20th Century, Rate the dress

Rate the Dress: Norma Shearer as Juliet in Botticelli

Last week’s Rate the Dress discussion was everything I could hope for from a blog post: lively debate, outside research, and a little mischief.

Opinions on Charles James’ anatomical dress differed greatly, even among individual people, mostly because of the colour.  Was the dress palest peach and marigold orange, as in the image I posted?  Or was it pale peach and dark peach, as in the Met’s current image?  Most of you liked it better as the second, but Cecil Beaton’s photograph of James’ frocks for Vogue suggests that pale and orange was the designers intention (thanks Steph for finding it!).   With ratings ranging from 1 to 10, the frock evened out with a rating of 7.2.  Not bad for a dress that was described as ‘labial folds’ and ‘baby poo’!

This week I move away from young girls dressed as women, and very womanly dresses, to a womanly woman dressed as a young girl.  Norma Shearer was 34 when she played the teenage heroine of Romeo and Juliet.  As much as I adore and respect Shearer in other ways, I think that agreeing to play Juliet was a silly, silly thing for her to do.  She was completely the wrong age, completely the wrong look, completely the wrong temperament, and unsuited to Shakespeare in general.  Shearer claimed that she “always chose sophisticated parts because you can’t really be interesting as a young girl or outstanding as an ingenue.”  Clearly she broke that rule with Romeo and Juliet, as you can’t get a more archetypical ingenue than Shearer’s starry eyed Juliet (with a pet fawn!)

While critics raked the film, and Shearer, over the coals, it did receive praise for its artistic design which was directly inspired by Renaissance artists.  One memorable costume has Shearer in a dress taken from Botticelli’s Primavera and Birth of Venus. Shearer claimed to have a hand in her own costumes, saying “somehow or other I always got myself rigged up in something sensational.”

Norma Shearer as Juliet in a Botticelli inspired gown

Norma's garland and headdress

The sleeves and cuffs

A full length scene showing the filming of Romeo and Juliet (sorry for the watermark!)

The dress is certainly interesting and very innocent and youthful, all organza puffs and floral garlands, plus a floral crown.  You decide if Norma’s costume was a better choice than her role.

Rate the dress on a scale of 1 to 10


  1. It wasn’t uncommon for older actresses to portray Juliette until the 60’s. I believe that Zeffirelli’s film with Olivia Hussey was one of the first to use a young actress for the role. The thinking before that was that an actress couldn’t have the maturity and experience to play it before her 30’s.

    • Agreed, but from what I have read, this film was one of the things that changed that – up close Norma looked so ridiculous as Juliet that directors started re-thinking their casting of roles like Juliet.

  2. Have you seen Botticelli’s Venus on a Shell in person, it’s covered in gold paint. The reproductions in books & postcards, etc dont show it but the ENTIRE painting has gold paint all over it.
    Anyway, the dress.
    It’s not that bad. Judging from the pics, it looks as if it was pretty comfortable to wear. The embroidery on the gown looks great. I would have taken off the garland.


  3. Hm, not a fan. A little too froo-froo for my taste. It reminds me of Glinda’s gown in the Wizard of Oz. :p


  4. Hm, don’t like the garland. A little too much on the candyfloss side, all in all. But my seven year old daughter (and probably my 5 year old son) would love this, so I won’t be too negative about it 😉


  5. I don’t like it very much… probably because it looks really itchy.
    Norma’s face cracks me up. She looks just like a middle-aged woman trying to impress a very young man by acting like a moonstruck young woman. Now, whenever I re-read a certain story by Louisa M. Alcott (Honor’s Fortune, I think it was called) I will imagine Honor’s older sister looking just like Norma Shearer, thanks to this. LOL

  6. For the record, I still REALLY like the pale and orange color combination for CJ. To me, the tone-on-tone peach picture looks completely lackluster- insipid. CJ is not an insipid designer.

    This one? Icky. Mutton dressed as sparkly lamb is just as yucky as lamb dressed as cutlets for the table. Yuck. And I don’t really see much in the way of historical accuracy (as is expected from movies of the time…). I give it 3 of 10.

    • I’m with you on the CJ colours, but I didn’t want to sway the ratings! (I like to pretend I have that much influence!)

  7. Shell says

    3/10. It’s not the worst thing I’ve ever seen, but it strikes me as something that belongs more to A Midsummer Night’s Dream than R&J if we’re sticking with Shakespeare, and those shoulder poufs round out the whole thing too much.

  8. It’s like a cross between a nightie and one of those scrubby thingies you clean the bath with. 1/10, because the embroidery could probably be recycled for something nice.

  9. As a bit of fancy dress, the costume is very nice (though, like the role, better suited to a young girl than a mature woman). But for Juliet? To those of us who know anything about women’s gowns in the Italian Renaissance, it’s an abomination, and a silly one at that. 🙂 Because I don’t know how to rate it, I’m giving it a 5 and calling it a night.

  10. Ugh.
    It drapes like nylon and is clearly very white, both hugely off putting in any pretendy historical garment. She does look quite ridiculous in it – there are many other looks that wouldn’t have been quite such lamby choices. Hideous, more like a negligee than a garment. 1.

  11. Oh, dear. That is a very fluffy, very sparkly dress. My 5-year-old granddaughter would LOVE it, and it would suit her far better than it suits Norma Shearer no matter what role she’s playing.
    It is wrong from that thing on the top of her head right down to the hemline. I give it a whopping 0. Yep. No points at all.

  12. If it didn’t drape like nylon, as MrsC so cleverly pointed out, I think I’d really like this… but as it does, it does not look like the original dresses in the paintings very much, and looks rather cheap.
    Moreover, I have the examplar image of Zeffirelli’s Juliet before my eyes, and it somehow works much better.
    This puts me more in mind of the Laurence Olivier version of Pride and Prejudice than Romeo and Juliet… might be the era.


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