The Old Hollywood Dilemma and Black Women in Luxury

There’s a meme floating around which reads: “Someone once asked me, if you could go back in time, which era would you choose, and I laughed and said, ‘Honey, I’m Black.’”

It’s meant to be satirical, but as a Black woman who’s deeply fascinated by the sultry glamour of Old Hollywood – from its Hollywood regency interior designs to the enigmatic actresses who dominated the silver screens – the shadowy truth of this statement hits home.

As it pertains to art, fashion, and cinema, the 20’s-early 60’s are my favorite eras. I’ve been slowly building up my collection of antique furniture, and some of my most treasured wardrobe pieces are vintage. I’m consistently inspired whenever I watch old, classic movies on Turner Classic Movies, and I love the way womanhood and femininity is represented in those films.

There are the seductive, beautiful, cunning, and sometimes dangerous femme fatales of the film noir and Pre-code eras such as Veronica Lake, Ava Gardner, and Rita Hayworth – and they’re mesmerizing to watch. The characters they portrayed often dazzled audiences with their witty quips and sexual innuendos, and usually acted in their own best interests; morality be damned. Barbara Stanwyck in “Baby Face” is probably the best example of this kind of woman; she’s ambitious, hungry for power, and not above exploiting men for her own gain.

Then, there’s the charming, classy, and sweetly alluring women represented in films such as High Society (Grace Kelly) and Sabrina (Audrey Hepburn), who are juxtaposed with the “siren” (think Marilyn Monroe in Gentleman Prefer Blondes). The siren has all the aforementioned qualities along with heightened sex appeal and desirability.

Reflecting back, I imagine that it must have been incredibly empowering for young White girls to grow up watching magnetic, elegant, sophisticated, powerful, witty, and even conniving and ruthless idols in their image. These women all wielded soft power to their advantage, and intuitively utilized their femininity; attracting experiences, men, opportunities, and lifestyles of their heart’s desire like honey.

Of course, we Black women had our own goddesses such as Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, and Josephine Baker, but their star power was largely limited by the social and political landscapes they lived in. Josephine Baker actually felt so restricted living in the United States as a Black woman that she left for France, where she became a renowned superstar, and was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Rosette de la Résistance, and was named a Chevalier de Légion d’honneur for her patronage as spy for the French Resistance during WWll.

Still, I wonder what the impact would’ve been if Black girls grew up during those Old Hollywood years watching representations of themselves reflected on screen.

I’ve gleaned immense inspiration – and teachings – from Old Hollywood films, including mastery of clever innuendo, proper social etiquette, subtle, yet classy methods of flirtation; how to emit nonverbal cues of desire, and how to utilize my feminine soft power to attract whatever pleases me,

Perhaps, as a millennial, it’s easier for me to visualize myself trading places with those actresses because now, the possibilities for achievement have significantly expanded thanks to the pioneering, influential Black women who came before me.

I’ll probably always have these thoughts running in the back of my mind, but I don’t let them stop me from enjoying the films. In fact, with the popularization of the “Black Women in Luxury” and “Soft Life” movements, I believe that there’s no better time for Black women to familiarize themselves with these genres of film.

Inspiration is in the eye of the beholder, and there’s plenty to be found if one simply knows where to look.

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