At first glance, Marsha Hunt’s The Way We Wore: Styles of the 1930s and ’40s and Our World Since Then appears a nostalgic history of the styles and glamour of long ago. That’s exactly what it is until late in the story when the tone shifts dramatically. In 1947, to combat the “red scare” tactics of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), she writes of joining “a Who’s Who galaxy of top Hollywood talent” on two “Hollywood Fights Back” radio broadcasts. “Nineteen well known film people were subpoenaed to testify in Washington before HUAC, where they were asked to admit, under oath, to any Communist Party membership, past or present and that of anyone they knew. This seemed to defy our prized secret ballot and to make membership in a still-legal political party a matter of guilt, admission of which now surely would cost anyone his respectability and his job. Government censorship over the content of films loomed as a real possibility.”
Calling themselves The Committee for the First Amendment, they made plans to fly some of their group to Washington. Howard Hughes offered one of his planes. The FAA axed that idea “so a plane was rented with contributions from throughout the industry. Certainly no one aboard was in any need of publicity, much less of controversy. But it seemed the time to fight fire with fire, negative headlines with positive ones.”
Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall were two of the founders. Remarkably, most decorated soldier and aspiring actor Audie Murphy was also a Committee member, something which should have given HUAC pause. Hollywood united in supporting the Home Front’s war effort with bond drives, the Hollywood Canteen and through the United Service Organization (USO). Hunt had done her part, first volunteering for the Women’s Ambulance and Defense Corps of America, rising to the rank of Staff Sergeant. [Time Magazine in January of 1942 reported: “Members of the Women’s Ambulance & Defense Corps of Los Angeles, in khaki suits with Sam Browne belts, appeared at the sheriff’s office on the night of Dec. 7, saluted smartly, announced to the startled sheriff that they were reporting for duty.”] She later embarked on a harrowing USO tour to remote military installations in the Arctic.
Hunt and her husband, screenwriter Robert Presnell Jr. were active members of the Committee. “Neither of us knew much or cared about Communism, but American citizen’s rights were being trampled, and our own motion picture industry was under unfair attack, and so we sprang to its defense. In the rapidly worsening political climate that followed, that gesture proved costly indeed.”
Labeled a “fellow traveler, I stubbornly held out against ‘repenting,‘ refusing to say, under oath, that I now realized our whole effort had been masterminded by Communists. Of course it had not. But such an affidavit, I was told would be the price of ever working again in films.” 1950 was a year of contrasts for her. She starred in three Broadway plays including George Bernard Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple and dined with Eleanor Roosevelt in Paris where she bought an outfit of “flowered silk that looked like a watercolor.” In March of that year, she was on the cover of Life Magazine.
Her name was then listed in the smear sheet Red Channels among those of questionable loyalty and her career was over. “By 1951, ‘the Blacklist’ was in firm control over who worked and who didn’t work in the studios, as well as in radio and…television. I had worked in 54 films by then over a 16-year span. Since then, over the past 43 years, I have worked in only 8 films.” (Presnell was never blacklisted, indicating the arbitrary nature of the process.) Since writing that in 1993, she appeared in the documentary Blacklist: Hollywood on Trial (1996) and in three narrative films including Eddie Muller’s short The Grand Inquisitor (2008).
Hunt draws on her astounding personal archives from her early days at Paramount where she began her career at 17 to her years at MGM where she was “the best dressed actress.” From ingenue to emerging movie star, she was one of the most photographed women in the world.
Of several production stills from Raw Deal (1948), one caption reads: “This may well be my very first film murder, and I don’t look too pleased about it. I wore a huge-shouldered kind of trench coat for the occasion in the movies’ best tradition.”
The Way We Wore is a must-have for anyone with an interest in fashion history and costume design. She explains how fashion evolves from social conditions and in the last chapter even dissects the “grunge” look. Hunt comments on hairstyles and hats as well as well as the rest of what made up her wardrobe. Some of the designers she worked with include Adrian, Irene, Edith Head, Gile Steele, Max Ree and Jean Louis.
In the chapter “Custom Costuming for Films,” she reveals some behind-the-scenes Wardrobe Department drama. “Studio designers” she writes “knew by heart the figure problems of all the actresses on the lot and fashioned their costumes accordingly.” She continues with a first hand account of the leading lady’s wardrobe design and the fittings and steps involved. “Once completed, the entire wardrobe would be inspected by the producer and director, the actress modeling it all for them in the largest and prettiest fitting room. This was always a crucial, tense time for the Wardrobe Department, the culmination of days or weeks of combined effort.” Hunt then lets us imagine the absurd scene of the “Top Brass” arriving to pass judgement “but also vaguely ill at ease in this women’s domain, invariably, their hands plunged in their pockets.”