Hollywood costumer designer Gilbert Adrian once stated “Who would have thought that my entire reputation as a designer would rest on Joan Crawford’s shoulders?!” Perhaps an overstatement and a bid at modesty by the celebrated designer but not entirely untrue. Considering the partnership of Adrian and Joan Crawford is so extensive and relevant in terms of both cinema and fashion, welcome to Part 1 of 3 in this series.
After several diligent years as a “starlet” playing in supporting roles and second leads, Joan Crawford’s star had recently ascended when she starred in Our Dancing Daughters 1928 and was christened by F. Scott Fitzgerald as “doubtless the best example of the flapper”. MGM, never one to tamper with a successful formula, followed this success with Our Modern Maiden’s – 1929, with Adrian designing Crawford costumes. However, Our Modern Maidens would be Crawford’s last silent film and her last venture in the “flapper” arena. The stock market crash in October 1929, the closing of the “silent” film era, and Parisian designer Jean Pataou Winter 1929 collection, which raised waistlines and dropped hemlines, would all contribute to drastic change’s in fashion within a brief period of time ending the era of the 1920’s flapper. In Our Modern Maidens 1929, Adrian designs for Crawford play wisely somewhere between her current flapper image, yet address current fashion by partially dropping the hemlines and while not fully raising the waistline, moving it above the hip.
Joan Crawford’s next film – Our Blushing Brides – 1930 only retain’s the pre-stock market crash formula in title, star and the number of costume changes. Instead of playing a carefree, wealthy society girl, Joan plays a struggling working girl who is employed as a model in a department store. Naturally, this plot line gives her the opportunity to wear high fashion clothes which her film character would be unable to otherwise afford. In addition, Our Blushing Brides gives Adrian his first film which incorporates a fashion show into the plot and provides the opportunity to showcase his talent as a fashion designer.
Our Blushing Brides is the first film where we begin to see the Joan Crawford which modern audiences and classic film buffs are familiar. A bit slimmer than in her previous films, the eyes seem more prominent, the mouth a bit fuller and the bone structure more prominent.
Adrian and Crawford’s next venture together Possessed – 1931 cements the next phase of Joan’s image as the beautiful girl of limited means climbing the latter to wealth, love, happiness and of course, a fabulous wardrobe. A simple black dress (one of the first on film) plays predominantly into the plot with her character adjusting the neckline of the dress and editing down her accessories to move from being viewed as “kept woman” to “respectable” one.
Ironically, Joan’s next film would be one of her most well remembered. Grand Hotel – 1932 contains only two costume changes. For her role of Flaemmchen, the struggling stenographer, Adrian shrewdly designed a dress which incorporates a sense of servitude, as the styling strongly resembles a french maid’s uniform, practicality, assuming the collar and cuffs are most likely detachable, and sex appeal with the plunging V neckline.
Her second costume, a revealing negligee, signifies Flaemmchen’s possible move from stenographer to mistress.
Adrian and Crawford’s next collaboration would be Letty Lynton– 1932.
On another ironic note, Adrian and Crawford’s most influential film in terms of setting trends in fashion has not been seen since it’s initial release in May of 1932. A lawsuit concerning plagiarism within the storyline, forced MGM to pull the film from distribution and the film has not been shown publicly even to this day. It would be wonderful if someday Letty Lynton could premiere on TCM
Despite a short release, the film caused an uproar in terms of fashion. Joan’s organdy “Letty Lynton Dress” (seen in the featured photo) caused a fashion sensation. Macy’s copied a version of the dress for their “Cinema Shop” in late summer 1932 selling 15,000 copies, eventually the chain would sell approximately 500,000 units of various versions of the dress. While this scenario was not the first time a film or star had influenced general fashion, it was the first time a specific product or idea was specifically marketed and sold to the general film going pubic with calculable results. Film could generate measurable profit beyond simply selling tickets to an audience.
Adrian once again looked to Europe where designers Charles James and Schiaparelli had presented puffed and padded shoulder in their early 1930’s collections, recalling the “leg o mutton” sleeve of the 1890’s and early 1900’s. Much like today, designers where looking to the past to recreate the future. However, the idea had not been embraced by fashionable women until Adrian focused on the idea for Joan Crawford and her figure. Joan was 5’3″, had a long waist, short legs and very broad shoulders. Her hips and chest were broad and today, her body would probably be described as “athletic”. Joan’s figure was not the most ideal canvas for a designer to work. However, by emphasizing Joan’s shoulders and upper body Adrian slimmed down her hips and waist, gave her added height and drew attention to her perfectly proportioned face. This silhouette worked so well for Joan, that she would retain this silhouette (in different variations) for the next 20 years or so, until the “new look” finally took over general fashion by the early 1950’s.
In my next installment, we will discuss Joan Crawford’s peak years as a “clothes horse” providing a canvas for some of Adrian’s most lavish and dramatic designs.