BEHIND THE SCENES AT THE OLD MGM WARDROBE

At the biggest and busiest movie studio of Hollywood’s Golden Age, hummed the most productive studio wardrobe department in movie history. At its most complete in the  1960s, it had some 300,000 costumes in its wardrobe storage – not counting those it had already dicarded in previous decades. MGM regularly produced over 40 moves every year, with its costume designers and wardrobe department producing the costumes for most of them. By comparison, today’s studios make 10-15 movies a year, and of course studios no longer have in-house costume design and fabrication capabilities.

 

MGM facade

The facade of the old MGM Studio and its original entry gate on Washington Blvd as it looked in 1936 is seen above. The Wardrobe Department was located near Washington Blvd and what the studio called 1st Street. Men’s Wardrobe was located elsewhere and costumes were also stored in various locations.  The Wardrobe Department had a manager who ran its day-to-day operations, separate from the costume design staff.  A view to the three-story department is seen in the photo below. In addition to the glamorous part of movie costumes, post-production they would have to be laundered or dry-cleaned, and then inventoried and hung up in the high racks. Bolts of fabrics of all kinds would have to be kept on hand or custom ordered.

 

MGM ladies wardrobe 1

MGM went through several designers after its beginning in 1924-25. The studio hoped to capitalize on the name of Erte in 1925, but he didn’t last. Andre-Ani, Max Ree, and Rene Hubert all did fine work but none lasted long at the studio. Gilbert Clark managed to last longer, but was as temperamental as the divas he dressed. This didn’t work for Garbo. So when Cecil B. DeMille came to make movies for MGM and brought his costume designer Adrian, he soon found his designer under contract to MGM. Starting in 1928, every movie that Garbo starred in was designed by Adrian, as was every Joan Crawford movie until 1941 when Adrian left to start his own fashion line. He also designed the costumes for Jean Harlow, Hedy Lamarr, Lana Turner, and Katharine Hepburn.

 

MGM+Adrian

Adrian liked to paint his costume sketches on his sofa, using the end table to lay out his water colors.

 

Seen below is a group of MGM wardrobe ladies at work.  The Adrian sketch shown and the costume on the dress form are for Greta Garbo in Grand Hotel. As was the case for all leading ladies, Garbo had her own custom-sized dress form (padded to her dimensions).

 

MGM Wardrobe_Garbo Sketch from Grand Hotel

Hannah Lindfors, a cutter-fitter, is shown below. She  translates the designer’s costume sketch into muslin pattern pieces, which are then used to cut the chosen fabric. In this case its for a Dolly Tree design for Rita Johnson. When Adrian left to start his own fashion business, Hannah Lindfors left with him as his cutter-fitter.

 

MGM Cutter-Fitter

Several lace-makers are at work below on the bridal veil for Helen Hayes for the movie White Sister, 1933. It took two weeks to make.

 

MGM lace workers

Two Wardrobe ladies are working on the embroidery for a costume for Romeo and Juliet, starring Norma Shearer, Leslie Howard and John Barrymore. Adrian and Oliver Messel designed, and Wardrobe fabricated , some1250 costumes for the film.

 

MGM+Romeo

Cutter-fitter Inez Schrodt is seen below working on a gown for Marie Antoinette, 1938. The film starred Norma Shearer and Tyrone Power. Some 2500 costumes were used in the film, and Adrian designed 36 costumes for Norma, which was a long-standing record until Cleopatra of 1963.

 

Inez Schroedt & Marie Antoinette gown

Jane Halsey is seen below resting on a “leaning-board” during the filming of The Great Ziegfeld, 1936. The costume was made of bugle-beads and weighed 102 pounds. The leaning boards were heavily padded with cloth – less for comfort but as to prevent snags to the costumes.

 

MGM 8

Wardrobe ladies below are at work on Lana Turner’s costume in Ziegfeld Girl, 1941. The film had completely different but equally magnificent costumes as The Great Ziegfeld, which Adrian also designed.

 

MGM 7

Greer Garson has a stitch repair done to her costume by Vicky Nichols on the set of Mrs. Parkington, 1944. Her costumes were designed by Irene, who had taken over as head designer from Adrian. Irene was at MGM from 1942 until 1948. She was joined by Helen Rose and then Walter Plunkett. Irene Sharaff and Robert Kalloch also worked there for a period, and Gile Steele and  J. Arlington Valles designed men’s costumes.

