Silent Movie Costumes: How to dress like the real heroes, heroines & villains of silent films

While some silent movie costumes are imaginative and undeniably awesome, a good number are chintzy, cliched and reveal the fact that the designers and wearers have never, ever seen a silent movie. (Don’t believe me? Google “flapper costume” and see what sequined, beplumed nonsense comes up.)

Micro-mini skirts. Cheesy sequined headbands with stupid feathers. Makeup that looks like it was applied by a two-year-old with a Betty Boop obsession. The worst of it? Costume shop bozos have the nerve to charge $30, $50, $70 for these abominations.

And the reaction of a silent movie fan is:

laugh-clown-laugh-yeah-rightI hereby offer you four easy silent movie costumes that are 100% authentic and 100% more entertaining as a result. Each of these roles is considered to iconic among silent movie fans. Hey, if your cousin can cosplay as an obscure anime character, you can cosplay one of these silent movie icons. (For period makeup, try this video tutorial. Unlike so many 1920s makeup videos, the results are attractive, accurate and wouldn’t get you committed during the Jazz Age.)

Clara Bow as Alverna in “Mantrap”

mantrap-costume

We have to start with a genuine flapper costume! And why not go for one of the top flappers, Clara Bow, in one of her most famous roles? Think you need fringe and a cigarette holder for this? Think again!

Components:

Two bright print scarves, one for the hair and one for the collar

A knee-length full skirt (painted lobby cards show tan as a possible color)

A button-down shirt (painted lobby cards show pink or bright yellow as possible colors)

A thin leather belt

Black stockings

Something subtle like T-strap shoes with kitten heels

Instructions: Tuck the shirt into the skirt, place the scarf under the shirt’s collar and tie loosely. Belt the skirt so that the loose ends of the scarf are belted as well. I think you know how to wear stockings and shoes. Tie the second scarf around your head as pictured.

Advantages: The beauty of this costume is that many women have these components hanging in their closets already. The scarf will conceal modern hair beautifully and help any wigs or hairpieces look more natural.

Key Element: Perfecting your come-hither gesture.

mantrap-come

Film Source: A beautiful print of Mantrap was released on DVD as part of the Treasures 5: The West box set.

Douglas Fairbanks as “The Black Pirate”

black-pirate

What could be more heroic than a swashbuckler? And Douglas Fairbanks was the champion swashbuckler of the silent era. This look is a bit more costumey but there is nothing too exotic about it and can still be built out of pretty common elements.

Black button-down shirt with the collar torn off, one sleeve gone and the other torn and rolled (as pictured)

Loose black slacks

Thick leather belt

Gold hoop earrings (clip-on if you are not pierced)

Leather fold-over boots (shockingly easy to find)

Toy sword

Wrist sheath (again, shockingly easy to find)

Instructions: Tuck the shirt into the slacks and belt everything tightly. Roll up the legs of the slacks above the knee (I hope you have nice legs).  The boots, sword and wrist sheath should be self-explanatory. Just look at the photo.

Advantages: Who doesn’t love a swashbuckler? Also, a pretty good costume for a warm evening, though I can’t imagine wearing it in the winter.

Key Element: Keeping your cool when people think you’re Westley from The Princess Bride. Oh, and maintaining the old Fairbanks grin.

This is from "The Thief of Bagdad" but you get the idea.
This is from “The Thief of Bagdad” but you get the idea.

Film Source: The Black Pirate is available on DVD and Bluray.

Theda Bara as the Vampire in “A Fool There Was”

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The Vamp was one of the most popular characters in cinema for a time and Theda Bara was the queen of the vampires. She wore some amazing outfits in A Fool There Was but most of her evil moments occurred in a more simple getup.

