Costume Designers in Hollywood’s Golden Age

Posted by Christina Stewart March 18, 2013 4 Comments 28201 views

Adrian! Orry-Kelly! Travis Banton! Edith Head! Walter Plunkett!

These names conjure up images of glittery, shimmery, and glamorous movie stars wearing the most beautiful creations ever to grace the silver screen. These designers created the iconic images of Joan Crawford’s shoulder pads, Bette Davis’s red antebellum gown, Marlene Dietrich’s feathers, Dorothy Lamour’s sarong, and Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara.

To understand these costume designers in Hollywood’s Golden Age, one needs to understand the Studio System. These designers were synonymous with their home studio, with the top female stars, the look and style the studio sought for itself, and visa versa. In the costume department, the head designer reigned supreme and usually worked with only the top female stars. The department’s other designers worked with the male stars and the supporting players, while the wardrobe department worked with the extras and provided costume accessories.

Let’s take a look at some of what these costume designers from Hollywood’s Golden Age created for our viewing pleasure.

Adrian was Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s head designer from 1928 to 1941. While at MGM he helped to create the screen personalities of Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Jean Harlow, Norma Shearer, Marion Davies, and many others. Adrian is perhaps best known for the films Madame Satan (1930), Letty Lynton (1932), Dinner at Eight (1933), Camille (1936), Marie Antoinette (1938), The Women (1939), and The Wizard of Oz (1939). He left MGM in 1941 to open his own fashion house, but returned to design the gowns for Lovely to Look At (1952). He was the first designer to use the screen credit, “Gowns by…”

Still image from "The Kiss"

Designer Adrian and Greta Garbo

Still image from "Madame Satan"

Design sketch for “Madame Satan” by Adrian, 1930

Still image from "Dinner at Eight"

Jean Harlow and Wallace Berry in “Dinner at Eight”, 1933

Still image from "The Women"

Joan Crawford in “The Women”, 1939

Orry-Kelly was head designer at Warner Bros. from 1932 until 1944. Warner’s no nonsense “ripped from the headlines” approach to story telling meant Orry-Kelly had to create versatile and glamorous costumes for Bette Davis, Joan Blondell, Kay Francis, and Ann Sheridan. He designed the costumes for 42nd Street (1933), Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), Jezebel (1938), The Maltese Falcon (1941), Casablanca (1942) and Now, Voyager (1942). Orry-Kelly won three Academy Awards for An American in Paris (1951), Les Girls (1957), Some Like It Hot (1959), and was nominated for Gypsy (1962).

Still image from "Gold Diggers of 1933"

Ginger Rogers in “We’re In The Money” musical number from “Gold Diggers of 1933”, 1933

Still image from "Jezebel"

Bette Davis wearing the notorious red gown in “Jezebel”, 1938

Still image from "Les Girls"

Mitzi Gaynor, Kay Kendall and Taina Elg in “Les Girls”, 1957.

Still image from "Some Like It Hot"

Orry-Kelly’s design sketch of Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe from “Some Like It Hot”, 1959

Travis Banton started his film career at Paramount in 1924 and was made head designer in 1927. His costumes and sense of style helped make Carole Lombard, Marlene Dietrich, Claudette Colbert, Kay Francis, and Mae West creatures of pure glamour. After he left Paramount in 1938, Banton worked with Columbia, then Twentieth Century-Fox before finishing his career at Universal Pictures. Trouble in Paradise (1932), Shanghai Express (1933), Cleopatra (1934), Love Before Breakfast (1936), Belle of the Nineties (1934), Cover Girl (1944), and Mourning Becomes Electra (1947) are just a few of Travis Banton’s best known films.

Still image from "Trouble In Paradise"

Kay Francis and Miriam Hopkins in “Trouble In Paradise”, 1932

Still image from "Carole Lombard"

Carole Lombard in a Travis Banton gown, ca. 1935

Still image from "Belle of The Nineties"

Mae West modeling one of her gowns for “Belle of The Nineties”, 1934

Still image from "Cover Girl"

Rita Hayworth wearing a Travis Banton gown for “Cover Girl”, 1944

Edith Head worked at Paramount from 1924 to 1967, a staggering 43 years. She worked under Travis Banton until 1938, when she became head of the costume department. She moved over to Universal in 1967 to continue her partnership with Alfred Hitchcock, remaining there until her death in 1981. Edith Head won 8 Academy Awards for Best Costume Design, more Oscars than any other woman in Academy history, but also the most nominations – an astounding 35! She was nominated every year from 1949 to 1967, sometimes two or three times in the same year due to Black & White and Color sub-categories of the award.

Still image from "Hurricane"

The Edith Head sarong that made Dorothy Lamour famous, “Hurricane”, 1937

Still image from "Lady in the Dark"

Ginger Rogers in “Lady in the Dark”, 1944

Still image from "Sunset Boulevard"

Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Boulevard”, 1950

Still image from "To Catch a Thief"

Grace Kelly wearing Edith Head’s gold masquerade ball gown in “To Catch A Thief”, 1954

Walter Plunkett was the best designer of period costume films during Hollywood’s Golden Age, as Gone With The Wind (1939), Raintree County (1957) and How the West Was Won (1962) prove. Plunkett started at RKO in 1927 and became Katherine Hepburn’s favorite designer. He costumed her in Little Women (1933), Alice Adams (1935), Mary of Scotland (1936), among many others. He also designed the first two Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers films, Flying Down to Rio (1933) and The Gay Divorcee (1934). While at MGM in the 1950’s he designed some of their best musicals of the decade: Show Boat (1951), Singin’ In The Rain (1952), Kiss Me Kate (1953), and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954). Plunkett won an Academy Award for Best Costume Design: Color, for Singin’ In The Rain and was nominated nine other times between 1951 and 1964.

Still image from "Flying Down to Rio"

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in “Flying Down To Rio”, 1933

Still image from "Gone With The Wind"

Vivien Leigh in Walter Plunkett’s dramatic red gown in “Gone With The Wind”, 1939

Still image from "Singin' in the Rain"

Walter Plunkett won an Academy Award for his costume designs for “Singin’ In The Rain”, 1951

Still image from "Seven Brides from Seven Brothers"

Jane Powell and her “sisters” in “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”, 1954

About Christina Stewart

A film archivist by day and a film buff by night. What more needs to be said?

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There are 4 Comments

  1. Pingback Marlene Dietrich | Finer Lifestyle Magazine

  2. Pingback To Catch a Thief (1955) | The Blonde At The Film

  3. Year of the Rooster
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    Where is Irene (Lentz)?

  4. Pingback #ThrowbackFashion Evening dress 1934 by Travis Banton (American, 1894–1958) | DUC C. NGUYÊN BLOG

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