Greta Garbo as Mata Hari (1931)

Embellishment, baroque detail and luxe fabrics have been on the catwalks and in the high street this autumn/winter, (Dolce and Gabanna, pictured) and Zac Posen autumn/winter 2012) but the film I thought of when I saw this look was Mata Hari from 1931.

As the infamous spy and great seducer of the First World War, Greta Garbo was dressed in luxurious velvets, brocades and embellished tunics.

MGM’s head costume designer Adrian dressed Garbo in extravagant costumes that fed into the early 20th century fascination with all things Oriental, as was true to the time when Mata Hari was active. Below is an image of the real life spy.

 Orientalism goes back to the mid 18th century with the opening up of trade between China, Japan and India, a movement of European artists exploring Asia and with Chinese silk and Indian cotton being imported as fashionable luxuries. It was a popular activity among the wealthy to throw Arabian themed parties, and Islamic decor and art filled stately homes.

Victorian women daringly wore loose Arabic tunics beneath their dresses, and at the turn of the century Leon Bakst designed exotic costumes for the Ballet Russes. By the first decade of the 20th century Parisian couturier Paul Poiret made waves with his Oriental tunics and harem pants (as seen on Sybil in Downtown Abbey).

In the 1930s Orientalism was revived once again due to the Art Deco movement in both fashion and decor. In 1931 Schiaparelli drew inspiration from Balinese and Thai traditional costumes that were on display at the Exposition Coloniale in Paris, with their structured shoulders and heavy beading. She travelled to both India and Tunisia and studied the local crafts. In turn, Hollywood also embraced the exotic, and Greta Garbo was seen to be a mysteriously for actress. Ok, Sweden doesn’t seem all that exotic, but she gave the impression of being untouchable and other-wordly, partly through her avoidance of the press and Hollywood parties as much as she could.

Garbo appeared in several films that made use of Oriental fashion and far away settings. In Wild Orchid she played a married woman on a cruise ship who is seduced by a Javanese prince, and in The Painted Veil she wore a series of elaborate hats and Chinese tunics.

To design Garbo’s costumes for Mata Hari, Adrian looked to Bakst’s Ballet Russe designs and Sarah Bernhardt’s Oriental costumes for her role as Empress Theodora in an 1894 stage production (below).

Adrian decorated Garbo with jewelled skull caps, brocade and Oriental embroidery, tunics and wide dolman sleeves; a Turkish style that is wide at the top and tapered to the wrist.

Garbo’s look on screen proved very popular amongst women in the 1930s and key styles were often picked up and copied by clothes manufacturers. In Mata Hari, her skull caps and jewelled turbans proved popular, along with this coat.

In Silver Screen magazine in March 1933 Adrian spoke of Garbo being a trendsetter. He said: “Do you remember the double-breasted, broad-shouldered sable coat in Mata Hari? It was picked up and copied by a fashionable New York store. That was some time ago. Today it is still a best seller.”

Contemporary designers have named Mata Hari as an influence to their designs. Fashion designer Alice Temperley was quoted as saying: “Garbo portrays this rather miserable figure as an irresistible spy, looking more glamorous than ever in the most elaborate costumes by the designer Adrian. It inspired the Crystal story of our Matador autumn/winter 2005 show – over the top, but all women have to be able to enjoy fantasy clothes.”

Garbo’s costumes in Mata Hari were pretty risqué,  as it was released just before censorship codes came into play. In the opening scenes she performs a dance in front of a statue of Shiva in a Balinese headdress, and like Salome’s dance of the seven veils she unravels scarves until she is only in a jewel encrusted bikini and sarong. In the uncensored version of the scene, she is seen for a brief moment completely naked from behind.

 One of Garbo’s most stunning costumes is an intricate long sleeved, gold braid gown made entirely from gold mesh and beading (below). It took fifteen beaders three weeks to hand-sew the beads. The gold braid skirt is split to reveal legs encased in gold mesh; the sheen of the fabric emphasized her lean limbs, glistening like oil slicks. Her arms are covered by dolman sleeves, wrapped tightly around her wrists. Despite her limbs being covered, her shoulders and back are exposed, revealing her vulnerability.


Another costume is a jewel-encrusted, long sleeved velvet tunic with an a-symmetrical gilded neckline that slips off one shoulder, a brocade belt, slouchy velvet boots and beaded velvet skullcap. Despite the mass of decoration, the glimpse of white shoulder and neck reveals a simple, stark beauty.


Mata Hari has a gloriously Oriental apartment with archways, Hindi statues, draped fabric and two gilded peacocks on either side of the Art Deco entrance. This exotic mysticism contrasts with the Catholic iconography of her lover Alexi’s apartment. He declares to her :“I love you as one adores sacred things… God, country, honour, you… You come first before anything.” To test him, she orders him to put out the sacred candle he had promised his mother he would always keep burning.

While Mata Hari and Alexis have differing notions of spiritualism, Carlotta, the traitor spy, is devoid of spiritual depth. The antithesis of Mata Hari, her hair is in a neat bob, and sleek, contemporary dress with fur collar encircling her neck, a precursor to the tragic end that awaits her. As she begs for her life, she says: “You think I’m a traitor. I’m not. I’ll swear by everything I hold sacred.”

“And what do you hold sacred?” is the answer.

To illustrate Mata Hari’s downfall, the jewels and embroidery are stripped away and she is left in simple headdresses and tunics. On trial Mata Hari is dressed in black, modest in a scull cap and void of any glitter. As she stands on the firing line, she looks repentant with her hair scraped back.


I liked this quote from Mara Reeves, a showgirl from New York, who worked as an extra on Mata Hari.

“I worked on the ‘Mata Hari’ set with Miss Garbo. All the ‘extras’ were more curious and exited about her than I’ve ever seen them about any other star. The sets for her are different, too, with only high-class ‘extras’ called. She came on the set with no make-up on, and she was just as beautiful as she is on the screen. I’ve been around quite a bit, you know, but I never saw anybody to beat her.”


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