Updated: May 12
If you’re a devoted fan of costume design and classic film, chances are you harbor a tinge of frustration that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences didn’t add the Best Costume Design category to its annual awards ceremony until 1948.
Consider all the incredible work that preceded this long-overdue recognition: Orry-Kelly couldn’t be nominated for Bette Davis’s scandalous red gown in 1938’s Jezebel, while Travis Banton’s designs for Marlene Dietrich in 1932’s Shanghai Express also never received an official nod. And surely Walter Plunkett would have been the odds-on favorite in 1939, adding to the eight Oscar wins (a record setter at the time) for Gone With the Wind?
Not to be overlooked, of course, is Gilbert Adrian, the extraordinary costume designer who defined glamour at MGM between 1928 and 1941, and who continues to be celebrated among fans of classic films, not only for his artistry, but also his incredible versatility. From the bias-cut gowns he designed for Jean Harlow in 1933’s Dinner at Eight to the opulent 18th-century Versailles fashions he conceptualized for 1938’s Marie Antoinette, it was clear that while Adrian excelled at period costumes, his modern-day designs were deemed the height of forward-thinking style, and were widely copied in the 1930s – an organdy evening gown he created for Joan Crawford for 1932’s Letty Lynton is one such example. And then there’s his work in the films of 1939, not only the spectacular looks he put together for the ensemble comedy The Women – which indeed featured a fashion show of Adrian designs, the only Technicolor sequence in the black-and-white film – and for Greta Garbo in Ninotchka, but also his ultimate statement of fantasy in film, capped by a pair of now-iconic ruby slippers: The Wizard of Oz.
“My only disappointment is that he never received an Academy Award,” says Robin Gaynor Adrian, the only son of Gilbert Adrian and actress Janet Gaynor, who were married from 1939 until his death from a cerebral hemorrhage in 1959. “When you think about my father’s work, he should have gotten seven or eight of them, if they’d been giving them out during the time he was at MGM. Perhaps someday the Academy will give him a lifetime-achievement award – he certainly deserved it.”
A just-released book by Leonard Stanley and Mark A. Vieira puts the work of one of the 20th century’s most influential costume designers in the spotlight once again. Adrian: A Lifetime of Movie Glamour, Art and High Fashion (Rizzoli, $65) offers for the first time a comprehensive look at the legendary designer, starting with the artistic promise he showed painting circus animals as a child. Born Adrian Adolph Greenburg in Naugatuck, Connecticut, in 1903, he later changed his name to Gilbert Adrian, pairing his first name with the first name of his father, who owned a millinery store, before adopting the single moniker of Adrian after arriving in Hollywood. (Robin notes that his father’s unique signature is among the details Stanley insisted should be exactly right for the book’s cover.) Adrian: A Lifetime of Movie Glamour, Art and High Fashion also delves into the designer's post-MGM years, particularly the Adrian, Ltd. label he launched in 1942, followed soon after by the opening of a Beverly Hills atelier at the corner of Beverly Drive and Wilshire Boulevard.
Adrian’s costume sketches are liberally featured throughout the 352-page book, thanks to Stanley’s interest in his work from a young age, born the first time he saw 1939’s Lady of the Tropics, starring Hedy Lamarr and Robert Taylor, when he was just nine years old. That experience led to Stanley’s lifelong passion for collecting not only Adrian’s sketches, but also the work of other costume designers. Today he is considered the preeminent collector of Hollywood costume sketches, though it’s clear this book’s subject holds a special place in Stanley’s heart, as he discusses getting to know both Adrian and Gaynor while working as an assistant for artist and designer Tony Duquette, exclaiming to Adrian during one meeting, “I am your biggest fan!”
Perhaps most remarkable about the book is the breadth of sketches featured, not only from iconic films like Marie Antoinette and Letty Lynton, but also some of his earliest work, including his designs for the Music Box Revue of 1922-23, the Irving Berlin production that jump-started Adrian’s career in New York, as well as several designs that resulted from a chance meeting with Natacha Rambova, the wife of Rudolph Valentino and the person who oversaw his career. That meeting led to Adrian’s arrival in 1924, where after a short stint designing for one of the silent screen’s biggest stars, he was hired by Cecil B. DeMille and, soon enough, MGM was signing him to a contract.
How was Stanley able to acquire such a range of work? “I began collecting sketches 50 years ago, when good material was still available,” he explains. “I found sketches through private dealers, auction houses and even bookstores. I also bought sketches from Janet Gaynor, which Adrian had saved for himself. I found the [sketch for the 1930 DeMille film] Madam Satan for Kay Johnson at a bookstore on La Cienega Boulevard in Los Angeles for very little money, because no one knew what it was. I was amazed that it still existed, as it had been created in 1930.”
