Greta Garbo was not happy with the clothes she wore in her first few American films. The Torrent and The Temptress (1926) – They were overdone affair’s with odd mixes of graphic pattern, fur, lace and embroideries. Very much a “more is more” philosophy which stood in sharp contrast to Garbo’s low key acting style and controlled movements.
When designing for his first film with Garbo – A Woman of Affairs 1928 – based upon the best selling novel The Green Hat, Adrian looked to the book’s descriptions of the main character, who wears tailored, men’s influenced clothing. The menswear style trend was just appearing in Paris at the time (notably due to Chanel and Bernard et Cie) and this meshed well with Garbo’s own preference for tailored style clothes with simple lines. Note the modern look of Garbo’s wool coat with oversized plaid collar. The contrast of her strikingly beautiful face against the simple coat and scarf makes her stand out more than the over done 1920’s “vamp” look in the previous photo.
Garbo’s next three films from 1928 -1929 (all silent) gave Adrian and Garbo ample opportunities to refine and define the Garbo image, mysterious, feminine with a touch of androgyny.
MGM delayed Garbo’s “talking” debut in order for her to fully master English and for sound technology to improve. A wise decision by MGM, as she was their largest financial global box office draw. However, Garbo’s sound debut could no longer be delayed. In 1930 “Garbo Talks!” in Anna Christie, uttering her first, now famous line “Gimme a visky, chincher-rale of the side and don’t be stingy babbee.” Garbo’s sexy, deep and well modulated lilting voice perfectly matched her visual appearance and MGM executives breathed a sigh of relief.
Adrian instinctively realized the new medium of sound would require a certain level of reality. Together, he and Garbo selected her character’s wardrobe ( a Swedish prostitute) from the thrifts stores of down town LA.
Garbo’s films 1931 and 1932 would place her in modern setting’s (with the exception of Mata Hari, though set in WW1 the costumes still reference 1930’s fashion). This gave Adrian many opportunities to create some of the most starling costumes the star ever wore. However, unlike stars such as Joan Crawford, Garbo’s film costumes never seemed to over shadow her performance or pull focus. When the camera was on Garbo, only Garbo stood out, not matter how spectacular the costume. That face and persona take over and dominate the viewer’s attention whether she is wearing a bath robe or Adrian’s elaborate version of an Indonesian head dress. Below are some of Adrian’s incredible creations for Garbo during this period and I encourage watching them on film to see this phenomena occur.
Despite these stunning images, Garbo did not have a perfect figure. Though small-chested, a plus in the 1920’s and 30’s, she had virtually no waist-line and her shape was essentially rectangular.
In 1939 Garbo was finally back to playing a modern character and starring in her first comedy. “Garbo Laugh’s” the advertising for Ninotchka heralded and the film was an enormous success. The sparkling comedy directed by Ernest Lubitsch did not provide many fashion opportunities for Adrian, given Garbo’s character is a socialist Russian officer in flats and plain suits.
However, a plot point hinges on Ninotchka’s purchase of a “ridiculous” hat. Adrian really had to work on creating a hat that would essentially “wear’ the character and therefore Garbo as well. Not a simple task. As noted, clothes and accessories never seemed to over- shadow the Garbo persona. Aside from this issue, the hat had to be one which an average woman would purchase in a shop. Yet, Adrian creates a hat that is so odd, yet simple that it works perfectly.
Given the success of Ninotchka – 1939 it is reasonable MGM would try Garbo in another comedy as a follow-up. Two- Faced Woman -1941, seemed to start of with best of intentions. Garbo was re-teamed with her Ninotchka co-star Melvyn Douglas (one of her few leading men to not disappear when she is on-screen) and George Cukor was enlisted to direct. However, the end result proved disastrous both critically and financially. Viewed today the film is not a disaster, though Garbo seems miscast in a light hearted role. Perhaps the timing was off, released one week before the attack on Pearl Harbor and the US entering WW2. In addition, the producer and MGM head Louis B. Mayer , fearful of the loss of the international market for Garbo’s films, instructed Adrian to make Garbo more “American” and bring her down to earth. Many changes were made in Garbo’s costumes and hair, not all of which were designed or approved by Adrian. The end result is disappointing and uneven. They had Garbo dance, wear a bathing suit and gave her a perm. None of it works.
Two Faced Woman – 1941 , would be Garbo’s final film. At the age of 36, it seems unlikely she intended to fully retire. Most sources state she originally intended to wait out the war and come back when the foreign markets opened up again and her box office clout would reappear. In the US, Garbo’s films did robust sales in major cities but were softer in what today we would call the “fly over states”. She knew producers needed the foreign markets for assurance of box office sales. A few film project attempts were made after the war but nothing came to fruition. Garbo did not need the money, she was frugal, saved her money and invested well, so she did not need to work. As the decades passed she would become more private, dodging photographers and “wanting to be alone” or as she once said, ” I never said I want to be alone…I said I want to be LET alone”.
I recommend looking out for these Garbo films on TCM – Flesh and the Devil – 1927, The Kiss -1929, Anna Christie 1930, Mata Hari – 1931, Queen Christina – 1933, Anna Karenina – 1935, Camille – 1936 and Ninotchka – 1939.