HOLLYWOOD’S MOVIE COSTUMES: REFLECTIONS FROM THE GOLDEN AGE
By Christian Esquevin
(This essay was written for the Exhibition Catalogue for the “Costumes from the golden Age of Hollywood” at the Brisbane Museum in 2015, based on the Nicholas Inglis collection).
In the Golden Age of Hollywood movies, movie costumes had their own golden age. Costumes played several significant roles. They helped provide the look and texture of the movie, whether it was a historical film or a contemporary one. For the actresses and actors it helped define their role, and often defined their own star image. And in the peak of movie-going during the 1930s and 1940s, the movie studios marketed the movies themselves through the fashions seen on-screen. As more and more women were moving to cities and entering the work-force, the fashions of the movies were providing cues on how to dress. Movie costumes on leading stars were becoming so influential that even historical movies were providing fashionable ideas for daily dress. This was made easier since almost all Hollywood period costumes combined historical elements while retaining what was in fashion in the contemporary clothes. Thus current viewers could usually find something to adapt for their own wardrobe, which manufacturers were already prepared to meet the demand. The purpose of Hollywood costume design was after all not to promote historical accuracy, but to promote movies and movie-going. In reaching for this goal costume designers did remarkably well. In the Golden Age of Hollywood, the promotion of movie stars, the costumes they wore, and the movies in which they starred was a seamless operation. The studios had already heavily invested in the look of their movies, for which the fashion and sets and costumes played a large role. The particular costume and fashion styles for each studio were largely determined by its head costume designer. At MGM this was Adrian, followed by Irene, then by Helen Rose and Walter Plunkett. At Paramount there was Howard Greer followed by Travis Banton then Edith Head. Warner Brothers had Orry-Kelly and Milo Anderson. 20th Century-Fox had many designers and therefore never established a unified style. When Charles LeMaire became the Head Designer, he supervised a diverse and talented team including Travilla and Mary Wills. And Columbia had Jean Louis. Historical movies took on the look of their time periods, but contemporary films often bore the fashion stamp of strong stylists like Adrian, Travis Banton, Irene, Orry-Kelly, and Jean Louis. The movie studios did emphasize certain styles of movies based on where their audience was strongest (urban vs rural, foreign markets, etc.). This was in the days when studios also owned movie theaters – which would all change in the 1950s. So Paramount was usually interested in the most urbane movie genres, closely followed by MGM which also made many musicals. Warner Brothers specialized in urban stories and crime. RKO specialized in musicals, westerns, and then film noir. Along with the studio’s financial capabilities, this set the general tone for the costuming of the studio’s productions. But it was the studio’s head costume designer that set the style.
A devoted movie watcher of the 1930s with an eye for fashion, as the female audience had, would soon recognize the stylistic elements of their favorite designers. The broad-shouldered gown with an asymmetrical design in bold black and white contrasts was likely designed by Adrian for an MGM movie. The light colored floor length dress with the strong collar and cuff design feature was certainly an Orry-Kelly design for a Warner Brothers movie. And that sparkling beaded gown trimmed in fur had to be a Travis Banton number for Paramount. The studios publicized their designers, and they were household names during the heyday of the 1930s and 1940s. Newspapers regularly covered film fashion as part of the publicity for a film, as well as what the stars wore and which costume designer was responsible, all as part of a film’s publicity. Fan magazines like Photoplay, Screenland, Movie Mirror, and others regularly carried articles about what film fashions and costumes the stars would be wearing and what tips on dressing the costume designers had for the average woman. In the 1930s through the 1950s, print media was the dominant form of advertizing and promotion, and the combination of print and still photography was used to sell movies by promoting the look of the movie stars. This meant an emphasis on fashion and costumes, and since the female audience had been found to make most of the decisions on which movie showings to attend, women were specifically targeted by emphasizing the importance of costuming in film.
