What Is The Sewing Circle? When Queer Women Ruled Hollywood
When writing about the secrets of Golden Age superstars, one struggles to not sound like a sensationalist gossip rag. These were real people, with very real, intimate relationships, and when researching for this article, there was no escaping the weirdness that came with celebrities being posthumously outed as gay or bisexual to no end in books and articles. There is a lot of speculation and misinformation out there about these entanglements. This makes sense, of course, in a time when to live your truth would be a career-ending scandal, and with the expectations already heaped on women at the time, to be Sapphic was a losing game. However, that didn’t mean people didn’t play.
What Is “The Sewing Circle”?
The Sewing Circle is a euphemism more than it is an actual club, used by Alla Nazimova and later by Marlene Dietrich, it referred to a group of women who weren’t patching up clothes, but having Sapphic experiences within the industry. Greta Garbo, Tallulah Bankhead, and even Joan Crawford are the ones most commonly brought up as part of the clique, as were Katharine Hepburn and Barbara Stanwyck. Who was involved with who is not important, diving into the world of rumors and speculation, maybe Marilyn Monroe had a fling with Crawford or Garbo and maybe Marlene Dietrich had an affair before arriving in the USA. There are books one can refer to if you want to get into the specific details, such as Diana McLellan’s The Girls: Sappho Goes to Hollywood.
Though other books on this topic have been heavily criticized for exactly what I mentioned in the first paragraph, and I want to avoid that fate and keep this essay concise, I will be avoiding the specifics and instead looking at the queer underbelly of the glitz, glamour, and puritanical values of Old Hollywood.
Being Queer in Golden Age Hollywood
People within the LGBTQIA+ community have existed long before it was even a community, many a historian has made a gag out of the many figures of the past who were never married but had very close companions of the same sex, they were gal pals, just guys being guys. This “don’t ask, don’t tell” attitude is the undercurrent of all queer history, the idea of being closeted, that a facet of one’s being should be kept under lock and key. This was exemplified in Hollywood until only recently, as queer actors were told to stay in the closet so as not to lose their audience. Of course, in the early to mid-20th century, the era of the Hays Code from 1934 to 1968, where strict and conservative guidelines were imposed on every film released by the studios. One of these guidelines was not to portray homosexuality too sympathetically, and it was even more dangerous to be queer in Hollywood, losing fans being the least of one’s concerns.
Therefore, it was nothing more than, at best, an open secret, relegated to tabloids and sly elusions in autobiographies, the “exciting secrets” as Garbo once said. This included these private networks such as sewing circles, with actresses supposedly convening at each other’s houses to confide in one another and hang out away from the prying eyes of the public. This confidence was needed at the time, society had made it very clear their stance on what they perceived to be any kind of deviancy. This is seen in a lot of early representations of those in the LGBTQ community, with even those just dressing in clothes of the opposite sex being coded as unstable and villainous, such as in Psycho or Homicidal. Since it would take a whole thesis to talk about the film history of the LGBTQ community in general, the writer recommends documentaries such as The Celluloid Closet, and Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen. While homophobia was a hallmark of 20th-century society along with racism and sexism, each facet of the queer experience was portrayed a different way.
Sappho on the Silver Screen
Lesbian relationships in the golden age of Hollywood were portrayed nowhere near as fun or exciting as they were described by the actresses experiencing them in reality. A toxic blend of sexism and homophobia in society, and the Hays Code in film encouraging lesbian relationships to be condemned made these portrayals both incredibly sparse, and when they do appear even in subtext, incredibly unflattering.
The expectation of women to be catty and conniving toward one another created the blend of obsession and sabotage seen in All About Eve‘s Eve Harrington, one of the most iconic villains in Golden Age Hollywood. Though not in the original Daphne du Maurier novel, Mrs. Danvers of the film Rebecca is shown to have her own romantic obsession with the eponymous character who haunts the rest of the film. Margo Channing, Calamity Jane, Tess Harding, no matter how independent and confident in that independence a woman is, especially if that independence reads as masculine, they will inevitably end up settling down and finding a husband. Let alone being in a relationship with another woman, a woman without a man was seen as a phase or an impediment to overcome, the former was seen as something dark and dangerous, something that would doom you. The Bury Your Gays trope started here, and even all these decades later, we still struggle to shake it off.
It’s Important to Remember the Closeted, Queer Women of the Sewing Circle
In thinking about the ways those in the LGBTQ community were given the short end of the stick both in the Hollywood system and in fiction, and the constant expectations and rules put in place, especially for women who were expected to constantly exude youth and femininity only to be discarded when they can no longer meet those demands, one must remember those in The Sewing Circle. Beyond the idle gossip of who was seeing who, the speculation of when and where it was, and how people found out, was a group of women who were legends in their own right.
The iconic suit-wearing roles Dietrich and Hepburn played made them style icons, Garbo’s impeccable performance as the gender-defying Queen Christina of Sweden, and Crawford was one of the most influential actresses in Hollywood. Powerful, dynamic, era-defining women whose lives were far from heterosexual or conservative. In fact, it was that exotic androgyny that transformed them from actresses to icons, both of the queer community and of film history. They both convinced, despite the concerns about queer actors at the time and even now, as the conventional romantic leads while being anything but conventional.
Despite the latent homophobia of society in and out of the film industry, queer artists made countless contributions both on and off the screen. They were always there, living their truth in confidentiality, with lavender marriages, where legal unions were made to avoid homophobic stigma, confiding in the sewing circles that brought queer creators together, shaping a culture in spite of all those working against them.