Du Barry Was a Lady (1943) is not a great film, but it’s fun. It has some very clever dialogue, some enjoyable musical numbers, it’s funny, it’s ridiculous and it has a great cast. At the time, it was considered a ‘B’ picture and featured Gene Kelly as his star was beginning to rise, slap stick sensation Red Skelton and the “Queen of the B’s” Lucille Ball before she became our beloved “Lucy”. It’s Lucille’s gorgeous outfits in this film that we’re going have a good swoon over!
Now the film is kind of all over the place in it’s structure but it’s mainly split up into two parts. The contemporary 1940s first half and the second half, set in the time of King Louis XV. I’m only going to focus on the contemporary half as that’s where my love for fashion lies. The period dresses used for Lucille when she plays Madame Du Barry during the dream sequence were mainly re-used from other films anyway, such as Marie Antoinette (1938) with Norma Shearer.
There was no particular designer credited to the lovely creations in this film, however Irene is listed as the Costume Supervisor. This usually meant that the clothing was curated for the film and not specifically designed for it. It could also have meant that the costumes were designed by a lesser know designer but in this case, the former is more likely. Nevertheless they are beautiful outfits and the lovely Lucille Ball carries them with absolute perfection.
Many of her outfits have a distinct tailored look, with smart suits and long flowing rayon gowns. They are all fitted with small shoulder pads to create that chic look of elegance and empowerment that was so synonymous with the 1940s. The film was also shot in Technicolor and Irene uses it to full advantage! The first outfit we see Lucille wear is a bright red two piece gown that exposes the midriff. The skirt hits the floor and as she walks and her legs and a lovely white lace slip peak through a long split down the front. It’s a gown designed for lounging about in luxury and she wears it with matching red silk/satin bedroom slippers.
As a nightclub singer, May Daly (Lucille) dreams of marrying a rich man who can support her comfortably and provide her with all the fineries that her parents never had, as poor working class people. Although she’s in love with Alec Howe (Gene Kelly) a penniless fellow performer at the club, she refuses to act on it for fear she’ll end up like her parents and it’s hinted that her lavish wardrobe has come from the attentions of millionaires who frequent the club.
The outfit that she wears on her way home is one of my favourites! With a grey jacket, dark green skirt with matching gloves and handbag, she tops it off with a matching grey fur hat that sits on a hairdo styled specifically for it. As if we believe she had time to do her hair like that before going home but we’ll just ignore that little fact. Who cares, if it means we get to stare a stunning hairstyle for a while!
Du Barry Was a Lady is also the first film where Lucille debuted her new hair colour after MGM dyed it red and it’s just absolutely glorious in the rich colours of Technicolor! Some of my favourite hairstyles in Classic film ever are hers in this film and she has only contributed to my driving need to be a red-head! Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve always wanted red hair and I dye it and I dye it but it never comes out that perfect “Lucille Ball” red! One day, I am determined, I will find my perfect dye!
Another lovely outfit that keeps on theme with the “matching” trend so loved in the 1940s is a lovely day time suit that May wears outside a newspaper stand. It has beautiful a beautiful lace-work collar (almost lapel-like) that continues on a stylish matching hat.
Finally, my favourite outfit of all is the stunning evening gown that appears in the middle of the film and then again at the end. Lucille’s entrance in the dress is enough to knock you off your seat as the lovely drape of the garment flows from her beautiful tall form. Made of pink rayon, it’s cut on the bias and has a matching cape and clutch. It features stunning pink ombré bead-work both stitched on and fringed and shines so brilliantly in technicolor, it’s dazzling! The pink colour compliments her red hair beautifully which is styled in a victory roll, poodle ‘do to die for! It gives me ultimate hair envy and is my all time favourite vintage hairstyle in Classic film!
Cue lots and lots of photos!!
There are many other lovely gowns and outfits in the film such as a few that are worn by Virginia O’Brien, but these are my favourites and the ones that have always stuck in my memory.
I drool every time I see them on screen and they only makes me love 1940s fashion more. It was so elegant and chic and so much thought and care was put into matching accessories and styling one’s hair around one’s hats; a care that has been all but lost in today’s fashion. It was an era of female empowerment that reflects strongly in the lines of women’s fashion.
Oh, for a wardrobe like May Daly’s!
*Side Note: Greer Garson also wore the pink rayon gown in publicity photos before she became a star. Perhaps MGM thought that because she too was a red-head, the dress might do something for her. They even did her hair in a similar way! Although, come to think of it Greer was an already a well established star by 1943 so perhaps she wore it first. It would be great to find out more about this.
The star system is such a fascinating thing!