 

MGM+Greer+and+wardrobe+lady

The Wardrobe Department kept most all of the costumes it made. These were re-used in other films, and often modified. Costumes are being pulled here and placed on a rack for some film. All of these costumes were sold in the MGM auction of 1970.

 

 

MGM Wardrobe racks

This section of shelving shows Roman style helmets, most likely with other armor pieces further inside the shelves. Similar but smaller shelves housed thousands of shoes.

 

MGM waedrobe helmets

Lana Turner is shown below with a costume sketch for one of her costumes and the actual costume from The Prodigal, 1955. Herschel McCoy designed the costumes for the film.

 

MGM+Lana+and+fitter

 

By 1955 when The Prodigal was produced by MGM, the heyday of the studio system was over. Leo B. Mayer had been replaced as head of the studio by Dore Schary. The Consent Decree forced by the US Court over an Anti-Trust suit had made studios divest their ownership of movie theaters, and television viewing had decimated movie audiences. Costume designers like Walter Plunkett, who had been working since the late 1920s, had gone from designing for over 20 movies a year back then to designing just two movies  for MGM in 1957.

Fortunately, the legacy of MGM, its movies and the work of its costume designers and makers , and the other artists and artisans of the studio are preserved in the movies for all of us to see and enjoy. These behind the scenes photos show that the work of producing glamour was not glamorous. And in those days film credits did not acknowledge the work of any of them in wardrobe except for the costume designer. This is a small tribute to their work.

 

15 thoughts on “BEHIND THE SCENES AT THE OLD MGM WARDROBE”

  1. Fascinating reading, thank you for your research and sharing the results. I do own a book called “MGM Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot” which I have read and read again, but I am still thirsty for knowledge of the finest film studio that ever existed.

    1. Thank you for your comment and I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Of course the book you mention is very thorough and a wonderful resource on the subject, but I do include some photos not in the book.

  2. GREAT pictures. For those of us that sew, it’s great to see people at work in the studio costuming areas. This is the first time I’ve every seen pictures such as these. Keep up the good work. Would love to see the inside of costumes. again for sewers, it would be fascinating.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed this post with its pictures. I wish they had taken photos of the insides of the classic Hollywood costumes, but I haven’t seen any, except sometimes the labels. Sometimes they come up for auction. If I get any photos I’ll try to post the.

    1. Hi Dean.No MGM didn’t sell items at auction prior to their big 1970 auction. They had disposed of older wardrobe costumes, however, in the 1930s. Adrian himself had complained about this. One can imagine the beautiful (but then out-of-date) flapper dresses and coats being dumped.

  3. Great stuff, Christian. Remember the auction? 1969 or 70. I both wanted to go and wept. As always, you have captured the essence of the Golden years, and, in particular the backbreaking work of the behind the scenes people like seamstresses, fitters, pressers etc. Hearts and flowers to you!

    1. Thank you for your comments and compliments Inge. All those wardrobe workers in the back rooms contributed so much to the quality of the films. My great-aunt was one of them, the cutter-fitter at RKO. And yes, the MGM auction was in 1970. Many of the unidentified costumes were priced at $1.00 each.

    1. Thanks Kimberly! I actually have many photos of the lot, outdoor sets, shots inside the sound stages during productions, and views of the various trades at work during the Golden Age. They are endlessly fascinating. But of course the Wardrobe Dept has a special interest. But did you know MGM had a zoo? Or a barber shop? Or ran a school? Or had its own lumber mill? A tour back then would have been fun.

    1. Thanks for the comment Jacqueline – it was like a behive. But a world all of itself as you say – a real factory of dreams because you can see that the surroundings are humble. The money all went into the production, although the workers were paid decently, and the ones with skills were paid very well.

  4. Terrific post on the behind-the-scene activities associated with MGM’s wardrobe department. Love the photos, too. If movies back then showed all the credits, as they do now, can you imagine how lengthy some of the credits would have been?

    1. Thanks Rick. Actually, I think the credits would be shorter because there wouldn’t be all the outside services – like the caterers getting film credit for example, or the 6th co-producer’s 3rd assistant.

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