Mae West in a publicity photo for the 1934 film, ‘Belle of the Nineties.’
Ten men waiting for me at the door? Send one of them home, I’m tired.
There are so many reasons to love the great, boundary-smashing Hollywood starlet Mae West, it’s hard to know where to start as the iconic blonde pretty much did it all. Not only was West an early supporter of women’s liberation back in the 1920s, she was also openly supportive of gay rights. West penned a play called The Drag whose storyline featured homosexuality and cross-dressing (The production was closed down in 1927 after a two-week run due to its controversial subject matter). From a very young age, West’s mother (a former model herself) helped encourage her daughter to perform, which she did starting around the age of seven in talent shows. By the time she was fourteen West was already a professional taking the stage in New York in productions put on by the Hal Clarendon Stock Company under the moniker “Baby Mae.”
A vintage show poster advertising Mae West’s controversial 1926 play, ‘Sex.’
Penning under the name “Jane Mast” West gave herself her big break by writing, producing, directing and starring in Sex in 1926. Sex played to packed houses until the venue was raided by the police (after complaints from religious types that don’t want anyone to have any fun), and West and the entire cast were arrested. And, since this is Mae West we’re talking about, instead of coughing up the dough in order to avoid sitting behind bars—West was given a ten days in jail on the laughable charge of “corrupting the morals of youth”—the willey platinum blonde bombshell decided that going to jail was better (and free) publicity. West only served eight days of the ten-day sentence due to “good behavior.”
By 1932, West was under contract with Paramount and would go on to star in numerous films, with two of her best alongside Cary Grant in 1933; She Done Him Wrong, and I’m No Angel. That same year in a review for I’m No Angel (published in October of 1933), entertainment magazine Variety said that West was as “hot an issue as Hitler” (who had been appointed Chancellor of Germany in January that same year).
West is also well known for her over-the-top costumes that she wore in her films. Legendary costume designer Edith Head created West’s looks for She Done Him Wrong that according to West were ‘tight enough so I look like a woman, loose enough so I look like a lady.” A look that West would continue to cultivate during her career that no other actress at the time could ever quite equal.
I’ve included many of West’s outlandish getups from photo shoots and films such as her “lion tamer” look from I’m No Angel, and her jaw-dropping looks from 1934’s Belle of the Nineties where she dons bat and butterfly wings, as well as a set of eight spider legs in her role as a fictional vaudevillian Ruby Carter. The images that follow are vintage visual treats for your eyes of a woman who always played by her own rules. If you’d like to learn more about Mae West, the 1997 book by Emily Wortis Leider Becoming Mae West, is a fantastic, in-depth exploration of the whip-smart, cinematic icon.
A publicity photo of Mae West from the 1934 film, ‘Belle of the Nineties.’
Another publicity shot of West in butterfly wings from ‘Belle of the Nineties.’
More Mae after the jump…