Costume Designers Of Hollywood

In Hollywood's Golden Age, designers like Adrian and Edith Head created wearable works of art for some of the greatest stars.

In Hollywood's Golden Age, studios paid top dollar to have the best designers dress their most valuable assets: their stars. Actresses such as Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, and Bette Davis were the new American goddesses, but in reality, they were only human, and needed these designers to look their absolute best on screen.

When movies first began to be mass-marketed, right after the turn of the century, actors and actresses usually looked to their own closets for contemporary stories. For period pieces, of course, a wardrobe department was necessary, but it was not until 1916 that the first costume designer was credited on film. He was Louis J. Gasnier, a Frenchman who also directed movies. He had created a black suit with a white blouse and black beret for American serial heroine Pearl White. The dress immediately caught on among young women of the day, and the Hollywood designer was born.

MGM was the most powerful studio of the thirties and forties, and on its payroll was the man who some consider the greatest designer in Hollywood history: Adrian. Adrian was born to Jewish immigrant parents in 1903, and began his career in the garment district of New York. He soon realized the endless possibilities offered by the movies, however, and moved west to Los Angeles while still a young man. He worked his way tirelessly up the MGM ladder, and by the 1930's he was indispensable to the top MGM actresses.

Adrian's most famous professional relationship was with Joan Crawford. Crawford's face was a cinematographer's dream; she had perfect skin and bone structure. Her body, however, presented problems when filmed. She was long waisted, and had short, stocky legs. Adrian designed dresses that were long and usually dark in the skirt, to create the illusion of length. Another of Crawford's "defects" Adrian refused to hide: her broad shoulders. Rather than trying to minimize them, he accentuated them with shoulder pads. This created the most famous American "look" of the late thirties and forties. It was not until the fifties that shoulder pads were considered passe.

Not all of MGM's stars adored Adrian, however. Greta Garbo hated the slinky gowns and ruffled period dresses he made for her, even though she looked gorgeous in them. She was always trying to work her own man-tailored style into her films, and it finally caused a break between the two in the late thirties. Judy Garland was also difficult to dress. She had a very thick, short waist, which Adrian was always trying to lengthen with uncomfortable corsets and girdles. Also, her neck was short, and she hated the high collars she was put in to camouflage it.

One actress, Janet Gaynor, liked Adrian so much that she married him, despite his homosexuality being an open secret in Hollywood. By all accounts, they were devoted to each other, and remained married until Adrian's sudden fatal heart attack on September 13, 1959.

Probably the Hollywood designer best known to the public is Edith Head. Over a period of more than fifty years, she worked on over 1,100 films, earning eight Oscars and and 35 Oscar nominations. Head was born in San Bernadino, California, in 1897. Her first designing job was for Cecil B. DeMille's The Golden Bed in 1924. In 1938 she became the first woman to be named chief designer at a major movie studio, Paramount. She worked on films that have since become classics, such as All About Eve and A Place in the Sun. While Adrian was all about glamour, Head was also known for the girl-next-door looks she created for Elizabeth Taylor and Audrey Hepburn. Taylor's breezy, casual white clothing in A Place in the Sun is a perfect example of this.

Hollywood had a love/hate relationship with French designers. Studio heads spent plenty of time tearing their hair out about fashions that changed so quickly, their movies looked dated by the time they came out. In an effort to prevent this, producer Samuel Goldwyn hired Coco Chanel in the mid-thirties and brought her to Hollywood. Neither one realized what they were getting into. Designing fashion for black and white cinema and designing fashion for the runway were two different things. Chanel's work came up flat and bland-looking on the screen, and the alliance was soon over.

Another Frenchman, Givenchy, had much better luck in Hollywood. In the 1950's, he created a look for Audrey Hepburn""the gamine""that swept Europe and America. Men's shirts, Capri pants and ballet slippers were a classic look that still appeals to women today. Hepburn loved Givenchy's style and insisted on working with him well into the sixties.

With the decline of the studio system and a widespread acceptance in the 1960's and '70's of casual clothing as everyday wear, the age of the Hollywood designers wound down, but their affect will always be felt in the world of fashion.

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