Peggy Hamilton in an RKO publicity photo by Bachrach, 1931.
Besotted with fashion from a young age, Peggy Hamilton turned her passion into a career in 1920s Los Angeles, becoming Hollywood’s first fashion influencer. The first to promote Hollywood and Southern California as style leaders, Hamilton informed others how to look and feel their best, even promoting facial work and surgery, all while befriending movie stars and meeting royalty.
Born December 31, 1888 in Denver, Colorado as Mae Bedloe Armstrong, the young girl quickly fell in love with fashion before her family moved to Los Angeles. At the age of six, she took some of her mother’s handkerchiefs and made a dress for her younger sister, and later employed some of her father’s evening shirts to make doll clothes. Once in Southern California, the family took an active part in society and their community. Young May sang at church and Salvation Army recitals, learning how to ingratiate herself with others and work a crowd. By the time she was a teen, she assisted her mother in hosting tea for their society friends, with her photo even published in the Los Angeles Times.
Peggy Hamilton, courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library, Security Pacific National Bank Collection.
The attractive young woman also possessed plenty of charm, drawing men’s attention. She supposedly married for the first time at the age of 16 and would go on to marry at least three more times, in love with love as much as security. Men brought her comfort and companionship while she fashioned her own career.
In 1916, the young woman broke into films for the little known Knickerbocker Star Features as Peggy Hamilton, starring in the three reel film “House of Mystery” as a United States Secret Service agent’s fiancee who helps solve crimes. Moving Picture World praised her for her “daring work in the guise of a fisherlad…showing the value of a woman’s wits and genius, when professional skill does not count.” She would act in a few films before discovering her calling.
Hamilton began her film fashion career in 1917, when Triangle Studios hired her as their costume and wardrobe supervisor, promoting her in the trades as “the Lucille (sic) of the West,” California’s answer to renowned English fashion designer Lucile, Lady Duff Gordon. She advised on etiquette as well as the right way to walk, soon directing fashion sequences. Some of her early projects at Triangle featured fashion settings, allowing Hamilton to design elaborate wardrobes. “Limousine Life,” which starred Olive Thomas, featured several elaborate evening gowns for the fashion shop in which much of the film was set, and “Regenerates” featured elegant designs for Alma Rubens. A whiz at publicity, her designs for the film received a full rotogravure page in the December 23, 1917 Los Angeles Times, leading her to run the first modeling school as well as help see that costume designers received credit for their work.
Her work entranced the Times, gaining many full page spreads of Hamilton’s designs for Triangle, featuring the likes of actresses Gloria Swanson, Alma Rubens, Olive Thomas, and Fritzi Ridgeway modeling her fanciful creations. When the studio closed in 1920, Hamilton posed for a series of elaborate shots by renowned photographer Albert Witzel in some of her striking afternoon and evening creations displaying her talent and hoping to gain work. It did the trick, as renowned female impersonator Julian Eltinge hired her to design striking costumes for his 1920 Revue.
Downtown Los Angeles’ film theatre owner Fred Miller hired her in Spring 1921 to organize deluxe fashion presentations of up-to-date styles for a “carnival of modes” preceding screenings at his theatre in March, with an original musical score arranged by orchestra leader Carli Elinor. 75 models, both male and female, would take part in the 30 minute prologue, displaying everything from lingerie to furs to swim wear to evening gowns, all provided by high end retail stores. Hamilton would lecture on what made stars stylish and how women could imitate the trends to dress their best as well. A lingerie matinee was organized strictly for women, with even the orchestra and workers that day all female.
Hamilton would also design elaborate gowns named after elegant fashion stars like Nazimova, Pola Negri, and Clara Kimball Young, demonstrating how they employed fashion to set themselves apart. An astute businesswoman, Hamilton realized her shows would provide a potent advertising source for local shops, convincing them to provide her upscale clothing and models for free.
Hamilton also quickly recognized the confluence of fashion and film, how each influenced the other. Focusing on Hollywood and its striking beauty would help lure both sponsors and audiences eager to connect with motion picture studios. It also provided a wonderful advertising opportunity in newspapers for both the film industry and fashion, as newspapers needed advertising to pay for their production and the entertainment businesses required promotion of their products to audiences.
A photo of Peggy Hamilton listed on EBay.
The fashion revue drew rave reviews, with the Times calling it “brilliant…one of the most noteworthy events in the history” of the California Theatre. Savvy in many ways, Hamilton would once again hire Witzel to shoot her in some of her most elegant designs to help promote the opening of the fashion show, and continue the process in future years.
Hamilton informed the Times on March 6 of her intent “to create an individual American style…I love elegance and discrimination, and have sought at all times to express my ideas elegantly while achieving what was distinctive.” She would take credit for being the first person to promote California as well as film costume designers as fashion leaders, establishing trends for others to follow.