The contemporary movies, those depicting the times when the movie was released, were those where the studios could produce the most publicity about the fashions worn by the stars on-screen. Accordingly, men and women wore the fashions of the day, at least of the day when the movie was made. Since fashion trends change so quickly, classic Hollywood always had a potential problem with its contemporary movies. Even in the heyday of the factory system, it took a number of months between the time costumes were designed and when the film was released. During those months a new style could be launched, or a current style could become passé. This happened in 1929 when the popular irregular-length, handkerchief-hemmed dress was suddenly demoded when Jean Patou introduced the long skirt. Movies featuring the former looked out of fashion, and some had to be re-edited with actresses filmed from the waist up. This happened relatively early in Hollywood’s history, but from then on the studio moguls decided they would employ the best costume designers they could find, and would emphasize a classic Hollywood style of fashion, but one that took full advantage of the sex appeal of their roster of stars and starlets In the 1930s, the iconic look of Hollywood glamour was thus developed by costume designers Adrian, Travis Banton, and others. This was done out of a need for that timeless style, but using a combination of new couture techniques of bias-cut dressmaking with luxurious fabrics like silk satin for form-fitting gowns worn by stars like Jean Harlow ,Joan Crawford, and Carole Lombard. And the costume designers not only designed the look of glamour, but the simple-but-elegant styles that women aspired to, as well as the casual outdoor styles and bathing suits popular in California. In Hollywood’s Golden Age, American woman looked to movies for their fashion cues, and women across the world did too.
The costume on exhibit worn by Myrna Loy in I Love You Again, shows elements of the classic Hollywood style and serves as an example. Its design is credited in the film to MGM designer Dolly Tree, but it could easily have been designed by Adrian. It is a classic Grecian-style Hollywood night gown, with a shoulder emphasis with beading and metal decoration that Adrian had favored throughout the 1930s and 1940s. Its neckline plunges to reveal enough décolletage to be sexy, with slit sleeves and a cinched waist construction to heighten the curves of the figure. This is a gown that could have been worn in almost any time period. The same can be said of Barbara Stanwyck’s gown from Titanic, designed by Dorothy Jeakins. The sleek gunmetal sheath with a train could be worn on any red carpet today. Two other dresses in the exhibition show the evolution of film fashion and the influence of fashion on Hollywood costume. In Having a Wonderful Crime, Carole Landis wears a suit designed by Edward Stevenson from the RKO Studio released in 1945. Its broad shouldered look was still very much in fashion. It was not just an influence of World War II, but a style made popular in film since Adrian designed Joan Crawford’s costumes in the early 1930s. The large white lapels serve the classic film costume function of framing the face, then and now still the most important part of an actress. But popularity of wide shoulders was coming to an end with the introduction of the New Look that came from Christian Dior beginning in late 1947. The New Look took a few years to grab hold in Hollywood, but by 1952 and through the mid-50s, it was the pre-dominant look of the age, made popular by Elizabeth Taylor through her costume designs by Helen Rose. Lucille Ball’s dress in The Long Long Trailer shows the New Look silhouette: the cinched waist, usually needing a corset, the sloped shoulders, and a very full and long skirt, the skirt made full by wearing petticoats.
The costume designers became important figures at their home studios. They were publicized almost as much as the stars – think of Edith Head in her heyday. Just as important as their creativity and designing skills, however, was their ability to get along and bond with the temperamental stars they dressed. While not all such relationships worked, the successful ones depended on trust and an understanding between star and designer. In many cases, it was the costume designer that created the “iconic” look the star would have for many years, think of Marilyn Monroe in Travilla’s “subway” dress, or Rita Hayworth in Jean Louis’ “Put the Blame on Mame” gown.
