One of the most popular film and music stars of the 1930s and 1940s, Marlene Dietrich was known for her fashionable style and diverse portrayals of loose women. She was a firm advocate for the American war effort, contributing much of her time, energy and musical talents to aid the troops.
In 1930, Dietrich was launched into stardom with her performance in the film, The Blue Angel. After this time, she moved to Hollywood and became a popular actress. However, from 1942, Dietrich toured the country to help sell war bonds, with some historians having estimated that the US government was able to raise over a million dollars from the purchase of war bonds due to Dietrich’s efforts.
That same year, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) asked Dietrich to help with their propaganda activities to demoralize foreign troops. They asked her to record American songs in German that they could use in overseas broadcasts to Axis troops. She readily agreed and produced several songs for the OSS to use on the radio. These songs included: “Time On My Hands,” “Mean to Me,” and “Taking a Chance on Love”.
Always interested in helping soldiers, Dietrich volunteered to work in the off-duty soldier canteens, serving coffee to members of the armed services and talking with them.
The United Service Organizations (USO) held tours to entertain troops in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Many famous actors and actresses, comedians and entertainers volunteered for these tours, of which Dietrich was one. She travelled to Algeria, France, Italy, and Germany to sing to the troops. In some instances, Dietrich performed without power, slept in tents, and worked very close to the frontline.
Dietrich’s many activities in wartime were recognized nationally and internationally. In 1945, she was given the title of daughter of the Seventy-first Infantry Regiment of the army and in 1947, she was awarded the Medal of Freedom by the United States government, which is the highest honour that can be bestowed on an American. France gave Dietrich the Legion d’Honneur for her wartime activities in the country, and Belgium awarded her the Knight Order of Leopold.
Dietrich returned to making movies and performing on stage after the war. But as the years passed, her movie roles diminished, and she shifted her focus to performing on stage. She stopped acting in the 1970s, although she continued to write poetry and biographies about her life.
While her efforts didn't directly fight for women's rights, Dietrich was able to support the war effort, whilst making a contribution to feminism through fashion. The Hollywood actress wore trousers and men's suits during a time where it was considered extremely scandalous and taboo; both on screen and privately, once almost being arrested for wearing pants in public during the 1930s. She was famously quoted saying, "I dress for the image. Not for myself, not for the public, not for fashion, not for men." Dietrich's way of dressing went on to influence generations of women after her, lending many the confidence and power of wearing a suit.