Jean Pierre Dorleac Book 2


Famed costume designer Jean-Pierre Dorléac has had a dynamic and fascinating career designing costumes for film, stage, and television. He recounts many of his experiences in his book: The Naked Truth: An Irreverent Chronicle of Delirious Escapades, published last year by Monad Books.  In his many years in Hollywood he met and worked with some of the legends of show business. His talent and skills in designing, sketching, and even producing costumes at the highest levels took him to Universal Studios during Edith Head’s final years. She befriended him and mentored him in the nuances of working with difficult stars. And of course they shared many stories, one in particular which had always grieved Edith, was the story of the creation of the Sabrina dresses.

Mr. Dorléac granted me an interview to cover some of the highlights of his career and the friendships and working relationships he formed in the industry (both good and bad). There are of course many trials and tribulations he went through, as well as experiences with some famous movie stars that do not flatter their reputations. All of that is in the book. As a basic introduction, it covers the period starting with his winning of the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award for the play Marat/Sade in 1973. It took hard work to capitalize on the win before he worked regularly in film or television.  He was befriended by June Lockhart, and the two were often out on the town. Connections he made would later prove helpful. Through her he met Ann Miller, who gifted him a good part of her personal wardrobe, forming the core of an eventual fabulous 25,000 piece vintage garment collection. Next came a promising film assignment starring Henry Fonda, with the then young stars Eileen Brennan and Susan Sarandon: The Last of the Cowboys. The film turned into a disappointment and even given a new title, but working with Henry Fonda was a great experience. In 1977 Jean-Pierre Dorléac was hired at Universal Studios to design period costumes for a TV movie called The Bastard. The risque title it seemed came from a popular novel by John Jakes, a story leading up to the American Revolution.


Jean-Pierre Dorleac Eleanor Parker - Black 2
Mourning gown sketch of Eleanor Parker from “The Bastard.”


Eighteenth century costume was a specialty of Dorléac’s, costumes he had studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in France. But as it turned out, that helped him little for his next work, designing the space-age costumes for the cult-favorite Battlestar Galactica, also done for Universal Television. His next film may not have won great praise, but Good Guys Wear Black (Black Tigers), with Chuck Norris, introduced the use of spandex in action-costumes. Battlestar Galactica was  such a hit that a  TV series was produced, and Jean-Pierre Dorléac’s innovative costumes for the series have become legendary. In addition to his film and television costume designing, he has been very active designing for the private wardrobes of many stars.

I asked Jean-Pierre if there  was still so much fan interest in his Battlestar Galactica costumes. “Oh yes”, he said,  “all the time”. “And I have donated  20 Galactica  costumes to museums,” he added. He said his success with science fiction costumes was a surprise since he never liked uniforms and doesn’t read science fiction.  In 1979-1980 his costume design work alternated between the 18th century and the space-age as he designed for another John Jakes saga: The Rebels, and then Galactica 1980 and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.  The Battlestar Galactica costumes used a variety of innovative materials: Whiting & Davis ( famous for its antique purses) chainmail; chromed plastic; spandex jumpsuits; and specially made macramé.

Jean-Pierre Dorleac CU Fashion Show Models
Jean-Pierre Dorléac and models from the TV 6-hour movie “Valley of the Dolls.” He played himself in the film, narrating a fashion show of evening wear during a prominent scene.

The year 1980 became very significant for Jean-Pierre, he designed for both The Blue Lagoon starring then young It Girl Brooke Shield, and the fan-favorite Somewhere in Time, starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour. He said Christopher Reeve was then at the height of his egotism and very demanding about his wardrobe. Edith Head’s advice for how to handle fussy stars worked just as well for men, he discovered.

Jean-Pierre started talking about his book by saying that, “I wanted to stay under the radar” after The Blue Lagoon came out. Brooke Shield was immensely popular at the time and there was intense interest in gossip about her and her mother, all of which he wanted to avoid because of his devotion to them. He was very gratified with his costumes for Somewhere in Time, designed for the period of 1912 and nominated for an Academy Award in Best Costume Design. Jean-Pierre said he immersed himself in the Belle-Epoque, “Looking for the character of Elise McKenna, an actress with advanced  haute-couture taste.”  He spent hours looking  for antique laces and accessories. He was finally able to buy $5000 worth of the important silk and cotton laces through a dealer at an antique bazaar.  He was frustrated in his search for period jewelry, however. But at a lunch Edith Head made him a significant present, a magnificent Rhinestone necklace from 1900 that had once belonged to Broadway actress Ethel Jackson. It was the perfect piece for the gown he had in mind and he couldn’t thank Edith enough for this gift, a very valuable piece.


Jean-Pierre Dorleac Crystal necklace and Earrings from SIT
The hand-polished rhinestone necklace, originally worn by Ether Jackson in the1907 Broadway production of “THE MERRY WIDOW,” given to Jean-Pierre Dorleac by Edith Head. It was used in the film “SOMEWHERE IN TIME” that was nominated for Best Costume Design


Jean-Pierre Dorléac  had not started out wanting to be a costume designer. He was interested as a young adult in the history of fashion and worked briefly at Balmain and Dior learning the basics of couture. He has admired many American costume designers. “Orry-Kelly was my favorite designer,” he says. He likes the classic look of the glamour gowns he designed. He knew and admired Walter Plunkett. “He gave me a book with plates of costumes that were inspirations for him in designing ‘Gone with the Wind.'”

Jean-Pierre Dorleac Plunkett Title Page












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“Modes and Manners of the XIX Century” inspired costume designer Walter Plunkett to design Vivien Leigh’s picnic dress for GONE WITH THE WIND from one of the many hand-colored engravings.


He was friends with Theadora Van Runkle, whose personal style of dress  he greatly admired. “She turned everyone’s head when she entered a room,” he said of her. “She had henna red hair and a constant display of vintage jewelry, outrageous beads around her neck and fascinating bracelets.” Jean-Pierre, who renders amazing costume sketches, greatly admired Theadora’s costume sketches as well. He also knew and admired Yvonne Wood and Noel Taylor. And of course there was Edith Head.

“Edith was always very kind and generous,” said Jean-Pierre. “She was never vicious.” This in Hollywood when the changed order of things had made climbing the ladder more like a game of thrones.  She gave him presents, “that were always extra special,” and these always had a particular reflection on her career. Alfred Hitchcock had copies of the scissors made that Grace Kelly used as a murder weapon in Dial M for Murder. He gave a set to Edith Head, even though she was not the costume designer for the movie.  The scissors and their red leather case with her name on it she gave to Jean-Pierre.

Jean-Pierre Dorleac Edith Head scissors
The desk scissors gifted to Edith Head from Alfred Hitchcock that were copies of the murder weapon from DIAL M FOR MURDER. She gave them to Jean-Pierre, who in turn, was inspired by them to create the logo for THE GREATEST AMERICAN HERO.

Jean-Pierre Dorleac Original LogoJean-Pierre Dorleac TV Guide Cover Logo-Edith Head scissors


Regarding the notorious case of the design credit for Audrey Hepburn’s Sabrina dresses, Jean-Pierre had much to say.  Part of the problem started early. “Audrey Young was a bit player at Paramount who did not like Edith.” he said. “She married Billy Wilder in 1949 and wanted to become a costume consultant.” He said that Edith told him that Audrey Hepburn wanted to get couture items from Givenchy but showed up with sketches she had made herself based on what she had seen at his runway show. And Audrey Hepburn had already gone to director Billy Wilder and he consented to giving her what she wanted. Edith said she then modified the sketches “to give them her touch.” Jean-Pierre said that the cutter-fitter (pattern-maker) at the time stated that all the costumes for Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina were made at Paramount. And also that Marjorie Bennett who played the cook said she saw Audrey Hepburn wearing the “bateau-neckline” Sabrina dress coming out of Wardrobe. Edith said that Audrey ‘s characteristic style was her angular features. So she designed her necklines with a pronounced horizontal line. Jean-Pierre emphasized the importance of the continuity of that neckline in the various costumes Audrey Hepburn wears in the film, from basic house-dress, to a sharp black apron,  to the famed bateau neckline “Sabrina” dress, to the charcoal-grey embroidered ball-gown. All these indicate the obvious intention of the designer – the costume designer – who is developing the character in the story, not designing couture.

With all the kindness that Edith Head showed him at the start and throughout his career, Jean-Pierre was saddened at the tarnished reputation she experienced during her final years at Universal. The film-credit embroglio, along with her advanced years and worsening health allowed some people to disrespect her at the studio. He has done his bit to champion her rightful place in Hollywood movie history.

Jean-Pierre Dorléac has earned his own place in movie and television history. He has been nominated 11 times for the Prime-time Emmy Awards for Outstanding Costume Design, winning for Battlestar Galactica and The LotHe has won two Best Costumes Awards from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Films for Battlestar Galactica and Somewhere in Time. And he was nominated for a Best Costume Oscar for Somewhere in Time. Today he works mainly in South America and Europe. He raises orchids and epiphyllum cactus plants as a hobby. His book The Naked Truth was well-written, highly informative and entertaining, an inside look at Hollywood from the production end – or how much of a game of thrones (unsavory characters and all) it really is. As a fan of film costume this was a great book to read and a wonderful opportunity to talk to this notable costume designer and author. You will no doubt be able to enjoy it on several levels.







What five classic movies would you want with you if you were stranded on a desert island? That’s the question Rick of the Classic Film and TV Café posed to several of us participating in his Blogathon in commemoration of a National Classic Movie Day. That’s a pretty short number, especially for being stranded for who knows how long, We could probably come up with our “100 Favorite Movies to Be Stranded on a Desert Island,” while exercising a little fantasy and throwing in some guilty pleasures. But Rick is holding the line.

So my rationale is that I had to fall back on my all-time favorites, movies I’ve seen over and over with continued pleasure, or maybe because of some inner need these films seemed to fill. They also fell into a sort of chronology of my life, as to when I first saw them, and perhaps representing that era. Regardless, there were many that vied for 4th and 5th place and could easily have been swapped as I held them in high esteem and they fit my criteria well. Is there an island-hopping option Rick, with various movies at each?

Resigned to 5, they are:

CASABLANCA  –  A  movie on many classic film top ten lists, it’s also my favorite, a fast-paced thriller with characters galore and dialogue that has provided more apt quotes than any other movie. I never tire of seeing it. From the first few frames of its opening scenes I’m projected into a foreign place and time, where intrigues and passions are always on the simmer. No need for special effects here, your senses are grabbed by the base emotions of the people made large on the screen, with plot twists and small climaxes happening at regular intervals throughout the film. Two scenes in Rick’s Cafe American involving music are unforgettable: the endearing but melencholy singing of “As Time Goes By” by Dooley Wilson (“Play it Sam”), and the rousing and for me, choked-up playing and singing of the “Marseillaise,” the French national anthem – in opposition to the Nazis in the bar. The end of the movie itself is a surprise, bittersweet, but with doors left wide open for other adventures.

casablanca Rick & Ilsa

But I’ll always think, would my sweetie have come with me to this desert island? Or did she plan all along to go with away with Victor Laszlo?


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WUTHERING HEIGHTS  I have several reasons for choosing this dark gothic, tragic  romance. Perhaps the easiest one is the appeal of its diametrically opposite nature, the dark and stormy Moors as relief from a sun-drenched desert island. But I always harbored an inner Heathcliff, a subconscious element from my childhood perhaps. Its actors are outstanding, the top-rung of the British of that period (1939) – Laurence Olivier, Merle Oberon, David Niven, and  Flora Robson. The story conveys the conflict between convention and passion that was at the heart of Romanticism, and Olivier burns the screen with his jealosy, love, hate, vengeance, and regret. The conflicted love story of Heathcliff and Cathy is as powerful as has ever been put on the screen. It was one of the great movies of 1939 and was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Actor for Olivier and Best Director for William Wyler.

The base theme of vengeance that lurks in the movie is one that, sad to say, appeals to me, as does Heathcliff’s madness and singlemindidness. Romantic period tropes that drew me to Edgar Allen Poe and Baudelaire. An alternative movie I had in mind, one that has some of the same appeal, but in a completely different setting, and which I never tire of seeing, is The Outlaw Josey Wales.


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SINGING IN THE RAIN   And now for something completely different, as the’d say on Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Another “usual suspect” on the top ten list of best movies, and often picked as the “best musical.” Who doesn’t need a good laugh on a desert island? It’s hard to pick a movie with good belly-laughs these days. I was thinking of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World as a possiblity, but this is really one of my favorites. A re-cap of Hollywood movie-making itself with a bunch of whistle-while-you-work tunes. Not to mention the powereful Broadway Rhythm Ballet with Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse, Donald O’Connor’s number to “Make ’em Laugh”, the wonderful duo to “Moses Supposes”,  the iconic Gene Kelly song and dance to the title number, “Singing in the Rain, ” the talented Debbie Reynolds and Jean Hagen, and those wonderful costumes by Walter Plunkett. Just think of yourself kicking up the sand as you’re “Singing in the Rain.”



BLOWUP   I’ve blogged often about Antonioni’s Blowup, an all-time favorite movie of mine that seems to perplex most people I mention it to. It grabbed me on a visceral level when I first saw it at age 18. I needed no explanation of its meaning. The murder mystery at its face was enough, and the unanswerable meaning of life it implied was already keenly felt. Francis Ford Coppola stated Blowup was a big influence on him, especially on his film The Conversation. Blowup is another film I never tire of watching, reveling in Antonioni’s silent and scoreless scenes of David Hemmings walking through London’s Maryon Park, with only the sound of rustling leaves to be heard, or of Hemmings fighting for a broken guitar neck at a Yardbirds concert, only to throw it away as soon as he’s free. If you are curious or perplexed, see my post on Blowup

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THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION  This modern classic is based on a novella by Stephan King.  While I like stories of redemption: Crime and Punishment; American Gigolo, the redemption here has nothing to do with the protagonist’s (Andy Dufresne played by Tim Robbins) guilt but rather by his years-long effort to finally free himself from a corrupt prison system while making off with the warden’s crooked gains. His pairing with prison-mate Ellis “Red” Redding played by Morgon Freeman is inspirational (although the casting was accidental). The scene where Andy locks himself in the warden’s office and plays an aria from the Marriage of Figaro over the prison loudspeaker, for all the inmates to hear in the yard,  they dumbstruck as if hearing the voices of the angels from on-high, is one of the high-spots of filmmaking. Naturally, Andy paid dearly for this stunt, and you can see his moment of glory disappear from his face as the guards finally break in the door. This movie is not always fun to watch, but its end is very satisfying. I figure I need a good prison break-out movie on a desert island. There are plenty of those of course, not to mention desert island movies including several versions of The Swiss Family Robinson, and Cast Away, where I might actually learn something useful about desert island living.

These are my five choices for desert island classic film viewing. But how about some TV series Rick? That way we could stretch things out a bit. Maybe even have some binge-watching – what else are you going to do on a desert island” That way you could really have some relevant watching, shows like Black Sails. And there’s always the Twilight Zone marathon.






Postman poster


“They threw me off the hay truck about noon.” So opens James M. Cain’s 1934 noir novel of rough sex, murder, double-cross, and the hand of fate. Things were not so sunny in California in 1934. The Depression was in in full force, and grifting was a fallback trade. James M. Cain had already participated in the butchery of World War I and a life as a journalist. He was raised among the Eastern establishment but always had a contrary streak, especially in using the common vernacular of writers Mark Twain and Hemingway. After several failed novels he found his path with a ripped-from-the-headlines story of the husband-murder case of lovers Lee Snyder and Henry Gray. And like fellow crime writer Raymond Chandler, he found the deepest shadows in the bright lights of Southern California. First of his crime novels was The Postman Always Rings Twice, a best-seller. It was followed by Double Indemnity and Mildred Pierce. Classic movies were made of all three books, though in reverse order of their publication. The Postman Always Rings Twice took the longest to get to the screen. It was the darkest of the three.

