Inhouse costume designers provided studios with a signature look
Before costume designers were relegated to freelance status, the most talented of the lot oversaw the costume departments at the studios, and in many cases, placed their personal stamp on a majority of that studio’s output. In turn, the studio’s biggest contract players — the stars themselves — developed an almost co-dependent relationship with these talents, who made them shine onscreen and off. The following designers constitute an unofficial hall of fame:
Adrian, credited with creating the signature shoulder pads and cinched waist suits that gave Joan Crawford her fierce and empowered style, spent more than a decade at MGM. His prolific output included some of the industry’s most flamboyant period costumes. But it was his museum-level couture looks, worn on- and off screen by Crawford, Greta Garbo, Norma Shearer and Jean Harlow, among others, that defined him as Hollywood’s haute designer.
Adrian (nee Adrian Rosenberg) was “discovered” at 18 by Irving Berlin and went to work for him in New York from 1921 to 1923. This led to work for Natacha Rambova (Mrs. Rudolph Valentino) on the film “What Price Beauty” and designs for two other Valentino films.
In the summer of 1928, he moved with Cecil B. DeMille and his company to MGM, where he settled under contract from 1929 to 1941, designing for DeMille’s epics, and creating historic looks for Garbo in films such as “Mata Hari” and “Camille.”
In 1932, he created the white ruffled-sleeve dress that Crawford wore in the film “Letty Lynton,” sparking a widely copied trend at retail. (Macy’s in New York claimed to have sold more than 50,000 units.)
Known to be a hands-on perfectionist, Adrian was comfortable with 18-hour days on large-scale productions such as “Marie Antoinette” and “The Wizard of Oz.” His lavish costumes for Hedy Lamarr, Judy Garland and Lana Turner in the Busby Berkeley musical “Ziegfeld Girl” in 1941 featured Turner and Lamarr in miles of tulle and chiffon, and Garland in a dramatic drop waist dress.
The studio’s post-Depression-era cutbacks began to curtail Adrian’s creativity. When his contract was up in 1941, he opened a highly successful couture shop in Beverly Hills and kept his studio involvement minimal. He later retired to a Brazilian ranch with his wife, actress Janet Gaynor, in 1953.
Known as the artist who helped create the supernova that was Marlene Dietrich, Travis Banton used luxurious fabrics, feathers, beads and furs to lavish his stars with elegant costumes that defined glamour in the ’30s. Besides Dietrich, he added to the onscreen magnetism of Mae West, Carole Lombard and Claudette Colbert.
Banton’s talent surfaced early. While still an art student in New York, Banton was commissioned by Norma Talmadge to design a costume for her character in the pic “Poppy.” After art school, Banton worked at the high-society couture house of Madame Frances in New York, where Pickford chose a dress he designed for her wedding to Douglas Fairbanks.
In 1924, Banton was hired by Paramount and went out to Hollywood. His first film was “The Dressmaker From Paris,” which featured a fashion show and afforded him the opportunity to display his gifts. He was promoted to head designer after Howard Greer left the studio in 1927.
In the ’30s, Banton worked with Paramount’s top stars and was so popular that they requested he design costumes for them when they were loaned to other studios. Lombard commissioned him make her costumes for “My Man Godfrey” and “Nothing Sacred.”
His credits read like a highlight list of Dietrich’s most alluring films, from her U.S. debut in “Morocco” to “Dishonored,” “Shanghai Express,” “Blonde Venus,” “Song of Songs,” “The Scarlett Empress,” “The Devil Is a Woman,” “Desire” and “Angel.”
His style — outrageous hats, narrow silhouettes, faces framed in feathers, flowers or fur — is part of the provocative and theatrical magic he created.
“Banton perfected screen glamour,” says Deborah Nadoolman Landis, president of the Costume Designers Guild. “He created a boilerplate for screen glamour and that was the bias dress.”
Banton worked at Paramount for 14 years, and then left to open his own salon. He worked for Fox from 1939 to1941, and at Universal Studios as head stylist from 1945 to 1948.
Along with his award-winning costumes for “My Fair Lady,” Englishman Cecil Beaton authored several books and was considered the definitive portrait photographer of his day. An affirmed partygoer and eccentric who enjoyed dressing in original costumes for weeklong stretches, he was knighted in 1972 for his broad contribution to the arts.
