Tag Archives: Esther Williams

HOLLYWOOD GLAMOUR BY IRENE GIBBONS

 

There was a time in Hollywood when any star would recognize the name Irene. And in greater Los Angeles any woman of means would buy their custom-made clothes designed by her. Long before movie stars borrowed or were given couture designer gowns for their award shows, they’d flock to Irene at Bullock’s Wilshire in Los Angeles.  In the 1930s and 1940s, Irene’s gown prices equaled hose demanded by the Parisian couturiers. And since Irene designed for the custom trade at Bullock’s as well as designing free-lance for the stars at their home studios, the celebrated name of Irene was known by all. But now several people including her grand-niece Karlyn are trying to keep the  legacy of Irene Lentz Gibbons alive. It is a rich and visually stunning one – unique to its time but an inspiration for today.

Irene-Dietrich 1

Marlene Dietrich was completely focused on her image. She knew exactly where to stand under the lights when being  photographed.She would patiently wait through exacting fittings for her custom clothing. She always dressed when going  out and always demanded that her gowns be “a la Dietrich.” For her personal wardrobe she turned to Irene, and after Banton left Paramount, she had Irene design her film costumes as well. One such design is shown above, and Marlene looked fetching in this Irene-designed beaded outfit in The Lady is Willing1942


Irene designed devastatingly glamorous gowns. She had studied couture in Paris after her first husband, the movie director F. Richard Jones, died in 1930. She had closed her small dress shop and packed her bags to spend time with a friend. After she returned to the U.S. Irene combined those  skills into her own look of glamour, mixed with elegance and sexual allure, looks that Adrian and Travis Banton had pioneered in Hollywood. Such combinations of strength, sex, and style had not yet become acceptable in continental couture.

.Irene Bullocks3a

Beginning in 1933, Irene designed with her own label for The French Shop at Bullock’s Wilshire.The costume sketch above was for an Irene creation for Bullock’s Wilshire, the art deco palace of shopping and fashion in Los Angeles. Irene was also simultaneously designing the movie wardrobe for many of her customers. The costume sketch below is also an Irene design for an unknown production, circa 1940. 

Irene Unknown 4a

Irene designed the gown below for publicity photos for Paulette Goddard’s appearance in Second Chorus1940. Paulette was photogenic, but she never looked more alluring than in this gown.

Irene Paulette Goddard 1

Before Jean Louis came to the U.S. and began designing for Rita Hayworth at Columbia, Irene designed the glamorous gowns for Rita in the films You Were Never Lovelier in 1942, below, and You’ll Never Get Rich in 1941. Irene could always be counted on to provide both elegance and sex appeal. She often used nude souffle and lace to provide that eye-catching balance between exposing and concealing the figure that stimulated the eye.

Irene-Rita 1

After Adrian left MGM in 1941 to open his own fashion business, Robert Kalloch designed for the studio for a brief period. But soon thereafter MGM hired Irene to become its executive designer, at a salary she couldn’t refuse. Even as MGM lost Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford, a new stable of stars was being groomed. One of them was the beautiful champion swimmer Esther Williams. Irene designed the gown below for publicity photos for Esther in 1942, showing off MGM’s newly-signed star. Irene was the perfect designer for Esther, accentuating her athletic physique in her suit designs and gowns. Helen Rose who followed Irene prefered the New Look, which I believe was not as flattering to her.

Irene Esther Williams 1

Irene designed the costumes for Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice. 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.”   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 co-starJohn Garfield’s darker complexion makes for the perfect film noir atmosphere. As Lana was described in this film, “a black widow in white shorts.”

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

Irene also designed the costumes for Katharine Hepburn, who was also new at MGM. Below is a costume sketch for Kate in State of the Union, 1948. Irene designed for several of Hepburn’s films co-starring Spencer Tracy. Irene and Hepburn never got along, and Hepburn had her favorite designer of historical costumes  Walter Plunkett, brought in to MGM, he of Gone With the Wind fame. They had worked together at RKO and were close friends.

Irene - Katharine Hepburn in State of the Union 2 copy

Irene is pictured below in her MGM office with some costume sketches from Easter Parade, 1948, The movie starring Judy Garland and Fred Astaire was a festival of period costumes. In that same year she started her own fashion label and fashion design business. She used the hobble-skirt silhouette from Easter Parade in her own slim designer label skirts and suits.

Irene & Easter Parade sketches

The costume sketch below was a design for Patricia Vanever in, Easter Parade. She  was seen in the movie as one of the fashionable ladies strolling down 5th Avenue during the “Easter Parade” scene.

Irene - Patricia Vanever in Easter Parade 2 (1)

The costume sketch below was an Irene design for Ginger Rogers in The Barkleys of Broadway from 1949. This was the last film in which Ginger Rogers appeared with Fred Astaire. This design shows Irene’s flair for designing suits, which she would include regularly in her own label. Along with those from Adrian, there were no better suits ever designed.

Irene Barklays of Broadway 2 copy

Irene left MGM in 1949 after problems due to her drinking. She could now concentrate on her own fashion business. Her line was carried by the leading department stores across the country. The stunning ball gown below was designed by Irene with white silk illusion fabric (normally used for bridal veils) over yellow, accented by a black velvet waist girdle and streamer and long black gloves. One can imagine the gasps heard when the woman wearing this creation made her entrance.

Irene-velvet and tulle

A classic Irene suit is shown below featuring a row of seven buttons on a peplum jacket with diagonal buttons on the flap pockets.  Irene loved using buttons of distinction, often using buttons made of special materials and semi-precious stones. Her revers cuffs were another trademark. Irene’s suits could be worn for years and often were.  They represented the pinnacle of women’s design and tailoring. Irene’s gowns also stayed fashionable for years, Marlene Dietrich took several of her Irene glamour gowns, purchased in the 1930s, to entertain the American troops during World War II.

Irene suit

Irene also loved floral prints. The bold print of roses on this column dress – with its open neck and bodice was perfection, heightened by the exact matching of its floral print on both sides of the bodice.

Irene-floral print dress

Irene returned to do a few more movie costumes, notably for Doris Day in Midnight Lace and Lover Come Back in 1960 and 1961. While her designing talents stayed at the top of her form, her personal life was plagued with anguish and melencholy. On November 15, 1962 she took her own life at the Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood.

 

 

FABULOUS 1950s IN FILM FASHION

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-Helen-Last-Time-I-Saw-Paris

 

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.

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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.