Styling ballet films: Waterloo Bridge

05 March 2012 | By Hila Shachar

Vivien Leigh in Waterloo Bridge
Vivien Leigh in Waterloo Bridge
Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor in Waterloo Bridge
Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor in Waterloo Bridge
Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor in Waterloo Bridge
Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor in Waterloo Bridge
Hila's vision of a modern-day Myra
Hila's vision of a modern-day Myra

Hila Shachar styles her favourite dance films. 

Mervyn LeRoy’s Waterloo Bridge (1940) is a classic Hollywood film that has earned its place in cinematic history. This is largely due to the film’s two charismatic leads, Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor. Leigh plays Myra, a young ballerina who falls in love with a handsome officer named Roy during a chance encounter on London’s Waterloo Bridge during World War I. As is often the case with classic “weepie” romances of the 1930s and 1940s, their love ends in tragedy.

At the heart of their romance is the equally tragic love story of the ballet Swan Lake, which Roy first encounters when he sees Myra dance. The finale music of Swan Lake features in key scenes in the movie, accompanying Roy’s flashback memories of Myra as he enters World War II. This self-conscious use of the ballet to highlight the links between past and present creates a silent dialogue between the beauty of dance and the lost beauty of youth and love.

Like many other British-themed Hollywood films of the period, Waterloo Bridge acts as a type of romantic propaganda, compelling sympathy and support for Britain during war-time. What makes this particular film unique, however, is the way that it also enlists ballet as part of the “war effort”. The beauty of ballet is combined with a glamorisation of all things British. This is most evident in Leigh’s character and her style.

Leigh’s ballerina character floats through the film in an array of gauzy ethereal gowns, chic lingerie and utterly feminine chemises and robes. Yet this classic Hollywood glamour is also accompanied by a sentimentalised British style, complete with tea on offer in every scene, umbrellas and sturdy wool hats, tailored suits and buttoned-up collars. The well-known “stiff upper lip” is called upon as an equally glamorised style as Leigh’s Myra effortlessly combines British stereotypes with a beautified Hollywood facade. It’s hard to picture anyone else pulling off such a strange combination of a practical, yet unrealistically glamorous, English ballerina.

Enter Myra’s glamorous British world:

frou-frou silk-chiffon chemise by Carine Gilson 

Wedgwood 1910 Duchess Hostess three-piece tea set, Royal Albert 

Vivienne Westwood Red Label checked wool-blend skirt suit 

Witchery asymmetrical felt hat

Alexander McQueen Degradé silk-chiffon gown 

Fulton Huntsman 1 Umbrella