Hollywoodland | Vintage Pulp Feb 7 2013
DRESS TO EXCESS
If there’s such a thing as the most amazing dress ever made, Carroll Baker wore it.


In the summer of 1964, promoting her movie The Carpetbaggers, American actress Carroll Baker attended a premiere at London’s Plaza Theatre in Piccadilly Circus wearing a $28,000.00 transparent dress from designer Pierre Balmain. She had worn it before at the U.S. premiere in June, which means Londoners had an inkling what they were going to see, but what resulted was, well, a circus. The crowd went nuts and the situation devolved into what some newspapers described as a near riot. The above National Examiner, published today in 1972, features Baker wearing what we noticed was a similar but not identical dress. We got curious where it came from, and so we went looking.

Turns out in late 1964 designer Oleg Cassini, entranced by the Balmain dress, designed a similar version for Baker to wear at a promotional event in Las Vegas. The difference is in the placement of the beading—Balmain’s left a v-shaped peek-a-boo, whereas Cassini’s left a diagonal opening across the chest. You can see the difference below. Cassini had built his version of the dress in Baker’s absence using a model of identical size, but it didn’t really fit because bodies have all sorts of differences, even if their crude numerical aspects are ostensibly the same. Baker endured eighteen precarious hours in a gown that was so tightshe couldn’t shake hands without it shifting to reveal parts she wanted to keep hidden. She later wore the dress—hopefully altered—at a premiere of Cheyenne Autumn, and a photo of her posing with a dozen costumed Native Americans survives today in the Associated Press archives.
 
But the dress wasn’t finished quite yet. The next year immortal costumer Edith Head designed yet another variation on Balmain’s original for Baker to wear promoting the film Harlow. We don’t know where the previous two gowns went, but the Head version, one of several she put together, survived and has appeared in Hollywood fashion exhibitions as recently as 2003. Baker also wore a Balmain (or Cassini or Edith Head copy) during a 1966 troop tour in Vietnam, and the only reason a full firefight didn’t break out among the GIs the moment she unveiled herself is probably because that version had no cut-outs (right).
 
Extreme publicity stunts were apparently not unusual for Baker. She considered herself a good actress, but felt that she couldn’t become a star in Hollywood without promoting herself as a sex symbol. “I’ve tried just acting,” she once said, “but sex sells at the box office.” As time wore on, she went from threatening to walk off the set of Station Six—Sahara due to the director pressuring her to appear nude to playing unclothed roles in The Sweet Body of Deborah, Così dolce... così perversa, and Paranoia, as well appearing nude in Playboy and Playmen. Nothing like a shrinking bank account to totally reshape one’s morals. In 1966 AP scribe Doris Klein wrote that Baker was “almost too pretty, too much like a slim teenager to play a sexpot.” But Baker became one of the biggest sexpots in the world. Looking at the 1964 Balmain, and the three to six versions that followed, we’d say it was inevitable.

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History Rewind
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
April 20
1939—Holiday Records Strange Fruit
American blues and jazz singer Billie Holiday records "Strange Fruit", which is considered to be the first civil rights song. It began as a poem written by Abel Meeropol, which he later set to music and performed live with his wife Laura Duncan. The song became a Holiday standard immediately after she recorded it, and it remains one of the most highly regarded pieces of music in American history.
April 19
1927—Mae West Sentenced to Jail
American actress and playwright Mae West is sentenced to ten days in jail for obscenity for the content of her play Sex. The trial occurred even though the play had run for a year and had been seen by 325,000 people. However West's considerable popularity, already based on her risque image, only increased due to the controversy.
1971—Manson Sentenced to Death
In the U.S, cult leader Charles Manson is sentenced to death for inciting the murders of Sharon Tate and several other people. Three accomplices, who had actually done the killing, were also sentenced to death, but the state of California abolished capital punishment in 1972 and neither they nor Manson were ever actually executed.
April 18
1923—Yankee Stadium Opens
In New York City, Yankee Stadium, home of Major League Baseball's New York Yankees, opens with the Yankees beating their eternal rivals the Boston Red Sox 4 to 1. The stadium, which is nicknamed The House that Ruth Built, sees the Yankees become the most successful franchise in baseball history. It is eventually replaced by a new Yankee Stadium and closes in September 2008.
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