This post is part of the Classic Movie Blog Association Words! Words! Words! Blogathon


RKO was the first studio eager to make Postman. Knowing that the sex and the story would cause problems with the censors at the Production Code Administration, production head Merian C. Cooper submitted a synopsis to the PCA in 1934. Their answer was brief: the story was “…definitely unsuitable for motion picture production.” Warner Brothers and Columbia followed suit, but abandoned the idea after getting the same message from the PCA. But then on March 9, 1934 only hours after Columbia had abandoned their plans to move forward on an option; Eddie Mannix bought the rights to make the film at MGM. This despite the PCA’s pleas to MGM to drop any plans of making a movie of the book it considered, “unwholesome and thoroughly objectionable.” MGM shelved it, although it was then made in France in 1939 as, Le Dernier Tournant (The Last Turn). Then after a string of successes at different studios of the Cain stories; Double Indemnity and Mildred Pierce, MGM revived plans and developed different treatments and scripts and submitted these to the PCA in the 1940s. It took the end of World War II and the rising genre of film noir for the PCA to approve a temporary script in May 1945. From there it would go on the fast track as a star vehicle. This would be no B-film noir.


Cain’s novel uses few descriptive passages. Cora is introduced with, “Except for the shape she really wasn’t any raving beauty, but she had a sulky look to her, and her lips stuck out in a way that made me want to mash them in for her.” With book and film, there’s no chemistry in their narrator Frank and Cora’s  encounter at the Twin Oaks Tavern, “a sandwich joint like a million others in California…with a house part…and a filling station…and a half dozen shacks that they called an auto court.” The chemistry soon heated up. In the film this was helped by the near perfect casting of Lana Turner as Cora and John Garfield as the drifter Frank Chambers, the newly hired help. Cecil Kellaway played the witless husband and Twin Oaks owner Nick Smith (Nick Papadakis in the book). Tay Garnett directed.


Lana Turner makes her entrance in the movie bare legs first. She’s dressed in white shorts and a white halter top. Janine Basinger describes the scene as “…one of the iconic showstoppers in modern motion picture history.” Although in the first minutes of the scene Garfield as Frank and Turner as Cora play cat and mouse, there’s no doubt in the mind of the audience that sparks are going to fly, and soon.

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) Directed by Tay Garnett Shown: Lana Turner (as Cora Smith)
Photo courtesy Photofest


Irene Lentz Gibbons designed the costumes for Lana Turner. Irene designed an almost all-white wardrobe for Lana, wanting to emphasize her sun-tanned California look in her crisp white Twin Oaks uniform. Irene also wanted to help create that heavenly vision of Lana first coming down the staircase. The contrast of her platinum blond hair and white outfits with John Garfield’s darker complexion makes for the perfect film noir atmosphere. As Lana was described in this film, “a black widow in white shorts.” Tay Garnett claimed credit for having Lana dressed in white, along with producer Carey Wilson, stating it helped make her look less sensuous in trying to get past the censors. But in the book Cora starts out from the beginning in a white Twin Oaks uniform. The only exception to her all white wardrobe is one black dress Irene designed.


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A hot affair develops between Frank and Cora, and when the unsuspecting Nick drives to the City to get a new sign for Twin Oaks, Frank and Cora decide to skedaddle. But they are hitchhiking, walking really, and Cora gets cold feet after eating dust for several miles. But she’s had time to think, why leave with nothing? She berates Frank for his satisfaction at being a drifter, “I want to be somebody, “she says. So they go back to Twin Oaks, and after they get back, and she sees Nick driving home drunk, she knew she could be somebody, and have Frank, and Twin Oaks – and all it would take is for Nick to have a deadly accident. And maybe that could be helped along. But this is James M. Cain’s darkest novel. And this is classic film noir, where even the best made plans take ill-fated detours.

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Cora: There’s one thing we could do to fix everything for us.

Frank: What? Pray for something to happen to Nick?

Cora: Something like that.

Frank: Cora!

Cora: Well you suggested it yourself once, didn’t you…

Frank: But they hang you for a thing like that.

And accidents did start happening to Nick. Until the last one killed him. Only the accidents happened to Frank and Cora too. Then there was a trial for murder. And then the circumstances had the lovers accusing each other. Courtroom shenanigans and a clever lawyer had Cora and Frank walking free. But the DA is not satisfied. And distrust has set in, and a blackmailer prowls, and another female lurks with her cats – big cats.


There is no happy ending in The Postman Always Rings Twice. Even this fact didn’t satisfy the censors in allowing the original story to be filmed until twelve years after it was published. Frank Chambers ended up paying twice for his crime. Although the lines were never meant for this book or this movie, Walter Neff’s statement from Double Indemnity, is apt, “I killed for money. And for a woman. I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman.” The title of The Postman Always Rings Twice the book and the film is allegorical – with the second ring of the postman (as messenger) delivering the fate to Cora and Frank they had escaped with the first ring.





The late Oscar-winning costume designer Mary Wills created  wonderful movie costumes as well as exuberant and beautiful costume sketches in the process. That her work is largely forgotten today is unfitting for such a great artist and costume designer. This especially and for someone who made so many  contributions to significant movies in Hollywood history. Posted here are some of the costume design sketches that show her amazing talent for the notable films that she designed.

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Mary Wills was the first  woman admitted to the Yale Art and Drama School, where she earned a Master’s Degree. She was born in Prescott Arizona, and moved to Los Angeles after receiving her Master’s degree. She started designing costumes in 1944 at RKO with Belle of the Yukon. She then designed Song of the South for  Walt Disney. She then began working for Samuel Goldwyn in 1948, where she designed costumes for Enchantment starring Teresa Wright and David Niven. Soon she was being referred to as The Fabulous Miss Wills at the Goldwyn Studio. The above sketch is for another film, and shows a smart linen travelling suit she designed. She was equally at ease designing contemporary or historical costumes, and for men as well as women.  The first big production that Ms. Wills worked on at Goldwyn, and a critical success, was Our Very Own, released in 1950. The film starred Ann Blyth, Jane Wyatt, Farley Granger,  Ann Dvorak, and a young Natalie Wood. A costume sketch for Jane Wyatt is shown below.


Mary Wills - Our Very Own, 1950

The costume sketch below is a design for a swim suit for Ann Blyth in the same movie.


Mary Wills - Our Very Own


One of Miss Will’s most memorable films was Hans Christian Andersen.  For this film she designed the costumes for Danny Kaye and the rest of the cast, excepting the ballet costumes. Shown below is a costume design sketch for Danny Kaye in the leading role. Using her artistic talent, Mary Wills was able to add subtle background scenery to many of her sketches, presenting a vignette for the context of the costume.

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Since filming took place on a Hollywood sound stage, her colorful and realistic costumes for the market scene in Copenhagen helps bring to life the sights and sounds of the old city. Shown below is a costume design sketch for a flower seller and her daughter. Miss Wills’ sketches give the appearance of living characters, as if she had actually painted them seated at an easel in the market square. The film was nominated for a Best Costume Oscar in 1953.


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And another pair of  characters bringing their milk and goat to market.

Mary Wills - Hans Christian Andersen

Mary Wills was also a skilled designer of historical costumes for film. After moving to 20th Century-Fox, she began working on a  major historical costume film.The sketch below is for a costume worn by Joan Collins in the role of Beth Throgmorton in the 1955 film The Virgin Queen, starring Bette Davis. The fabric swatches selected for the costume are still attached to the sketch. Mary Wills received a Best Costume design nomination for this film, as did Charles Le Maire who headed costume design at 20th Century-Fox.


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Below is a remarkable costume sketch for Bette Davis as Queen Elizabeth in the same film.


Mary Wills - Bette Davis Virgin Queen 2


Mary Wills also designed the  Rogers and Hammerstein musical film Carousel, from 1956. The costume sketch below is the design that Shirley Jones wore in her first scene with  Gordon MacRae when they each sang “If I Loved You.”


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Below is the deign for Shirley Jones’ friend Carrie played by Barbara Ruick, also from the first scene where they go to the circus and meet Billy Bigelow ( Gordon MacRae ).


Costume sketch by Mary Wills of Barbara Ruick as Carrie

And a design for one of the many characters in the movie.


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Mary Wills won her costume design Oscar for the 1961 film The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm. This was a Cinerama production starring Yvette Mimieux, Russ Tamblyn, Laurence Harvey, Claire Bloom and many others. The costume sketch shown below was created for Yvette Mimieux in the Dancing Princess sequence. Miss Wills had a flair for designing dance and folk costumes, a talent she used later in her career designing for the Shipstad & Johnston Ice Follies


Mary Wills for Yvette Mimieux in The Brothers Grimm


Also below is another sketch for Yvette Mimieux as the Gypsy.


Mary Wills Yvette Mimieux in The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm


And Mary Wills could also design costumes for films that had a darker side, such as the first Cape Fear, and The Diary of Anne Frank. The costume sketch below is for Polly Bergin in Cape Fear, co-starring Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum.


Mary Wills Polly Bergen Cape Fear

Mary Wills worked on two major films that she didn’t get film credit for; Funny Girl and Camelot. In Funny Girl, she designed the spectacular Ziegfeld show-girl Brides costumes and the costumes for Omar Shariff . Her last film work was for The Passover Plot in 1976, for which she also received an Academy Award nomination.


Mary Wills Funny Girl Brides
Funny Girl Ziegfeld Follies February Brides


Before her final retirement to Sedona, Arizona in the mid-1980s, she designed costumes for special productions such as the The New Buffalo Bill Wild West Show and The Nutcracker on Ice. Mary Wills died on February 11,1997 in Sedona Arizona. Her work lives on in film, and her name should live on too. She brought a high level of artistic talent and integrity to her creations, breathing life into the costumes she designed.


Mary Wills at the Samuel Goldwyn Studio circa 1948

Thanks to Marri Champie for these sketches.



Dolores Del Rio, Ramon Navarro, and Conchita Montenegro

Long before there was Jennifer Lopez, Salma Hayek, or Eva Mendez, the 1930s Hollywood silver screen blazed with the talents and hot looks of Latina movie stars Dolores Del Rio, Lupe Velez, and Conchita Montenegro. Dolores Del Rio was in the first ranks of movie stardom in the early to mid 1930s. Her radiant beauty was a magnet for the camera, and she starred in several major movies for Warner Brothers and RKO. Also pictured above is Ramon Navarro, born in Mexico and a lead actor for MGM in the 1920s. He played as Judah Ben Hur in the first Ben Hur, as well as the hero pilot in The Flying Fleet and other films.

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Dolores Del Rio starred in the films The Bird of Paradise (1933), Flying Down to Rio (1933), Wonder Bar (1934), Madame du Barry (1934), and In Caliente (1935). She had started her Hollywood career in silent films such as Trail of ’98 and Ramona (both 1928).  In the photo above, Dolores Del Rio models a sequin gown designed by Orry-Kelly. Below is a photo showing the classic beauty of Dolores Del Rio. The “Del” in her name became capitalized in the U.S, although she was born in Durango, Mexico.

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Del Rio’s second husband was Cedric Gibbons, MGM’s Art Director. He made the art deco and moderne style of set designs popular in the MGM films of the late 1920s and 1930s. He also designed the famous Oscar statuette for the Academy Awards. After they married in 1930, they lived in this beautiful California moderne style house which he and architect Douglas Honnold designed in the Santa Monica mountains.  Del Rio and Gibbons are pictured below in their living room. The very large windows were innovative at the time. One can imagine the fabulous parties they held there, attended by all of the great Hollywood stars of the era.

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Dolores Del Rio and Cedric Gibbons in their living room.


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Another popular Mexican actress in the 1930s was Lupe Velez, shown above.  She had acted in Vaudeville, and started her Hollywood career in silent films. She starred with Douglas Fairbanks  in The Gaucho in 1927, and was in C.B. de Mille’s The Squaw Man in 1931.

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In the photo above Lupe Velez models a gown designed by Walter Plunkett for the RKO film, Strictly Dynamite in 1934. The gown is of white crepe with diagonal lines of crystal beads. Lupe Velez and Dolores Del Rio were both early customers of designer Irene Lentz at her first two shops. It was through them that Irene developed a following in the Los Angeles film communitity, a following that soon became a flood. Irene later married Cedric Gibbons’ brother Eliot and thus became the sister-in-law to Dolores Del Rio.

Lupe 2

In the photo above Lupe Velez wears an Adrian designed gown for an MGM film. The gown features open Dolman sleeves held with brilliant circle clips along the arms. Lupe Velez reached the height of her popularity in the film series, The Mexican Spitfire,filmed at RKO in the early 1940s.

Conchita 1

Conchita Montenegro shown above was a beauty from Spain, a dancer and model who came  to Hollywood with a contract at MGM in 1930. In those days MGM made Spanish language versions of their films and Conchita starred in several of these.  She played a Spanish dancer in Strangers May Kiss, at MGM along with Norma Shearer.  She also starred opposite Leslie Howard in MGM’s Never the Twain Shall Meet in 1931.

Conchita 2

Conchita Montenegro left MGM and went to the Fox studio to make movies there. She starred with Warner Baxter in The Cisco Kid in 1931.

Conchita 3A

The beautiful costume sketch above for Conchita was designed by Dolly Tree. It was probably designed for The Cisco Kid, although Dolly Tree designed costumes both at Fox and at MGM during this period.

Raquel Torres Los Angeles 1929 Aug 15

The photo above shows Raquel Torres in 1929. Miss Torres had a German father and a Mexican mother. She starred in two films in 1929 including The Bridge of San Luis Rey. She continued to make movies in the early 1930s.

This early flowering of Latina actresses was short-lived. By the late 1930s the importance of the roles offered the stars became less rewarding. Lupe’s Mexican Spitfire movies were popular but stereotypes became common. Both Dolores del Rio and Lupe Velez returned to Mexico to make films, and del Rio became just as big a star in her home country. Lupe Velez died young in 1943. Conchita Montenegro too returned to her native Spain. The movie La Otra, made in Mexico and starring Dolores Del Rio and Victor Junco, was re-made in the U.S. in 1964 as Dead Ringer, starring Bette Davis.

La Otra (1946, Mexico) aka The Other One Directed by Roberto Gavaldón Shown from top: Víctor Junco, Dolores del Rio
La otra (1946, Mexico) aka The Other One. Directed by Roberto Gavaldón.
Starring Víctor Junco and Dolores del Rio. Photo courtesy Photofest.

Another generation of Latina actresses came along in the 1940s and 1950s, and then another after that. While roles in film are there, they are always too limited. We are fortunate however, to still have the chance to see the trail-blazing early stars of the silver screen.

An earlier version of this post appeared in my blog the Silver Screen Modiste in 2011




Silver Screen Modes is again awarding the Most Glamorous Gown Award for the  stars and their most glamorous gowns worn at the Oscars red carpet in 2016. I started this award in 2010  for my previous blog The Silver Screen Modiste in 2010 and have been awarding it annually ever since.

The gowns this year have been a combination of classic glamour and creative flights of fashion fancy, with beautiful results but that sometimes  overpower the delicate beauties they dress.

The Most Glamorous Gown Award goes to Naomi Watts in an Armani Prive cobalt blue and red highlighted  columnar strapless  sequined gown. She looked so fabulous and so very glamorous.

Photo by Jason Merritt
Photo by Jason Merritt

Other three star (runner-up) gowns were very striking.  Saiorse Ronan wore a stunning Calvin Klein emerald green column gown of bugle beads. The star of  Brooklyn said she wore green to honor Ireland.

Oscar Most Glamorous red-carpet-saoirse-ronan

The young star Margot Robbie looked like old Hollywood glamour in gold Tom Ford snake-skin print gown with its plunging neckline. Classic

Oscar Most Glamorous margot-robbie-

Alicia Vikander is proving to be a fashion savvy young star. Her canary yellow Louis Vuitton had a unique silhouette with its gathered hemline and beaded embroideriess.