Recognizing the opportunity of connecting with high end society women through design, the Los Angeles Times hired Hamilton to lead their rotogravure fashion supplement page not long after, to “…present for the benefit of the women the last word in dainty toggery….” She would plan and design each page, obtaining the upscale outfits and organizing them around a theme, helping promote boutiques and department stores in the process, in what is now called advertorial. Each holiday received its own highlight as well, displaying the perfect outfit for each occasion.
The California Theatre and Hamilton tied together Hollywood and fashion with the first elaborate costume show of its type in December, called “Fashions, Fads and Fancies, with well known Hollywood stars taking part. Designing elaborate tableaux in a pageant setting, Hamilton displayed striking outfits worn by such stars as Jacqueline Logan, Carmel Myers, and even Jack Holt in what Hamilton called an “animated Times page.”
With her growing renown and success, Hamilton began organizing fashion revues and lectures across the city as well as state for businesses, clubs, and for special events. In early 1922, the Los Angeles Times described the show as “dainty, dazzling, sometimes daring, but always artistic and beautiful creations of the modiste’s art, surrounding dainty, dazzling and sometimes daring creations of human perfection… .” Over the next 15 years, Hamilton would travel throughout California and nearby states presenting her unique take on style as well as writing on fashion for movie fan magazines like Picture Play.
When downtown Los Angeles’ high end Biltmore Hotel opened in September 1923, Hamilton served as the “Biltmore Girl,” designing a spectacular outfit for its’ grand opening ball. Called “The Biltmore,” featuring a painted design of the ballroom’s ceiling motifs, applied to the dress by Florence Gilbert, wife of Keystone Kops’ actor Eddie LeVeque, the gown itself made headlines in newspapers and was lated donated to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
In 1924, Hamilton took her show on the road, organizing presentations in New York, London, and Paris, all big hits. She returned to New York in February 1927 with a massive show of more than 100 film costumes in current and upcoming films from the MGM, Fox, Warner Bros., and Paramount studios. Fox Movietone Newsreels shot the show to feature in one of their informative clip reels.
As fashion designers came west, they would meet with her in Los Angeles. Hamilton posed with Erte at a Beverly Hills Hotel luncheon welcoming him to Los Angeles in 1925. The famed Parisian designer agreed with Hamilton’s declaration that Los Angeles would become a fashion center of the world, stating, “I realize that from Los Angeles the films may do more toward establishing fashions than any other influence in the world. It is because they speak the international language of the eye and reach the masses.”
Spreading her fashion knowledge to even more people, Hamilton joined radio station KHJ in the late 1920s for a half hour show revealing style and fashion trends as well as clothing customs around the world. With her knowledge and wide reach, the fashion maven influenced more Southern California fashion decisions than anyone during these years.
Always one for grabbing attention, Hamilton was the first person to organize an airborne fashion show. While traveling overseas in the mid-1920s, Hamilton fell in love with aviation. At several years’ thought, she organized the first airborne style show in 1928, as models displayed lovely outfits during a fight outside Los Angeles.
Recognizing her fame and elan, Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors appointed her the County’s official hostess on November 26, 1930, as well as for the city’s sesquicentennial in September 1931. They named her Queen of Olympias of the Mythical Kingdom of Olympia to help promote and sell the 1932 Olympics, for which she also served as hostess. This was to recognize her work as “a sort of unofficial hostess for this community and for many individual organizations in addition to establishing Los Angeles as a world fashion center.” Praising her for her work greeting visitors to the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, Sheriff Biscailuz presented her with an inscribed deput sheriff’s badge in 1933.
In 1934, Hamilton retired from producing fashion shows or appearing on radio or in the newspapers. She reappeared in the press in February 1956 when she sold the film rights to her life story to former MGM screenwriter Julian Harmon. When no film was produced, Hamilton discovered another way to gain publicity by announcing that she would obtain a face peel from Dallas doctor to look 20 years younger, explaining that it was not as invasive as surgery.
The Los Angeles Times again featured her in 1973 after the death of her fourth husband, John Quincy Adams IV. Hamilton spoke of her fashion firsts as well as her 52 scrapbooks documenting her fashion exploits, proud of her accomplishments. After her death in 1984, they were donated to UCLA Special Collections.
Hamilton served as fashion influencer during the 1920s, bringing Hollywood style and design to the general public and helping women truly look their best. A true original and larger than life personality who preferred beauty and fantasy, Hamilton was her own woman, proud of her achievements and proud of her own name. Hamilton represents a perfect example of Auntie Mame, living life to the fullest and always the belle of the ball.