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Some of the most influential modern designs of the Twenties through the Sixties were on the backs of movie stars.

Fifty, sixty, even seventy and eighty years on, classic Hollywood movies beckon to us. Time has not dimmed their power to seduce us into a world where men are men and women are goddesses. The women of classic film are powerful visual statements, unearthly and eternal in their perfection, yet emblematic of very particular moments in time. It is not an accident: Hollywood intended that its female stars look more desirable, more fashionable, more iconic than any women ever seen in real life, and the town bent every bit of its considerable will to that end.

Over the course of the forty years, 1920-1960, when Hollywood reigned supreme, motion-picture costume design not only reflected real life, it influenced and changed it, for the better. The lush romanticism of high-fashion clothing before 1920 became unsustainable in life; the trailing, floating tea gowns of Lucile, the Asiatic splendor of Paul Poiret, the unyielding social correctness of the house of Worth were all killed off by World War I. Women everywhere had rolled bandages, nursed the injured, managed the businesses of absent men, driven ambulances- and they hadn't found long skirts and cartwheel-sized hats much of a help. Women's lives were changing, and that meant clothing had to change, too.

Fashion changes seen after the war were quickly reflected in movies; the peacock feathers and gold lace sported by Gloria Swanson in 1919's Male and Female had given way to chic severity by the time of the star's big 1924 hit, Manhandled. On screen, as in real life, it was being found that less really was more; real women and stars alike could move through a day's work more easily in trimmer, less fussy clothing. In movies, the advantages were even greater than they were on the street; stars in billowing, ruffled dresses were quickly found to generate much less dramatic impact than ones in, say, black velvet sheaths adorned with only a white collar.

In 1919, Gloria Swanson wore an early- and highly ornate- Travis Banton design for Cecil B. DeMille's Male and Female (1). By the middle of the 1920's, Gloria had jettisoned her DeMille finery for flapper-era chic (2). Norma Shearer was diminutive, so Robert Kalloch gave her an illusion of height in 1941's We Were Dancing with an added vertical line- the streamer flowing down her back from her evening hat (3). The trick was repeated all through the movie in other outfits. Walter Plunkett's famous "waist-whittling" diagonals are seen here, worn by Olivia deHavilland in 1939's Gone With the Wind (4). By 1955, designer William Travilla gave Marilyn Monroe a halter top and a pleated skirt designed to blow just so in The Seven Year Itch (5). Dress, pose, and actress would have been inconceivable when the movies were new.

Improvements in movie technology made more improvements in costuming necessary; cameras of 1920 had been able to capture only the most exaggerated effects, so quality of workmanship and fitting had not counted for much. By the late Twenties, the camera could not only see the overall design of a dress, it could capture the tiniest details, necessitating a vast increase in dressmaking standards, since any mismatch or wrinkle would be projected fifty feet tall in the big-city movie houses of the era. By 1930, the rough-and-ready days of film costuming were over; dressing female stars became a design and dressmaking effort surpassing even the couture of Paris.

For all the fun Hollywood likes to poke at itself about overdressing actresses in movies like A Star Is Born, the key to designing for stars was found to be simplicity. Movie stardom of the classic era was a cult of personality, and the less interfering with the projection of a personality, the better. Individuality, at least at the star level, was carefully nurtured; the wardrobes of Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, and Greta Garbo at M-G-M were at least as different as the ladies themselves, even though the same designer, Adrian (Gilbert Adrian Rosenberg) designed for all three.

In 1925, Gilbert Adrian designed for his second movie, The Eagle. He was already employing design tactics for which he would become famous, such as the use of asymmetrical appliques and a certain disdain for historical accuracy; the film was set in 1820 (1). Another costume for the movie shows an even heavier 1920's influence (2); the bandeau headdress with its Deco design of pearls was historically inaccurate, but few fans knew that. Some of Adrian's best work was done for Joan Crawford's films; his most famous dress for her was for 1932's Letty Lynton. The visual compression seen at the waistline and hipline are released in bursts of organdie ruffles at shoulder and hem (3). As the 1930's continued, Adrian continued to make use of high-contrast black and white (4). Adrian's most magnificent wardrobe is probably that for 1938's Marie Antoinette. Star Norma Shearer wears the designer's trademark detailing at her bustline, and his asymmetrical draping on her skirts (5). By the later 1930's, improvements in film technology made it possible for Adrian to use subtler effects, such as crystal-beaded fringe (6). The detail would been hard to photograph ten years previously.

