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Silence Is Golden

Mary Pickford's golden gown is on display in Becoming Los Angeles from May 12

Poster for the 1923 film Rosita.

There’s a little mystery surrounding this gown from Rosita, which stars silent film actress (also studio owner and co-founder of United Artists) Mary Pickford. Set in Seville, the film centers around the titular Rosita, a Spanish street singer played by Pickford. Rosita draws the king’s attention with a protest song, inciting a series of arrests, seductions, and near deaths leading Rosita from the slums of Seville to the royal palace. The film touches on themes of class and inequality that are still relevant almost a hundred years later. The gown, one of a number commissioned for the film at Pickford’s request, never appears in the movie, and no one quite knows why.

pickford dress composed
Pickford's golden gown is on display in Becoming Los Angeles from May 12

Her gown, on display from May 12 through November 14 2021 in the Becoming Los Angeles exhibition, reflects some of the glitz we associate with the roaring 1920s of Pickford’s day, albeit with an Andalusian sensibility. It’s stunning gold, cinched high but loose directly under the bodice, with the pleated skirt not unlike a golden Corinthian column. One possible explanation for why the gown never appears in the film: It would have been awfully uncomfortable. “It would probably be like wearing a suit of armor made out of sandpaper in the desert,” according to Marina Gibbons, Assistant Conservator. “All of the metal elements of the dress are relatively heavy, stiff, and scratchy. Gold is also heavy, even in very thin layers.”

close up back of pickford dress
The same gold and intricate lacework that makes this dress so unforgettable made it so uncomfortable to wear

Another possibility, according to NHM’s History Collections Manager Beth Werling, is that the dress does appear in the film, just not  in the sole surviving print that comes to us via Russia,  and the scene may have been cut by censors there. Pickford gazes warily off camera in the only surviving image of her in the gown. Lips closed, hand to her bodice, she might be on the run or considering the king’s advances. There’s no telling exactly what’s happening in the scene, but this enigmatic gown speaks volumes.

See the jaw-dropping Hollywood garment in NHM’s Becoming Los Angeles and learn more about silent films  at the William S. Hart Museum at HARTMUSEUM.ORG