Born in London in 1904, and educated at Harrow and Cambridge, Beaton developed a passion for the arts and an interest in costume design at an early age. In 1929, he exhibited his portraits of English society in New York and later visited Hollywood, where he added exotic portraits of American film stars to his folio.
His fascination with Hollywood was in keeping with his elite social circle, centered around luminaries such as Gertrude Stein, Jean Cocteau Oliver Messel, Anita Loos and Greta Garbo (with whom he had a clandestine affair).
Throughout his career he documented five decades — from the British royals to the Rolling Stones — for magazines such as Vogue and Vanity Fair, creating offbeat and equally austere portraits of screen legends such as Audrey Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich, Orson Welles, Garbo, Marlon Brando and Katharine Hepburn.
Beaton made his debut as a stage designer in 1936 and went on to work on several productions for ballet, stage and screen including “Lady Windermere’s Fan, “Vanessa,” “Anna Karenina” and “Coco.”
Beaton’s Academy Award wins include costume design for Vincente Minnelli’s adaptation of stage musical “Gigi” (1958), and costumes and art direction (based on his original stage sets) for George Cukor’s Broadway hit “My Fair Lady” (1964) — for which he also won a Tony.
Beaton shepherded his vision for “My Fair Lady” from sketches to fruition, designing 1,086 costumes and supervising more than 90 seamstresses, drapers, sewers and milliners.
In 1968, his photographic work was recognized in London’s National Portrait Gallery; a selection of his diaries, “Self Portrait With Friends,” was published in 1979. Garbo, then in seclusion, visited Beaton shortly before his death in 1980. He was 76.
The first studio designer to sign a full-time contract, Howard Greer launched his film career designing costumes for silent-movie stars at Famous Players-Lasky, the predecessor of Paramount Pictures. Greer started out in 1916 as a sketcher at the Chicago fashion house of Lucille Ltd., the high-fashion authority on style.
He served in the army in WWI and after he was demobilized stayed in Paris to work with French couturiers Paul Poiret and Molyneux. He also worked for the Paris and London branches of Lucille, and he designed costumes for the theater in those cities.
In 1921, he returned to America and was commissioned to create the costumes for the revue “Greenwich Village Follies.”
In 1923, Greer became chief designer at Famous Players-Lasky, where he built up his own department, hiring a sketch artist named Edith Head. Greer garnered notable publicity for the costumes he designed for stars Pola Negri, Agnes Ayres, Betty Compson, Bebe Daniels, Nita Naldi and Anna Q. Nilsson and worked on “The Spanish Dancer,” “Forbidden Paradise,” “Locked Doors,” “The Trouble With Wives,” “Coquette” and “Wonder of Women.”
His work “was gorgeously sophisticated with an interesting little odd twist to it, fabulously flattering and sexy without being obvious,” says costume designer Shay Cunliffe.
In 1927, Greer opened his house of couture with much fanfare and a legendary star-packed opening. Even after he left Paramount, Greer continued designing clothes for stars offscreen and on-, dressing Mary Pickford, Theda Bara, Gloria Swanson, Joan Crawford, Ginger Rogers, Katharine Hepburn and Irene Dunne. He designed wedding gowns for Shirley Temple and Gloria Vanderbilt.
Greer worked on the costumes in “Dressed to Thrill,” “Bringing Up Baby,” “Love Affair,” “My Favorite Wife,” and “Spellbound.”
Tall and striking as a fashion model, Irene Lentz Gibbons, best known simply by her first name, brought the elegance of simplicity to her contemporary designs.
She began her Hollywood experience as a dress extra, wearing stylish clothes she made herself. After studying at the Wolf School of Design, she opened her first clothing shop near the University of Southern California campus.
A young Wampus star named Lupe Velez was Irene’s first Hollywood customer, and later Delores Del Rio became a devotee. As her popularity grew, she moved her shop to a Sunset Boulevard address, acquiring clients from Beverly Hills. Later, she opened a custom salon at Bullock’s Wilshire, where MGM prexy Louis B. Meyer’s daughters shopped.