Oscar Most Glamorous-alicia-vikander

Best  Actress winner Brie Larson wore a stunning blue ruffled Gucci with an eye-catching silver belt.

Oscar Most Glamorous 3 Brie-Larson


Fashion trends have their place on the red carpet, although the bigger trend over the last several years has been the interplay between actor, stylist, and fashion designer. As stylists have taken on more influence, there have been fewer “what was she thinking” moments on the red carpet. The result has been an over-all improvement in the beauty (and glamour)of the gowns. But as some stars become more daring in their fashion choices in  a sort of revolt, we see gowns and outfits that don’t quite work.  Cate Blanchett, the perennial fashion plate, wore a light blue-green feathered Armani-Prive gown that, while it flattered her figure, the abundant feathers competed with her fine facial features.

The Golden Globes have also become more formal in recent years, increasingly competitive with the Academy Awards for the glamour of the red carpet gowns.  The January 10 event showed a couple of fashion trends, though there are perennial glamour favorites. One is the plunging bustline, exposing daring views of breast and ample skin. This can be worn on a gown of satin, chiffon, or most popular of all, sequins of various colors and in gold or silver. There’s nothing like sparkle. The other trend is the deep side slit with the posed jutting leg, made popular ever since  Angelina Jolie started it at the 2012 Academy Awards in a black Versace gown. These trends continued at the Academy Awards of 2016.


Actress Angelina Jolie arrives before the 84th Academy Awards on Sunday, Feb. 26, 2012, in the Hollywood section of Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta)
Angelina Jolie at the 84th Academy Awards in 2012. (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta)


Last year’s MOST GLAMOROUS GOWN AWARD went to MARGOT ROBBIE in a black Yves Saint Laurent  gown with a very deep décolletage and with sheer long sleeves. The petite blonde Margot looked stunning in black.


Oscar Margot

Previous winners have been: Charlize Theron wearing a Dior Haute Couture black decollete  gown (2014); Jessica Chastain in a copper-colored Armani Prive (2013); Milla Jovovich in a white sequin Elie Saab gown (2012); Anne Hathaway in a red Valentino (2011); and Sandra Bullock in a gold-beaded Marchesa (2010).

Mad Max: Fury Road won for Best Costume design for Jenny Beavan. This was a a very creative and inventive costume fantasy, and a bold pick for the Academy voters.. Mad Max had won at the English BAFTA awards and in the Fantasy category at the Costume Designer’s Guild Awards.




Bonnie and Clyde was an unforgettable movie in 1967, setting new cool fashion styles for the 1960s generation.  For many young people the characters of Bonnie and Clyde, albeit the ruthless killers that they were, represented protesters of the government and the powerful.  symbols of their own times in the 1960s.  To older citizens the protagonists were murderers and losers, and the film was an orgy of violence. Among the latter was Jack Warner, head of the studio that made the movie. After screening the completed film he asked how long the movie was. When told, his reply was, “Well, that’s the longest {expletive} two hours and 15 minutes I’ve ever spent.”   Warner subsequently refused to market the film, relegating its release to drive-ins and second-tier theaters. This from the studio that had made its mark in the 1930s with gangster films. But Bonnie and Clyde under Arthur Penn’s direction took movie violence to a new level. In the era of the Viet Nam war, the depiction of shootings by victims crumpling to the floor with no evidence of blood, was no longer going to cut it. In Bonnie and Clyde, explosive squibs of red color were amply used: men were shot in the face at point blank; and (spoiler) the multiple-shooter ambush of Bonnie and Clyde was filmed in slow-motion. The latter was inspired by Akira Kurasawa’s Seven Samurai. At one time, Francois Truffaut had been considered to direct the film. He was too busy but one of his ideas remained: some jump-cut editing popular with the French New Wave.  No, this was not Jack Warner’s gangster film.  But then shortly after, Jack Warner sold Warner Brothers to Seven Arts Productions. Warren Beatty was the producer, director and lead actor in Bonnie and Clyde, and he managed to convince the new owners to re-release the movie with wider distribution and marketing, with his agreement to a reduced profit participation.

The cast, a mix of new talent, character actors, and a veteran Broadway actress, was anchored by Warren Beatty. This was Faye Dunaway’s second movie and she almost stole the show, except for the goofy Michael J Pollard character of C.W. Moss, who made a big splash. It was also Gene Wilder’s first movie.  It was nominated for eight Oscars: Best Picture; Actor; Actress; two Supporting Actors for Gene Hackman and Michael J. Pollard; Director; Costume Design; and Screenplay. It won Oscars for Best Supporting Actress for Estelle Parsons and Best Cinematography for Burnett Guffey. It was also the second-highest grossing film of the year for Warner Bros-Seven Arts.

The positive side of the film’s influence was on fashion. With its mostly youthful audience, the beautiful Faye Dunaway struck a chic but devil-may-care attitude that fit the times just right. The costume designer was Theadora Van Runkle, a chic woman who could model  the very clothes that Faye Dunaway wore. Like Miss Dunaway, Theadora Van Runkle was new to the movie business. She had been a fashion illustrator for the I.Magnin stores in Los Angeles. This was when art illustrations of new fashions were advertised in the newspapers. She had also done some costume illustrations for the Designer Renie for the movie Sand Pebbles starring Steve McQueen.  She had gotten the Bonnie and Clyde  job as a referral from designer Dorothy Jeakins. The job for any costume designer is to help develop character and advance the plot. In doing so Theadora looked over old photos of Bonnie and Clyde, and read the script, and in talking to director Arthur Penn and producer Warren Beatty, she developed ideas on how to dress the actors for their roles. She was self taught as a designer, and looked over old photos of gangsters and period clothes. Theadora once related that she was shopping for fabrics for Faye’s role as Bonnie and ran into Edith Head. She explained to the doyenne of costume design that the story took place in the 1930s. “Just dress her in chiffon,” was Edith’s advice. Although Theadora did not dress Faye Dunaway in chiffon, she impressed Warren Beatty and Arthur Penn with her costume sketches.

bonnie & clyde sketch

Costume sketch above for Faye Dunaway as Bonnie, signed at bottom, Theadora. The photo of Faye is shown below in the Norfolk jacket that was designed in the sketch.

Bonnie & Clyde 2


Theadora 1
Theadora Van Runkle

Warren and Arthur wanted to put Faye in dresses, just like she appeared in the original photos, but with more style.  Faye said that , “The look for Bonnie was smack out of the thirties, but glamorized and very beautiful….they were all cut on the bias and they swung.” The look of the smart skirts, paired with a form fitting sweater, Faye’s braless dressing, and a saucy beret cut an unforgettable image. This especially in Bonnie and Clyde’s line of work. As Bonnie stated, emphasizing each word, “We rob banks.” But it was Faye’s berets that launched a fashion trend. Theadora liked the look, taking off from a photo of Bonnie Parker wearing a beret-looking hat, and designed several of Faye’s outfits topped with a beret. When Faye Dunaway was in France after Bonnie and Clyde had premiered there, a box full of berets were delivered to her room at the ultra luxe George V hotel. They came from the village in the French Pyrenees where the traditional French berets were made. After the film came out demand in the U.S had caused production to jump from 5000 to 12,000 berets a week. American manufacturers were fabricating thousands of them as well.  Skirts lengthened also as the long skirts in the film led to the trend toward maxi-skirts.

bonnie-sketch sketch 2

Theadora’s description in her sketch above reads: “Yoke & revers of black worsted navy & black striped worsted   fagotted blouse of ivory silk”

The costume is shown in the photo below.



Warren Beatty’s costumes were common for men of the period. Most men in cities and towns, other than blue-collar workers, wore shirts and ties, often with vests.  The cap was more working class than a fedora. The costume sketch below shows alternate shirt colors, although Warren wore mostly white shirts under his vest.


Bonnie & Clyde sketch 3

Theadora’s pencil notations on the sketch top right state, “All dressed up to rob a bank.”

Both the outfits of Bonnie and Clyde, Bonnie in her beret, sweater and and skirt, and Clyde in his vest, are the defining look of the “bank-robbing” “gangster” couple for costume parties and Halloween sorties.


Bonnie & Clyde sketch 4

Faye Dunaway looked fetching in black, as seen below. At this point in the movie they are on the road dodging the “manhunt” that has intensified. They are living out of their car and it’s hard to be glamorous. Yet the real Bonnie continued to write poetry and ballads until the end.


bonnie & Clyde 4

Theadora Van Runkle was nominated for three Best Costume Oscars: Bonnie and Clyde; Peggy Sue Got Married; and The Godfather Part II. She never won. She also designed Bullitt, Mame, Myra Breckinridge, The Thomas Crowne Affair, New York, New York, and The Jerk, among others. She died November 4, 2011.



The end of celluloid film has been happening steadily over the last few years, with each new blow seemingly the knock-out punch. But its devotees refuse to give up the fight.  “If I can’t shoot on film I’ll stop making movies,” said Quentin Tarantino in 2014. He was talking on radio station KCRW’s “The Treatment”  in L.A, “The fight is lost if all we have is digital DCP presentations. To me, that’s just television in public.” he added. The DCP he refers to is Digital Cinema Package, the computer hard drive that contains a movie’s audio and video. It is sent to a movie theater where it is ingested into the projector for digital projection. Like reels of film before it, the DCP can be sent on to another theater, only its a lot cheaper for the studio to produce. This is not the latest technology, as many theaters can get their films directly by satellite transmission.

The use of 70 mm film stock in movie-making had already died by the end of the 1960s.That’s when studios used it to pry people away from their TV sets and TV dinners and into theaters to watch movies like South Pacific, Cleopatra, Lawrence of Arabia, and It’s a Mad Mad, Mad Mad World.  But like many old movies, 70 mm was ripe for a sequel. Tarantino’s last movie, The Hateful Eight, recentlywas shot on 70mm (actually 65mm) film stock. Director Christopher Nolan stated , “I don’t want anyone telling any filmmaker they can’t shoot on film any more than telling David Finch and Steven Soderbergh that they can’t shoot digital. It’s the director’s right. It’s their choice.” Christopher Nolan shot Intersteller in 2014 on 70mm film stock (65mm). Warner Brothers released the movie two days early to those theaters that still had film projectors. The iconic TCL Chinese Theater in Hollywood acquired film projectors for the occasion. Several smaller theater chains that had already converted to digital projection squwaked. “I can’t afford to get the projectors out of the warehouse,” said Joe Paletta of the Spotlight Theaters in Georgia, “and I don’t have anyone to operate them [the film projectors].” For Nolan, it was an opportunity to incentivize and reward the theaters that had kept projecting film.

A projectionist readies a 70mm IMAX print of "Interstellar," at the AMC Loews Lincoln Square Theatre in New York City. DAVID MORGAN/CBS NEWS
A projectionist readies a 70mm IMAX print of “Interstellar,” at the AMC Loews Lincoln Square Theatre in New York City. David Morgan/CBS News

In 2002 Star Wars Episode: II Attack of the Clones became the first movie to be shot entirely in digital. But now, the latest Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens was shot on 65mm film stock by film proponent J.J. Abrams, with the encouragement of George Lucas. Part of the idea was to recapture the look of the original trilogy. This was important to Lucas because, as Abrams added “…  the movie, in a way, goes backwards to go forwards.” George Lucas wants the future episodes to be shot on film also.

Film 70mm

Yet the world of film still teeters on the abyss. The new Star Wars was only shown on 70mm film at IMAX theaters . Nearly everywhere else it was projected on a digital transfer. But film’s qualities come in different shapes. For the movie Carol, director Todd Haynes wanted a muted look in the cinematography. This was in keeping with the bleak times in Cold-War New York during 1952 when the story took place. The story was based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith. Haynes and his team including cinematographer Ed Lachman referenced the work of women photographers of the time: Ruth Orkin; Helen Leavitt; and Vivian Maier. They were especially intrigued by the photographers’ use of Kodak Ektachrome film and its muted colors, and  wanted to achieve that look. This meant shooting on film rather than digitally. And more unusually, Ed Lachman used Super 16mm. His reasoning was that if he used 35mm, by the time it was converted for digital projection there would be no difference in the finished look – the “grain” would have all disappeared. “The feeling and texture of the grain reinforced the emotionality of the story,” said Lachman.

But the world of film still teeters on the abyss. In New York, Technicolor and Deluxe, long-time processors of color film for the movie industry, had been amalgamated as the Film Lab New York. After processing Carol the Lab went belly-up. After Ed Lachman found out that the lab equipment was going to be tossed, he made arrangements to salvage it all. Technicolor had already closed a plant in Glendale California.

Yet digital cinema, the current master of moviedom, is showing signs of the panic that befell the Hollywood studios in the late 1950s and 1960s. Recently we were given 3-D movies, a trend already showing signs of fatigue. Then we were offered dining and wine with our cinema, and reserved seating. Reclining seats are the next trend, with news of the introduction of sensory enhancements like vibrating seats and the diffusion of smells (didn’t Smell-O-Vision come out in the 1950s too?). Perhaps the thinking is that  bombarding the senses with smells, booming sounds, vibrating seats, and explosions on the screen will get us all into the theaters.

It’s a rarely disseminated fact that movie attendance has been nose-diving steadily and surly since 1930. Back then, 80 million people, or 65% of the U.S. population, went to the movies a week. In 2015, that number has dropped to 25.7 million people a week, less than 10% of the U.S. population.  A  yearly chart, covering 1930-2000 can be found here. The attendance numbers have continued to drop since 2000. Back in the 1930s, to lure all those movie-goers, each of the seven big studios released 30 to 40 films a year. But we know that The U.S Courts broke up the studio-system in its Anti-Trust ruling in 1948, forcing them to sell of their movie theaters. How laughable  with the multi-media, multi-national, corporate conglomerates we now have running movie studios.

MGM Developing process 1
M-G-M’s film processing lab circa 1936

In 2015, in a busy year for the busiest studio Warner Brothers, it released 21 movies. Movie revenues are freely quoted, which seem very impressive, and is helped by the always escalating prices for theater tickets. While this has nothing to do with whether or not a movie is film-based or digital, it is connected to movie industry economics – which  brought us digital based film projection. And of course, as Kenneth Turan the film critic of the LA Times said in writing about Hollywood, “The one big  thing it knows how to make is sequels and superhero movies and sequels to superhero movies.”

But which medium is best for the preservation of the content, one might wonder? It seems intuitive that digital is best as a preservation medium. And certainly that’s what we have been hearing for the last several years. But Martin Scorsese doesn’t think so. “Film is still the only preservation medium that we know to be durable.,” he said. “We just don’t know about digital storage systems. They haven’t been around long enough, and more importantly, they’re always changing. I think it’s important t to preserve our pictures on film, no matter how we shot them or finished them. That means negatives, and it means prints.” Mr. Scorsese is the founder of the Film Foundation, whose mission it is to preserve movies. Of course film has had a very rocky history. Approximately 90% of American silent films are considered lost, as well as 50% of sound films made before 1950. The combustible nitrate-based film of the silent era is partly responsible, leading to major fires at studio vaults. M-G-M had an electrical fire in 1967, destroying most of the studio’s cartoons, silent films, and films from the earlier Metro, Goldwyn, and Louis B. Mayer Pictures. Similarly, a fire at Fox Pictures destroyed its pre-1935 film negatives. Huge efforts have been made to preserve older films and newer ones since, but the job is colossal.


MGM film vaults
M-G-M film vaults circa 1936
Archival film storage at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences


This blog post is disseminated digitally. Part I appeared in February 2014.





