In America, democracy has produced many wonderful things, but our lack of royalty—along with a history that spans only 236 years—has wreaked havoc on the production of style icons. Yes, occasionally, a First Lady like Jackie Kennedy dominates the spotlight—and much as they would with a favorite princess, women admire her clothes, her taste, her everything. But Jackies are rare, and in a country most famous, design-wise, for inventing the blue jean, icons can only be reliably found in one fascinating, wondrous place: Hollywood.
From the earliest days of silent films, designers, costumers, and makeup artists have taken attractive women and transformed them into personas. Because of the impact of movies on this country and the world (film and television generate $13.5 billion from exports alone), those newly hatched stars have become influential all over the globe. When, for instance, a team of Hollywood experts took a pretty brunette and dyed her hair platinum blonde, Marilyn Monroe was born. When another team poured her into a white halter dress with a skirt that would blow up just so when she stood over a subway grate, Hollywood invented a style icon for the ages.
From the beginning, the movies were a glorious mashup: Hollywood artisans would absorb the best of other, older worlds—from, say, Elizabethan England or the French aristocracy or ancient Greece and Rome—and then fuse that design, attitude, and sensibility with an American perspective. The results were movie stars who had the patina of class and history—and, occasionally, the aura of royalty.
Movies bestowed a certain glow of perfection; even in their off-camera lives, actresses seemed a little more divine. Not only were they famous, but, having been chosen for their beauty and talent, they became worthy of emulation. In most cases, their public personalities—the way they dressed, primarily—overshadowed the roles they played on camera. More people remember Marilyn in that white dress than saw the film in which she wore it: The Seven Year Itch has come and gone, but a great style icon is forever.
The star-making machine is harder to crank up today. In the past 40 years, during W’s lifetime, movies have become more fragmented. In 1972, when icons like Faye Dunaway, with her elegant bearing and her leggy blonde-ness, began appearing in the magazine, the studio system in Hollywood was coming to an end. Gone were the brilliant teams of hair and makeup artists who had the power to transform. Style was now in the hands of the individual, which is why Ali MacGraw integrated her own wardrobe into Love Story and Barbra Streisand let her curly hair go natural in A Star Is Born. Both women were widely imitated—MacGraw’s preppy look influenced not only women but also designers like Ralph Lauren and Michael Kors. In many ways, Love Story–era MacGraw has come to define American style: sporty, clean-lined, with a few quirky twists like the crocheted cloche hat she wore in the film, which became a kind of icon of the seventies.