Meeting the design goals of movie costuming- individuality, perfection of appearance, and fashionability- became a highly specialized field. Nothing was too much trouble. Stars were carefully assessed by costume departments, their photographic flaws found and corrected by whatever means were necessary. Every star had a "problem" area- or two, or three, or more- and Hollywood eventually found solutions for them all. Joan Crawford had short legs, and very wide, almost masculine shoulders. Adrian lengthened her legs by moving the waistline of her costumes slightly above her real one, and made brilliant use of her shoulders by exaggerating their width further with padding. This gave Crawford a more powerful look onscreen, giving her figure an attribute that had previously been considered "masculine"- the inverted triangle, wide at the shoulders, narrow at the hips.

Norma Shearer presented a different set of challenges for Adrian; her legs, by her own admission, were not her best feature. She also had a fairly stocky build, with a squarish torso. The legs were easy- Adrian covered them whenever possible, and Shearer was not often photographed full-figure if she was wearing short skirts. The waist was a bit trickier; corsetry helped for certain costumes. But the stressed shoulder line popularized by Crawford, and peplums (a pleated, skirt-like detail at the hip) were the usual solution, exaggerating both Shearer's shoulders and hips, narrowing the waist by comparison. Garbo was not difficult for Adrian to dress; she had no real figure problems aside from her height, greater than that of many male co-stars, and the only thing to do about that was to stand the fellows on boxes.

Adrian was able to dress anything from period epics to Art Deco romances to platoons of Munchkins for The Wizard of Oz. He evolved a very specific design vocabulary that is consistent across his oeuvre. First, he understood better than almost anyone else that the close-up is the most important shot in movie-making, which means that costumes are rarely seen full-length for more than a few seconds on-screen. Adrian's designs always have their greatest visual interest above the waist for this reason. He seldom did striking or intricate neckline details, feeling that they distracted from the face; he generally kept the emphasis on lapels, for which he had a seemingly endless store of inventiveness, or on shaped or applied details across the bust.

He also was one of the first to apply strong diagonals and asymmetry to screen costume- attributes rare in fashion prior to his time. Adrian often gave his ladies rakishly tilted hats that made a pleasing contrast to a symmetrically-balanced suit or dress, even in period costumes where it was not historically correct to do so. His greatest contribution, though, was in his adroit use of whites and blacks in costuming; when he began designing, film stocks and lighting had a hard time rendering subtly different shades. This made strong contrast essential, and Adrian became famous for his endless variations on the theme. A white flannel sports suit might have a black blouse with white polka dots, or a black wool dress for a secretary role might have an off-center white neckline and cuffs, as Joan Crawford's did in Grand Hotel. And Adrian was one of the leading exponents of the quintessential Thirties bias cut, a tricky technique that cut all panels of a dress at a 45-degree angle to the warp and weft of its fabric, instead of cutting straight along the grain. The result was a costume that draped and clung to every curve of stars like Jean Harlow, whose appeal and career owed much to the designer.

One of Hollywood's greatest masters of illusion was Walter Plunkett, who would not seem to have much to do with modernizing clothing, because he was the most renowned historical specialist in the business. Gone With the Wind is his work, as is Raintree County. But Plunkett applied very up-to-date design principles to his work; his costumes tended to be historically correct in small details, while being quite modern in concept. Arguably his most famous costume, his "barbecue dress" for Vivien Leigh in GWTW had meticulously researched, historically accurate fabric, the pattern of which was duplicated exactly from an actual fabric salesman's sample book of the period, and it has the petticoats and skirts seen in the 1860's, as well. But the ruffles at its bosom and shoulders conceal the fact that it is constructed as a strapless, a kind of dress not seen prior to the 20th Century.

Plunkett, like Adrian, made generous use of asymmetry and diagonals. His use of diagonals was his alone: he created "V"-shaped details over the bosom of a costume, with the tops of the "V" at the shoulders, and the bottom of the "V" coming together at the waistline, giving actresses an illusion of far narrower waistlines than they actually had. Sometimes he added a second set of diagonals: flaring out from the bottom of the bodice's "V" would be a second, inverted "V" covering the front of the skirt; the effect was an hourglass-shaped detail overlaying the entire front of the costume. Plunkett used this detail for decades, in endless variations, and while his costumes are not as historically accurate as most viewers believe them to be, they are an inimitable combination of modernity and the past.