The Academy Awards nominees for Costume Design for the movies of 2015 make for a very competitive if diverse field. Mountain men and polecats, princess and trans woman, lesbians and Vuvalini. For costume designer Sandy Powell –  she will even be competing against herself, as she has two nominated contenders: Carol and Cinderella. The five nominees are:

1)  Carol                                                                                                                                    2) Cinderella                                                                                                                        3) The Danish Girl                                                                                                            4) Mad Max: Fury Road                                                                                                5) The Revenant

CAROL  was designed by Sandy Powell. It stars Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in a 1950s era lesbian relationship between a well-off housewife and a young department store sales clerk. The director Todd Haynes and Sandy Powell wanted to stay true to the 1952 New York setting of the Patricia Highsmith novel. So they looked at the photos of Vivian Maier, Ruth Orkin, and Saul Leiter. Sandy remarked that 1952 fashion was much like late 1940s fashion.

Sandy also went through old Vogue magazines from 1952. Most all of the photography was in black and white, but the designer injected some color into the otherwise monotone yet elegant fashion of the time.

Oscar carol-fur-coat

Although the large mink coat looks vintage, it was made custom from recycled fur for the shape and color that Sandy Powell desired.

Oscar carol-

Sandy Powell has been nominated eleven times for a best costume design Oscar, for which she won three awards: Shakespeare in Love (1998); The Aviator (2004); and for The Young Victoria (2009).


CINDERELLA was also designed by Sandy Powell. The classic fairy tale was brought to the screen by Disney as a live action movie starring Lily James as Cinderella, Cate Blanchett as the evil step-mother Lady Tremaine,  Helena Bonham Carter as the Fairy-Godmother and Richard Madden as the Prince. The gowns for the movie reportedly used some 1.7 million Swarovsky crystals.  Costume designer Sandy Powell was inspired by the 19th century for the look and silhouette of the costumes. “It felt most like a fairy tale world.” she said.

Oscar CateBlanchettCinderella

For Cate Blanchett’s costumes as the evil-stepmother/Lady Tremaine, Sandy Powell used cool colors, colors like green or jewel colors but  that were not “friendly,”

Oscar CateBlanchettCinderellaPT

Cate Blanchett’s wardrobe was based on the more powerful 1940s silhouette and the idea of Marlene Dietrich or Joan Crawford doing a 19th-century movie, according to Powell, but getting it all a bit wrong.

Oscar Fairy Godmother Helena Bonham Carter

For the Fairy Godmother costume, led lights were sprinkled across the dress and especially at the bodice. It was Helena Bonham Carter’s idea to have wings. Doesn’t every fairy godmother have wings?

Oscar cinderella_dress

Cinderella’s ball gown is made of several layers of yumissima fabric, an extremely light but expensive fabric, each a different color to produce blue. There are blues-greens, lilacs, and lavenders. There are over 200 yards of fabric in all. Underneath is a crinoline made of steel.It is dotted with about 10,000 tiny Swarovski crystals   The bodice is made of crepeline over a corset. The gown is almost as wide as the huge stairs she dramatically descends to the ball.

Oscar cinderella ball

The glass slipper was designed based on an actual 1890 shoe, and fabricated by Swarovsky from crystal. It was made smaller than actual size for the model Cinderella holds. For the pair she slips on, these were actually of leather but replaced through CGI to appear as crystal.

Oscar Team_effort_The_dressmakers_work_on_the_petticoat_In_total_Lily_Jane Law phoyo

It takes a group of seamstresses to make an eleborate gown such as the Cinderella Ball Gown.

THE DANISH GIRL, designed by Paco Delgado  is based on the groundbreaking case of the transgender surgery of Einar Wegener, a married man. His transformation into Lily Elbe is shown with the effects it had on him and his wife  Gerda, a painter. It stars Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander.

Oscars the Danish Girl 3

While posing as a model that didn’t show up for the job, Einar awakens a sense of his true womanly self. The couple stayed together and moved from Denmark to Paris where Gerda became a fashion illustrator.

Oscar The-Danish-Girl-2

The silhouette of the 1920s was very flat-chested and narrow-hipped, which basically suited the dressing of star Eddie Redmayne, although he would have preferred more padding to accentuate curves. Designer Paco Delgado stated that all the curves were achieved through the cut of the costumes or through more volume at the chest or pleating. The fabrics were often taken from vintage dresses but had to be re-made for Eddie’s size.  Paco Delgado used French fashion designers Jeanne Lanvin and Coco Chanel for period inspiration. This is Paco Delgado’s second Oscar Best Costume nomination, the previous time was for Les Miserables in 2012.


Oscar Danish Girl costume 1
A costume for Eddie Redmayne in “The Danish Girl” on exhibit at the Arclight Sherman Oaks. Photo by Jason in Hollywood


THE REVENANT  was designed by Jacqueline West and starred Leonardo di Caprio and Thomas Hardy. Its the story of the  frontiersman Hugo Glass that is left for dead by fellow trappers after being mauled by a bear.  Still alive he vows revenge and seeks those who abandoned him. The movie was filmed in the frigid areas of Canada as directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu.


Oscar the revenant

“Alejandro wanted everything to look very real,” stated Jacqueline West. “Most of the hides came from first nations traders in Canada and we tried to age them by using animal fats and grease and that turned them rancid.” That was bad for the actors. It was West’s dyer/ager that came up with a home-made solution she called “black wax” that ended up being very successful. Soon the director had her stay on the sets all the time with her “black wax” at the ready.


Oscar therevenanttomhardy

Tom Hardy had the heaviest costume in the movie.  His coat consisted of double elk-skin, double-lined with beaver.

Jacqueline West has been nominated three times for a  Best Costume Oscar. Her two previous nominations were for Quills (2000), and for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008).


MAD MAX; FURY ROAD was designed by Jenny Beavan for stars Charlize Theron, Tom Hardy, and a cast of hundreds based on the graphic novel directed by George Miller. Beavan started out with an obvious challenge, the mechanical arm for Theron’s Imperator Furiosa character. Several leather shapes were cut-out and draped for what needed to be a key practical yet visually interesting piece. The harness and body suit was finally devised for her iconic look. Charlize Theron was very happy with her costume for the role. As to Theron’s shaved head, that was her idea, although the black grease on the forehead was a trait of the Imperators.

Oscars Mad Max Fury Road_Brides


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Charlize Theron’s Imperator costume. Photo courtesy Jasin in Hollywood

The Wives have always been protected and  lived in a climate-controlled environment, and thus dressed unsuitably for the outside elements. Their costumes are made of white cotton and muslin body wraps and shorts.

Oscars Mad Max FURY_ROAD_gallery_cover

The Warboys and Polecats also had their distinctive costumes, denoting their function and fearsome looks. Max also has shoulder-pads, a throw-back to the original Mad Max movie.

Oscars madmaxx


The Best Costume nominations are made by the Costume Designers Branch of the Academy. The Oscar is determined by vote of the entire Academy membership. Traditionally the memberships selects the big historical movies, or fantasies, and their costumes as favorites.  Sandy Powell seems to be a favorite with two nominations. While Cinderella has a disadvantage of having been released earlier in the year, its lavish period costumes makes it a natural for the Academy voters. They receive a screening copy of the movie anyway to view for voting purposes. So I would predict Cinderella to be the Oscar winner for 2015 for designer Sandy Powell.

Oscar sandy-powell_

Many of the actual costumes from the nominated films are on exhibit at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising ( FIDM) Museum in Los Angeles, February 9 through April 30.



There are times in history when creative geniuses cause shifts in the arts. It is very rare when such  a person can cause  explosive  aesthetic changes in several artistic media such as set design, ballet, costume, fashion, and ultimately, the styles of Hollywood film sirens.This person was Leon Bakst, born Lev Rosenberg, a Russian painter turned set  and costume designer for Sergei Diaghilev and  his Ballets Russes, where his sensual and  sensational designs shocked the audiences. In working with Diaghilev, who assembled a “dream team” of artistic talent,” these arts themselves were changed.

In the classical world of ballet, allied with symphony orchestras  in entertaining high society audiences, the modernism  and naturalism of Diaghilev’s ballets must have seemed revolutionary. The look was created by Bakst, the artistic director. His costume  designs on canvas and backdrops combine Art Nouveau and Fauve  styles, blended with Orientalism. The finished costumes presented a rush of colors, with incredible pattern and  detail, the whole complementing the scenery and the new dance styles, music and choreography.

In Russia Diaghilev and Bakst had known each other before they were involved in ballet, having been part of the same art circle in college called the Nevsky Pickwickians. But it was in Paris that the Ballets Russes was formed, with Russian dancing luminaries Anna Pavlova, Vaslav Nijinsky, Tamara Karsavina, and Ida Rubinstein, and choreography by Michel Fokine. With classically trained Russian dancers, Diaghilev and Bakst would integrate the arts into the total ballet experience – music, dance, sets and costume – and with male as well as female dancers in prominence. The Ballets Russes began with some Russian tales and music , but with Cleopatre in 1909, Bakst’s second ballet, the full panoply of his artistic talents blossomed in conveying the story. Ida Rubinstein played the role of Cleopatra, and her provocative costumes shocked the audience. They would set the  standard for all future Cleopatras of the silver screen.


Bakst portrait
Leon Bakst portrait

A future patroness of Bakst, the American Warder Garrett wrote to her sister in 1915, “I go almost every day to pose for Bakst . . . he is one of the most strange human beings I have ever known.” Years later she would be his art representative in the United States. His vivid imagination was clearly translated onto the the page and the stage, but, under the costumes, he was fully aware that it was the body that animated the design.

The Bakst- designed costumes featured gold, lapis blue, malachite green, pink, orange and violet colors for the ballerinas  and were very revealing through sheer fabric.

Design of costume for Ida Rubinstein 1909 in Cleopatre
Design of costume for Ida Rubinstein 1909 in Cleopatre

Scheherazade was produced by Diaghilev in 1910, with music by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov with set and costume design by Bakst. The setting was ancient Persia, with a story of Harem women, eunuchs and palace slave lovers. The ballerinas were costumed in sheer silk harem pants, the men in embroidered velvet in jeweled colors. Nijinsky appeared in gold body paint, dancing sensually with Ida Rubinstein as the corps de ballet moved in a controlled frenzy, their bold colored costumes  contrasting with the red carpet and green walls.

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Ida Rubinstein with Nijinsky in Scheherazade


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Bakst costume design for Scheherazade

Harem pants became a style sensation for women, especially after fashion designer Paul Poiret added them into his line the following year. They were considered very bold dress as both a form of trouser and  with a foreign origin. The style worn in public was not however the diaphanous ones seen at the Ballets Russes.

The ballet Dieu Bleu (Blue God)  was produced in May 1912, with a libretto by Jean Cocteau and Federico de Madrazo and music by Reynaldo Hahn. The story is set in mythical India, where a couple visiting a shrine stirs local monsters, but supplicates the Blue God, or Krishna, to save them. Nijinsky plays the Blue God, wearing blue makeup. Bakst designed the costume below, thankfully saved and preserved at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, along with many other costumes and artifacts from the Ballets Russes. Its skirt represents a lotus flower, with gold thread and embroidered with arabesques. The bodice was in pink and blue colors, with gold thread forming rays.

Bakst Dieu Bleu

In 1912 one of the most innovative, but also disruptive ballets was produced by the Ballets Russes: L’apres-Midi d’un Faune (Afternoon of a Faun. based on a poem by Stephane Mallarme, with music by Claude Debussy, and choreographed by Nijinsky himself. This was not done by the usual choreographer Fokine, which he was unaware of. Nijinsky and Diagilev used as a theme the stylized art viewed on ancient Greek vases in the Louvre. Nijinsky’s dancing itself would be stylized and very pofile-based, and most-shockingly, would use an erotic theme of a faun among a group of nymphs, this symbolized by the faun’s fitishistic attachment to a nymph’s veil, which he lies on dramatically to conclude the ballet. The ballet itself received mixed reviews and was controversial, but can be considered the first true modern ballet. Fokine resigned after his exclusion from doing the choreography.

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Bakst costume design for Nijinsky in “L’Apres-Midi d’un Faune.”

In the ballet Nijinsky did not dance, he moved accross the stage  in stylized body configurations.

Nijinsky carrying the veil. Photo by Baron de Meyer 1912

The Ballet Russe’s Daphnis et Chloe opened two weeks after L’Apres Midi d’un Faune, but with Fokine’s resignation, closed after two performances.


Bakst daphnis-and-chloe-costume-1912

The costume design by Bakst for Daphnis et Chloe  was made for a ballet based on a classical Greek mythological  story. The costume design above influenced the silhouette of contemporary female fashion itself.

Paul Poiret was a leading French couturier in the first two decades of the 20th century,  His move away from the corseted figure, his hobbled skirts, and his strong orientalism were influences from the Bakst costume designs. From Poiret and the Ballets Russes themselves, the fashion influence radiated from the upper-class spectators and the “beau monde.” Even Lady Sybil in Downton  Abbey wore harem pants during the show’s first season in the period of 1912.

And it was not long before the exotic look of Scheherazade, Cleopatra, and other characters of the Ballets Russes were considered the models for dress and comportment for Hollywood vamps and movie stars.


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Even though Travis Banton did not design this bat-winged hostess gown for Evelyn Brent until 1930 for Slightly Scarlet, it reflects the influence of the Bakst style from the Chloe design above.

The image below shows Alla Nazimova in SALOME, with costume design by Natasha Rambova, 1923. Nazimova was a Russian actress, The multi-talented Rambova was an American that assumed a Russian name. The vivid costume and setting shows  the influence of the Bakst designs.

Costume Wild Salome Nazimova

Pola Negri  starred in her first American film in 1923: Bella Donna. She would become a leading vamp and rival to Gloria Swanson at Paramount Pictures. Her costumes were designed by Howard Greer, who was very fashion forward.

Bakst Pola Negri in Bella Donna 1923

Another Russian had made waves in early 20th-century fashion design, Erte, (French for R and T)  the name used by Romain de Tirtoff. Erte moved to Paris in 1910 and worked as a designer for Paul Poiret, and used a Bakst-influenced Orientalism in his fashion designs. He was also a fabulous illustrator, and regularly illustrated the covers of Harper’s Bazaar with his fashion illustrations. In 1925 he was hired by Louis B. Mayer to become a costume designer at M-G-M, where Erte’s studio was replicated on the studio lot. Erte designed for films such as Ben Hur, Paris, Dance Madness and The Restless Sex. He never fit in to the studio system of hurried costume designing, and when Lillian Gish complained about the unrealistically  lavish designs she was getting as a street girl in La Boheme, he quit. His influence on Hollywood’s young costume designers had already been long established. 

Fashion illustration by Erte

Bakst had made inroads into Hollywood in other ways. Director and producer Walter Wanger had met Bakst and Nijinsky when he was a college student at Dartmouth. He had been very impressed by them and was influenced  by Cleopatre and the Ballets Russes. “I am very fussy about clothes and sets,” he wrote in 1949.  In 1939 he told a reporter that the Ballets Russes “…. were the greatest influence on drama, direction, lighting, costume designing, and interior decoration in the last fifty years.” Walter Wanger produced the 1963 Cleopatra and cited Bakst as an influence on its design.

Diaghilev continued to produce the Ballets Russes until his death in 1929. He involved many leading figures of modern art in their productions. Picasso and Miro designed sets or costumes, along with Coco Channel. Satie, Ravel and Stravinsky composed or conducted music. But like Julian Craster in The Red Shoes, or like Paul Grayson in  Flesh and Bone, Diaghilev was jealous and controlling, Years earlier When Nijinsky married Romola de Pulszky, Diaghilev dismissed him in 1913  (Diaghilev and Nijinsky had been lovers).  The year before, Bakst had begun designing costumes for Ida Rubinstein, who had started her own ballet company. Diaghilev dismissed his old friend too.

It is hard to imagine the impact that the Ballets  Russes had on its era. Probably the closest equivalent would be that of the Beatles, although the ballet had a more narrow yet very deep audience. It is regrettable that its time came before film and sound recording could adequately capture its art forms.





