Tropes and Transformations

Why Change your Wife 1920 Directed by Cecile B Demille

This film includes gentle mocking of ‘types of femininity’ in the 1920’s including the ‘oriental fashionista’ of the day.

By the 1920’s the craze for exotic fashion as popularized by couturier Paul Poiret during the Belle Epoch had already become part of the cinematic lexicon of the era and is subtly parodied here in Cecil B Demille’s 1920 film Why Change your Wife. A spate of films in this era reveal a stylistic obsession with ‘the orient’ which is often portrayed as a playground for licentiousness, danger and eroticism.

The mesmeric Gloria Swanson often played the role of the oriental beauties, yet here she plays a bookish wife who has began to bore her husband with her earnest melancholy and want for self-improvement. Although married she plays the dowdy ‘maiden-aunt’ obsessed with propriety and modesty. Her costumes reflect this; un-embellished and modest, she despairs when her husband tries to liven up her drab demeanor by purchasing her some of the exotic fashions of the day from a Poiret-esque boutique.

In this scene she is unable to embody the fashions of her time. Her modest values simply won’t allow her to become her husbands (or fashion’s) oriental fantasy. Why? Well, why should she? This is 1920 however and this film suggests that women should be light, gay and uninhibited by intellect if they hope to keep their husband. Aside from this, the idea that women should shift their identity fluidly into a fashionable type is also fascinating and tells us much about figure of the Moderne woman. Perhaps the film echoes female concerns of the time – when a modern fashionable persona is at odds with more traditional female roles and values, how should one choose to dress? Here we see the tension between tradition and modernity and a precursor to the Jazz age and developing female emancipation – signaled quite appropriately through fashion.

In this clip there are also some troubling statements that pronounce the apparent dangers of dressing in such an exotic way. The ‘Turk’ her character describes is emblematic of a sensuality that seems both ‘other’ and immoral to her and reveals imperialistic attitudes of the era.

And yet, when her pride is damaged by her husband leaving her for the sensual, fun and fashionable shop girl, her perspective quickly changes…!