Marlene Dietrich, a life

The Smithsonian's Exhibition of a Style Icon

Above image by George Hurrell. 1937 Courtesy Michael Hadley Epstein and Scott Edward Schwimer, ©

BY: Elizabeth Hazard

The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery presents the first exhibition on the life and career of German-born actress and singer Marlene Dietrich, titled Marlene Dietrich: Dressed for the Image. Recognized for her ability to challenge feminist standards in her roles and her style of dress, Dietrich’s career spanned a remarkably long seven decades.

Known for her roles in such cinematic classics as The Blue Angel, Morocco, Shanghai Express, and Desire and Seven Sinners, she was arguably one of the most popular actresses when movies with sound, known as “talkies” were relatively new. She was also one of the highest paid actresses of the time.

Off the stage and outside of Hollywood, Dietrich was equally famous for her humanitarian work. During World War II, she was very active in Anti-Nazism efforts. She was awarded a Medal of Freedom, an accomplishment she claimed she was most proud above all of her other successes. The actress, who also advocated for the LGBT community, was herself bisexual and took on androgynous roles in many of her films.

Dietrich was considered one of the biggest fashion icons of the time, and her crossdressing style is still studied by top designers of the day. In speaking of her own style, the actress stated, “I dress for the image. Not for myself, not for the public, not for fashion, not for men. If I dressed for myself I wouldn’t bother at all. Clothes bore me. I’d wear jeans. I adore jeans. I get them in a public store – men’s, of course; I can’t wear women’s trousers. But I dress for the profession.”

The exhibit, curated by Gallery historian Kate C. Lemay, is comprised of a collection of photographs, film clips and letters Dietrich wrote. It runs until April 15, 2018.

And this January Rizzoli will publish a book title Obsession: Marlene Dietrich: The Pierre Passebon Colletion, by Henry-Jean Servat, Pierre Passebon, and Marlene Dietrich. This book is filled with French-based gallery owner Passebon’s personal collection of rare images of Dietrich, shot by world-renown photographers, such as Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, and Cecil Beaton.


marlene dietrich white suit lounge chair
Marlene Dietrich on the SS Europa, 1933, Cherbourg, France by Paul Cwojdzinski


marlene dietrich fishnet
Marlene Dietrich in “Seven Sinners”by John Engstead


marlene dietrich military parachutes
Marlene Dietrich with Parachutists by George Horton


marlene dietrich in chair
Marlene Dietrich by George Hurrell


marlene dietrich in top hat
Marlene Dietrich in “Morocco”by Eugene Robert Richee