Adrian – One Note Wonder

Seeing Eva Marie Saint present the Award for  Best Costume  Design at this years Oscar Ceremony and her brief mention of the talented and eight time Oscar winner Edith Head reminded me of how much Hollywood has influenced modern fashion. The best red carpet looks nod to Hollywoods past, combined with an update to current fashion. Countless runway exits reference the “movies”. As we say in the fashion industry, nothing is “new” and everything is a remix of the past.

I am beginning a series on Hollywood costume designer’s whom had significant influence on fashion, trends and whose presence still resonates. TCM are you paying attention? Such a series could cover a minimum of one month per year of programing…. every other Tuesday present film’s celebrating a particular costume designer etc. I’ll host.


Beginning this series with Gilbert Adrian or better know as simply Adrian is appropriate, not only for alphabetic reasons, but given Adrian was truly the first costume designer in the timeline to begin working at a film studio and work collaboratively with the Talent and Producers. The date was June 11, 1928 and the studio was MGM. Paramount, Warner Brothers, would all follow suit in the next few years and also hire in house designers. but Adrian was the first.

Adrian was not the first designer a film studio had hired to design an actress’s wardrobe for a film. However, he was the first to work collaboratively with Actors, Directors and Producers to create costumes for the screen. MGM had tried several designers prior to Adrian, most notably Erte’. However, all were dictatorial in their approach to designs. Erte’ refused to collaborate with actress Lillian Gish on the costumes for her character in La Boheme – 1926. Big mistake, as she was MGM’s biggest female box office attraction at that moment in time. In addition, Erte’s designs, while startling in sketch form did not translate well to film once produced. In other words, they were just not photogenic. Seen below Alieen Pringle in The Mystic – 1925 sketch and gown by Erte’. The 1920’s were a period of surreal fantasy on film. However, it is difficult to imagine moving around and trailing so much fur and train in a film claiming to be set in the present and not a “period” piece.



So Adrian began his 13 year stay at MGM beginning  on that late spring day in 1928. Early on Adrian realized not only did Directors have ideas regarding how a character should be costumed. Actresses often had ideas on what they or a character would or would not wear. Adrian understood a costume needed to follow and move along the narrative of the film, not distract from it unless the narrative called for a “fashion moment”. In addition, Adrian set up a teams of seamstresses, cutters, embroider’s and garment cleaners all whom needed to work within tight film schedules and manage numerous productions at once.

Aside from all these operational points, Adrian turned out an average of 75 finished  sketches per day and managed multiple fittings with actresses (eventually made a bit less hectic by using dress forms designed to perfectly match each actresses figure) minor imperfections such as one shoulder being higher than another, would be accommodated  on these forms to save time with fittings.

However, perhaps his most important  job description was to make actresses look fantastic while still adhering to the narrative of the plot. This was MGM, as their studio slogan stated “More Stars than their are in Heaven”. MGM was a fantasy factory, glamour, not reality, with some of the greatest star’s of the day under it’s umbrella.  Greta Garbo, Jean Harlow, Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford  all were costumed by Adrian. While these women were fine actresses and beauty’s, not all had perfect figures (perhaps with the exception of Harlow). Adrain’s task was to make them appear perfect on camera.



Adrian would not only dress MGM’S top female talent, but create Munchkins for – The Wizard of Oz -1939, full fashion shows for – The Women – 1939 and the entire court of Louis XVI for – Marie Antionette – 1938 to name a few.




Gowns by Adrian – Adrian’s contract stated he by credited on screen as ‘Gowns by Adrian” vs. “Wardrobe or Costumes by Adrian”. Adrian clearly saw himself as a couturier first and foremost. One cannot argue some of the most spectacular gowns seen in the 20th century came out of Adrian’s creative abilities and his team of artisan’s. Impeccable craftsmanship was key, as the camera would magnify any small flaw in construction and costumes needed to survive the rigors of filming.


Joan Crawford – Letty Lynton 1932

Unknown-14                                                    Jean Harlow – China Seas 1935


Greta Garbo – Mata Hari 1931

Unknown-16                                                        Norma Shearer – Riptide 1934

Adrian would run a successful couture business through the 1940’s. Clearly setting the 1940’s trend for tailored silhouettes with a strong shoulder line and simplicity of line. Despite many lavish creations made for films, he believed in simplicity of design and as he once stated “one note” repeated throughout a design to make an impact. Seen below, as early as 1928, Alma Rubens – The Masks of Devil 1928.

a3a5d3354cc284cc35bf4cb93381d022The “one note” peacock embroidery is the focus on an otherwise simple silhouette.

0cc979c9162e94461c1187fceccfc7e6In this striking gown made for publicity for Norma Shearer, Adrian makes a waterfall of tiered ruffles the main focus of the design.

Adrian remained at MGM until August 1941. By 1940 he felt he had “done it all” in terms of being a film costume designer, desired to begin his own couture house and finally departed MGM after being told by studio head Louis B. Mayer to make Garbo more attainable  and “American” in – Two Faced Woman – 1941.

In upcoming  blogs, we will discuss Adrian’s working relationships with several of these film stars and how they impacted general fashion. If you love fashion and are interested in seeing Adrian’s talent on screen, I suggest watching the following films – The Painted Veil – 1934, Sadie McKee – 1934, Dancing Lady – 1934, Riptide – 1934, The Bride Wore Red – 1937, Bombshell – 1933, Idiot’s Delight – 1939 and The Women – 1939.

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