Historical epics would seem to have their own draw on audiences – Biblical tales, sweeping land battles, swashbucklers, stories of knights in armor. But ever since the early days of Cecil B. DeMille, sex was an important ingredient in the mix, and one that the audience responded to eagerly. One need only look at the ravishing costumes designed by Travis Banton for Claudette Colbert as Cleopatra (1934) to understand the appeal. The costume designers understood full well that the audience came to see an actress or actor they recognized, not one lost in a costume, and preferably a costume that still showed off some of their sex appeal. And more, that the costumes had to be part of the spectacle of the movie. Costume designers were ever-challenged in designing period films. They had to make the costumes accurate enough to convey a true sense of historical times, yet they were constricted by time, an always tight budget, modern viewing tastes, and the impracticality of costuming the principal cast, and scores or even hundreds of extras. The demands of the producer, director and often the lead stars were another matter. Their demands were usually how sexy could they make the lead actress or featured starlet. Some designers were especially strong at designing period costumes. Walter Plunkett was one in particular, having designed Little Women, Mary of Scotland, Gone with the Wind, Green Dolphin Street, Raintree County, and Diane, among others. Plunkett did his research, but he half jokingly said he liked doing historical films because the directors were seldom knowledgeable enough to argue with him about the costumes.
The studios kept their own inventories of fabrics, and they ordered from fabric suppliers just the same as garment manufacturers. Nonetheless, period fabrics were largely unobtainable for all but a few accent pieces such as antique lace. Thus the look of period fabrics had to be duplicated with contemporary samples. This extended to creating embroideries, cut-metal work, and jewelry decorations. The latter were duplicated in semi-precious stones and rhinestones. Often fabrics were hand-painted. At MGM, several of the dresses in Marie-Antoinette had their flowers hand-painted on the fabric. Walter Plunkett hand-painted the roses on Katharine Hepburn’s period dress in RKO’s Quality Street. And during World War II when many fabrics were unobtainable, the popular large floral-print dresses were hand-painted at Paramount. Feathers and furs were usually not a problem at the time, compared to today, although eagle feathers were protected in the U.S. even in the 1930s. For many period films, crinoline hoop skirts needed to be made at the studios, as well as the bustles that became fashionable later. In this case, at MGM, Wardrobe had the Metal Shop fabricate hoops of metal rather than using the historically accurate whalebone hoops. The metal hoops were then connected by vertical fabric tapes. Men’s period costumes for depicting the days of the Roman Empire provided the look of authenticity by frequently employing similar methods of fabrication for plated or chased metal chest armor, leather straps, chin guards and metal helmets – these for the principal actors. The larger studios like MGM had their own cobblers and leather workers that could make sandals and whatever leather gear was needed. Prop armor was stored at the studios and used repeatedly for extras in the films. Rental houses like Western Costume could provide the smaller studios with costumes for their legions. At MGM they also had a complete Art Department where architects and designers could design whatever was needed, along with a studio research library. If the director needed a medieval sword and scabbard from a certain period, he only needed to ask for it. And since the studio basically ran around the clock, the library, art department, leather and metal workers were likely to have it available to him the next day.
The look of opulence so desirable in many period films was achieved by using rich velvets, silks, brocades, and finely worked embroidered fabric. Furs were plentiful, including genuine ermine used by the royal houses of Europe. While sheer fabrics like mousseline, souffle, and chiffon weren’t available centuries ago, in the Golden Age they provided an extra measure of allure to that décolleté toga that fine cotton just couldn’t capture. The bust was always an area of costume that betrayed the accuracy of period costume, and this was not by accident. And it was not just that more cleavage was desired in a costume, since under the days of strict enforcement of the Production Code (1934-1966), virtually no cleavage was allowed to be shown, which certainly was not the case in some historical periods, it was the line and cut of the poitrine itself. For many film costumes of the 1860s through the 1910s, the answer was to place a basically contemporary top with some period trim on a long period skirt. Indeed, the look of the monobosom from the turn-of-the-century would not have looked natural on the stars of the 1940s and 50s.