For 1932's Shanghai Express, Travis Banton and Marlene Dietrich worked together to find exactly the right coq feathers and veiling for this shot (1 and at top of article). The feathers had to have a certain iridescence, and the veiling had to repeat the shadows from the Venetian blinds of the train window. In the 1937 comedy Nothing Sacred, Banton knew that Carole Lombard would look her best in blue, but the Technicolor process tended to exaggerate the color. This beaded dress and its matching fox furs were a much lighter blue than they appear here (2). In 1935, Dietrich made her last Josef von Sternberg movie, The Devil Is a Woman. Banton's most phantasmagorical mode is seen in (3); Dietrich is supposedly a factory worker, circa 1900. Dispensing with historical accuracy, the designer gave her a leg slit, sequined flounces, and pailletted stockings. In the same movie, Dietrich's first appearance (4) is in a strapless dress- completely inaccurate for the period- worn with a domino mask and a mantilla made of pom-pom fringe. The round pom-poms deliberately echo the shape of the balloons.

Another bias-cut specialist was Travis Banton, who was Adrian's equal in making fabric drape and mold in highly suggestive, yet censor-proof ways; many spectacular costumes worn by Marlene Dietrich and Carole Lombard were his work. Banton was unusually subtle in his approach- he was not just sensitive to a fabric's color and pattern, he was enormously concerned with how it absorbed or reflected light. He also drew actresses into the design process to an unusual extent. Dietrich's daughter, Maria Riva, has told in her book about Dietrich how designer and star took infinite pains with the fabrics, veiling, and feathers seen in one famous costume for Shanghai Express. Their attention to detail extended to giving Dietrich gloves so tight she could not bend her fingers, so as to slim the look of her hands. Banton also proved to be adept at the use of color when the Technicolor ® process began to be adopted; many of Carole Lombard's clothes for 1937's Nothing Sacred are his work. One of the limitations of early Technicolor was its tendency to overemphasize blue; Banton overcame the problem by giving Lombard a beaded spaghetti-strapped evening dress in very light blue, with dyed-to-match fox furs. When photographed, the color came out the stronger blue Banton had wanted.

Always billed simply as Irene- sometimes with her distinctive signature reproduced in a film's titles- Irene Gibbons was a designer for all seasons. In her early career, she designed a dress for Joan Crawford, in accordance with wartime shortages and government-imposed rationing. The fabric is plebian rayon crepe, and the luxurious handwork Crawford had worn in the Thirties is absent For The Duration (1). In 1949, Ginger Rogers was re-teamed with Fred Astaire for The Barkleys of Broadway; it had been ten years since the dance partners had performed together. Rogers' face and figure had thickened during that decade, so Irene softened her appearance with bouffant tulle clothing and scarves (2). In 1961, Irene dressed Doris Day as a "woman executive" for Lover, Come Back, conveying brisk efficiency with a flowerpot hat worn in the office (3).

In the 1940's, Hollywood made a historic contribution to fashion when World War II made it necessary to ration clothing and fabrics. Government regulations were written that dictated the amount of yardage that could be used in any given garment, mandating even details like width of lapels, depth of hems, and amount of ornamentation. The movie industry observed the regulations along with everyone else, making the restrictions palatable to the public, and giving rise to the streamlined, short-skirted look of the decade. Gone were the tricky cuts and hand-beading of the Thirties; designers like Robert Kalloch, Charles LeMaire, Jack Kelly (billed onscreen as Orry-Kelly) and Irene Gibbons (billed simply as Irene) worked in the same rayon crepes everyday Americans wore, getting their effects through line and silhouette.

Helen Rose's love of luxe can easily be discerned in 1956's The Opposite Sex (1). Joan Collins, Dolores Gray, and June Allyson each got an individual "look" for the film. Collins is supposed to be on the make, Gray is comedy relief, and Allyson is a "nice" woman- all of which can be told from the clothes. In Cat On a Hot Tin Roof(1959), Rose gave Elizabeth Taylor unadorned classicism, accentuating the actress's superb waist and bust and eliminating details that might distract from Taylor's powerful performance (2). In 1955's It's Always Fair Weather, Rose was at her most playful, giving Dolores Gray a red-beaded sheath with a detachable peplum trimmed in dyed-to-match fox (3). If the dress looks over-the-top, that's because it was intended to be; this number, "Thanks A Lot, But No Thanks", is arguably the most intentionally campy ever put on film.

