Marlene Dietrich was born Marie Magdalene Dietrich in Germany, on December 27th 1901. Her family often called her “Lene”, and she combined “Marie” with “Magdalene” to created “Marlene” at the age of 11.
A wrist injury prevented Marlene’s dreams of becoming a concert violinist, and her interests in poetry and the theatre grew. She began her stage career as a chorus girl in a vaudeville cabaret. Even at the start of her career, Dietrich exhibited the androgynous style she would become synonymous with.
In 1922 she made her film debut, with a small part in So sind die Männer. She continued to gain attention in musical revues and small film parts. Her breakout role as Lola-Lola in The Blue Angel (1930) earned the star a contract with Paramount Pictures. The film was directed by Josef von Sternberg, who was crediting with discovering Dietrich; together the pair worked on six films, and Sternberg helped to carefully craft Dietrich’s glamorous on screen image as a femme fatale.
Sternberg and Dietrich’s first American collaboration, Morocco (1930), brought audiences the iconic image of Marlene dressed in a man’s tuxedo, white tie and top hat, earning the star her first and only Oscar nomination. Shanghai Express (1932) was the duo’s biggest box office hit, with the movie not only praised for its’ financial success, but it’s lush style elements. Sternberg’s lighting skills combined with stunning costumes to create a visual masterpiece. Shanghai Express showcased the perfect marriage of Dietrich’s two styles, the garconne and the femme fatale, and created some of the star’s best fashion moments. A voluminous fox collar worn with a military cap, menswear inspired pyjamas and a feathered suit, with matching turban and a small veil.
The actress would often interchange her film costumes with her personal wardrobe, stating, “At any moment I risked mixing my roles or my professional attitude with my private life. It was inevitable.” Luckily, Dietrich’s “combined” wardrobe included creations from Hollywood’s premier designers such as Travis Banton and Edith Head, as well as couture pieces from Lanvin, Mainbocher and Vionnet. The actress’ off-screen attire included tweed coats, pantsuits and ties, as well as silk blouses, pencil skirts and fitted dresses.
Later in her career, Marlene worked as a well-paid cabaret artist, performing songs from her movies and hits of the day. She spent the first half of her act in a “nude” effect dress, covered in sequins and beads, and changed into a top hat and tails for the later half. Marlene Dietrich once said, “I dress for myself. Not for the image, not for the public, not for the fashion, not for men.”