While setting fashion trends with her designs, Irene also dressed movie stars for their pictures. She designed clothes for Marlene Dietrich, Loretta Young, Rosalind Russell and Joan Crawford. Her trademark smart clothes were perfect for the modern women such actresses often played.
She became known for her suits, which were tailored yet feminine, often combining classic lines with a grace note such as a lace top or interesting asymmetrical geometric trim. Deborah Nadoolman Landis, president of the Costume Designers Guild, says Irene’s suits were “understated, extremely simple, and perfect. They had wit, but they didn’t have the aggressive shoulders or cut of Adrian’s suits.”
The studios’ expensive practice of patronizing an outside designer was a paean to Irene’s talent and popularity with Hollywood’s leading ladies, and gave Irene the opportunity to learn how to deal with the idiosyncrasies of film. In 1942, MGM tapped her for its own, making her executive designer and successor to Adrian.
At MGM, Irene designed for Greer Garson, Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Judy Garland, Ava Gardner and Lana Turner. Irene retired from MGM in 1949, but later designed Doris Day’s costumes for the 1960 pic “Midnight Lace,” for which she received an Academy Award nomination.
Columbia Pictures’ major designing talent in the ’30s, Robert Kalloch created sophisticated wardrobes for the stars Harry Cohn lured to the studio.
Like Howard Greer, Kalloch’s first job was as a sketch artist at the couture house of Lucille Ltd., working at the New York, London and Paris branches.
While at Lucille, Kalloch designed many dresses for Irene Castle, the renowned ballroom dancer. A huge fan of Anna Pavlova, Kalloch waited outside her stage door with his drawings until she saw him. She consequently became his client and he designed costumes for her ballets as well as clothes for social occasions.
At Columbia, Kalloch designed mostly contemporary costumes, making such stars as Fay Wray, Betty Blythe, Constance Cummings, Irene Dunne, Grace Moore, Lilian Harvey and Anne Southern look elegantly beautiful.
“Harry Cohn gave Robert Kalloch a chance to improve the image of Columbia,” says Deborah Nadoolman Landis, president of the Costume Designers Guild. “Prior to that, the actresses had to fend for themselves in terms of wardrobe. They didn’t have a big wardrobe department that was working to reinvent their stars. Robert Kalloch gave a patina of elegance to the Columbia product.”
Kalloch worked on such movies as “The Bitter Tea of General Yen,” “Lady for a Day,” “It Happened One Night,” “Venus Makes Trouble,” “The Awful Truth,” “Mrs. Miniver,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “His Girl Friday.”
Legendary costume designer Jean Louis knew how to make women look not just great but downright desirable. Consider these creations: the nude sequin gown Marilyn Monroe wore to serenade JFK, the black strapless satin gown Rita Hayworth filled to perfection in “Gilda” and those snug sweaters that helped make young Lana Turner a star.
Louis was born in Paris in 1907 and graduated from the city’s Ecole Decoratifs. He started at fashion house Hattie Carnagie in New York where he rose to head designer. Designing privately for Joan Cohn, wife of Columbia topper Harry Cohn, led to a job as chief designer at Columbia Pictures in 1943. Later he moved to Universal and branched out on his own, first as a freelancer and then with his own company.
His designs were known for their luxurious materials, simple and elegant cut, virtuosity of workmanship and a modern uncluttered silhouette. Louis was nominated for 14 costume design Oscars, winning one for the 1956 Judy Holiday comedy “The Solid Gold Cadillac.”
Among Louis’ other Oscar nommed credits are “Born Yesterday,” “From Here To Eternity,” “Pal Joey,” “Bell Book and Candle” and “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” He also designed Doris Day’s sexy interior decorator wardrobe in “Pillow Talk” and Elizabeth Taylor’s shapely swimsuit in “Suddenly Last Summer.”
After a marriage of 30 years ended in 1987 with the death of his wife Maggie, Louis married longtime friend Loretta Young whom he had designed for throughout her career including the gowns she wore for the famed staircase entrances on her TV series.
He was inducted into the Costume Designers’ Hall of Fame in 2001.