The process of designing costumes was fairly standard in the larger studios by 1930. By then each studio had a head designer, and some had more than one costume designer on staff. MGM had several costume designers, including two that only designed men’s costumes. The Wardrobe Department was usually headed by a manager with garment making experience; although the designer supervised the making of the costumes they designed (this usually extended to supervising the head cutter and fitter).Several seamstresses were on staff as well as a tailor or two. Beaders were there to do the embroideries although often these were employed as needed for extra work on the big movies. The larger studios like MGM and Paramount had dyers, cobblers, and milliners. All studios kept their just-made costumes to be re-used for later productions, or even rented out to other studios. At its peak, MGM had several hundred thousand costumes in storage. The process began for the designer when they got the script. Already divided into scenes, they would need to determine the personality and character of the actor or actress, their ambitions, and the plot, the locale and time period, the time of day and what costume would be appropriate for the scene. Each scene may need a different costume (but not necessarily) called a “change” or “costume change.” The script would thus be divided into costume changes for each actress or actor in the movie.
While the process was fairly standard in the major studios, each designer had his or her own method of designing. All costume designers would need a costume sketch since this is what was needed to show the producer, director and the star to get their approvals before fabrication. Some designers like Adrian did all their own sketches (they were really watercolor illustrations), while other designers used sketch artists to produce them. Some of the designers could illustrate well but no longer had the time to do so, like Walter Plunkett after he got to MGM, and some sketch artists became designers themselves. Some designers preferred draping fabric on models until they had an idea, and then had a sketch artist illustrate their design, or some made rough designs in pencil. Adrian never wanted anyone else involved in his design process, not even sketch artists. Helen Rose started out sketching her own designs but quickly turned to a sketch artists when she could, and Walter Plunkett also used a sketch artist at MGM.
The costume sketch itself had to illustrate what the costume would look like, and was rendered in color, often with small vignette sketches of the back or of a detail, and with fabric swatches attached. The latter have usually been lost over the years. The back of the sketches would often record the budget expended for the piece and sometimes the number of hours spent, and with who worked on it in the Wardrobe Department.
Once sketches were approved by the director and producer, they were turned over to the person who would cut the patterns, variously called the head cutter and fitter or fitter. This was the most skilled person in wardrobe, generally supervising the seamstresses and embroiderers, Wardrobe also had specialists like fabric dyers or painters. The head cutter and fitter would translate a sketch into pattern pieces and then cut the selected fabric in like shapes. The muslin patterns were first assembled onto dress forms custom sized to the actress’s measurements. Then the selected fabric was cut into like shapes and was sewn by the seamstresses, with any embroidery or special decoration done by the specialists. The first and subsequent fitting with the actress was attended to by the designer and fitter. This was always a special occasion, and could be fraught with anxiety. The best cases occurred when designer and actress had worked together before, and understood each other, knowing that they both wanted the actress to look her best, or be convincing in the role she played. First meetings could also come off badly, as mistrust, very late arrivals, or obvious shows of power could turn a fitting into a brusk and even ugly occasion. Some serious problems occurred just getting the sketches approved by the actress. For Cleopatra, Claudette Colbert thought Travis Banton’s costume sketches too sexy and revealing. She rejected two sets outright. Banton warned her that she had better accept his third set of sketches, which he stayed up until midnight at the Paramount studio producing. When she rejected those too Banton was furious. He left the studio in a huff. Always a hard drinker, he went to Palm Springs on a binge. Studio head Adolph Zukor had to call him to get him back to work, saying Colbert would accept his final designs.⃰ But the obvious marvels that were created in Golden Age Hollywood prove that designers and stars worked as a team, often forming tight and lasting friendships. Even more, it was the costume designers themselves that were largely responsible for creating that iconic image that the movie stars possessed throughout their career. After the studio system came to an end, generally by 1970, although its demise started earlier, long-term contract costume designers and others trades were no longer used. Movie actors still wear costumes, but the system for designing and procuring them has changed significantly since the “Golden Age.” Today they can still beseen and enjoyed on big screens and small.
copyright Christian Esquevin