if she came to Paris wearing menswear. And she showed up in her most mannish tweed pantsuit with a long trench coat; she took that warning and said, ‘Oh, yeah? Well, here’s this.’ ”
After retiring from the screen, Dietrich continued performing in cabarets, eventually retiring in the 1970s and living as a virtual recluse. In the exhibit’s closing photograph, this 1952 image shot by Milton Greene, Lemay sees hints of what’s to come. “She’s starting to age, and yet she still has this rocking body. She wants to preserve that sensual, glamorous image,” Lemay says. “I find it fascinating that she’s allowing her hair to fall over her face, because she is a little enigmatic. People say [the picture] is pure sex, and I don’t see that. I see it as this introspective moment as Dietrich is starting a new career on the cabaret stage.”
This photograph, shot by Eugene Robert Richee, was to publicize “Dishonored,” a 1931 film in which Dietrich played a seductive spy. “This is her when she’s working with [director] Josef von Sternberg, and they are at the height of their prowess or influence with each other,” Lemay says. Richee “has lit her face to emphasize her cheekbones and really create this image of a sensual woman, and she is meeting him tit for tat with a direct gaze that communicates the ‘Yes, and so what?’ kind of look. For von Sternberg and Dietrich, this kind of cooperative relationship they had, this image helps to summarize everything they achieved.”