Old-school nightgown (easy to find)

Long black wig if your own hair is not vampish enough (the longer the better)

Roses (you’ll pull off the petals and sprinkle them on your pathetic victims)

Fake blood (hide some in a rose, crush it into your hand, look at it and laugh)

a-fool-there-was-rose

More than any other costume, this getup requires acting the part. Slinking about and looking predatory.

a-fool-there-was-lurkNo real instructions are needed. Just wear everything and crawl around saying things like, “Kiss me, my fool.”

a-fool-there-was-kiss-meAdvantages: Simplicity and low expense. However, you will have to be a bit of a ham to make this work, otherwise people will assume you are a bride of Dracula or something. Empowered! You must be empowered!

Key Element: Confidence. You are “the woman who didn’t care.” You have been banned in the states of Pennsylvania, Ohio and the city of New York. You are evil incarnate because it’s fun.

Film Source: A Fool There Was is available on DVD. You’ll want the Kino release for the excellent piano score by Philip Carli.

Lon Chaney as Alonzo the Armless in “The Unknown”

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The cliched “silent movie villain” costume is probably the most irritating. In the first place, it’s Snidely Whiplash! In the second place, it ignores all the amazing villains who really appeared on the silent screen. Lon Chaney was one of the most iconic villains in all of silent cinema and The Unknown is one of this most beloved films. And by “beloved” I mean jaw-droppingly twisted.

This costume has layers and you can get away with just four key elements:

Spanish hat (easy to find)

Black cape (a vampire cape will do)

Scarf for your head (brightly patterned is best)

Gold hoop earring (clip-ons if you are not pierced)

Optional:

Slacks

Sash

Patterned shirt (oversized so you can hide your arms inside, if you really want to commit)

Vest with buttons

Socks with the toes cut off

If you can find a double-thumb prosthetic, more power to you

An eager assistant

Under the cape...
Under the cape…

Instructions: The scarf gets tied on your head pirate-style and the Spanish hat goes on top. Put on the cape and you’re done! If you opt for extra credit, just wear the other items (except the shirt) in the usual manner. The toeless socks are so that you can show off your dexterity as an armless knife-thrower. For the shirt, hold your hands behind your back and have someone help you button up your front. You are now ready to be Alonzo the Armless!

Advantages: Come on, how often do you get to be Lon Chaney?

unknown-two-thumbs

Key Element: Decide if you are pre- or post-surgery. If you are pre-surgery, wander around asking people to cut off your arms. If post-surgery, keep your hands clasped behind your back and try to smoke with your feet. Also, be prepared to explain that you are not Zorro. Oh, and practice your mad, deranged, murderous laugh.

unknown-laugh

Film Source: The Unknown has been released on DVD as part of The Lon Chaney Collection.

10 Replies to “Silent Movie Costumes: How to dress like the real heroes, heroines & villains of silent films”

  1. Wow, I forgot how unforgettable Chaney was in The Unknown! Yeah, yeah – it’s been a few years since I’ve seen it. Oh, alright, I’ll finally break down and hunt for it on disc.

  2. Ah, Halloween. This year I’ll be going as William Gillette’s Sherlock Holmes. I lost twenty pounds since June, or I’d have to go as Watson (still too fat to be Jeremy Brett, though…maybe that’s a good thing).

  3. Don’t forget that every flapper dress had fringes hanging down on the skirt. People often don’t think about the actual fashions from any decade.

    1. Yeah, it’s astonishing because there are SO many pictures. I mean, fringe was used but the way they used it was imaginative & awesome, not just something to sew on the hem.

  4. Really like your inclusion of verbal hints as to who you are dressed as- when my partner and I did Negri and Valentino back in the day we gave obvious hints as to who we were, trying hard to stay in character the whole night- prizes were involved, but would have done it anyway 😉

    This year we’re doing “Halloween 2016- Come As You Aren’t.” That’s the front porch banner I had made up, anyway. Ah, Halloween!

    1. It’s amazing how much modern pop culture is derived from the silent era, I don’t think any non-fan would guess some of these but they will know their descendants! 😀

      1. Absolutely! The references and lingo linger on for generations in one form or another, buried not at all deeply in the collective mind.

        Per your next post: the month of October with its glorious atmosphere, parties, get togethers, (featuring pumpkin chili, cornbread, and red velvet cake buffets) is soon on the way, so take heart!

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