Fashionista Friday: Shirley Temple

Shirley Temple (b. 1928)

Shirley Temple in Baby Take a Bow. Fox Films, 1934.

Without a doubt, Shirley Temple was the most famous child of the 1930s.  Precocious, bubbly, and an embodiment of “cuteness,” Shirley began her film career at the tender age of three, but by puberty she was removed from Hollywood and sent to a real school for the first time in her life.  She would later attempt a return to her former career as an adolescent but would leave acting for good by age twenty-one.

At the time of her retirement from film, she had amassed a tidy fortune between $3 million and $4 million.  Shirley had not just earned a paycheck from acting in films—she had lent her name and face to numerous licensing agreements, including lines of garments that emulated her on-screen style.  Several companies were contracted to produce dresses, gloves, coats, hats, swimsuits, etc. under the Shirley Temple Brand.  The most successful partnership was with the Rosenau Brothers of Philadelphia, who created the Shirley Temple Cinderella Frock line.  Cinderella dresses were designed to align with Shirley’s latest film, and bore a hangtag that proudly announced the dress to be “Just Like Mine.”

Cinderella Frock design based on The Little Colonel, 1935.

Cinderella Frock design based on Dimples (also advertised as The Bowery Princess), 1936.

At Sears, Shirley Temple dresses were twice the price of other girls’ dresses; they were of “highest quality” and their workmanship “exquisite.” Sears catalog, 1935 (Blum 77).

A collection of Cinderella Frock dresses (Dubas 137).

Shirley was kept perpetually infantilized in her films and promotional appearances, wearing costumes that never quite grew up with her. Between the ages of seven and ten (although movie studios had preferred you to believe six and nine) Shirley was still dressed like a toddler.  Her dresses had either a high waistline or none at all, emphasizing a round tummy like a toddler’s, as well as a full, short skirt, showing off baby fat-ridden thighs and occasionally panties.

Shirley Temple wore roughly the same silhouette long into middle childhood. A collection of promotional tags produced by Cinderella Frocks (Dubas 134).

While Shirley Temple remained in perpetual toddlerhood through the 1930s, the average American girl was permitted to age properly.  Fashionable dresses for older girls had a waistline that sat at the natural waist and a slightly longer skirt that reached to the knees. Cinderella Frocks capitalized on that idea and introduced Big and Little Sister designs.

An advertisement for Big and Little Sister dresses by Cinderella Frocks (Dubas 140).

Shirley’s sartorial influence had a deep impact on American perception of child rearing and the acceptance of a toddler as a thinking, feeling, individual.  In his book The Commodification of Childhood: The Children’s Clothing Industry and the Rise of the Child Consumer, Daniel Cook examines the rise of consumer marketing to children, who had previously been seen as asexual, dependent creatures, and any choices regarding children’s needs had been directed toward their mother.  In the 1930s, marketing was beginning to be aimed toward children, appealing to their tastes and desires.  With Shirley’s unending toddlerhood, the acceptance that small children have wants and needs was enforced.  Toddler boys ceased to be dressed like toddler girls.  Juvenile marketing continued with the licensing of other Hollywood stars’ names and Disney character merchandise.  Marketers began to see the world through a child’s perspective, and, judging by the value of the global children’s wear market, projected to be $176.1 billion in 2015 (WeConnectFashion 9), they still do today.

Blum, Stella, ed.  Everyday Fashions of the Thirties as Pictured in Sears Catalogs.  New York: Dover Publications, 1986.
Children’s Wear.  New York: WeConnectFashion, 2012. (accessed September 26, 2012).
Cook, Daniel Thomas.  The Commodification of Childhood: The Children’s Clothing Industry and the Rise of the Child Consumer.  Durham: Duke University Press, 2004.
Dubas, Rita.  Shirley Temple: A Pictorial History of the World’s Greatest Child Star.  New York: Applause Theatre Books, 2006.
Shirley Temple Official Website. (accessed September 26, 2012).
Windeler, Robert.  The Films of Shirley Temple.  Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press, 1978.
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2 Responses to Fashionista Friday: Shirley Temple

  1. Deb says:

    The difference was that Shirley’s fame promoted dressing children differently from adults, and as you noted reinforcing the idea of a long period of toddlerhood. Today children have been urged to dress as adults again – and not professional tailored working adults, but as “Junior Sluts” like Jennifer Lopes, Beyonce, etc.

  2. Pingback: Exciting News! « Wear When Why

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