Costume Designers in Hollywood’s Golden Age
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…”
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).
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.
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.
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.