The right dress can go a long way in most circumstances – and in cinema, costume designers creating the perfect garment for a movie moment will see their work go down in history. From Audrey Hepburn’s historic partnership with Givenchy to “Gowns by Adrian”, here’s a brief unzipping of amazing costumes in Hollywood and five legendary designers responsible for some of them…
As MGM’s chief costume designer from 1928 to 1941, Adrian (born Adrian Adolph Greenberg in 1903) created clothes for some of the most dazzling leading ladies of the era and for over 250 films. Sadly, he never won an Oscar as he was working in a time before the category was introduced. He was synonymous with 1930s Hollywood glamour, designing some of the most fabulous evening dresses in particular – indeed, his usual onscreen credit was “Gowns by Adrian”, and these gowns graced the likes of stars such as Greta Garbo, Jean Harlow, Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Katharine Hepburn, and his wife Janet Gaynor. Perhaps the most illustrative example of his opulence in contemporary style would be his dresses for 1939’s The Women, a big budget, female-dominated picture starring Shearer, Crawford, Rosalind Russell and Paulette Goddard. His stunning gowns, which epitomised 1930s evening wear can also be seen in the likes of Dinner At Eight and Grand Hotel. Adrian also liked to put his own spin on period dress, adding eye-catching details to historical dress (he was mostly working in black and white, after all) and never buying into the idea of ‘too much’ (see Norma Shearer in Marie Antoinette). He was also not afraid to swap in styles from different eras if he felt it served his designs better: the entire cast of 1940’s Pride and Prejudice had their costumes brought forward forty-odd years from the turn of the nineteenth century as Adrian wished to feature hoop skirts on the actresses, feeling Empire-style gowns would be too small and plain.
1939 was a tent pole year for Adrian – and indeed costume in cinema – due to a little movie musical he costumed starring the then-almost-unknown Judy Garland. Adrian is responsible for the most iconic pair of shoes in film history: Dorothy Gale’s ruby slippers in The Wizard of Oz.
Born Orry George Kelly in New South Wales in 1897, Orry-Kelly was, until 2014 when Catherine Martin clocked up her fourth Oscar, Australia’s most decorated Academy Award winner. He won for An American in Paris – shared with Walter Plunkett and Irene Sharaff – Les Girls, and Some Like It Hot. Working for all the major studios, from Universal to RKO to MGM to 20th Century Fox, Orry-Kelly began his costume designing career with a solid innings of 12 years at Warner Bros. Due to his prolific output, as well as studio hopping, he managed to work on several classic Hollywood pictures, including Casablanca, 42nd Street, Now, Voyager, Angels with Dirty Faces and Gypsy (his fourth, unconverted Oscar nomination). In contrast to other designers of the day, Orry-Kelly’s signature costumes were more pared down and wearable looks, and more easily recreated by the cinema-going audience. He also focused on “design for distraction”, cunningly disguising and flattering any less-than-perfect aspects of stars in his costumes, such as Bette Davis’ low-slung chest – combated with statement pockets and buttons.
Perhaps Orry-Kelly’s seminal design was for the centrepiece dress worn by Davis in Jezebel, famously – and shockingly – red in a sea of white ball gowns, although the designer was rather hamstrung by the movie being produced in black and white. Still, Bette Davis won an Oscar for her portrayal of spoilt southern belle Julie Marsden (a role apparently given in compensation for losing out on the other strong-willed Southern gal role in the following year’s Gone With the Wind) – and looking fabulous can only have enhanced her chances. Orry-Kelly is also famous for having shacked up with one Cary Grant in New York in the early days of their careers, when both of them were trying to make it as actors.
“Your dresses should be tight enough to show you’re a woman and loose enough to show you’re a lady.”
Head is probably the quintessential classic Hollywood costume designer, not only being the recipient of a staggering eight Academy Awards, but also instantly recognisable in person due to her thick glasses and blunt fringe – a look lovingly recreated for no-nonsense designer Edna Mode in Pixar’s The Incredibles. Working at Paramount Pictures for 43 years, having originally got a job there in 1924 as a costume sketch artist with almost no experience in art, let alone design, Head hit her stride during the 1930s. Her career saw her nominated an eye-popping 35 times for an Oscar, including an unbroken consecutive spell from 1949 (The Emperor Waltz) to 1966 (Inside Daisy Clover (colour); The Slender Thread (black and white)) – Head was often nominated in both categories in the same year. She also featured in a fascinating 1950 documentary short The Costume Designer, which followed the start to finish process for clothing stars in a film, and was produced by the Academy.
