Adrian & Crawford – Part 2 – Shouldering Success

The success of – Letty Lynton – 1932 and Grand Hotel– 1932, moved Joan Crawford into the category of A list superstar. Grand Hotel proved Joan could measure up to acting talents such as John Barrymore and Garbo. It is not surprising that a serious role, in a well known work would be her next venture. The role of prostitute Sadie Thompson in Rain by Somerset Maugham had been played on broadway by the great stage actress Jeanne Eagles. The silent film version – Sadie Thompson – 1928 , had been a successful vehicle for Gloria Swanson. Crawford took on the role of Sadie Thompson in – Rain -1932, which proved both a critical and financial failure. Viewing the film today, it seems more likely depression audiences were not prepared for a film focused on the hypocrisy of religion and Joan looking cheap and vulgar. Viewed today, her performance is quite a revelation and her least mannered performance. Essentially, it is her one film where she is not being “Joan Crawford” and this was not accepatble for audiences of the time. Adrian did not design her costumes for this film, as it was a United Artists production and her scant wardrobe was purchased off the rack by costume designer Milo Anderson.


Joan’s next film – Today We Live– 1933, was an another attempt to move away from the ” poor but pretty girl climbing the latter to success ” formula. A dreary WWI romance set in England which should have been cast with British actors, resulted in mediocre performance  at the box office. However, Adrian’s costumes for Crawford are completely current (1933) rather than referencing 1916 in which the story takes place. This was not Adrian’s choice but Crawford’s and the producers, hoping a stylish wardrobe would help sell the film at the box office. Joan had been to Paris prior to filming and became enamored with the tailored, square shouldered styles of Schiaparelli. Adrian followed the dictates of star and producer, creating a striking, sharply tailored wardrobe for Crawford which in incorporated the styling points of Schiaparelli’s recent collections.

Annex - Crawford, Joan (Today We Live)_01bed18b5c60114c61c277a02433e2a980Unknown-3

Crawford’s next film took no risks in ensuring  a box office hit. In Dancing Lady – 1933, she is co -starred with a young and hunky Clark Gable and supported by no less than Fred Astaire and Nelson Eddy (both making their film debuts). Joan returns to her energetic dancing days of her “flapper” period and “formula”, playing an aspiring Broadway dancer climbing the latter to stardom in a dazzling Adrian wardrobe.





In addition, Garbo and Shearer would be starring in period drama’s during this time frame and Jean Harlow and Myrna Loy (MGM’s other two big stars and fashion plates would be dressed by the more subtle designer Dolly Tree). This left Crawford the sole canvas for Adrian’s modern fashion designs.

Despite being formulaic star vehicles for Joan and her wardrobe, films such as  Sadie Mckee -1933, Chained-1934, Forsaking All Others-1934, No More Ladies – 1935, I Live My Life – 1935, The Bride Wore Red – 1937 and Mannequin– 1937 provided Adrian and Crawford with some astounding fashion moments.

Adrian’s penchant for dramatic accents such as oversized collars and sleeves, silk flower stoles, hoop skirts, satin spaghetti trim and a stunning 30 pound bugle beaded gown (Note: The Bride Wore Red gown, pictured below, was saved for posterity when someone in Wardrobe stored it in a drawer and forgot about it, keeping gravity and light from destroying the garment and turning up for auction 40 years later….) all create a fantastic fashion parade.


In viewing Crawford’s films of the period, one senses how audiences, still recovering from the great depression were beginning to allow themselves to dream again about fashion and imagine a brighter future.





Despite the outstanding fashion parade,  after a few years of mediocre star vehicles Joan’s career was beginning to lose momentum.  In May of 1938, Independent Theatre Owner’s labeled Crawford, along with Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Katharine Hepburn, Norma Shearer, Mae West and several other stars “box office poison”.

Truthfully, the Box Office Poison Ad, was a wake up call for the studios that times were changing. Conflict in Europe was growing, foreign market’s would soon close and a fair trade lawsuit brought against the studio’s by theatre owners, all contributed in making 1938 a tough year for Hollywood. Ironically, 1939 would probably be classic Hollywood’s greatest year in terms of output of product and box office.

For Crawford, who took her career VERY seriously, she realized a change of image was again in order. She would spend the next few years campaigning  for better roles and attempting to prove she was more actress and less clothes-horse, both with mixed results.

Both Adrian and Crawford understood fashion still needed to play a major part in her star power. However, the fashion now needed to support roles of  greater substance.


In Part 3 and the final installment on Adrian and Joan Crawford, we will discuss their last few years together at MGM and their final collaborations together.

Joan CrawfordTCM






Adrian & Crawford – Shouldering Success – Part 1

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.images-1

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.

Joan Crawford