MGM facade

The 1974 film That’s Entertainment, was a surprise hit for   M-G-M, placing in the top 20  movies of the year and resulting in a sequel in 1976. The movie showed clips of the studio’s library of great musicals, narrated by its former stars.: Fred Astaire; Gene Kelly; Elizabeth Taylor; and Frank Sinatra, among others, and were filmed as they walked through the old standing sets of M-G-M’s back lots 3 through 6. In 1974 these back lot standing sets looked forlorn and worn down. Fred Astaire began the documentary at the train station on lot 2, where years earlier he had sung the first song in Band Wagon. He walked in front of a train wagon that was falling apartBing Crosby narrates a visit to the English lake and its Waterloo bridge that he describes as looking “scruffy.” Donald O’Connor introduces the Esther Williams movies by visiting the outdoor pool that had been built just for her films. It was a sad contrast to the glossy Art Deco sets and Technicolor movies that had been filmed there.

The 1970s were not good years for M-G-M. Losses from declining revenues led to a corporate take-over by Kirk Kerkorian in 1969. He had little interest in movie-making, Kerkorian was mostly interested in using the M-G-M name for his hotel development in Las Vegas and other locations. Kerkorian installed James Aubrey as his hatchet man.  A large staff-cut was Aubrey’s first move, with several film projects cancelled. Next was the  famous (or infamous) 1970 M-G-M auction held over eighteen days of the studio’s collection of 12,000 props and rolling stock, even including its paddle steamboat, as well as some 350,000 costumes and “star wardrobe.” The year after That’s Entertainment was made, all of the lots with the standing sets were sold for residential development, thus all traces of them are gone today.

MGM gate
The old entrance to the M-G-M Studio

With its patriarch Louis B. Mayer long gone, apparently the only persons that thought the back lots should be preserved for posterity, as a museum  or attraction park, was Debbie Reynolds, and Robert Nudelman of the Hollywood Heritage organization. Debbie had tried to buy them for that purpose (no doubt at an affordable rate) but was unsuccessful. A virtual tour of some of the standing sets through M-G-M’s Golden Age follows.

Above is a view from the old Washington Street entrance, photo taken 1939.

MGM lot sign (1)

In the classic era M-G-M studio had several lots. Lot number 1 where all the offices and major buildings were located was bordered by Washington Street, Culver Blvd. Overland Avenue, and Madison Blvd. While most of the lot had been taken over by sound stages and various buildings by the 1930s, part of the lot still had exterior standing sets through the 1950s. That lot is now occupied by the Sony Studios. Before M-G-M, it had been the Goldwyn Studio lot, and before that, the Thomas Ince/Mack Sennett Triangle Studio lot starting in 1915.

The photo above shows  a view of the old water tower and the long gone Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios sign.

An M-G-M trolley get set to move along Avenue C on Lot 1.

Lot 1 also had standing sets, these changed over time, some having been there since the days when it was the Thomas Ince studio and then the Goldwyn Studio. The M-G-M standing sets were on the Overland Avenue side of the lot. This area even included a concrete lined “lake” and the waterfront town as can be seen below.

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The European town waterfront above could be changed with its storefronts reconfigured and re-painted as-needed for each movie. It extended its length and was known as “Waterfront Street.”


The more wild appearance of the lake or lagoon above was used for jungle-like settings, including for filming parts of Tarzan the Ape Man. Lot 1 also had standing sets replicating haciendas, medieval France, and New York City.

Moving over to Lot 2 across Overland Avenue, the lot was mostly used for standing sets, although various storage facilities were scattered throughout the lot.  The New England town of the Andy Hardy movies was there, and the “Small Town Square”  used in movies as diverse as Raintree County and The Philadelphia Story, not to mention The Twilight Zone episodes, and there was also  the “Grand Central Station.” used in various films.  The “Waterloo Bridge” seen in That’s Entertainment, was also on lot 2, used in its prime for movies like The Divorcee in 1930, The Three Musketeers in 1948, Little Women in 1949, and  Royal Wedding in 1951.

Nearby is “Quality Street,” which was used for a variety of medieval and 18th century European towns.

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Quality Street was one of the old standing sets, originally built for Marion Davies’ starring vehicle Quality Streetfrom 1927, which William Randolph Hearst and his production company Cosmopolitan Pictures produced for her at M-G-M. It was also used for filming the 1948 production of The Three Musketeers.


Quality Street was also redecorated as an English Street for the Jeanette MacDonald film, Smiling Through in 1941, as seen above.

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A continent away in architecture and theme but adjacent on the lot was a Chinese set used for The Good Earth in 1937. The castle wall and entry was used and re-used for a variety of films set in different countries and eras. It may have been originally built for the first Ben Hur in 1925.

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The mansion-looking set above was used for several movies but looked different for each. In two it was an academic building, having been built, apparently, as a “girl’s school” for Forty Little Mothers in 1940, where the structure had a bell tower. It featured notably in Tea and Sympathy with Deborah Kerr and John Kerr in 1956. The structure as it looks above was used for The Cobwebwhere it was a psychiatric clinic. This 1955 movie starred Richard Widmark, Lauren Bacall, Charles Boyer, and John Kerr.

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The New York Street on Lot 2 was a larger set than a similar set on Lot 1. It had nearly ten acres of sets and could serve for a variety of urban settings.  Many movies were filmed there, starting with Wife vs Secretary in 1936others including Words and Music, Band Wagon, Singing in the Rainand many more were also filmed on these sets.


The photo above shows the suspended electrical power lines feeding into the various sets. The framing supports behind the façades can also be  seen.

Down Overland to Lot 3 at Overland and Jefferson. This more remote lot (or so it was in the 1930s and 40s), allowed for some expansive outdoor sets.


One of the most famous “neighborhoods” on Lot 3 was the “St Louis Street,” named for Meet Me in St. Louis starring Judy Garland and directed by Vincent Minnelli. It was built expressly for the latter film at Minnelli’s direction. Minnelli can be seen directing the scene on the boom above at the right bottom.

The outdoor set below is the New England street and set for the Andy Hardy movies starring Mickey Rooney. It became known as the “Andy Hardy Street.”


The first permanent Western Town set on Lot 3 was built for the 1939 film Stand Up and Fight, starring Robert Taylor, Wallace Beery, and Charles Bickford. The standing set is amazingly detailed, especially compared to the western sets of the films from the 1970s  in and the spaghetti westerns.


Above is the Adam & Thomas McGara Store set from Stand Up and Fight.


Above is the General Store in the center of the photo with the Drug Store to the left.


The “Bullet Stage Yard” is in the foreground above with a view to Dan Rock’s Restaurant and Saloon.

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Dan Rock’s Restaurant & Saloon is seen above with its hitching posts for horses and teams.

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The house above was the attorney’s home on the set – note the partial front on the neighboring house, but the carefully built picket fence and shutters.


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Note all the paraphernalia at the Hardware Store.

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A proper town needed its Sheriff, and the town of Cumberland had theirs as seen above.

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Luggage is part of the set dressing at the “Bullet Stage Line.”

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The teams and wagons are part of the set at the Bullet Yard

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The Blacksmith’s shop looks like it’s ready to take on any work

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A porch on Cumberland Street opposite the Restaurant & Saloon

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The Church is our last stop as we leave the wild west for other locales.

Lot 3 also had another lake and waterfront, seen below in this Port scene from some unknown film.

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More familiar is the “Cotton Blossom” from the movie Show Boat, which M-G-M publicist Lionel Ascher visits below.


The photo below shows the concrete storage sheds for storing M-G-M nitrate film cans, circa 1936.  Later, M-G-M had an electrical fire in 1967, destroying most of the studio’s cartoons, silent films, and films from the earlier Metro, Goldwyn, and Louis B. Mayer Pictures.


A fly-over Lot 1 shows the classic era M-G-M and the standing sets that existed, with the Thalberg Building at the bottom left.



From silent film, filming location historian John Bengston, this link  shows where Buster Keaton had his special dressing room on the lot: Keaton’s Kennel

His three books on the Hollywood and Los Angeles area filming locations for Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd films are fabulous.

The corporate history of MGM post-1974 is its own story, but it separated the classic film library and the studio lot from the name. Similar fates had befallen RKO and Columbia. The three-week long auction of the props and costumes is its own fascinating, if sad story, a subject for another post. The destruction of the many standing sets and the sale of the lots was a tragedy to classic movie fans.

For a thorough history of the M-G-M back lots, please read Steven Bingen’s, Stephen Sylvester’s, and Michael Troyan’s M-G-M: Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot published in 2011 by Santa Monica Press.




For all the times I’ve seen Casablanca – on big screens and small, I never fail to be hooked from the beginning, stirred by the story and its characters, emotionally charged by the singing of The Marseillaise in defiance of the Nazis in  Rick’s Cafe Americain, and spellbound during the final scene – still wondering what Ilsa will do. The movie may be number two or number twenty in the all-time list, but it’s the movie I love the most.

This post first appeared in my Silver Screen Modiste blog in February 2013

casablanca poster

As with many great films, its backstory is as fascinating as the movie itself, and with Casablanca, its bumpy production is notorious. It started as an un-produced play, Everybody Comes to Rick’s  written by Murray Burnett with the assistance of  Joan Allison. The story was inspired by the combination of the haunting song As Time Goes By, and Burnett’s 1938  visit to the French Riviera, and a nightclub where an African-American was playing jazz numbers on a piano. This scene was paired with Burnett’s experience seeing the rise of Nazism in Austria and the treatment of its Jews. Indeed, by 1942 when Casablanca’s production started, the U.S. had entered the war and things were going badly in the Pacific. The Nazis had overrun Europe and had invaded North-Africa. Here’s a digest of the film’s story and production.

The Production & Screenplay: Hal Wallis at Warner Brothers produced the film, making it into what it finally became.During the process several writers worked on the screenplay: Julius and Philip Epstein gave it wit and and its quick pace; Howard Koch gave it a political and moral heart, and Casey Robinson deepened it as a love story. Years later Howard Koch said of the film, ” I have almost a mystical feeling about Casablanca. That it made itself somehow.” Regardless, Hal Wallis kept all the screen writers working on it off and on, waiting for ultimate satisfaction. Casablanca is famous for the last minute resolution of how it would end. While the original story and screenplay definitely had Ilsa leaving with Lazlo, there was doubt about this unhappy ending for the film’s lead actor. It didn’t help that script changes kept coming just ahead of each day’s shooting, which was directed by Michael Curtiz. Ingrid Bergman herself wasn’t sure, adding depth to her performance as the uncertain Ilsa. It  was Hal Wallis himself that came up with the final line, “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

Casablanca Paul-Henreid-Ingrid-Bergman-Humphrey-Bogart-out-side-of-Ricks-Cafe

The Setting: Casablanca in western Morocco was not just an exotic location in which to set a movie. Its setting was strategic, and central to the plot. As the Nazi machine conquered more and more of Europe, various escape routes previously open for refugees and POWs were now being closed. Conquered France was split in two – the north was directly governed by the Nazis, and the south was ruled by the puppet government located in Vichy (hence the last drink and kicking of the bottle of Vichy spring water by Claude Rains at the end of the film). The old routes of travel were now  blocked. The North Atlantic was heavily patrolled by German U-boats. The Mediterranean route from Marseille to Port Said in Egypt was blocked, Italy was an ally of Germany, while Spain was in the hands of a like-minded Fascist dictator. China had already fallen to the Japanese as had most of southeast Asia. 

Casablanca and Morocco were part of a French colony now ruled by the Vichy government – essentially under the thumb of the Nazis. Refugees were forced to take the long way around, from Europe and Asia to North Africa. With luck, money, and the right papers, they could go from Morocco to Portugal, and from there set sail to North and South America.

Casablanca group

The Actors: Casablanca is blessed with an ensemble cast of iconic proportions. It could also be said that through them the film made itself when such talented actors with such diverse origins came together on the WB sound stage. In this it reflected the film plot itself, the coming together of political refugees, the oppressed, warring parties, itinerant professionals, and opportunists. The two main opponents, Victor Lazlo and Major Strasser, played by Paul Henreid the Austrian and Conrad Veidt the German, had both fled their native countries due to the rise of Nazism. Peter Lorre was also Austrian, born Laszlo Lowenstein and also an exile from the Nazis. His role as Ugarte is short but unforgettable. The masterful Sydney Greenstreet, an Englishman playing Ferrari the rival cafe owner of The Blue Parrot, is memorable in his fez, so much so that he served as the iconic image for Chris Van Allsburg’s first picture book, The Garden of Abdul Gasazi. Then there’s the Hungarian born S.Z. Sakall playing Carl the cafe manager, and the Russian Leonid Kinskey playing the bartender Sasha, and the French-Jewish Marcel Dalio playing the exuberant croupier. Actors from 34 different countries played in Casablanca. But one of them came from very close by: Jack Warner’s adopted step-daughter, the Los Angeles-born Joy Page, who played the Bulgarian newlywed that offered up herself for papers to ensure their escape to freedom.

CASABLANCA, Joy Page, Humphrey Bogart, 1942
Joy Page, Humphrey Bogart,

Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman starred in "Casablanca," the Oscar®-winning film of 1943. Bogart was nominated for an Academy Award® in the Lead Actor category for his portrayal of Café Americain owner Rick Blaine. In total, "Casablanca" received eight Oscar nominations and won three, including Best Picture. Restored by Nick & jane for Dr. Macro's High Quality Movie Scans Website: Enjoy!

Of course we have the principal actors – as unlikely to ever fall in love in real life as they were to play ideal paired opposites on screen – Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. She has notoriously been quoted as saying she didn’t think this was a great movie and that it wasn’t her best. He was previously noted for his gangster roles, a big stretch now to star as a lover, surprising even him. Neither particularly liked the other on the set. But magic happens on it’s own timetable, and as Bogart said, “Anytime that Ingrid Bergman looks at a man, he has sex appeal.” It was more than just “looking at a man” that Ingrid possessed. Any role she played as a lover showed that incandescent light of love.

And there is Claude Rains, he too an indispensable part of Casablanca, and an indispensable foil to Bogart’s Rick. They are the two halves that make up the whole hero in this film.

And there is also Dooley Wilson who played Sam, “Play it Sam, play ‘As Time Goes By,’ “said Ilsa. What would Casablanca be without his soulful singing of that haunting song.


The Music:The composer for the film’s score was the amazing Max Steiner, yet as wonderful a job as he did in setting the mood for this movie, the film still belongs to two incredible songs: As Time Goes By, music and lyrics by Herman Hupfeld, and La Marseillaise, the French national anthem with music and lyrics by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle. It got its name by the fighters from Marseille that sang the song as they marched to fight the opposing armies in the French Revolution. As Time Goes by, a song written for the 1931 Broadway play, Everybody’s Welcome, inspired Murray Burnett to write the play Everybody Comes to Rick’s, which was the basis for the movie.The song is the key to Rick and Ilsa’s past, and it re-introduces their relationship in the present. As for the stirring rendition of La Marseillaise, it serves as the the pivotal point where resistance to the Nazis becomes real for everyone in the movie, symbolized by Yvonne’s (Madeleine LeBeau) turnabout emotional singing of it in Rick’s Cafe.

Casablanca La Marseilleise

The Costumes: Orry-Kelly designed the costumes for Casablanca. He was Warner Brothers’ long-time designer, but this was the only time he designed the costumes for Ingrid Bergman. After the beginning of the war, Hollywood costumes became more sober and less glamorous. Orry-Kelly’s designs for Ingrid Bergman perfectly balance a simple but elegant wardrobe. She is dressed up just enough in each scene to draw attention, yet without seeming out of place. In the market scene below she wears a striking black & white striped blouse under a square shouldered white dress. Ingrid Bergman looked fetching in it, enough so that Edith Head used a similarly striped blouse for Ingrid Bergman in Notorious.

