Greta Garbo Style

Hello Sailor - Greta Garbo publicity shot for MGM
One of the best ways to garner publicity is to eschew it and when Greta Garbo famously told the world she wanted to be alone, the moody Swedish actress immediately became an object of fascination. In the 1920s, she was cast as the eternal vamp and temptress and her male co-stars, mere incidental chattels overwhelmed by her dangerous beauty. In these romantic melodramas, her clothes were that of the seductress - dripping with sensual glamour.

Garbo the vamp
Androgynous Appeal
Garbo - a masculine element
Garbo's off-screen style was uniquely her own and conjured a sense of sexy androgyny but with an unmistakable feminine allure underpinning it all. Highly original in style and manner, the star claimed she cared little for clothes and fashion off-set, having had her enthusiasm dampened by scores of elaborate costume changes. Yet her real-life wardrobe reflected a strong individuality, as well perhaps, as a characteristic indifference to the Hollywood image machine. She was among the first to wear pants and often wore mens shirts, ties and vests, preferring the comfort of casualness to the effort of glamour.

Garbo in The Single Standard
As a silent screen star, Garbo had been enormously popular - her highly photogenic Swedish looks and intense, intuitive acting gave her an edge over the standard Hollywood actress. Yet when she first arrived in America as a shy 20 year old, she could barely speak a word of English - but then, in silent era, visual expression was more important than language.

Sexy in stripes. Garbo in a wraparound pyjama suit.
At first she seemed unlikely mega-star material - her thick accent and unusual looks, with the deep set eyes, long, pointed nose and largish limbs were not typically beautiful in a film star sense, however the camera loved her and onscreen she was as glamorous and sensual as any Hollywood beauty has ever been. Her features had drama and she could conjure emotion from the subtlest of expressions or movement.

Director Edmund Goulding once remarked of her: "In the studios she is nervous. Rather like a racehorse at the post - actually trembling, hating onlookers. At the first click of the camera, she starts pouring forth Garbo into the lens." (from Garbo by Alexander Walker)

Many in the industry feared that Garbo's love affair with the lens would not be enough to see her make the transition to talkies, yet when she uttered her first, heavily accented screen words...give me a visky, ginger ale on the side and don't be stingy the 1930 film,  Anna Christie, it was evident to all that her screen charisma was still very much in tact. In the 20s and 30s Greta Garbo was a phenomenon and immensely cool.

Greta Garbo with her mother Anna in 1939
Garbo was born Greta Gustafsson, from humble Swedish origins - one of three children born to Karl,a street-cleaner with unusually refined features and Anna, a sturdy but quiet mother. Karl Gustafsson died early, probably as a result of the Spanish flu epidemic that was taking out scores of people in 1919. Greta began her working life around this time, as an after school 'lather' girl in a barber's shop, before becoming, at 15, a trainee milliner (hat maker) at a department store, where she asked to model some hats for a catalogue. This led to further advertising work, including a filmed commercial, which in turn led to her appearing in a short comedy, Peter the Tramp. 

Having decided to move from millinery to movies, the young Greta went on to study dramatic arts in Stockholm and it was there that she   was scooped up professionally by fellow Swede, noted director Mauritz Stiller, who sensed he had something special in the pale, sensuous actress and took her under his wing as a protege. Stiller is generally credited with being the Svengali figure who guided the butterfly transition of  Greta Garbo from shy Swedish shop girl to sublime dramatic actress.

Innate sophistication
Greta starred in Stiller's 1924 film adaption of  Salma Lagerloff's novel, The Saga of Gosta Berling and followed this up the following year with a role in a German film The Joyless Street, directed GW Pabst. Meanwhile,  while visiting Berlin, ostensibly to  meet with Mauritz Stiller on the advice of a Swedish friend, head of MGM, Louis B Mayer watched a screening of Gosta Berling. While impressed with the director, Mayer was even more captivated by the performance of the young Swedish lead.

In 1925,  both Stiller and Garbo headed for Hollywood where Garbo was to thrive professionally but unfortunately, where Stiller would languish, often at odds with the powers that be at the studio. Although Garbo and MGM too, were not always a comfortable fit, her cachet was such that frictions were usually sorted out...eventually.

Greta Garbo and Mauritz Stiller in 1925
Say Goodbye to Hollywood
Garbo in peasant gear for The Torrent
Garbo's Hollywood success is legendary, yet she has often been described as 'ambivalent' toward her own screen success and some fans were mystified by what  seemed like an ultimate rejection of Hollywood superstardom. Her final film in 1941, George Cukor's  Two-Faced Woman, had not been a commercial or critical success, yet she was still only a luminous 36, with many films projects ahead should she desire it. So why leave?

However when you think about it...why not? For a woman who loathed publicity, there was little to be gained by perpetual motion on the fame treadmill and if she missed film-making, the loss was not sufficient to hold her captive to it.

Garbo in one of the  typically over-the-top costumes she grew weary of. From The Torrent.
X Factor
Greta Garbo in 1925
So what, really was the heart of Garbo's phenomenal appeal? Was she merely extremely, magically photogenic? Was it aloofness and inaccessibility? The radical disregard for glamour? Was it some mysterious X factor that is undetectable and immeasurable? In many ways, Garbo was the right woman for the times - forthright, independent of mind and opinion and seemingly self-assured enough to express herself freely through her clothes and manner and possessing a natural, if exotic, sensual beauty that appealed to both sexes.

At least, that's how she appeared to her adoring public, though who knows what insecurities and anxieties may have lurked beneath the surface charms? According to biography Alexander Walker, her teenage  relationships with friends were strangely jealous and obsessive and she had a capacity to be so self-critical, it was almost painful. Walker notes that in personal letters to these friends her self-analytical words are "so obviously the product of a lonely girl's introspection":

They are also very headstrong in tone:words are not wasted, thoughts not restrained.The traits are clearly those of a girl determined to get her own way, whatever the price she pays in suffering. It is the first undoubted intimation of the Garbo temperament. (Alexander Walker Garbo)

Garbo's cinematic appeal was in all likelihood a combination of factors - she was photogenic, she could express emotion and she did possess mystery, intrigue and sexual allure. Yet perhaps her greatest asset lay in the fact that she had style - not a contrived, fashionable adherence to the aesthetic rules of the day but rather a less conscious, dismissive disregard for for that which didn't meld with her own intuition. She was herself...something that, in the final analysis, many of us are too fearful to be.