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Gowns by Adrian: The MGM Years, 1928-1941

Lovers of both fashion and film will be drawn to this tribute to Hollywood costume designer and couturier Gilbert Adrian. First-time author Howard Gutner's removed yet admiring tone reveals Adrian's fairly by-the-book ascent in Hollywood without the insider excitement and behind-the-scenes drama that many cinephiles yearn for.

Lovers of both fashion and film will be drawn to this tribute to Hollywood costume designer and couturier Gilbert Adrian. However, those without an inherent interest in the subject might not be as easily seduced. The man responsible for shaping the images of Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer during his 12-year tenure at MGM is depicted equally through visuals (hundreds of archive photographs and sketches) and the well-researched text, which strikes a fine balance for the casual reader. First-time author Howard Gutner’s removed yet admiring tone reveals Adrian’s fairly by-the-book ascent in Hollywood without the insider excitement and behind-the-scenes drama that many cinephiles yearn for.

Gutner never veers from his thesis that the designer inspired –and continues to inspire — American ready-to-wear fashion while he created wardrobes to serve the dramatic requirements of each movie script, be it contemporary dress (“The Philadelphia Story”), period costumes (“Marie Antoinette”) or pure fantasy (“The Wizard of Oz”).

Based on a decade of research and interviews with friends, family and colleagues of the designer, Gutner paints a picture of a man who became a legend with seemingly little effort. He also was continually frustrated with studio marketing machines co-opting some of his more dramatic costumes, which were never meant for everyday wear, into street fashion.

When it came to Adrian’s more wearable costumes, however, Gutner points out that American designers Donald Brooks and Geoffrey Beene have acknowledged their debt to him. In 1961, Halston took the pillbox hat Adrian designed for Garbo in 1932 and reinvented it for Jackie Kennedy. Even as recently as 1996, Gutner notes, Saks Fifth Avenue’s windows featured another Hollywood staple, Giorgio Armani suits, alongside photographs of Crawford in suits by Adrian.

In the name of efficiency, the book’s introductory pages gloss over his predictable childhood (he was born Adrian Adolph Greenburg on Sept. 3, 1903, in Connecticut) and training (a wayward but gifted student at Parsons’ New York and Paris branches). After four months in Paris, Adrian was signed by Irving Berlin and director Hassard Short to work on the sequel of the “Music Box Revue.” He quickly met actress Natacha Rambova and her husband Rudolph Valentino, who hired him on their way to Paramount Studios in 1924. After following Cecil B. DeMille to MGM in 1928, Adrian officially had a career.

At MGM, Adrian worked with directors George Cukor, Ernst Lubitsch George Stevens, and outfitted actresses Katharine Hepburn, , Mary Pickford, Vivien Leigh, Judy Garland, Hedy Lamarr, Lana Turner and Ingrid Bergman, to name a few.

Gutner chooses to focus on the three women whose images Adrian helped to cement in Hollywood history: Garbo, Shearer and Crawford. In giving each star her own chapter, the author provides some of the most interesting information on both the designer and in inner workings of the movies.

Fashionistas may be disappointed that the author tells us rather than shows us how Adrian took elements of 1930 Paris couture turned them into screen and style icons. The book features stunning photographs of Jean Harlow’s bias cut white satin gowns and Crawford’s puffed sleeves and broad-shouldered power suits yet never makes a visual connection with the European styles that inspired them.

Perhaps the designer himself summed it up best by observing, “Screen presentation is not a fashion magazine, nor a smart shop window. It lives and breathes.” In that case, renting some of Adrian’s film classics is probably the best way to bring this book to life.

Gowns by Adrian: The MGM Years, 1928-1941

Reviewed at Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, Nov. 21, 2019.