After the war, with wartime rationing abolished, Hollywood and its audiences were ready for something new. In 1947, French designer Christian Dior's hugely influential "New Look" collection gave movies an entirely new costume esthetic. Suddenly, nothing was too luxurious, too rare, too romantic. One of the designers who was best at channeling Dior was Helen Rose, whose work for M-G-M gave the strapless dress broadly-based popularity. Rose also made extensive use of Dior's favorite eye-fooler, the full, petticoated skirt, which could conceal even the most unfortunate set of hips. Rose was as good as Banton at finding fabrics that photographed strikingly, making use of the most exotic and expensive offerings from fabric houses like Rodier and Abraham.

Edith Head was unequalled at letting the star shine through the design. For All About Eve in 1950, she gave Bette Davis a suit with a perky bow on its blouse; the idea was to give a livelier look to Davis's fortyish face (1). Alfred Hitchcock valued Head's work, particularly when it came to dressing his beloved blondes. In The Man Who Knew Too Much, Head created the first of her timeless grey suits for a Hitchcock heroine; she would reprise the idea in several Hitchcock movies, notably Vertigo, where the suit figured in the plot (2). For 1954's Rear Window, Grace Kelly was supposed to be a fashion editor; Head obliged with an afternoon dress worthy of Vogue, making it in black and white, so that Kelly's blonde beauty would register with maximum impact in Technicolor (3). Kim Novak played a woman who might- or might not- have been an illusion in Vertigo, so Head gave her ghostly white to wear in a foggy forest (4). The designer's understanding of the requirements of movie design is best seen in 1963's The Birds. Tippi Hedren was a new face, unfamiliar to audiences. By creating a memorable green ensemble for Hedren to wear virtually throughout the film, Head guaranteed that viewers wouldn't "lose" Tippi, no matter how action-packed the sequence was (5).

The 1950's saw the rise of Edith Head, whose classicism and restraint were responsible for the timeless elegance of Alfred Hitchcock's heroines. Head was something of a risk-taker; she often used colors that were technically "incorrect" for specific actresses, because of their hair and skin tones. Most blondes regard green as a tricky color that can make them look sallow; Head used it to brilliant effect on Grace Kelly in Rear Window, again on Kim Novak in Vertigo, and even more memorably on Tippi Hedren in The Birds. Head's suits- usually in grey gabardine- were especially well-suited to film; they were so simple that stars were never overpowered by them. Head was also capable of high fashion; she designed a wardrobe seemingly straight out of Vogue for Grace Kelly's turn as a fashion editor in Rear Window.

Hubert de Givenchy didn't get credited for this memorable dress in 1954's Sabrina; that honor was given to the head of Paramount's costume department, Edith Head (1). The little shoulder bows elegantly begged to be untied. By the time of 1963's Charade, Givenchy was far too famous to have credit given to anyone else. The film's wardrobe for Audrey Hepburn included a chic set of widow's weeds (2), and a succession of luxurious, yet minimalist suits and coats (3, 4, 5). If the Charade clothes are reminiscent of Jacqueline Kennedy's White House wardrobe, there's a reason: Givenchy was Mrs. Kennedy's favorite designer, but an American First Lady could not offend her nation's garment business by wearing clothes from another country. Oleg Cassini was asked to design Givenchy-inspired ensembles for Jackie. Givenchy's most famous- and most reductive- work for Hepburn was for 1961's Breakfast at Tiffany's. A little black dress, a straw hat, and Ray-Bans never looked so good (6).

Starting in the early Fifties, genuine couture began making an impact on film. There had always been some use of famous designers in movies, but they were rarely willing to put in the time away from their own collections necessary to produce movie costumes on a regular basis, nor did they always understand the exaggerated fit required for the screen. In 1954, Hubert de Givenchy designed a famous dress for Audrey Hepburn to wear in Sabrina; the bodice was held together at the shoulders by flirtatious bows whose prospective undoing teased the imagination of male movie-goers. (Edith Head, who was in charge of Paramount's costume department, was credited onscreen for the dress, as was the usual practice at that time.) Hepburn became so fond of Givenchy that she began requesting his work for most of her films, notably 1963's Charade. Givenchy's work was deceptively simple, dispensing almost entirely with ornamentation; the appeal of his clothes was in their proportions, sumptuous fabrics, and fit.

