‘An Epidemic of Epidermis’: Week of September 18th, 1920


One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley noticed another trend that would make the 1920’s so different from the staid Edwardian times: the new ‘cloth famine’ in the movies:

Heigho, summer is gone and the bumper crop of Godiva photodramas is about ready to harvest! Didn’t I behold a scene in a Priscilla Dean picture, the other day out at Universal, in which a man posed as a statue wearing only a simple coating of bronze and a shield, and a woman on the same set, also posing as a statue, didn’t wear any shield at all, not even a dress shield?

She was able to trace the regression of clothing from the stage to the movies:

How it crept upon us, this undress drama! We are crediting naughty old Paris with it, but it really sneaked in via the species of Follies known as morality plays. Vide Experience, The Wanderer, Everywoman and others. Next we showed our ladies nude, but kept ‘em in their own bathrooms. After that the wide, wide ocean became their playground, as in Capt. Peacock’s Neptune’s Bride.

However, not all kinds of films got to participate:

All the big directors are Mack Sennetting now-a-days. Only, of course, when it’s comedy, they have to put something on the girls, but when it’s serious drama with a moral, it’s perfectly al right to have all their ladies trotting about as the naked truth.

So if they’re wearing clothes, it’s a comedy

The new, more permissive standards didn’t particularly bother Miss Kingsley, but that didn’t stop her from letting some of the air out of pretension:

Curious, by the way, how many things a nude woman can illustrate, according to the directors. With a few carefully placed bead and some thing-um-bobs the dancer can illustrate anything from the legend that truth always wins out in the end to an argument that you shouldn’t eat pie for breakfast.

It’s really nice of the directors, though, because we do get the moral better that way.

Wallace Beery in Last of the Mohicans

Un-hunh. I bet that’s exactly what the teenaged boys in the audience thought. Nevertheless, at least the new standards were equal opportunity. She wrote: “Why, they’re even undressing the men these days!” after learning of 500 scantily clad young men in the upcoming The Last of the Mohicans, and the male extras “clothed with smiles and a few well-chose beads” in a Jacques Jaccard South Sea Island story. Fair is fair!

Otis Skinner, Elinor Fair in Kismet

Kingsley didn’t forget to mention the ones who had to suffer for the directors’ art—the poor performers:

They do really get cold sometimes. I heard an assistant director say to a girl on the Kismet set one cool morning:

“Look here, kid, we can’t give you no close-up: you got gooseflesh! Quit shivering, can’t you? This ain’t no shimmy-shaking contest, this ain’t!”

Actresses were also suffering from a new plot point: heroines’ new terrible compulsion to hop into water outdoors. As soon as they saw water, there was

nothing to do but she must take off her clothes and get into that brook. And it wasn’t Saturday night, either. Of course the hero comes along. No matter how many pictures that girl sees in which the hero happens along when the heroine is bathing in the pool, she never seems to learn the lesson.

The hero couldn’t possibly fall in love if he didn’t see her in the altogether, it seems. Kingsley asked an expert about what this kind of scene was like:

Does the actress like that bathing-pool business? She does not. I asked Ruth Roland the other day about it, and she exclaimed: “Like it? Heaven forbid! It may look all nice; but I give you my word it is always dirty; there is green scum on the top, and the place is full of wiggly pollywogs! Ugh! No girl that wasn’t a congenital idiot ever would go into that pool if she didn’t have to!”

Aren’t you glad you’re not a dramatic actress in the 1920’s?


This article was such a hit that Kingsley was able to expand it and sell it to Picture Play Magazine, where it ran in February 1921 as “The Naughty Nude New Year.” However, the editor felt the need to dump cold water all over it. Just a few pages later “The Observer” column said:

Looking at it from a serious point of view, we do not believe that the new year is going to be quite as nude as predications would have it…the successful producer wants his pictures to be shown in the best theaters, and those are the theaters that want the steady patronage of clean Americans. Indecent pictures play in dirty theaters, and the producers are few and far between who set out to make pictures for that sort of place.

He’s going to be in for a shock as the decade goes on!



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