A key figure at Warner Bros. through the ’30s and ’40s, Walter Orry-Kelly inspired fierce loyalty in studio contract player Bette Davis, whom the designer helped create memorable roles with his costumes, including “Jezebel,” The Little Foxes” and “Dark Victory.” He also worked on a little film called “Casablanca,” helping fashion Humphrey Bogart into a romantic leading man.
Along with Davis, who called him her “right arm,” Warner screen beauties Kay Francis and Ruth Chatterton became Orry-Kelly devotees.
Louise Coffey-Webb, curator of costumes at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising, says Orry-Kelly “was a serious historian who worked on a lot of period movies,” at a time when studios were less than sticklers about historic details in costumes.
A talented painter and designer who originally came to the U.S. to become an actor, Orry-Kelly instead found work designing costumes and scenery for Schubert revues and “George White’s Scandals” in New York. He created Katharine Hepburn’s costumes for her Broadway debut, “Death Takes a Holiday,” and dressed Ethyl Barrymore for several stage productions.
Gary Grant, a personal friend, introduced him in 1931 to Warner studios. When he left the studio in 1943, he continued to work for Fox, Universal, RKO and MGM. In the latter part of his career, he concentrated on creating costumes for musicals and won four Academy Awards, for “An American in Paris,” “Les Girls,” “Some Like It Hot” and “Gypsy.”
Among the talents he costumed were Veree Teasdale, Dolores Del Rio, Helen Vinson, Rosalind Russell, Natalie Wood, Barbara Stanwyck, Ingrid Bergman, Ava Gardner, Claudette Colbert, Shirley MacLaine and Marilyn Monroe.
Though he often favored contemporary flourish over historical accuracy, Walter Plunkett was considered one of the finest period designers in Hollywood history. His name remains inexorably tied to the costumes he created for “Gone With the Wind” and to the lavish and ethnic costumes that were his forte.
The self-taught designer created definitive looks for a who’s who of superstars, including Irene Dunne, Judy Garland, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Vivien Leigh and Katharine Hepburn.
Plunkett, a California native, studied law and theater at the UC Berkeley, and began his career in the biz as an actor. He appeared in vaudeville sketches and on Broadway before making a segue into costume design in the 1920s.
In 1926, he was hired by the fledgling F.B.O. Studios, which would eventually be known as RKO. Plunkett climbed the ladder there through the 1920s and ’30’s, eventually becoming RKO’s head of wardrobe.
Like Adrian, his period work resulted in retail trends, such as the looks popularized by his broad-shouldered dresses for Dunne. Around 1935 he took a hiatus from Hollywood to work on New York’s Seventh Avenue, and was enticed back to Los Angeles by Katharine Hepburn to design her period wardrobe in “Mary of Scotland.”
Plunkett won an Academy Award in 1953 for “An American in Paris” (shared with Orry-Kelly and Irene Sharaff), and garnered Oscar nominations for films including “The Magnificent Yankee,” “King Lady,” “That Forsyte Woman,” “Young Bess,” “Rain Tree County,” “Pocketful of Miracles” and “How the West Was Won.”
He did not receive an Academy Award for his costumes for “Gone With the Wind” — as none existed in that category in 1939 — but the film’s director, David O. Selznick, is reported to have said that had there been one, it would have belonged to Plunkett.
Helen Rose turned foundations into raging fads. She designed Esther Williams’ first lame bathing suit, and Lana Turner’s black ruffled “Merry Widow” corset. She was the mastermind behind “dance pants,” tailored pants that were worn under dance costumes and meant to be seen, a fore-runner of hot pants. Elizabeth Taylor’s sizzling slip in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” was her creation, as was the short white chiffon dress that became such a hit that the studio gave Rose permission to open a small factory and produce the dress for the retail market.
During her 23 years at MGM, Rose designed costumes for more than 200 films. Rose dressed her stars — which included Lana Turner, Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Jane Powell — in clothes that moved with fluid grace, often in her signature chiffon. An 11-time Oscar nominee, she took home the statuette for her costumes in “The Bad and the Beautiful” and “I’ll Cry Tomorrow.”
The Chicago native started her career while a teenager earning 37.5 ¢ cents an hour designing costumes for burlesque shows, speakeasies and stage shows. In 1929, she came to California, where she worked for various costume companies until she joined Fanchon and Marco and designed for the Ice Follies and musicals.
