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When ABC presents the 90th Oscars ceremony on Sunday, expect to see lots of hat tips to classic Hollywood. Just don’t count on anyone to point out what any of the nominees actually wore to the first Academy Awards in 1929. The show was neither filmed nor broadcast on the radio — the first and last time that happened. Designers did not compete to dress nominees, and asking an entertainer “Who are you wearing?” would have elicited blank stares.
While there are several photographs of the winners posing with their awards in publicity shots, it’s a mystery what anyone, especially best actress Janet Gaynor, wore to the actual show. Only 22 when she won the honor for her work in three films (7th Heaven, Street Angel, and Sunrise), Gaynor is pictured in two different outfits with her Oscar (though the statuette hadn’t yet received that nickname). In one photo, she sports a timeless look — sweater, printed scarf, and pleated skirt — perfectly suitable for a schoolteacher. For an actress accepting an award? Not so much, at least today, anyway. In another, a bare-faced Gaynor stares ahead, wearing a scalloped collar and tie, her Oscar in front of her.
So, did Gaynor wear either of these ensembles to the ceremony or another piece entirely?
Racked reached out to the Academy librarians for an answer, and the verdict is that no one knows. “The library has a red carpet fashion database with our research on this general subject,” they said. “However, we have no information for the first awards ceremony.”
In The Complete Book of Oscar Fashion, writer Reeve Chace echoes Academy librarians. “No one really knows what that year’s best actress winner, Janet Gaynor, even wore to the ceremony,” she wrote. “There was little coverage in the press.” And in the book Star Style at the Academy Awards, author Patty Fox explains that “historians don’t talk about what Janet Gaynor wore to that very first Academy Awards banquet in 1929,” presumably because they’re as clueless as everyone else is on the subject.
By the next year’s Academy Awards, Mary Pickford had set the sartorial bar for best actress. She turned up in an embellished gown with a sophisticated cut, pleats, and a bow that she accessorized with a string of pearls and gleaming bracelets. But it’s unknown who designed her gown. While Pickford’s dress represents a clear shift in 1930, the very first Academy Awards stands out for reasons other than Gaynor’s business-casual vibe.
Because German actor Emil Jannings planned to be overseas when the May 16, 1929, ceremony took place, the Academy gave him the best actor award early. (Of course, there’s no chance that would happen today.) Jannings may have gotten his Oscar ahead of the show, but that didn’t get him out of posing for publicity shots with the statuette. In the photos, he wore a black bow tie and light-colored suit jacket with faint stripes. His hair is slicked back, and his brows well-groomed, as if he understood the prestige the Academy Awards would later have.
Although he received the best actor award for his performances in The Last Command and The Way of All Flesh, Jannings actually did not win the most votes from the Academy. He came in second, while another star came in first. So who bested Jannings? Rin Tin Tin, the German shepherd who starred in films like 1929’s Frozen River and sired several offspring also named Rin Tin Tin. The Academy figured that no one would take their awards show seriously if a dog won best actor, so they gave the Oscar to Jannings. (If you feel at all badly that Jannings almost lost the Oscar to a dog, don’t. He later went on to star in several Nazi propaganda films, so, yeah, Rin Tin Tin was robbed. After the Third Reich fell, Jannings became unemployable as an actor but is name dropped in Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 Nazi-era drama Inglourious Basterds.)
In 1929, the Academy hadn’t begun the tradition of awarding supporting actors and actresses, making Janet Gaynor the only female winner. Hollywood then, and, to a different extent, now, was very much a boys’ club, with exclusively men serving as directors and writers. At the time, the Academy gave two separate directing awards: one for best drama direction and the other for best comedy direction. Frank Borzage won in the former category for directing 7th Heaven, while Lewis Milestone won in the latter category for Two Arabian Knights. Posing with their awards, the men looked like they stepped out of a noir film. They have stern faces, furrowed brows, and maybe something to hide. They’re also sharply dressed, especially Borzage, in a three-piece suit and silk hankie. In contrast, Joseph Farnham, who won for title writing (most films were silent then), grinned as he accepted his Oscar from Academy president Douglas Fairbanks while wearing a heavy pinstriped suit, hat in hand.
The images of the winners with their Academy Awards only tell part of the story. A photo of the awards banquet shows tuxedo-clad men at tables with women wearing finger-wave hairdos, satin, lace, and scoop-neck evening dresses. So, maybe Janet Gaynor was every bit 1920s glam when she attended the Academy Awards dinner — she did go on to marry a costume designer, Adrian Greenberg. We just don’t have the photographs to prove it.