She left Paramount in 1967 to continue a close working relationship with director Alfred Hitchcock (she designed costumes for Rear Window, Vertigo and The Man Who Knew Too Much, to name but a few), who had associated himself with Universal.
Films such as All About Eve, Double Indemnity, and Sunset Boulevard are not just among her most famous projects, but they also demonstrate Head’s flair for the dramatic, clothing larger-than-life Hollywood divas like Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck and Gloria Swanson. She can also take some credit (and indeed she took all of it with the Oscars won) for helping to shape Audrey Hepburn’s onscreen look in Roman Holiday and Sabrina, as well as costuming most of the ‘Road’ movies with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope – which mainly involved keeping Dorothy Lamour looking gorgeous and sultry (it was also Head who put Lamour in her first sarong for The Jungle Princess in 1935, which launched the star’s career as the “Sarong Queen”).
Although less known as a costume designer for film, fashion couturier Hubert de Givenchy – who recently passed away at the age of 90 – had instrumental input in creating the look of the ultimate film and fashion crossover star: Audrey Hepburn. The story goes that Hepburn appeared at his studio in 1953, following a fashion insider tip-off, when she was looking for dresses to wear in Sabrina, to be released the following year. As a Cinderella-esque story, the gowns had to be suitably stunning, and Hepburn managed to twist Givenchy’s arm (and sketching hand) into becoming involved when she found garments she loved from his recently-designed collection. After Sabrina’s costumes won at the Academy Awards (for which Edith Head received full credit), they worked together again on 1957’s Funny Face, a particularly apt pairing given the film’s fashion industry setting, and this time the Oscar nomination was formally shared with Head. From then on their partnership was formalised, and to be called upon whenever Hepburn was making a film with a modern-day setting.
The film – and fashion – look for which Givenchy and Hepburn will forever be immortalised came, of course, in 1961 when Hepburn donned that little black dress as a Holly Golightly in Breakfast At Tiffany’s. This undoubtedly remains the purest pinnacle of film/fashion crossover to this day.
Walter Plunkett was RKO Pictures’ secret weapon – originally an aspiring actor, he accepted a job in the wardrobe department at FBO Studios (later RKO) and was, in due course, promoted to chief designer. He worked there until 1939 (although he was freelance from 1935), developing the costume wardrobe into a real asset for the studio. His work is featured in some of the most classic films of the decade – and all time – like King Kong, and on RKO’s top stars such as Katharine Hepburn (Morning Glory, Alice Adams) and Ginger Rogers in some of her pictures with Fred Astaire (Flying Down to Rio, The Gay Divorcee). Although nominated for 10 Academy Awards, he only triumphed the once with his shared win for An American in Paris in 1952.
Plunkett was Hollywood’s authority on period costumes, enjoying working on the these types of films because he allegedly said that directors were rarely knowledgeable enough to argue with him over designs. In Singin’ in the Rain, he got to lampoon his own original styles from movie work during the 1920s – but there was another even more famous film that would showcase his knockout historic creations: Gone With the Wind. He was recommended the book by Katharine Hepburn, who was interested – as every woman in Hollywood was – in the part of wilful southern belle Scarlett O’Hara. Plunkett had his agents recommend him for the project to producer David O. Selznick, who was happy to hire the designer having worked with him on another 1860s-set drama, Little Women (which co-incidentally starred Hepburn).
Almost every dress of Scarlett’s in Gone With the Wind is iconic – and symbolic – in its own right, from the green-sprigged barbecue dress and its infamous seventeen-inch waist, to the black widow’s weeds she scandalously dances in with Rhett Butler at the fundraiser, to the low-cut, red feathered affair Rhett insists she wears to Ashley’s birthday party after being caught in a compromising position with him. Perhaps the most important dress of the film, however, is the lavish green velvet dress Scarlett fashions with Mammy out of curtains to try and trick Rhett into believing she is prospering during the toughest days of the Civil War. Plunkett designed not only a gorgeous garment, just about on the right side of tasteful (Scarlett always lent towards OTT), but also believably fashioned from curtains, utilising every part from the embroidery to the tassels. Several of Plunkett’s costumes from the film earned him what is surely the ultimate accolade: a limited edition Barbie doll, with this one taking pride of place.