Because of our location in Los Angeles, the FIDM Museum is fortunate to house costumes from a variety of Hollywood films. Many of these costumes are associated with the early years of the film industry and were worn by stars such as Marlene Dietrich and Rudolph Valentino. You can look forward to seeing some of these costumes in future blog posts!
This week we're going to feature a few Hollywood related highlights from our collection. Today begins a two-part post on Adrian (1903-1959), who was both a costume designer for Hollywood films and a successful designer of couture and ready-to-wear women's clothing. Between 1922 and 1926, Adrian worked in New York and designed costumes for a number of stage shows and also designed costumes for the Rudolph Valentino film A Sainted Devil (1924). In 1928, Adrian signed a contract with Hollywood based MGM, where he remained as chief costume designer until 1941.
As a costume designer, Adrian only designed for women, while his assistants developed costumes for male actors. This led to Adrian's cinematic credit line, "Gowns by Adrian." Working with superstars such as Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo, Adrian created costumes which were intended to reveal information about setting, character and plot through fabric, fit and embellishment. In a 1937 interview Adrian noted that "Few people in an audience watching a great screen production realize the importance of any gown worn by the feminine star...the fact that it was definitely planned to mirror some definite mood, to be as much a part of the play as the lines or the scenery, seldom occurs to them."1
Period costumes are a particular challenge to the costume designer, as they must be both authentic to the era depicted and accessible to the audience. Adrian excelled at balancing these competing priorities and created costumes for numerous period films. These included Marie Antoinette (1938), Anna Karenina (1935), Romeo and Juliet (1936) and Pride and Prejudice (1940). Adrian also designed the fantastical costumes for one of the best-loved films ever, The Wizard of Oz (1939).
The bonnet above was donated to the FIDM Museum in 2003 and came to us with an attribute of Adrian for the 1940 version of Pride and Prejudice. It bore a label reading "Ann Rutherford." Rutherford was a well-known actress, starring in numerous films throughout the 1930s and 1940s. Shortly after the donation, our curator, Kevin Jones, happened to be watching television and came across the same movie during the exact scene in which Ann Rutherford wears our bonnet. Kevin was able to actually see the label reading "Ann Rutherford," proving that our bonnet was worn in the film and was therefore designed by Adrian. You can watch the 1940 trailer for Pride and Prejudice here. The New York Times named it one of the top 10 films of 1940, calling it "one of the most charming and elegant costume pictures ever made."2
Adrian often used images of historic dress as a reference point, taking authentic period styles and altering them to appear more dynamic onscreen. With its tall, upright, flattened brim, our bonnet is a case in point. Though the trimming of feathers, vines and ribbon are period-appropriate, the overall silhouette is exaggerated beyond what was actually worn in the 1830s. The various greens used in the bonnet were not popular in the 1830s. These colors, which appear as shades of gray in the black and white film, must have been chosen for their onscreen appearance.
Though Adrian designed specifically for the screen, his aesthetic was highly influential in mainstream fashion. MGM used Adrian's costumes as a promotional tool, allowing industry magazines to document the process of costume making so that home-sewers could mimic his aesthetic. Dresses based on "Gowns by Adrian" were sold through Macy's Cinema Shops, which sold variations of dresses featured in Hollywood films. Other Adrian knock-offs were also available, including a line designed by "Adrienne," which featured dresses named after Hollywood stars. Perhaps most influential was the dress worn by Joan Crawford in Letty Lynton(1932). A floor-length, full skirted dress with a fitted bodice and exuberant rows of ruffled fabric at the shoulders, the dress was a sensation. Versions were sold at multiple price points throughout the country, demonstrating that costuming and plot were equally important to the film-goer.
By 1941, Adrian costume designs were both widely admired and widely imitated. He had worked with some of the most iconic women in Hollywood, helping to shape their cinematic personas and thus influencing fashion for all women. It was time to move on to new challenges. In August 1941, Adrian left MGM with the intention of opening his own shop.
Check back tomorrow for a look at one of Adrian's designs under his own label!
1 quoted in Gutner, Howard. Gowns by Adrian: The MGM Years: 1928-1941. New York: Abrams. 2001. p. 9.
2 Crowther, Bosley. "Again the 'Ten Best' " The New York Times. 29 Dec. 1940.:X5.