The Art of Glamour #7 - Lana Turner's Style
Julia Jean ‘Judy’ Turner was just fifteen years old when in 1936 an agent approached her while she was sipping coke at a soda fountain, and said, ‘Would you like to be in the movies?’
Taking the question in the naïve calmness of youth, her response was:
‘I’d have to ask my mother’
The story became a show business legend, which led many a would-be starlet to sit at a drugstore stool with dreams of being accidentally discovered in the same way.
Top director and producer at Warner Bros, Mervyn LeRoy, signed Turner to a personal contract at the age of sixteen, having seen something in her to make him think she might be a replacement for the recently deceased Jean Harlow. With such high hopes for his young protégé, LeRoy considered Judy ‘too common’ a name, and christened her ‘Lana’, pronounced Lar –nah. In her debut They Won’t Forget, she only appeared on screen for a few minutes, but the impact was both long-lasting and of cultural significance. As she skipped into view for the very first time, wearing a short-sleeved woollen sweater, it was as if the title was tailor made for her. Given the nickname 'the sweater girl', Turner would go on to become the archetype of the 1940s and 1950s pin-up.
In late 1937 LeRoy went over to MGM and asked Jack Warner to allow Turner to go with him. Warner obliged, stating that Turner would:
‘not amount to anything’.
At MGM, the studio glamour machine tried out different looks for Turner, modelling her after the top stars of the day, from Judy Garland to Hedy Lamarr, and even Rita Hayworth. For one role in the 1938 feature The Adventures of Marco Polo, Turner’s eyebrows were completely shaved off, and never grew back. She had to draw them in for the rest of her life.
By 1941 MGM had finally cracked it. The newly dyed platinum hair, the sophisticated flourish of the pencilled eyebrows, were the perfect compliment to her porcelain skin.
For the musical Ziegfeld Girl, Turner was given a co-starring role along with such A-listers as Judy Garland and Hedy Lamarr. It marked a personal and professional shift for her, or what she would define as getting her ‘interested in acting’. Impressed by her performance, MGM marketed the film, with just a touch of hyperbole, as Turner having ‘the best role of the biggest picture to be released by the industry's biggest company’. The film was a box-office hit and elevated Turner to star status. The studio raised her weekly salary to $1,500, assigned her both a personal hairdresser and make-up artist, and of course that ultimate signifier of having made it to the top. A trailer.
By 1945 Turner was earning $4,000 a week.
When MGM obtained a censor-approved script for The Postman Always Rings Twice, Turner got the part of the adulterous femme fatale Cora Smith. The scene when we first see her remains, to this day, one of the most stunning character introductions in cinema history. A lipstick rolls across a diner floor, closely followed by the camera, which then turns to an open-mouthed customer, the object of whose fascination is about to be revealed. The director teases with a glimpse of open-toe sandals and bare calves, before switching to a full shot of Turner, wearing a turban, high-waisted shorts, and a cropped top, all in pristine white. Her iconic wardrobe in this film inverts the stereotype, the dove-like innocence of the white hiding her dark and murderous impulses. Irene, the head of the costume design at MGM, had dressed Turner to perfection.
MGM always impressed on its stars the importance of perfectly maintaining the image they’d worked hard to create for them. Actors and actresses were expected to be glamorous and ‘camera ready’ at all times. With the studio's wardrobe department at her disposal, Lana Turner did not let them down, often wearing the gowns from her publicity portraits to public events and nights on the town. A regular at famous spots such as Ciro’s, Mocambo, and Cocoanut Grove, she was dubbed the ‘Nightclub Queen’.
Turner loved fashion and her own style was to wear form-fitting clothes, though she liked to leave a little something for the imagination, so rarely wore anything too revealing. She liked to create dramatic looks. There were the all-white and all-black outfits, and occasionally all-yellow, which was in fact her favourite colour.
'Her appearance, whether for screen, at home, or in public, was always ‘camera ready’. Make up on, hair done-no matter the time or place'
– Cheryl Crane, daughter
Being as meticulous as she was could cause difficulties during fittings. It was not unheard of for a seamstress to walk out because of Turner’s exasperating exactness. Never wearing off-the-rack, her clothes had to be precisely tailored, with adjustments made to disguise the fact her left leg was one-inch shorter than the right.
Always a true star, Turner’s home rivalled that of the MGM wardrobe department. A revolving closet ran the length of her dressing room, with clothes separated into eveningwear and daywear, and further grouped by colour and weight, all kept in impeccable order by her maid. On the other side of the closet was her vast shoe collection, stored in floor to ceiling racks. When she liked a style, she bought in every available colour. At one point she owned 698 pairs. Across from her shoes was the large collection of furs, locked in a walk-in, climate-controlled vault. A second vault, some twenty feet long, held precious diamonds, pearls and emeralds, alongside imitation pieces from MGM. Each fabulous outfit had, of course, to be ornamented with the correct jewellery.
'No dress, however startling, can stand alone'
– Lana Turner
One famous imitator was the First Lady of Argentina Eva Peron. As legend has is, when Turner visited Argentina in 1946, airport customs seized all her jewellery and held it for hours; she later learned that each piece had been photographed so it might be copied for Peron.
Turner curated looks that flowed from her films and into her personal life and wardrobe, and with each new decade she navigated changing fashions, embracing trends - but making them her own. In her later years she chose designers such as Jean Louis, and Dynasty’s Nolan Miller. Her public image was incredibly important to her. And for the rest of her life she always remained immaculately groomed and ‘camera ready’.
She once said:
‘Forsaking glamour is like forsaking my identity’
One of the last true stars of the Hollywood studio era, Lana Turned died in 1995 at the age of 74.
Through each incarnation - the sweater girl, the chic femme fatale, elegant matriarch, and the glam TV star of the 80s - she certainly had style.