Last fall, the FIDM Museum lent a Marlene Dietrich dress to the exhibition Light & Noir: Emigrés and Exiles in Hollywood, 1933-1950, at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles. The strapless evening gown in a paisley floral pattern--created by fashion designer and costumer Irene Lentz Gibbons, better known as Irene--is part of a collection of several garments and accessories worn by Dietrich currently on loan to the FIDM Museum by the City of Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks.
Unusually, Dietrich wore this gown both on and off screen. As Light & Noir curator Doris Berger explained in an interview on the SkirBlog:
Dietrich wore the dress while entertaining American troops in Italy in 1944 in support to win the war against the Nazis. Shortly after the war, Billy Wilder wanted her to play the role of a songstress in postwar Berlin in his film A Foreign Affair (1948), which is a lot about survival strategies—during and after the war. Dietrich didn’t want to play that role, as the character has a Nazi past, but Wilder convinced her. Dietrich gave the film a personal note by wearing the same dress in one of the movie’s scenes. So, she wore the dress in real life and then in a feature film imitating that reality.
The Skirball exhibition closed in March, but it is about to embark on a tour of other venues, beginning with the the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie. Dietrich's dress--along with its mannequin and accessories--is in the process of being carefully packed and crated for transport to Skokie and beyond.
Just as Dietrich's dress once circled the globe to entertain troops fighting World War II, it is leaving Los Angeles once more to tell the story of German-speaking exiles and émigrés who fled Nazi Europe and subsequently shaped Hollywood's Golden Age. The mode of travel may not be movie-star glamorous, but these careful preparations ensure that the beautiful and fragile gown will to speak to future generations with equal eloquence.