Casablanca Ingrid Orry-Kelly

The Sets: One quickly forgets that Casablanca was filmed entirely on the back lot and sound stages of the Warner Brothers studio (and the Van Nuys Airport). The sets thoroughly transplant the story to its namesake Casablanca, Morocco. Some of the action takes place during daylight, but the moody and stark black and white photography enhances the moods of the story. The interior of Rick’s is where most of the action happens. Its decor looks realistic, but it is the multi-ethnic extras in the costumes and uniforms of their native lands that adds dimension to the scenes. These scenes actually influenced the bar scene in Star Wars with its various extraterrestrials. 

Outside of Rick’s Cafe, searchlights constantly flash through the night, providing an atmosphere where nobody can hide.  

The Themes: Casablanca is a love story buffeted by events and destiny. Its triangle of love makes for an unbalanced story, with one side always down. The story travels through time and space, and travel and exile form central themes of the movie. The map of Africa anchors the opening of the film, and travel is served in opposites: leisurely and fun, or panicked and desperate.

Casablanca has elements of Film Noir. Rick is an exile unable to return home or escape his past. He keeps burning his bridges and moving to an uncertain fate. He is both a cynic and a sentimentalist, dispensing judgments and determining others’ fates as his has been determined. His own fate is ambiguous to the end. Ilsa and love could settle on either man, yet she is unable to decide. She leaves it up to Rick, or to fate, to determine the outcome. Their final moments together are poignant. Did he really decide to let her go with the better man? Were his dreams and memories better than the reality they would have to face together? Rick has lost his fight for love, so now he must fight for glory.

Rick will “escape” with Louis, not to flee to the west and freedom, but to turn inward to Africa, to Brazzaville and to join the garrison of Free French fighters. The jaunty line “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” spoken by Louis, belies the hardship they would face in any such endeavor. But this is World War II, and the theme of fighting evil is the key to Casablanca.

Casablanca won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay.

Casablanca airport

As Time Goes By

You must remember this 
A kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh.
The fundamental things apply
As time goes by.
And when two lovers woo
They still say, “I love you.”
On that you can rely
No matter what the future brings
As time goes by.
Moonlight and love songs
Never out of date
Hearts full of passion
Jealousy and hate.
Woman needs man
And man must have his mate
That no one can deny.
It’s still the same old story
A fight for love and glory
A case of do or die.
The world will always welcome lovers

As time goes by.

casablanca Rick & Ilsa


A car careens through the dark streets of downtown L.A., avoiding an accident and blowing through a red signal. A man gets out of a car and enters an office building, getting  curious looks and questions from the night attendant. He goes to his office, shaky and weak. He  lights a cigarette in his trademark manner, striking the match with his thumbnail,  then  readies his Dictaphone.  He speaks out a memo for his boss at the Pacific All Risk Insurance Co. “I suppose you’ll call this a confession,” he states. “Well I don’t like the word confession. I just want to set you right about something you couldn’t see because it was smack up against  your nose.”

Double Indemnity Title

Set to the unforgettably dramatic and alternately mysterious musical score of Miklos Rozsa, thus opens Billy Wilder’s classic film noir –  Double Indemnity. Like Wilder’s later Sunset Blvd. and typical of the film noir genre, the film starts at the end of the story, a device emphasizing the fatality of the characters’ lives. Also paired with the end-of-story beginning is a voice-over from the character explaining how things went wrong in their lives. With Fred MacMurray as Walter Neff, this comes early in his  opening “confessional” scene regarding the Dietrichson case, the case that Edward G. Robinson as Barton Keyes finally suspects was murder. “Yes I killed him.” says Neff referring to Dietrichson. “I killed for money. And for a woman. I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman.”


Double Indemnity confession

The woman was  Barbara Stanwyck playing femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson. Walter Neff was a sucker as soon as he saw her at the top of the stairs wearing a bath robe, and sealed when she sat down across him wearing an ankle bracelet. Their sharp repartee moves quickly from her anklet to auto insurance to accident insurance to a come-on that is deftly repelled, with a succession of double-entendres leading to a time for him to return when her husband will be there. And of course her husband wasn’t there when Neff returns, with Neff now ready to settle in. But her plan of taking out accident insurance on her husband without him knowing about it has Neff beating a quick retreat. But Neff can’t get her out of his mind, and all it takes is a visit from Phyllis to his apartment late at night to set things in motion.


Double-Indemnity- 1

This entry in the Classic Movie Blog Association’s Planes, Trains, and Automobiles Blogathon, features a central plot element aboard a train.

The story itself was ripped from the headlines, a case from 1927 when a wife and her boyfriend knocked off the husband for insurance money. The noted noir writer James M. Cain (The Postman Always Rings Twice) serialized his novella of Double Indemnity” in Liberty Magazine before it was published as a book. A script outline had been sent to the Production Code Administration (the censors) by Louis B. Mayer as early as 1935, with the response that the story was “in violation of the Production Code,” with the same information given to Warner Brothers some years later. When Billy Wilder got interested in the story he asked Cain to write the script but he was too busy, so Wilder turned to Raymond Chandler who accepted. Wilder and Chandler did not get along. They were very much opposite personalities, and Chandler’s heavy drinking didn’t help. Chandler had written books but no scripts, so they stayed in the same room working on the script until the script was finished – and they couldn’t stand each other.They shared script-writing credits although Chandler’s characteristic  clipped, hard-boiled dialogue is a hallmark of the film, along with his facility with the thinly veiled dialogue of sexual come-ons.  A rare glimpse of Raymond Chandler seated on a bench reading a book can be seen as Fred MacMurray exits Edward G. Robinson’s office for the first time.


Double Indemnity 4
Neff is powerless when Phyllis Dietrich comes calling to his apartment. The mood is emphasized by the noir cinematography of John Seitz


This was an early film noir and a trend-setter. It was Billy Wilder’s first great film, but at the time everybody turned down the roles of the criminal leads. Billy Wilder had to convince Barbara Stanwyck to take the part of the femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson, her first unsympathetic role. Fred MacMurray, a former saxophone player,  had previously only played in nice romantic comedy roles. Here he plays a devious insurance agent suckered into a murder scheme for money and for a woman. Edward G. Robinson was uninterested in playing a supporting role, having been a lead since the 1930s. As it turned out, these were all memorable career roles for the three actors. The scenes between Stanwyck and MacMurray were masterfully shot by cinematographer John Seitz, pushing the envelope of darkness in interior and exterior lighting, and  using the coming noir  trademark of Venetian blind shadowing to foreshadow the prison bars in Neff’s future.

Double Indemnity_Bar_Lighting

And of course this is a story of pre-meditated murder. One of those where the premeditated part is supposed to be a plan where  all the details are worked out so that the insurance money is collected and the murderers get away with the crime. The fatality of film noir is emphasized early in the plot, however, “The machinery had started and nothing could stop it,” said Neff.  It’s Walter Neff’s voice-over we hear, his point of view, his slip from ordinary insurance salesman to punch-drunk lover to murderer. And yet his good-looks and soft-spot for the daughter Lola Dietrichson and her rough-edged boyfriend leads us to sympathize with his plight. As for Phyllis, she’s “rotten to the heart” as she admits, but achieves a sort of redemption by not following through with killing Neff, and gets killed instead. A repeated line in the script emphasized their partnership “straight down the line.” Neff’s boss Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) said it more explicitly about the pair in the crime, “They’re stuck with each other. They have to ride all the way to the end of the line, it’s one-way and the last stop is the cemetery.”

The crime itself was a simple strangulation in an automobile, with the plan to dump the body next to the rail-road tracks and make it look like the body had fallen off the train. This would be made verifiable by Neff getting on the train earlier and mpersonating Mr. Dietrichson, complete with fake broken leg and crutches. Only there was another rider on the observation deck, who saw him, but he was sent of to fetch “Dietrichson’s”  forgotten cigarettes. He could now jump off near where the body was, and be picked up by Phyllis and be dropped off near his apartment. It all seemed to work, except that when Neff was walking home, Neff reflected on his situation, “I felt that everything would go wrong. I couldn’t hear my own footsteps. It was the walk of a dead man.”


Double Indemnity 6
It was made to look like an accident – he fell off the train, and one of those “double indemnity” cases where the insurance would pay double


Those were haunting words and thoughts for the man who had planned it all to go perfectly. But was he really in control? Or was he a patsy in Phyllis’ scheme. Keyes is suspicious, and won’t pay on the claim; Lola visits Neff and they spend time together, where she says Phyllis was her mother’s nurse but  believes she murdered her to marry her father; and then Neff hears Keyes’ Dictaphone recording of his suspicions, including private eye evidence that Phyllis and Lola’s ex-boyfriend Zachette were spending a lot of time together. Neff no longer trusts Phyllis, and believes he has to get off of that one-way train.


Walter and Phyllis at Jerry’s Market

Neff calls Phyllis and sets up a meeting at her house. They had been holding secretive meetings at “Jerry’s Market” up until then. Phyllis is prepared, with a handgun tucked away under the cushion of her stuffed chair. Neff tells her he knows she’s been playing him for a sucker, that she was going to run off with the money, but now Keyes isn’t paying off on the insurance, and has Zachette down as the murderer, with her as the accomplice, and  he was getting off this train. Then Phyllis shoots Neff, wounding him in the shoulder. “You can do better than that baby,” he says. As he walks toward her she holds the gun but doesn’t shoot.                                                                      “Don’t tell me you loved me all this time.”                                                       “No, I never loved you, Walter, not you or anybody else. I’m rotten to the heart. I used you just as you said. That’s all you ever meant to me. Until a minute ago, when I couldn’t fire that second shot. I never thought that could happen to me.”                                                                 “Sorry, baby I’m not buying.”

Phyllis has a look of surprise and horror when Neff shoots her, twice. Walter lay her down on the couch, dead. Once outside, Neff runs into Zachette, and tells him to call Lola, who really loves him, and to beat it. Neff then goes on a speed run to where we first saw him, making his confession. Only now, barely holding on as he speaks, Barton Keyes overhears him. Neff asks for time to get to the border, Keyes tells him he won’t make it to the elevator. Indeed, he collapses at the office doorway. Neff props himself up, as Keyes bends down beside him.                                                                                                                                 “You know why you couldn’t figure this one Keyes? I’ll tell you. Cause the guy you were looking for was too close, right across the desk from you.”                                                                                                          “Closer than that, Walter.”                                                                                              “I love you too.” Neff says.

Neff tries to light a cigarette. Keyes does it for him, striking the match with his thumbnail. With Rosza’s now indelible pounding theme music closing out the scene, Double Indemnity comes to its end. It was dialogue like that quoted above and the closing scene that distinguishes  Double Indemnity and makes it sublime among Noir films. An alternate ending had Neff going to the gas chamber (in the book the lovers commit suicide). It tested unpopular and in reality would have compromised the greatness of the ending above.

The look of Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson is very characteristic in the strict definition of the word. Her blond wig and dark glasses as worn in the last Jerry’s Market scene is often viewed as a clip from the movie. Billy Wilder himself selected the wig from a wig store, rather than to have the more professional studio hair stylist dye and prepare her hair. Some say it was to make Phyllis seem “cheap.” I think it was to emphasize the “costumed” character, playing one of her many roles: wife; seductress; nurse; step-mother; murderess; widow; spy. Edith Head designed her costumes. Barbara and Edith had developed a close relationship since working together on The Lady Eve, Ball of Fire and several other movies. In this period of the early and mid-1940s, Edith had developed a  very flattering silhouette for Barbara, whose slight, long waisted figure was improved with Edith’s designs. Characteristic of the film and also of several films noir are the location shots. Here we see Jerry’s Market at 5330 Melrose Avenue, the “Dietrichson” house at 6301 Quebec Drive in the Hollywood Hills, 5th and Olive for the beginning car scene, 1825 N. Kingsley Drive for Walter Neff’s apartment, and the intersection of Hollywood and Western, among others.


Double Indemnity received seven Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Director, Actress, Writing, Music, Cinematography and Sound. It won in none of those categories. It received no Best Supporting Actor nomination, which continued Edward G. Robinson’s streak of never having won an Academy Award. The winner of Best Picture that year was Going My Way.

The American Film Institute ranks it #27 in the 10th edition of 100 Years 100 Movies.






The 1950s are presented in various and changing images as the years go by, bolstered by films and TV shows: suburban growth; stereotypical families; mass consumerism; the cold war and the threat of the atomic bomb;  rebelious rockers; and a seemingly simpler even idyllic time. In Hollywood the Production Code was still in force, and therefore the censor still prevailed in what was shown on the screen and how far a screenplay could go in subject matter and treatment.

In the post-war 1950s, the combined restrictions from film censorship and the lagging societal constraint on sex in general had the effect of unleashing an ever-present focus on the image of female sexual attraction on film. While beautiful movie stars with sex appeal had been around since the silent screen, the overt sexual magnetism of the 1950s stars is contrasted and often made contradictory by the wholesome image of the star. This role was played by several stars including the beautiful Esther Williams, and was perfected by Doris Day.


Sophia Loren (circa 1950s)
Photo Courtesy Photofest


The European movie-stars on the other hand provided the desired amount of foreign, and a perceived lack of restraint to play daring roles in film, while wearing provocative costumes and fashions. American G.I.s during World War II  already had a taste of their appeal. Sofia Loren, beginning her film career in Italy in 1950, virtually defined the post-war look of continental sexual allure. Such a look is not based on showing a lot of skin, nor is it entirely based on the French New Look in fashion. But in the dress above worn by Sofia Loren, the style shows off the contours of her body perfectly, and it does share with the New Look a reliance on corsetry to pinch the waist in order to accent the hips and bust, the latter the particular sexual fetish of the 1950s.

Another European bombshell exploded on the scene in the 1950s: Brigitte Bardot. She began making movies in 1952, but her beauty and looks typecast her in lightweight eye-candy roles. Her then-husband Roger Vadim, part of the French New Wave, cast her along with Jean-Louis Tintignant in And God Created Woman (Et Dieu Crea la Femme) in 1956, and an iconic star was born. Bardot was very much  a portent for the look of the coming 1960s (and later decades). She is pictured below in a costume from And God Created Woman. The outfit was designed by French couturier Pierre Balmain. It is a simple black shirt with a long center-buttoned skirt. Later in the film she dances in the outfit with the buttons undone to her waist. Brigitte Bardot had previously popularized the bikini bathing suit on the French Riviera.


Fab 50s Bardot God Created Woman Balmain


America’s swimsuit goddess was Esther Wiliams, a previous National champion swimmer who became a movie star at MGM. The studio created the wildly popular genre of “acqua-musicals” based on her skills and personality. Following years of the Great Depression and WWII, the smiling face and healthy physique of Esther Williams combined with the sunny skies of California made for a popular series of films. The costume and fashion designer Irene dressed Esther Williams in her early MGM movies, although Helen Rose designed for her 1950s films, including the classic Million Dollar Mermaid, 1952; Easy to Love, 1953; and Dangerous When Wet, 1953Both designers designed Esther’s unique swimsuits for the films.


Fab 50s Esther Williams


The fashion trend that defined the basic look of the 1950s started in Paris with the couture creations of Christian Dior. Following years of deprivation during World War II, French couture went on a splurge in the use of fabric, which had previously been rationed. The
“New Look” as it was dubbed by Life Magazine in late 1947, was based on a pinched waist, a full skirt with layers of petitcoats, and a full breasted-bodice, the whole based on foundation undergarments. The style was a return to the hourglass silhouette popular during the 1860s and earlier.

The model below shows a Christian Dior fashion. During the 1949-1950 period, both the New Look and the broad-shouldered, pencil-skirted look of the 1940s could be seen side-by-side. There were some groups of women that demonstrated against the New Look, asking why was Dior trying to hide women’s legs.


