By Ellie Foden
Considering the loss of almost her entire filmography by 1937, why is fashionable visual culture from 1966 to 1975 haunted by the image of silent film star and archetypal vamp, Theda Bara?
1960s visual culture saw a trend for intertextual references to classic Hollywood stars which had originated in the Pop-Art movement and were closely associated with postmodernism. As the decade progressed classic Hollywood also provided increasingly fertile ground for fashionable inspiration as the modernist dolly bird was succeeded by a series of retro looks ranging from Victoriana to the 1940s. Chief among the new/old fashion muses were classic Hollywood stars such as Marlene Dietrich, Jean Harlow and Theda Bara.
While it seems likely designers and artists drew inspiration from classic Hollywood films, which were screened in some cinemas at the time often for the first time in decades, the vast majority of Theda Bara’s filmography had been destroyed in the 1937 Fox Vault fire, including her most iconic performances as Cleopatra (1917) and Salome (1918). This scarcity combined with her strange, deathly pallor and full figure seemingly at odds with both contemporary and 1960s beauty ideals make Theda Bara’s selection from the ranks of silent film stars for a revival, 42 years after she retired from the screen and 11 years after her death, all the more compelling.
The likely origin of Theda Bara’s revival in 1960s visual culture can be traced to her appearance on the banner of countercultural newspaper ‘The International Times’ in 1966. Her image was reportedly selected over that of the original ‘It’ girl, Clara Bow, on account of her more saturnine appearance which positioned her as an ideal symbol for sexual liberation. This move appears to have endowed Theda’s image with countercultural credibility; similar to the process Che Guevara’s image underwent during the same period. By 1967 her image had taken on new iconic qualities and was appearing across a range of visual media associated with the counterculture in both the UK and US.
There is evidence to suggest that by the early 1970s these explicit countercultural quotations may have given way to fashionable implicit references. These can be identified amid the darker vampish vision of femininity, which appeared in fashionable visual culture around this time; an aesthetic exemplified by Biba, which referenced Theda Bara and the silent movie vamp in publicity photographs. It may also be significant that this trend coincided with second wave feminism’s growing momentum during the period, a movement, which in a large part grew out of the anti-authoritarianism of the 1960s counterculture.
Theda Bara was the archetypal cinematic Vamp and a self-proclaimed feminist. Between 1914 and 1926 she made a stream of films about wicked women which in all likelihood has never been rivalled. Her first career defining ‘vampire’ role was in A Fool There Was (1915), a film inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s misogynistic poem of the same name which was in turn based upon the Philip Burne-Jones painting, The Vampire. This foundation established a clear lineage between the cinematic vamp and the 19th Century femme fatale, whose simultaneously threatening and alluring appearance is thought to have been an expression of masculine anxiety towards increasing feminine political and social power. Despite Theda Bara’s self-identification as a feminist and her career occurring at the same time as the suffrage movement, it seems more likely her stream of successful vampire roles was a reaction to first wave feminism or the product of sadomasochistic heterosexual male fantasy than progressive or feminist.
Feminist film theorist, Mary Ann Doane also claims that the cinematic femme fatale ‘…is not the subject of feminism but a symptom of male fears about feminism’, but she goes on to say that ‘the representation – like any representation – is not totally under the control of its producers, and, once disseminated, comes to take on a life of its own‘. Rather than a direct manifestation of male anxiety surrounding female empowerment or a sign divorced of meaning, as some postmodern thinkers might argue, these images of Theda Bara and the cinematic vamp in the visual culture of the 1960s and 1970s could represent a subversion and appropriation of her image as an empowering or defiant idealized self, or even an example of a wider tendency for fashion to reference the perceived icons of previous waves of feminism during later periods of high-profile feminist activity.
I intend to explore these themes further during my research project, where I will trace the origin and development of this phenomenon by conducting archival research on both fashionable and countercultural sources. I will then contextualize my findings, not only in terms of the counterculture and feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s, but Theda Bara’s specificity as icon, silent films star, vamp and femme fatale.