Costume designer Gilbert Adrian had longtime working relationships with some of the biggest stars on the silver screen, including Greta Garbo, Norma Shearer, Jean Harlow, Jeanette MacDonald, Katharine Hepburn and Joan Crawford. He created the ruby slippers and designed the gingham dress worn by Judy Garland as Dorothy in Victor Fleming’s The Wizard Of Oz.
Jessica Regan on working with Nathan Crowley and Shane Valentino: “They were looking at 1930s film set design and taking inspiration …” Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
Adrian designed Garbo’s clothes for 17 of her 24 American films and helped in making her a lasting icon of style. “She has created a type,” he said, “If you destroy that illusion, you destroy everything.” George Fitzmaurice’s Mata Hari, Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka, Jacques Feyder’s Anna Christie, Clarence Brown’s Anna Karenina, George Cukor’s Camille or Rouben Mamoulian’s Queen Christina are unthinkable without Adrian’s contribution.
He was the master of the fashion show interlude for Hollywood movies. Adrian designed the only Technicolor sequence in George Cukor’s black and white The Women for which he also dressed the all-female cast (Rosalind Russell, Paulette Goddard, Joan Fontaine, Marjorie Main, Shearer, Crawford). He made Katharine Hepburn’s unforgettable outfits in Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story.
While Garbo and Hepburn, for whom he also did the costumes in George Stevens’ Woman Of The Year and Cukor’s Keeper Of The Flame, are known for more pared down looks, featuring slacks and a casual air, Adrian’s creations could also be exuberantly period. Jeannette MacDonald waltzes herself through Ernst Lubitsch’s Merry Widow in his confections and in Robert Z Leonard and Busby Berkeley’s Ziegfeld Girl, Hedy Lamarr, Lana Turner and Judy Garland glitter and shimmer as though they just descended from the heavens.
Jessica Regan on the Gilbert Adrian vervet monkeys dress: “The sense of whimsy - these really whimsical conversational prints that he designed. You see the monkeys and the cats.” Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
Joan Crawford wore Adrian in 28 movies, among them Leonard’s Dancing Lady, which marked Fred Astaire’s debut on the big screen. Alfred Hitchcock didn’t overlook either how much Adrian’s clothes aid the storytelling. For Shadow Of A Doubt, he dressed Teresa Wright and Joan Chandler for Rope.
A clash with Cukor over Garbo’s costumes in Two-Faced Woman, ended an extremely productive collaboration for MGM between the star and Adrian. Garbo retired and the designer concentrated on his Adrian, Ltd. fashion label. With war raging in Europe, Paris fashion houses could not import to American audiences and Adrian stepped in. Only in 1952 did he return to do yet another spectacular fashion show for an MGM musical, Mervyn LeRoy’s Lovely To Look At with Kathryn Grayson and Ann Miller, a remake of the Fred Astaire/ Ginger Rogers film Roberta, which both take place in the Paris fashion world, Hollywood style.
Adrian’s dresses beyond cinema and a tan straw hat are majestically featured In Pursuit of Fashion The Sandy Schreier Collection, organised by Andrew Bolton, Wendy Yu Curator in Charge of The Costume Institute, Curator Jessica Regan and Assistant Curator Mellissa Huber with the design of Shane Valentino and Nathan Crowley (LAMB Design Studio) along with The Metropolitan Museum of Art Design Department.
At the press preview, Jessica Regan gave me some insight on the influence of film in the collection of Sandy Schreier and how the cinematic look of the exhibition evolved.
Anne-Katrin Titze: It looks like a movie set!
Jessica Regan: The design really is cinematic. You know, when Shane and Nathan started working with us, we of course shared the fact that film was such an influence on Sandy [Schreier].
Sparkling Nights with Rosalind Russell and Jean Muir in Photoplay magazine Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
So they were looking at 1930s film set design and taking inspiration from some of the architecture, sweeping staircases, which got pared down and modernised and kept in a very spare form so that it would really be highlighting the objects. But I do think you get that sort of cinematic presence.
AKT: Right. You feel as if you are in that little clipping from the movie magazine Photoplay you have on display over there. Lounging with Rosalind Russell and Jean Muir [in Sparkling Nights].
JR: Another aspect of the design that was very important was creating these vistas where we can see between one section and the next to emphasise the connectivity throughout all of the areas of the collection.
As a collector you are always looking forward and looking back at what you collected in the past - they are all in a way interrelated, even though there's such a breadth of collecting.
AKT: The Gilbert Adrian dresses in section four are fantastic, the one with the monkeys and the one with the little cats. He came from film and costume design.
Jessica Regan on Gilbert Adrian fringe dress: “He loved puff symmetry and layers of fringe, a choice that was in part because of the wartime restrictions …” Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
JR: Right, exactly. And I think you can see some of the influence of his work in film and theater and designing in that context because he thought so much about movement and how a costume would move with the wearer.
He loved puff symmetry and layers of fringe, a choice that was in part because of the wartime restrictions but also because he really appreciated that sense of dynamism that could be created on the body.
AKT: Like Fred Astaire's various partners dancing. You made a little Wizard of Oz connection with one Adrian dress [who did the costumes for the film, including Judy Garland's famous dress].
JR: Oh yes, in relation to the gingham bows that are on the kittens.
AKT: Was that your idea to include this connection?
JR: Yes. Adrian is a particular strength in Sandy's collecting. And her pieces really represent all of the facets of his design for pre-war fashion. The sense of whimsy - these really whimsical conversational prints that he designed. You see the monkeys and the cats.
AKT: Storytelling with clothing.
JR: Exactly, it's about creating a narrative that the wearer engages with. He's sort of bringing us into his world, very much so.
Read what Nathan Crowley had to say on production design for The Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute exhibitions and Christopher Nolan’s latest Tenet.
The Costume Institute In Pursuit of Fashion exhibition The Sandy Schreier Collection runs through May 17, 2020.