Born March 3, 1911
Height 5' 2"
Shoe Size 4
The Early Years
Jean Harlow is the emblematic movie star. Born in 1911, Harlow arrives in Hollywood in 1927, age 16. Her first bit part is Laurel and Hardy comedy in which her clothes get caught in a car door and she is forced to enter a hotel wearing only black underwear. It is a premonition of what is to come.
The authenticity of the first nudes (JH2910) have been questioned but this nude scene outside in drapery (JH2920) is definitely an 18-year-old Harlow on her way to scandal and fame. They reported to have been shot in Griffith Park, Hollywood by one of the master pinup shooters of the era: Edwin Bower Hesser. The Bikini Scientist does not know if these pictures were published in one of the art photography magazines at the time; this this was certainly true for many of her contemporaries. And of course all the early nudes return once one becomes famous.
This career path is not substantially different from the already famous Louise Brooks or Joan Crawford; or competitors who are just slightly older, including Joan Blondell, Claudette Colbert, and Carol Lombard.
This bandeau and grass skirt found in a 1929 Hollywood gossip magazine (JH2930) is not unlike similar costumes worn by Clara Bow, Myrna Loy, Gilda Gray and other tropical princesses of the era. Not every one is prepared to bellage, but dancers and actresses are expected to. This legart pose also captures a lot of the waining flapper feel (JH3060).
The Big Break
Harlow's big break comes in 1930 when Howard Hughes casts her in the air epic Hells Angles, with its notorious gowns, leanover cleavage, and seduction scenes. In this sequence Harlow tosses her cape aside to reveal a black swimsuit (JH3050).
From then on she is the "Blonde Bombshell" and the "Platinum Blonde" (1931) and the reigning Hollywood glamour goddess. We find her wet in a bathtub (JH3205) opposite James Cagney in Public Enemy (1931), and bathing apparently nude in a raid barrel (JH3220) opposite Clark Gable in Red Dust (1932). Wet is always an excuse for Bikini Science.
Harlow will continue to flash breasts throughout her movie career. In Red Headed Woman (1932) she flashes a nipple, and in China Seas (1935) she fleetingly spills her right breast.
Thus distracted we return to the role Harlow plays in Bikini Science, and that concerns the evolution of the maillot. Once Harlow becomes famous she largely recovers her belly--especially in bathing attire--and constrains herself to keeping her cleavage and legs in play, both with her evening gowns as well as her maillots, which is our story here. Harlow never quite makes it to the deux-pièces, although they exist by now.
Jean Harlow and Maillots
In a nutshell, Harlow's maillot progression resonates with the constriction of maillot throughout the1930s, including a redefinition of the armhole and a lowering of the back.
Harlow's many swimsuit pinups always push the limits of the early 1930s maillot. The Bikini Scientist is absent knowledge of their exact sequence, but also probably understands that the path from old the new is not in practice linear, but a back and forth Browian motion that trends in a certain direction.
That said it is also probably true that the Bikini Scientist's own analysis of the evolution of the maillot through this period may also be moderated by forces unseen by him, and be likewise flawed. But we will try: For Harlow provides a case study of how a classic swimsuit silhouette is defined.
So where to begin? By 1930 the maillot variables include neckline, armholes, legline, skirt, and a belt. Shoes and a hat are frequent accessories.
So here in Harlow sans foundation, skirt, and belt, although this maillot still has a tiny leg (JH3010). This sequence also contains a revelation about media.
During the early 1930s the maillot becomes tighter fitting. This rowing machine maillot (JH3230) and this in-the-water pose (JH3240) are both shot by Clarence Sinclair Bull in 1932, head of the MGM stills department, shortly about the time Harlow comes to work for the studio. Both garments are tight-fitting, with seams that help to control the figure. Both have scooped necklines, marginal legline, armholes, and no skirt.
Even bigger changes can be seen in the sequence of maillots that follow: This exercise maillot reflects a new silhouette (JH3210), which in short order will more fully define itself (JH3320) to include a falling backline and a redefinition of armhole. Here it done to perfection with the accomplishment of a strapoff and teasy cleavage (JH3330).
Cleavage also plays a roll in a 1934 maillot (JH3410), but the narrower silhouette remans a Harlow vehicle (JH3H10, JH3H20, JH3H30). String straps are an exception (JH3H40), but the declining backline is common (JH3580).
This sleek maillot, from 1936 is one of Harlow's last iconic swimsuit statements (JH3610).
Harlow's Only deux-pièces?
Harlow's death in 1937, at the age of 26, brings her career to an abrupt end...and her evolution as one of Hollywood's bathing beauties to a premature close. Aside from her early dance costumes and nudes, throughout her Hollywood career Harlow remains a maillot-clad beauty, and this early deux-pièces, which teases out the smallest ring of midriff is a very rare silhouette (JH3710).
References to this excerpt include "Jean Harlow," The Picticon (picticon.com). Individual scenes contain individual attributions; much of the material is believed to be movie studio publicity stills collected from the Internet and old magazines.