In 1942, Rose was contracted by MGM, where she designed costumes for many musicals and genre films. She worked with dancers such as Cyd Sharisse, Ann Miller, Marge Champion, Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire throughout her film career.
“She could do things that were completely silly and witty and exaggerated,” says Costume Designers Guild president Deborah Nadoolman Landis. “She loved chiffon, but she came by it honestly, because she had been working with dancers for so long.”
A favorite designer of Grace Kelly’s, Rose designed the wedding gown for her marriage in 1956 to Prince Ranier of Monaco, much to the dismay of Edith Head. Rose’s fame helped her establish her own business in 1966.
One of the most versatile of Hollywood’s A-list designers of the 1940s, Irene Sharaff moved seamlessly between stage and screen, creating bold, extravagant looks for MGM musicals and for the shows that became Broadway standards.
Throughout her long career, she picked up 16 Oscar nominations. Her wins include “An American in Paris,” “Cleopatra,” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” “The King and I” and “West Side Story.”
Born in Boston in 1910, Sharaff developed an obsessive attention to detail and passion for texture and color while studying at the New York School of Fine and Applied Arts, the Art Students League and Grande Chaumiere in Paris.
In 1932, she designed costumes for New York’s Civic Repertory Theater Co.’s version of “Alice in Wonderland,” which launched her Broadway career. She spent a decade designing for shows and ballets, including “Girl Crazy,” starring Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, and Roger and Hart’s “On Your Toes.”
Sharaff moved to Hollywood in 1942 under contract to MGM. There she proved her range by designing somber Parisian clothes of the 1890s for “Madame Curie” (1943) as well as the color-infused costumes for her first collaboration with director Vicente Minnelli, “Meet Me in St. Louis.” The latter film’s success established her reputation on the lot, and Sharaff went on to design such works as “Guys and Dolls,” “Brigadoon,” “Porgy and Bess” and “A Star Is Born.”
In 1961, a year after filming began on “Cleopatra,” the 20th Century Fox epic that nearly sank the studio, the production changed directors and shifted location from Pinewood Studios in England to Rome. Sharaff was called in to create costumes to replace those of designer Oliver Messel.
Sharaff designed 65 costumes at a cost of $130,000, as well as 30 wigs and 125 separate pieces of jewelry — only a fraction of the film’s total of 26,000 costumes, budgeted at $475,000. Among Sharaff’s outstanding contribution to “Cleopatra” was a gown made from cloth of 24-karat gold, valued at $6,500, for the film’s star, Elizabeth Taylor.
William Travilla knew how to make women look beautiful and designed sexy costumes that made the most of Hollywood’s steamiest stars. Nominated for five Academy Awards, Travilla won for “The Adventures of Don Juan.”
Travilla began his studio career ghost-sketching for artists for the “Hopalong Cassidy” series. He joined Warner Bros. in 1948 when he was 24, designing men’s costumes for such stars as Errol Flynn.
The youngest designer under contract, Travilla cinched his deal through fan Ann Sheridan, who wouldn’t ink her Warner’s contract until Travilla was signed up.
In 1950, Travilla was contracted at Fox, where he earned the moniker, “king of cleavage.” Travilla became famous for dressing sex symbols Betty Grable, Greer Garson, Jane Russell, Lana Turner, Marilyn Monroe, Joan Crawford, Kim Novak, Joanne Woodward, Elizabeth Taylor and Ann-Margret. He costumed Betty Grable in a black strapless bathing suit with ermine accents for her role in “Meet Me After the Show.”
He designed the dresses Joanne Woodward took off in “The Stripper.” He said his favorite creation was the white halter-top dress he designed for Marilyn Monroe in “The Seven Year Itch.” Travilla was Monroe’s personal designer for eight films, including “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” “There’s No Business Like Show Business” and “How to Marry a Millionaire.”
“Travilla was the master of illusion and creating a silhouette,” says Deborah Nadoolman Landis, president of the Costume Designers Guild. “Those girls were cinched by waist cinches; they were pushed in a million different directions — there was a lot of construction in his dresses.”