Judy Garland: the appeal of the unconventional

Following the announcement of a new Judy Garland biopic, Rosie Best reflects on the actress’s continuing appeal and examines her unique, unconventional style.

As for many children, watching The Wizard of Oz was an almost obligatory part of my childhood. I have fuzzy memories of sitting on the carpet, enduring the eye-watering colours of Oz, the high-pitched (almost incomprehensible) voices of the munchkins and a faint feeling of irritation at the nonsense of it all.

It took years – and a degree course – for me to reencounter Garland and come into contact with her later movies. My fascination with her grew when I realised how greatly her adult career differed from her breakthrough role as Dorothy Gale but, for me, the real appeal of her later roles was their unconventionality.

Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale. Picture credit: MGM

In her public image and in her legacy, Garland seems to bounce back and forth between the conventional and the unconventional. For a whole generation of viewers who had watched her in The Wizard of Oz she must have embodied a much-longed-for, pre-war state of innocence – a bittersweet nostalgia encapsulated in her wistful ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’. In her familiar girl-next-door aesthetic – complete with gingham apron and pigtails – Dorothy also represented comfortable, traditional and unspoiled femininity, a stark contrast from the increasing number of women in army uniforms. All of this, however, was noticeably at odds with the actress’s deep and striking contralto voice which, in 1998, Camille Paglia described as “wavering between male and female timbres”.

As her career progressed, both Garland and her producers seemed largely to discard the conventional, girlish image which had popularised the actress in The Wizard of Oz and the Andy Hardy movies, adopting instead more androgynous roles which resonated with the tones of her voice but clashed with the conventions and ideals of the age.

In 1948, Garland starred alongside Fred Astaire in what would become one of her most well-known movies, Easter Parade. In the film, Garland’s character – Hannah Brown – is trained by Don Hewes (Fred Astaire) to take the place of his previous dance partner, the glamorous Nadine Hale (Ann Miller). However, the success of the new pairing depends not on Hannah’s metamorphosis into a more sensual, feminine performer but on Don’s acceptance of – and capitalisation on – her own personality. Throughout the rest of the film, the pair rehearse several duets in which they dance side by side, performing the same steps in parallel rather than in hold. One routine in particular, ‘When the Midnight Choo Choo Leaves for Alabam’’, also has Garland dressed in a shirt and necktie, mirroring Astaire even more closely. The movie eventually culminates in a performance of ‘A Couple of Swells’, a vaudeville routine in which Don and Hannah wear the same shabby suits, top hats and drawn-on beards – an obvious juxtaposition with Ann Miller’s highly feminine final performance, in which she wears a long, flowing, pink and white dress.

couple of swells
A Couple of Swells. Picture credit: MGM

Whilst Easter Parade is perhaps the most famous example of androgyny in one of Judy Garland’s performances, this also pervades – although perhaps more subtly– many of her other notable roles. In a personal favourite, In the Good Old Summertime (1949), Garland’s bold, energetic movements are anything but elegant, a perfect mirror to the unconventional female behaviour she promotes: “a girl should know her etiquette, alas alack! Propriety demands we walk a narrow track. When fellas used to wink at me, I’d freeze ‘em and they’d shrink at me. But now when fellas wink at me, I wink at ‘em right back!”. Here, Garland’s lyrics draw attention to the inequality in conventional, accepted male and female behaviour and in the song itself, her character begins to blur these lines.

Even as Garland’s career began to peter out, her androgynous style remained firmly intact, becoming a sort of trademark in her later years. During the fifties, traditional feminine values began to rear their head in Western society again, both in the form of dress and social expectations. But, despite this, Garland’s later films tend to depict her more androgynously than ever before: Summer Stock (1950) has Garland wearing a tuxedo jacket and hat while performing ‘Get Happy’, and in A Star is Born (1954) the actress wears a full suit in ‘Swanee’ and often appears in a shirt and/or necktie. This plot of the latter is also not dissimilar to Easter Parade as Garland’s character must resist feminisation and embrace her unconventionality in order to become a successful performer.

summer stock
Garland’s famous costume in ‘Get Happy’. Picture credit: MGM
Garland in ‘Swanee’, from A Star is Born. Picture credit: MGM 

Similarly, in the sixties, particularly on her TV show and during her famous Carnegie Hall performances, Judy Garland can be seen wearing a short pixie cut hairstyle and boxy, straight-leg slacks, jackets and tops. In several episodes she even wears outfits that match her guests’, including Donald O’Connor.

donald o'connor
Judy Garland and Donald O’Connor on an episode of her TV show. Picture credit: Kingsrow Enterprises, Inc.

For a modern-day viewer, it is Judy Garland’s unconventional style, voice and roles that make her so intriguing. Her demeanour – particularly in her live appearances – is refreshingly unapologetic, and her ability to resist simplification – to fluctuate between feminine and masculine, conventional and unconventional – allow her to remain radically three-dimensional in an industry which is often guilty of reducing women to two dimensional symbols.

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