The National Portrait Gallery Salutes Queer Icon Marlene Dietrich

"She pioneered so much for women, as well as openness about sexuality in an age that we wouldn't have expected it," says “Marlene Dietrich: Dressed for the Image" curator Kate LeMay.

Marlene Dietrich was a queer icon almost as soon as she hit the silver screen: She followed up her debut in 1930’s Blue Angel with Morroco, a movie that saw her singing in top hat and tails and kissing another woman on the mouth.

The German screen goddess was openly bisexual in real life, too, enjoying dalliances with everyone from John Wayne and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. to Edith Piaf and (allegedly) Greta Garbo. (Dietrich referred to the sapphic-friendly starlets she hung out with—Tallulah Bankhead, Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck and Isadora Duncan—as “the Sewing Circle.”)

She was also a trailblazing style icon, with an androgynous flair that Marilyn Monroe, Madonna, and even Sasha Velour have paid homage to.

This month, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery is honoring Dietrich with the first major North American exhibition dedicated to her. “Marlene Dietrich: Dressed for the Image” highlights several of her legendary looks, which often blurred gender lines and shocked moviegoers.

Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery

“She pioneered so much for women, as well as openness about sexuality in an age that we wouldn’t have expected it,” Curator Kate C. LeMay tells NewNowNext.

The gallery mounts exhibits that highlight history, as well as art, LeMay says—the images of Dietrich tell a detailed story, one that played out both in front of the cameras and behind the scenes. “Dressed for the Image” showcases more than 45 objects from Dietrich’s life, including letters, film clips, and photographs taken at various points in her life, including some from famed lensman Irving Penn.

And, of course, there’s a shot of her in that tux from Morocco.

Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery

“I wonder if people even know—if they see Jane Lynch wearing a tuxedo… Do they realize she’s not the first?” LeMay says. “Madonna was not the first. Marlene Dietrich was the first.”

There were male impersonators in Dietrich’s day, “but the difference is Dietrich did it for an audience that reached millions of moviegoers through Paramount Pictures’ films. It wasn’t just a music hall in Berlin for 200 people. It was thousands, if not millions.”

And audiences ate it up: Dietrich’s beauty and self-confident swagger drew both men and women into her orbit. She was charismatic, which LeMay says helped make her bisexuality more palpable to American audiences in the 1930s. “No one but someone with her combination of insouciance and chemistry, and femme-fatale intelligence,” she adds. “I mean, there’s a long list of adjectives that I go to when I think of Dietrich.”

Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery

While any deviance from heteronormativity is often erased in historical exhibitions, LeMay says queer viewers will be pleased by “Dressed for the Image.”

“We seek to educate the public about interesting Americans. And if it’s the history, then it’s the history. It’s not political,” she explains. “The fact is she was openly bisexual, she had many relationships with lots of women and men, she was in an open marriage. So I use the objects to tell the story, and I just talk about the objects.”

Dietrich’s transgressive aura can be felt even in photographs, whether it’s her wearing trousers or giving the camera a predatory alpha-male glance. In some shots, LeMay says, “she really does look like a man—except she has these incredibly feminine cheekbones. She’s got menswear down to a T, and she makes it look better than men do.”

Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery

Modern audiences are used to seeing celebrities as a sort of brand. The difference is Dietrich did it herself, for herself.

“She was smart and disciplined and created her own image—although she would be the first to give the credit to someone else,” LeMay says. “I would hope that people get from this exhibition that she wasn’t created by some man. She was given an opportunity and was smart enough to learn how to make the most perfect image from it.”

Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery

The exhibit’s title is pulled directly from a Dietrich quote from 1960 that, in itself, is a little queer: “I dress for the image. Not for myself, not for the public, not for fashion, not for men.”

In that regard, LeMay insists, she was a smashing success.

“Because she experimented with sexuality and self-presentation and image—and people are always interested in self-presentation and what it means to be yourself; what is your identity, how do you express that?—Dietrich figured it out. And man, did she ever create an image that was sustainable and relevant. Not just for today, but for the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. If you look at, sort of, the midcentury on, Dietrich has a stamp in every decade.”

Marlene Dietrich: Dressed for the Image” opens at the National Portrait Gallery on June 16.

Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery
Trish Bendix is a Los Angeles-based writer.