Robin Gaynor Adrian wrote the book’s foreword, and is quick to point out that Stanley is the ideal person to have compiled his father’s work. “I’ve known Leonard a long time, and he’s been talking about this book forever, so I’m really pleased it’s finally come together,” Robin says. “He was absolutely the best person to do this, because he knew both of my parents and had been studying my father’s stuff since he was a young kid. I know it was important to him to write something that was different than all the other books out there – not just the MGM years or his atelier, but he also wanted to write about the man and his other interests. My father loved animals and he loved to travel to places like Africa and Brazil, for example. There was more to the man that what he could draw.”
For fans of fashion and costume design, the lengthy section covering Adrian’s MGM years surely will be a big attraction, offering the designer’s own explanations on both his process and his work for the studio’s biggest stars, including Crawford and Garbo, whom he also famously worked with on Mata Hari and Camille. While Adrian acknowledged that both Crawford and Garbo could be challenging to work with, he admitted to enjoying his time with Norma Shearer. Indeed, the 34 head-to-toe looks he designed for her for Marie Antoinette “would become a milestone in film history, but it would only be recognized by future generations,” Stanley writes.
Born in 1940, not long before Adrian would depart MGM, Robin says he is more familiar with his father’s work at his Beverly Hills atelier. But while both his father and mother preferred to live in the present rather than dwell in the past, he notes, family discussions of iconic films still took place. “We would talk about The Wizard of Oz,” Robin recalls. “I saw that movie as a pretty young kid; in those days kids would go to someone’s house in Hollywood, and if the parents had a screening room, watching a movie was the way they entertained us. I think I was maybe seven or eight years old the first time I saw it. I remember my father saying that was the film he loved the most, because it allowed him to do whatever he wanted to do, including some pretty outlandish things. And he really loved animals, so putting together the look of the flying monkeys was a real highlight for him.”
But there was another element integral to Adrian’s talent, a design trick that Robin says was among the reasons his father was a favorite among Hollywood’s hottest actresses. “He always felt that when he designed clothes, they should make the woman look her best,” he says. “He favored a more broad-shouldered look, which balanced the hips and gave a woman the best possible figure. He couldn’t stand unflattering work; he thought it was ridiculous for people to go after a fashion simply because it was the new rage. His work was timeless, and that’s why it continues to resonate.”
Adrian was able to translate that combination of fantasy, glamour and balance of proportions to his post-MGM work, and enlisted Duquette to design cinematic settings for his Beverly Hills salon. From the start it was a success, as buyers and stars alike flocked to him. “We were in the large room in the back with the two ionic columns and a stage and, all of a sudden, there was Norma Shearer being fitted for a suit,” Stanley writes of a 1944 visit to the atelier with his mother and sister when he was 14 years old. “She was breathtakingly beautiful with white, white, flawless porcelain skin and flaming red hair wearing a bright fuchsia pink wool suit … dazzling!”
Sought-after designs from the Adrian, Ltd. label included the white silk “Patrician” gown, embellished with silver and crystal beading. Stanley calls the “Patrician” gown “one of my favorite designs” – Marlene Dietrich is seen wearing it in the book, while Greer Garson also ordered the style for herself, he writes. “Another favorite is the ‘Roan Stallion’ dress modeled by Slim Hawks (Mrs. Howard Hawks). Adrian donated this dress to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Department in 1945,” he adds.
Later chapters cover the stylish life Adrian and Gaynor enjoyed at “Villa Encanto,” their Toluca Lake home, trips to exotic lands – one trek to Brazil resulted in the purchase of a coffee plantation – as well as Adrian’s return to painting. Ultimately, Adrian: A Lifetime of Movie Glamour, Art and High Fashion offers insight not only to a lifetime of legendary costume design, but also a man who was determined to never compromise his talent. “My father once told me that he left MGM because could look in the future and see that things were changing,” Robin says. “He loved doing the elaborate stuff, and as we moved into the 1940s, and because of World War II, films were changing; it was much more cloak-and-dagger in style.”
Robin adds that he couldn’t be more pleased with Stanley’s work, because he believes it truly captures the essence of his father. “Near the front of the book you’ll see a photo of him surrounded by bolts of material, and I love that Leonard included that, because that’s how I remember him working,” Robin adds. “I was always so impressed by how my father could multi-task: He would be sitting at his desk working on a sketch, approving a fitting that was happening a few feet away, and talking on the phone, all at the same time. He was an incredible talent.”
All images courtesy of Rizzoli USA.