Fab 50s Dior new look


As would increasingly be the case, youth, led the way in starting the trend in the U.S. The movies continued to have a major impact through the combination of costume designer and star they dressed. One such combo was Elizabeth Taylor and Helen Rose. Helen Rose had been dressing Elizabeth since she was 15 and starring in A Date with Judy. Her violet eyes, dark hair and prominent eyebrows made for a beautiful impression on screen – and a star was born. Rose designed the Father of the Bride movie in 1950, and subsequently Elizabeth’s real wedding gown, and then the movie sequel. This was followed by Love is Better Than Ever, made in 1951 but released in 1952. In this film Rose dresses Elizabeth Taylor in New Look dresses. Elizabeth had become the model for teenage girls, and both the New Look and Helen Rose became hot.


Elizabeth & Helen LoveIsBetterEver_1952
Elizabeth Taylor in Love is Better Than Ever. In the film she plays a dance teacher. Photo courtesy Photofest


The New Look with its petticoats and prim attention to proper dress seems foreign to the last 30 years of teenage styles, but it was the trend of the day. As ever, teenage girls wanted to look different than their mothers. Shown below is a costume sketch designed by Mary Wills for the movie Teenage Rebel, from 1956. This design was for the teenager played by Betty Lou Keim, the “rebellious” daughter of the character played by Ginger Rogers. A teenage girl yearning for womanhood and showing decollete was the height of fashionable statements of the day.


Mary Wills - Teenage Rebel


Elizabeth Taylor matured quickly. The red dress that Helen Rose designed for her in The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954), caused problems with the on-set fiilm censor because of the amount of cleavage that was displayed. This caused a work stoppage and loud arguments by the director Richard Brooks. Brooks ultimately won.



Elizabeth Taylor and Helen Rose teamed up on the Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1958. Helen Rose created a dress that would become the fashion rage. The “Cat” dress it would be called, and garment manufacturers were knocking it off all over the world. The chiffon cocktail dress with full skirt and Grecian bodice became so popular that Helen Rose decided to start her own fashion line, and continued selling it in various colors for years. When dressing Elizabeth Taylor, her shoulders and chest were always emphasized to good effect.


Liz - Cat Dress


Another screen goddess from the 1950s was Grace Kelly. Her smashing entrance into Jimmy Stewart’s apartment in  Rear Window (1956) dressed in Edith Head’s stunning black and white evening outfit is unforgettable. The costume is a simple black decollete top and a full white chiffon skirt decorated with beaded twig decorations in black. It was one of Edith Head’s best designs. Grace wears black strappy heels with the outfit.


Grace Rear Window2


Edith Head also designed Grace Kelly’s costumes for To Catch a Thief (1955). Grace Kelly was the perfect embodiment of the 1950s sexual image: the wholesome and proper young woman with a lurking sexual appetite, waiting for the right occasion. “Do you want a leg or a breast” she asks Cary Grant as they go out on a picnic. Her rose-colored skirt and white-embroidered sleeveless top shown below is a beautifully-designed outfit for the occasion.


Fab 50s Grace-to catch a thief

Grace Kelly had worked as a model in her acting student years, and her poise shows in the photo below, wearing an Edith Head gown for the 1955 Academy Awards, where she won Best Actress for Country Girl.

Fab 50s grace-kelly-life-cover

Doris Day seemed to represent the ethos of the 1950s in America. She had started as a singer with big bands and became a hit with the movie Romance on the High Seas, in 1948. U.S. G.I.s in Korea voted her their favorite movie star in 1950. Her movies in the 1950s often had songs that became hit singles, and her teamwork with co-stars Rock Hudson and Tony Randall started in 1959 with Pillow Talk and continued into the 1960s.  Doris Day was always a great dresser in her roles, and she worked with the best: Jean Louis; Edith Head; Helen Rose, and she was especially close to Irene, with whom she worked on Midnight Lace, and Lover Come Back, two of the last three movies Irene designed before her death.

In the photo below Doris Day wears a popular leisure outfit of the 1950s, capri pants, called pedal pushers in the day, along with a long-sleeved, collared blouse.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Everett/REX_Shutterstock (1897985a) Doris Day, circa 1945 Doris Day, circa 1945
Photo by Everett/REX_Shutterstock (1897985a)


Some actresses were more daring in their looks on screen, and film directors and producers pushed to accent their beauty and sexual appeal. Martha Hyer is shown below in 1957, showing the silhouette that emphasized the then-popular missile-cone bustline.

Photo courtesy of Photofest
Photo courtesy of Photofest


The movie star looks of Elizabeth Taylor, Ava Gardner, and Kim Novak in the1950s created a huge demand for a moulded silhouette emphasizing curves and a prominent bust line. What was achieved through foundation undergarments on film was now becoming increasingly available to the average woman consumer. Nylon was making bras lighter and cheaper, and conical stitching was providing that perfect “missile bra” look so desired in the mid 1950s.

The “Sweater Girl” look had also became popular, starting with the films of Lana Turner. In the 1950s there was a competition for the title of “National Sweater Queen.”  In the early 50s the tight sweater was worn with the very full circle skirts made popular by the New Look. Later in the decade and into the early 1960s, tight pants were joined with tight sweaters to make the very hot look as shown below by Kim Novak.



And of course what would the 1950s be without Marilyn Monroe, star then and everlasting star. She had so many looks, but costume and fashion designer William “Billy” Travilla dressed her best in her films for 20th Century-Fox. Below she wears a gold lame gown from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953). Travilla knew how to accentuate Marilyn’s curves while providing her glamorous and beautiful costumes. He was also daring with such outfits as the one below.


Marilyn Monroe wearing a gold lame gown by Travilla from "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" (1953)
Marilyn Monroe wearing a gold lame gown by Travilla from “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (1953)

As the 1950s rolled into the early 1960s, fashions made no particularly big swings. The “revolutionary” styles were around the corner in 1963 and beyond. The sexual revolution of the 1960s was concentrated on the young. By then the sexual tidal wave in film fashion had already been crashing on the censor’s gates for years.




Skin and beads, the name I gave this post, is based on what Marilyn Monroe called her Jean Louis-designed gown from 1962, the one where she sang Happy Birthday Mr. President to John F. Kennedy at Madison Square Garden. Indeed, the main advantage of a dress made of glass bugle beads is that their weight presses against the skin. You either see the skin left exposed, or you clearly see the contours of the wearer since the beads hug the figure with from the gravity of their weight. And the beads not only reflect light, but are themselves translucent, and sewn onto the sheerest of silk chiffons. They are made of cut glass, an can be colored or lined in silver or gold. Marlene Dietrich below knew how to pose in a gown made of bugle beads. This one was designed for her by the costume and fashion designer Irene. Little skin actually shows, yet you feel that all of her is showing.


Beads Marlene_Dietrich_Irene


The tubular bugle beads can be sewn solidly on a dress, or they can be used sparingly for decoration. Bugle beads shared the same limelight as sequins in the 1920s, when glitter was in favor (did it ever go away?). Sequins don’t let the light through, and they are much lighter in weight, an advantage in cost of production and wearability. But sequins don’t flatter the screen figure like beads do. Below a young Joan Crawford wears a fur wrap and nude souffle (not pronounced soufflay) dress bodice, both decorated in bugle beads and sequins, here in a photo by Ruth Harriet Louise from 1926.

Beads Joan-Ruth Louise 1926 classicfilmheroines


With Jean Harlow, Adrian had the perfect figure on which to mold a nightgown made of bugle beads, accented with ostrich plume sleeves. The contrast of the shiny, reptilian skin of the beads, along with the fuzzy-nest sleeves of the nightgown, provided the perfect symbolic duality of the good-bad girl that was Jean Harlow. The photographer Harvey White captured this essence perfectly in the photo below from Dinner at Eight


Harlow Dinner at 8


While rarely paired on film, Jean Harlow and Clark Gable made a compelling couple in films like Red Dust. The chiaroscuro of black and white photography by Hurrell captures their radiance. The Adrian-designed gown of bugle beads reflects the light as it reflects her figure.The two stars are perfectly comfortable with each other. This type of dual portrait photography is a lost art. The photo below is from Saratoga, her last film.


Beads Harlow_Gable
Photo by Photofest


Adrian designed another knock-out gown of solid bugle beads for Joan Crawford in The Bride Wore Red, 1937, It was made of red bugle beads, and provided a key role in the plot of the film. Vintage beaded movie gowns rarely survived.  Due to their weight, they would rip apart if left on hangers for long. This one miraculously survived at MGM because a wardrobe lady had placed it in a drawer where it was forgotten for decades. It is now in the collection of  the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology.


Joan Red Bride

The Bride Wore Red gown in all its red glory is shown below in London at the V&A Museum’s Hollywood Costume Exhibition from 2013. The exhibition went on the road and finished its tour in 2015 at the future site of the Museum of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.


Hollywood costume V&A Bride Wore Red


The photo  below shows Carole Lombard in a beaded gown designed by Robert Kalloch for Brief Moment, 1933, from Columbia Pictures. Travis Banton had designed her Paramount movies and then Irene took over her wardrobe designing until Lombard’s untimely death in 1942. She was always photogenic and looked great whether in glamour or everyday clothes.


Beads Lombard - Brief Moment


The bugle beads these fabulous gowns were made from were usually silver-lined, which gave them their highly reflective quality. But the beads could be made of colored glass. Jeanette MacDonald below wears an Adrian designed gown of blue bugle beads in the film Sweethearts in 1938. The back of the gown shows just enough skin to be tantalizing, and with Jeanette’s back framed with a yoke and swags of beading, it emphasizes Adrian’s favored V-line silhouette. The front was very close-fitting like Joan Crawford’s red-beaded gown in The Bride Wore Red.


Jeanette MacDonald 5 JPG


Lana Turner, another platinum blonde, always looked smashing in black. Irene designed her wardrobe after Adrian left MGM, including this black bugle-beaded gown for Slightly Dangerous in in 1942.


Slightly Dangerous (1943) Directed by Wesley Ruggles Shown: Lana Turner
Photo by Photofest


Things became more colorful in the 1950s, especially when Marilyn Monroe was on the scene. Blonds were still popular, which Marilyn cast in cement for several more decades, especially in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, 1953. Jane Russel was the brunette serving as contrast. The gowns were designed by Travilla. Marilyn’s gown sold at the Debbie Reynolds auction in 2011  for $1.44 million.


Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) Directed by Howard Hawks Shown: Marilyn Monroe (as Lorelei Lee), Jane Russell (as Dorothy Shaw) Song: A Little Girl from Little Rock
Photo by Photofest


Marilyn Monroe had some fabulous designers working with her: Charles LeMaire, Travilla, Orry-Kelly, and Jean Louis. The black souffle dress below is decorated with strands of bugle beads. It was designed by Orry-Kelly for her in Some Like it Hot, 1958.


Beads Marilyn Orry-Kelly


Pictured below is the famous 1962 Happy Birthday Mr. President dress designed by Jean Louis, otherwise known by her as the “skin and beads” dress. Actually it was made of a flesh-colored souffle, and decorated with rhinestones, not beads. But Marilyn’s point was that it was tight enough to be her skin. It sold at auction at Christie’s New York for $1.2 million in 1999.


Beads Marilyn birthday dress


Glass beads are expensive but ever in style. The famous model Verushka of the 1960s wears this outfit in the legendary film Blow Up, in 1966. In this outfit, which is actually a short nightgown with open sides, Verushka poses for the photographer played by David Hemmings.

Beads Blowup Verushka

The glamour of beaded gowns has moved from the screen to the red carpet in recent years. Two striking examples are shown below.


Beads Selena Gomez 2014
Photo courtesy WENN

Selena Gomez wears a gold beaded Pucci at a 2014 Oscars after-party. The Pucci runway gown was modified to add the cutaway at the bust and to reveal more skin along with the beads.


Beads Blake-Lively-Beaded-Zuhair-Murad-Couture-Gown
Photo by Tinseltown/Shutterstock

Blake Lively wears a figure-hugging Zuhar Murad Couture nude- colored gown with black bead stripes  at the movie premiere of Savages. The stripes are wild and not many could pull off this look but Blake Lively is one of them.

Glamour never dies, nor does the influence of classic Hollywood costume and fashion design.


This post was modified from the 100th post of my former Silver Screen Modiste blog. It’s now my 48th of Silver Screen Modes.


The Museum of Brisbane in Australia recently completed a hugely popular exhibition based on the Nicholas Inglis collection, Costumes from the Golden Age of Hollywood. As its title denotes, it was devoted to the costumes designed and worn on the screen during Hollywood’s Golden Age of film, from the 1920s through the 1960s. The exhibition ran from November 2014 through May 2015.  Over 200,000 people visited the exhibition, one of the most ambitious the Museum of Brisbane ever held. To say the least, Nicholas Inglis is a passionate classic film fan and serious, even fanatic, classic film costume collector. The fortuitous story of how the Museum and the Collector collaborated (although they were in the same city these things do not just happen in museums), is told in this interview.  The exhibition was initiated by Museum Deputy Director Christopher Salter when he approached Nicholas Inglis about a possible exhibition, which started a three year project, which also involved co-curator Dr. Nadia Buick.  I recently spoke with Nicholas about the exhibition and asked him for an interview for the Silver Screen Modes. Nick and I have been communicating long distance for many years over the subject of classic Hollywood costume design and designers, and have both been collecting in that field. I also had the privilege of writing an essay for the catalogue of the exhibition, which completely sold out. Here is Nick’s interview, along with a sampling of his own photos. Many more can be found at Nick’s own blog The Vintage Film Costume Collector

Nick Collection Photo 1
Nicholas Inglis poses in front of his costumes at the exhibition

What is it about the Golden Age of Hollywood that appeals to you so much?

I have always had a love for the film classics of the 30’s and 40’s and 50’s. As a teenager I used to write to the performers for autographs. I also grew up watching the film classics. My Aunt owned the Dawn theatre at Chermside (Brisbane) so I got to watch some amazing films there as well. For me the Golden Age of Hollywood represents a time in movie making that no longer exists, a time when movies were special, they were an event for those going to the movies and were made with performers who were stars in every sense of the word. It was also a time in movie making when the quality of the talent both on screen and behind were at the best and when the studios had the resources to  make films that were the best of their kind and indeed that today continue to be seen and enjoyed.

Nick Collection Photo 4 jpg

There were 69 pieces are on exhibit as part of the exhibition at the Museum of Brisbane. How many pieces do you actually own?

There were 300 costume pieces in the collection. I have never really stopped to count them and it was only during this process of bringing the collection out to display that the whole collection was catalogued in such a way that it was counted and documented. The collection also includes stage worn pieces, posters, autographs and other film related memorabilia.

Is it difficult to maintain a collection of that size?

The costumes are stored in a facility, in acid free boxes and tissue paper. They are reclined to give them the best chance of survival. Being fabrics they do have a shelf life so it is important to ensure you are doing everything you can for them in terms of their ongoing survival.  Luckily you can also fit a number of costumes in a storage box thanks to their being fabrics and can be layered. They are not stored on mannequins.


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Do you intend to extend your collection beyond the Golden Age of Hollywood?

I have collected and purchased from what could be described as more modern day films. I really only venture into that side of things if it is a film I have loved or have enjoyed a great deal. I have costumes worn by Bernadette Peters and Aileen Quinn from the film “Annie” and I have pieces worn by Robin Williams and Nathan Lane from “The Birdcage”. I also have a Nicole Kidman period costume from ‘Portrait of A Lady”. I am happy to say that I also have costumes from an modern day Australian classic with a trio of costumes worn by the main stars in the film ‘The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”. So really for me sometimes it is a matter of I don’t know what I may want to add to the collection until I have seen it!


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How much involvement did you have in selecting the pieces shown for the exhibition?

When the museum approached me, they asked to see all the pieces that made up the collection. From there they then went away and put together a proposal of pieces that represented the story of not only my collection and how it came to be here in Brisbane but also in relation to the history of film in the Golden Age as well as the costumes which made this era so fascinating. I did hint a number of times in relation to the pieces which were perhaps favourites and they were included in the exhibit. It was a wonderful selection of pieces from my collection and the museum and the curators Christopher Salter and Nadia Buick have done an amazing job in putting together this feast for the senses.

