Dietrich exhibit honors gender-bending film icon

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Interestingly it was not Marlene Dietrich’s status as an icon of early film that appealed most to Kate Lemay, curator of a new National Portrait Gallery exhibit on the star, but rather her penchant for extreme gender bending.

Lemay tells a story of Dietrich being photographed at a Paris train station in 1933. She’d been told she could be arrested for wearing pants but she wore them anyway. And not just pants — she donned a men’s tweed suit, sunglasses and beret.

“They’d insinuated she’d be arrested so what did she do? She showed up in the most masculine-looking outfit she could find,” Lemay says. “Her attitude was basically, ‘You can’t tell me what to do.’ … She was totally unapologetic and she owned who she was. She didn’t care what people thought.”

Lemay says that thumbing of the nose at convention still resonates with fans today.

“She created a bridge of understanding between people who would otherwise be put off by the gay community,” Lemay, who’s straight, says of the bisexual star.

“Marlene Dietrich: Dressed for the Image” is open now at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery and features about 45 objects including correspondence, film clips and photos. Billed as the first major exhibition on the star in the United States, it runs through April 2018.

Dietrich, a German-born actress famously name-checked in “Vogue,” is remembered for films like “Morocco,” “Shanghai Express” and “Witness for the Prosecution.” She died at age 90 in 1992. Visit for details.

Gelatin silver print photo of Marlene Dietrich taken in 1918 by Joel-Heinzelmann Atelier. (Photo courtesy Deutsche Kinemathek/Marlene Dietrich Collection Berlin via NPG)

Marlene Dietrich in a gelatin silver print photo from the film ‘Morocco’ in 1930. (Photo by Eugene Robert Richee; courtesy Deutsche Kinemathek/Marlene Dietrich Collection Berlin via NPG)

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