By the 1960's, luxurious movie clothes were becoming less frequently seen, because movie-goers expected more realism; Hepburn's Givenchy wardrobes were one of the last expressions of the old tradition of onscreen luxe. Janet Leigh did Psycho in clothes off-the-rack from Jax, the store owned by Los Angeles retailer Jack Hanson, which was also famous for Mary Tyler Moore's Capri pants on The Dick Van Dyke Show. But Hollywood design came full circle in the Sixties, because one of its talents left movies to design for real life. Oleg Cassini, who'd dressed Gene Tierney at Twentieth Century-Fox, was asked to create a wardrobe for Jacqueline Kennedy to wear as First Lady. It was a brilliant move, because the demands of the job were quite similar to movie-making. A First Lady is relentlessly photographed, making line, color and fit extremely important. Cassini understood that clothes intended for photographs had to be conceived "in the round", with details on the back of the ensemble, as well as the front, because it was impossible to predict a news photographer's vantage point. Part of Cassini's job was to find designs from French couturiers and adapt them for Mrs. Kennedy's use; not only was it politic to have her clothes made in America, it was often necessary to "tone down" extreme fashion statements to a level that would not alienate voters.

While it didn't last forever, Hollywood's studio era gave the world something it had never had before - an ongoing fashion lesson available to anyone with the price of a movie ticket. Generations of women not only saw the best designs, the most painstaking fit, and the finest fabrics onscreen, they themselves got to shape fashion, by voting with their ticket purchases. Today, Hollywood's influence on fashion is seen more on television than in films themselves, but that influence is huge, as any fan of Sarah Jessica Parker's clothes on Sex and the City can tell you. Any woman who wears pants, or a strapless, or a halter neckline, or a bias cut- or who understands what colors and styles work best on her- has Hollywood to thank. Real life is seldom as interesting as the movies, but at least it looks better than it did before movie designers taught the world how to dress.


The photographs presented in this article are the property of their respective owners. Their use in this article is for illustrative purposes only, in relation to discussion of the costumes seen in them.

See these costumes as they were intended to be seen- watch the movies! Most of the films discussed here are available on home video from Amazon ™ at www.amazon.com. In addition, Turner Classic Movies ™ shows many of these titles; visit the TCM Website at www.tcm.com for listings. Titles that prove elusive are often available used on auction sites. Letty Lynton is unavailable on video, or for public showings, due to legal restrictions. Movies on home video showing these designers' work at their best include:

Adrian: The Women, M-G-M, 1939 Almost every female star at Metro, except Garbo, and every one dressed to highly individual perfection.

Helen Rose: It's Always Fair Weather, M-G-M, 1955 Not only do you get Cyd Charisse, you get the late, great Dolores Gray in the most mind-boggling production number ever put on film, "Thanks a Lot, But No Thanks".

Edith Head: Vertigo, Paramount, 1958 One of the finest onscreen wardrobes ever created, for Kim Novak. Each ensemble's color is intended to give emotional resonance to the scene in which it appears.

Travis Banton: The Devil Is a Woman, Paramount, 1935 Clothes so fantastically beautiful, Marlene Dietrich hardly had to act. And a good thing, too.

Hubert de Givenchy: Charade, Universal, 1963 Quintessential Sixties couture, worn by Audrey Hepburn at the height of her beauty.

Walter Plunkett: Gone With the Wind, Selznick International / M-G-M, 1939 The costumes aren't that historically accurate, but who cares, when you can do such great things with old curtains? Exquisite color design, in three-strip Technicolor.


The Internet Movie Database, www.imdb.com.
Hollywood and History: Costume Design in Film, Edward Maeder, editor. Thames and Hudson, London, 1987.
David O. Selznick's Hollywood, by Ronald O. Haver. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1980.
M-G-M: When the Lion Roars, by Peter Hay. Turner Publishing, Atlanta, 1991.
Marlene Dietrich, by Maria Riva. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1992.
Psycho: Behind the Scenes of the Classic Thriller, by Janet Leigh with Christopher Nickens. Harmony Books, New York, 1995.
After All, by Mary Tyler Moore. G.P. Putnam's Sons, New York, 1995.
The "IT" Girls: Elinor Glyn, Novelist, and Her Sister Lucile, Couturière, Meredith Etherington-Smith and Jeremy Pilcher. Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich, Orlando, 1986.
Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years: Selections From the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum, Hamish Bowles, editor. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2001.


Technicolor ® is a trademark of Technicolor, Incorporated and Thomson Multimedia.
All photographs presented in this article are the property of their respective owners.

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Copyright © 2004 D.A. "Sandy" McLendon and Joe Kunkel, www.jetsetmodern.com Jetset - Designs for Modern Living. All rights reserved worldwide. This article may not be reproduced, reprinted, reposted or rewritten without express permission in writing from the author and publisher. First posted to the Web on March 20, 2004.