What did you want people to get out of seeing the exhibition?

I wanted people to see not only the great craftsmanship and talent that went into the making of the costumes that were used during this era, but also to give people an understanding of what it was to be a star in the Golden Age of Hollywood and how the studios spared no expense in terms of creating these treasures for the screen.  Coming up close to the pieces you also get an idea of the detail and time that it would have taken to put these pieces together and only to be seen on screen sometimes for just a few minutes. I am also happy to say that visitors to the exhibition have also gone away wanting to connect with some of the films that are represented so hopefully I am sparking a whole new generation of people wanting to see and enjoy some of these great films.


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Travis Banton designed costume for Claudette Colbert in CLeopatra, 1934

Was it difficult to choose which ones you would include and which ones you wouldn’t?

It was at first difficult knowing that only a limited number of pieces would be in the exhibition but it was really never the case that they could all be. There was just too much to show. The museum did have trouble in choosing what would go in for that very same reason, that there was so much too choose from. Some amazing pieces didn’t make the cut but hopefully that will be for another exhibition. What was used for the exhibit was a wonderful selection and representation of my collection.

You’ve been collecting since 1995. Have you ever missed out on a piece you particularly wanted?

Yes and it happens quite a lot. There are dedicated auction and houses around the world that specialize in entertainment memorabilia and when the auctions or sales come along, pieces are highly sought after and in demand. I have missed out on a many a piece over the years. There is one piece in the exhibition for example, a Carmen Miranda costume from the film ‘Nancy Goes to Rio’ and made at MGM studios in 1950. I had to bid on the piece three times over a number of years and at three different auctions until I was able to acquire it. So third time lucky!

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The smashing outfit was designed by Travis Banton for Susan Hayward in Smash-Up: the Story of a Woman.

You have various pieces from particular actresses such as Debbie Reynolds and Elizabeth Taylor. Is there a particular actor or designer you are drawn to when hunting new pieces?

When you are collecting for a number of years, you do eventually start to step back and ask what is it that you are missing or what is it that would you like. There are a number of performers that I am still searching for, a Marlene Dietrich costume piece for example. I seem to be drawn to some performers more than others and do have multiple costumes from stars such as Elizabeth Taylor, Lana Turner, Susan Hayward and Maureen O’Hara. I expect there is something about them as performers that drives me to add pieces from their films.

If I was to mention a designer, Walter Plunkett is a favourite. He designed for some film classics including ‘Gone with the Wind’ and ‘Singin in the Rain’. He was the best of the best when it came to period design in film which is an area of film making that I love. There are a number of pieces in the exhibit designed by Plunkett including an amazing period gown worn by Lana Turner in the MGM film ‘Diane’ and a Katharine Hepburn costume from the original film version of ‘Little Women’  made in 1933 at RKO studios.

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Walter Plunkett design for Elizabeth Taylor in Raintree County, 1957


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Walter Plunkett design for Lana Turner in Diane, 1956


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Walter Plunkett design for Katharine Hepburn in Little Women, 1933

What’s the most expensive piece you’ve ever bought?

I have been a very lucky collector when it comes to being in the right place at the right time. I have bought from private collectors and have found items on auction sites such as eBay. A pair of boots for example worn by Judy Garland and made for her role as Annie Oakely in ‘Annie Get Your Gun’ 1950 were on display and were an eBay purchase. I picked them up for $200. I also have a photo of Judy Garland wearing the boots which were also on display. So it is really a matter of looking for those hidden treasures!

Have you ever bought something sight unseen and it’s turned out to be a complete disappointment? 

Quite often the pieces you are buying have had a number of lives, some can be as old at 80! And where the have been or where they have been stored since leaving the studios is seen in terms of their state today. They do come torn, altered, dirty, discoloured, or even as has happened on some occasions, literally falling apart in your hands. The thing about costumes is that they were made for a limited purpose, to be seen on screen for a short period of time and for the actor to perform their role. After that the costumes went back into storage to be used again on another actor, or redesigned or resized for alternate use. Costumes have been stored in attics, been hanging on hangers for 50 or more years, and have time has taken its toll. It is only in the past 40 years really that collectors have seen the need to preserve as much as is possible of what has remained of this film history.

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Adrian design for the film Marie Antoinette

What are some of your favorite pieces from your collection?

I have always had difficulties answering that one. It is hard to pick a favorite. I do have favorite genres such as the movie musicals or the period films so I drawn to those and you can see that from the exhibit. I do have a Barbra Streisand piece as worn in the film ‘Funny Girl’ which I love for a number of reasons including that it is a film favourite, that it just looks amazing, and that it came from Ms Streisand herself. There are occasions when performers are able to retain pieces from their films and Barbra did just that. It is great to have that history trail to go wit the piece. The piece is also in the exhibition.

How do you acquire pieces for your collection?

See above re: the auction houses, internet auction sites, from other collectors and people who were at the original film studio auctions.

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What happens to the collection when it’s not on exhibit?

When not on show, the items are in storage, preserved and protected from the elements, and until they can come out again and to be enjoyed.

Since the Exhibition has finished at the Museum of Brisbane. Do you intend to show it elsewhere?

I would dearly love to continue this journey of displaying pieces for the public to enjoy so I am hoping that museums across the country not only get to see the exhibition but also hopefully take an interest in displaying these amazing pieces of Hollywood history. The exhibit has been very successful with over 200,000 visitors to the exhibit since it opened in late November 2014. It is wonderful to see so much interest in the collection!

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Helen Rose design for Lucille Ball in The Long Long Trailer, 1953


What are some of the pieces you own that people didn’t get to see in the exhibition?

Some other pieces that are not in the exhibition include a Mae West period gown designed by Travis Banton and worn in her 1934 film ‘Belle of the Nineties’. Another rare piece is a costume worn by Theda Bara in the 1917 silent version of the film ‘Cleopatra’. The film itself is now considered lost however it is amazing for me that the piece survives and that I have been able to find so many photos of the costume being worn by Theda Bara. There is certainly enough pieces for further exhibitions and a few times over! There is also so much in terms of the collection that displays can be put together based on so many different subjects.


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Two of Esther Williams bathing suits designed by Irene (center) are displayed next to Ann Miller’s dance dress designed by Helen Rose from On the Town, 1949


Do you collect anything else or are Hollywood costumes your  only specialty?

This area is more than enough!




This post is prt of the Summer Under the Stars Post Blogathon hosted by  Journeys in Classic films

Joan Crawford started almost at the birth of MGM, in the silent, show-girl and flapper days of 1925. She even started before she was Joan Crawford. Her film career began under the name of Lucille Le Sueur, but when Louis B. Mayer noticed the vivacious and pretty Charleston dancer, he thought the name Le Sueur sounded too much like sewer, and so had it changed to Joan Crawford.

Joan had her first starring role in Sally, Irene and Mary in 1925, playing fast-living chorus girl Irene along with Sally (Constance Bennett) and Mary (Sally O’Neill). They each have their personalities, loves, and adventures, but it’s Irene that has the tragic end. Her next starring role was as the circus gypsy girl Nanon in The Unknown in 1927. Due to Lon Chaney’s acting it is as intense a silent film as you’re ever likely to see. Joan said she learned how to act from working with Lon Chaney in this film.

And then came Our Dancing Daughters in 1928, Joan’s first big starring role and the movie that made her a hit with young women across the country. Adrian had just been made Head Costume Designer at MGM, having come to the studio with producer Cecil B. DeMille that year. Adrian designed her costumes for the sequel film, Our Modern Maidens,  and her next 28 films at MGM, creating her look on screen and off. About Adrian Joan Crawford later said, “Dear Adrian, he was the greatest costume designer of them all. There will never be a greater one.”

Joan realized early the importance of the star-making machinery, of which costume design was a foundation. Adrian’s talents extended beyond his fashion art, but embedded in his work was his understanding of the needs of the role, and significantly, the psychology of the actress and what it would take her to create that extra spark of creativity on the screen. In Joan’s flapper days, such as in Our Dancing Daughters (designed by David Cox) and in Our Modern Maidens, shown below, Joan embodied the notion of the flapper and was dressed perfectly as one. Later, when she played the sophisticated “kept woman” in Mannequin, Adrian dressed her in a completely different style for that role. And Joan absorbed these lessons in style and stardom eagerly. She wanted to pattern her stardom  after Gloria Swanson, the greatest star from years before. Gloria Swanson was a fashion icon, always well dressed – always the star – a role played on and off  the lot.

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Adrian found Joan Crawford fascinating. Like the MGM star he loved most to dress, Greta Garbo, Joan presented him with the androgynous beauty that sparked his creativity. She had a beautiful figure with broad shoulders that Adrian admired, a “regular Johnny Weismuller” he reportedly said. She had normal hips, not wide as has often been reported, so there was no need to widen her shoulders in order to balance them out. Greta Garbo had wide shoulders too and Adrian used wide-shoulder costumes for both of them from 1929 on, just because he liked a wide-shouldered look on these two powerful women. Indeed, Adrian was always fascinated by polarities, and the contrast between the beautiful yet strong, almost dominant face of Joan Crawford below illustrates that characteristic.


Joan Crawford

The costume designed for Joan Crawford that made Adrian famous was the “Letty Lynton” dress, named for the 1932 film of the same title. It has not been seen in decades due to a copyright dispute, but the puffed-sleeve (or shoulders) white organdy dress was worn by Joan on a ship’s deck when Robert Montgomery compares her to an angel and asks her to marry him. The dress was knocked-off by  American designers and sold at every price-point. Parisian designed copied it too, as did other costume dessigners. Edith Head stated it was the single most important fashion influence in film history. The Cinema Shop at Macy has often been cited as selling 50,000, or even 500,000 copies of the dress, although both figures are gross exaggerations done for marketing reasons. Versions of the dress can still be seen as wedding gowns.


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The photo below is another gown from Letty Lynton, although it was shot on the set of Grand Hotel.  The gown is made of white crepe and black bugle beads, with one section forming a wrap tied at her hips. The other, forming a true assymetry on her left side. The image itself is a master-work of Hollywood set photography, with Joan forming a crucifix at the swinging art-deco doors of the Grand Hotel.



In Grand Hotel, 1932, Joan played a secretary. Adrian dressed her  simply in black dresses. Her predominant costume was the one shown below. Its large white collar emphasized her face, and its open structure showed her vulnerability to the advances of Preysing.

Greta Garbo also starred in Grand Hotel, although they did not share a scene. Garbo was notoriously reclusive and Joan had never talked with her on the MGM lot, and was rather intimidated by her. One day during the filming of Grand Hotel, Joan ran into Garbo on the stairs of the old MGM dressing rooms. Joan, locked in place and spellbound by Garbo, just said hello. Garbo put her hand to  Joan’s face and said, “What a pity, our first picture together and we don’t work together.  I am so sorry. You have a marvelous face.” Years later in retelling this story Joan said, “If there was ever a time in my life when I might have become a lesbian, that was it.”

Joan Grand hotel

Adrian used the symbolic power of the modified trench-coat on Joan Crawford, just as he had with Greta Garbo since 1928. Below Joan is shown in Possessed, 1931. The Coat is only slightly feminized with the bow at the collar and at the belt, which is neutralized by a floppy cloche hat serving as a sort of fedora. She wears this outfit as she stands up to hecklers admitting that she’s the mistress of Clark Gable/ the character Mark Whitney, running for governor, but that he is an honorable man that once belonged to her but that now belongs to the people.

Joan Possessed

Joan Crawford, like many young actresses at MGM, had gone through voice class to lose her native twang and regional accent. While Joan had developed a beautiful speaking voice, there was no mistaking that she was a working class girl, and always seemed natural in the many rags to riches roles she played. It was also a factor in her popularity with the many young women moving into the cities and who were entering the workforce in the late 1920s and 30s.

TCM’s Summer Under the Stars is also playing Sadie McKee, a story where Joan starts out as a household maid, then becomes a dancer, and finally the wife of a rich man, though not the man she loves, played in the film by Gene Raymond.  This was another film where Joan co- starred with a future husband, in this case Franchot Tone. She had previously co-starred with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in Our Modern Maidens (1929), whom she first married. And then of course there was Clark Gable, with whom she co-starred in eight films. They never married, although they carried on an affair that lasted many years. They always seemed well paired in their roles together, and their chemistry was always hot.

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Joan Crawford and Clark Gable in Dancing Lady


Sadie Mckee features a rare Adrian-designed gown that bares Joan’s shoulders. The sequined halter adds a  lot of dazzle to the long black gown.

Sadie McKee (1934) Directed by Clarence Brown Shown: Joan Crawford
Sadie McKee. Photo courtesy Photofest

Probably the film where costume plays its most important role ever is The Bride Wore Red (1937)directed by Dorothy Arzner and starring Joan Crawford with Franchot Tone and Robert Young. Simply, an aristocrat character bets that he can take a tavern singer played by Joan and through a good wardrobe can pass her off as a high-society heiress at an exclusive mountain resort. His theory is that only luck separates the characteristics of the rich from the poor, so change the appearance and you change the person. and there ensnare the affections of the Robert Young character who disbelieves this theory. So he gives “Anni” enough money to buy an expensive wardrobe, and she chooses the most eye-popping brilliant-red bugle-beaded gown with matching cape in the store. So in this fractured-Cinderella-fairy-tale she goes off on the train to the Alps, where the postman played by Franchot Tone picks her up in a donkey-cart, her taxi to the resort. The costumes continue to play their significant part in this movie,  not to make the actress feel comfortable in her role, but in this Dorothy Arzner film, to always feel like she has chosen the wrong wardrobe for the occasion.

Joan Red Bride

It’s a bit of an irony that The Bride Wore Red was a black and white film, so who would have known what color the bride was wearing, even though she was not to be the princess bride. The photo below shows the gown as it looks today, miraculously preserved and in the collection of the Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology, although here shown at the Hollywood Costume exhibition at the V&A Museum in London.

Hollywood costume V&A Bride Wore Red

The roles Joan played after World War II satisfied her less and less. Change was taking place at MGM. Garbo had left, and after that  Adrian. Even her long-time rival Norma Shearer has retired. New stars were getting the choice roles: Katharine Hepburn; Greer Garson; Hedy Lamar; and Lana Turner. After a  long review of her options, Joan had a meeting with Louis B. Mayer and asked to buy out the rest of the time on her contract. So on June 29, 1943, Joan left MGM, her home for eighteen years. Her last task was to clean up her dressing room, not just to pack up her personal belongings, but to physically clean it as well. No farewell party was held to see her off.

Her agent Lew Wasserman got her a contract at Warner Brothers., where a new phase of her career began.  She was once again given more serious roles in this new age of film noir. There was Mildred Pierce in 1945 for which she won a Best Actress Oscar. With new clout, she returned to Adrian for her wardrobe, selecting costumes from among his designs at his new  fashion salon in Beverly Hills. Thus did her next two films, Humoresque, and Possessed, get costumed by Adrian. Joan is magnificently  dressed in Humoresque, showing a mature beauty in an elegant and classic wardrobe.  Possessed calls for a simple wardrobe. In the film Adrian used a technique of reversing a white collar on a black dress, having the points of  the collar turned to the back of the dress. The look has been copied many times since.

Joan Crawford went on to a long career, embodying what it was like to be a star in Hollywood’s Golden Age, and beyond. Adrian’s star burned bright while it lasted, but his health failed him. A heart attack forced him to give up his own influential fashion line in 1952, and a planned comeback was stopped by a terminal stroke in 1959. Fortunately we have those many films to see for ourselves on TCM and elsewhere the art that was created in this collaboration and under the talented umbrella of many at in the Hollywood dream factories.



A blog about classic movie costume design and fashion