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

Norma’s Nightgowns

Canadian born actress Norma Shearer was one of Hollywood’s most important and successful film star’s of the 1930’s. For the past few decades, film buff’s tended to remember her as the noble and suffering Mary Haines in The Women 1939. However, viewing Norma’s films (particularly her pre-code films prior to 1934) on DVD and broadcast on TCM, has led film historians to reevaluate her contributions and significance. In her pre-code films such as A Free Soul 1931 and The Divorcee 1930, though both a bit clunky given early sound production, her characters see themselves as equal to men, confront sex directly and engage in frank love relationships. Not mysterious like Garbo, not as sexy as Harlow or as fashion forward as Crawford, Shearer gave female film-goers of the 1930’s a more realistic (though still quite elevated) persona in which to relate and project themselves.

Norma Shearer was a fiercely  ambitious woman who did not let anyone deter her from her goal of becoming a famous actress. Both Florenz Ziegfeld and D.W. Griffith told her she was unattractive, cross eyed and had a terrible figure. However, Norma seems to have been blessed with a positive outlook, no fear of hard work and a drive to move forward. Norma consulted a specialist in incorrectly  aligned eyes whom provided muscle strengthening  exercises to correct/conceal the issue and she was eventually able to camouflage the problem. She exercised to improve her figure, practiced movement and posing carefully to conceal her “flaws”. It is not that Norma was not a pretty woman, she was, Norma just was not as naturally photogenic as many  film stars were during this time. Norma had to work at it.

Norma began to model  and by the early 1920’s was working as an extra in films made in New York. Finally, in 1923, after three years of extra work and some small parts, Norma was offered a six month contract by Louis B. Mayer and his VP/Producer Irving Thalberg. After a few initial hiccups, Norma worked steadily for the next year and benefitted  from the 1924 merger of Mayer’s studio with The Samuel Goldwyn Company, forming Metro Goldwyn Mayer. The merger enabled Norma to be cast opposite A list star’s Lon Chaney and John Gilbert in He Who Gets Slapped – 1924. The film was a great success and moved Norma further up the ladder.

Norma began dating MGM producer Irving Thalberg “The Boy Genius” in 1926. By all accounts the relationship was one based upon love and mutual respect and they were married in the Fall of 1927. Irving insured Norma was carefully transitioned into sound films. Norma’s clear, medium pitched voice and standard Canadian accent was ideal for early sound. Her not too high and not too low voice worked well for the sensitive early sound recording. Her accent sounded refined but still American.

Despite her success in early talkies such as The Trial of Mary Dugan 1929 and The Last of Mrs. Cheyney 1929, Norma wisely sensed times were changing and the public may tire of her squeaky clean ingenue image. Approaching 30, she realized a shift in image would be necessary if her career was going to have longevity. Norma began to campaign for  a change of image and the lead role in The Divorcee 1930,a tale of a young wife who does not accept her husband’s infidelity passively and approaches infidelity in a what’s good for the goose is good for the gander manner.

Ironically,  Norma’s supportive VP Producer husband, did not believe his wife was glamorous or sexy enough to pull off this type of role. Norma knew she needed to approach the problem from a professional angle and show Irving she could be sexy on camera. Norma enlisted the help of a young photographer named George Hurrell and the designer she had begun working with in 1928, Gilbert Adrian. The photographs by Hurrell show Norma draped in a clinging brocade and satin robe by Adrian, her hair loose and sporting a come hither stare, were enough to convince her husband she could play the part.


In The Divorcee 1930, designer Adrian showcases Norm’s character Jerry (note the masculine name) in loungewear, day suits and evening gowns. Simple lines, geometric details and startling contrasts make Norma stand out amongst the other female characters.  Adrian wisely kept the other women cast members in dropped  waistlines, uneven hems, making them appear slightly out of date and still locked in the 1920’s. Sporting raised waistlines, lounging pj’s and long sleeved evening gown’s Norma appears modern and firmly planted in the 1930’s. Adrian wisely raised the waistlines on Norma’s costume to elongate her short waist and legs, provide height (she was only 5’1″ or 5’2″) and followed the direction of  recent Paris fashion in which Jean Patou raised waistlines to the natural waist and dropped hemlines. Aside from looking fabulous in her Adrian wardrobe, Norma would win the Academy Award for Best Actress that year.

Norma’s next few films such as, A Free Soul 1931, Strange Interlude 1932 and Riptide 1934, would further cement her image as a relatable modern woman, sophisticated, sexual without being overtly sexy, yet still relatable to her audience. These roles gave Adrian ample opportunities  to showcase his sense for current fashion for the modern woman whom leads a life in which she explores relationships, sex and love as an equal to men.

For some of these roles Adrian showcases Norma in the 1930’s classic, bias cut satin sheath gown. This style is closely associated with Jean Harlow. However, Adrian placed Shearer in this style gown as early as A Free Soul 1931. Some sources say Adrian had bra support built into this dress at Norma’s request. However, having viewed the film recently, I see no evidence of this, Norma appears to be bra-less. Regardless, this style had such impact on both Shearer and Adrian, the designer would always refer to the bias satin sheath as “Norma’s Nightgowns”.



By 1934 Hollywood yielded to pressure from several powerful conservative religious groups (notably the Catholic Church) to form the National Legion of Decency which was dedicated to identifying  and regulating objectionable content in motion pictures. This form of censorship  would essentially remain in place in films until the mid 1960’s. Taste had to replace tease, sexual situations needed to be inferred  or implied  but never presented directly. For many performers, including Norma, this meant a change of image.

Now in her early 30’s, Norma would begin her period as “The First Lady of MGM”. Given the enforcement of the censorship codes beginning in mid 1934, Irving Thalberg wisely began selecting projects for his wife in which to distance the actress from her former “free soul” image.  Prestigious period drama’s would follow, with Norma playing Elizabeth Barrett Browning in The Barretts of Wimpole Street 1934 (providing Norma with an Oscar nomination). Norma is gorgeously  gowned Adrian, with much emphasis above the waist, as the character spends a good time sitting or reclining and resting due to her over protective father.

Romeo and Juliet 1936, was Norma’s only film of the 1930’s to lose money at the box office. Perhaps Leslie Howard at 42 and Norma at 35 were too old to play Romeo and Juliet, but having viewed the film recently they manage to sustain a certain illusion of the young lovers. Perhaps the film was too “arty” for general audiences at the time. However, Norma looks lovely and her costumes by Adrian reference 1300’s fashion with a Hollywood twist.

Sadly, Irving Thalberg died at the age of 37 on the evening of the premiere of Romeo and Juliet, in September of 1936. Now a young widow with two children, Norma would return to work in late 1937 to begin filming Marie Antionette 1938. The project had been green-lighted for Norma by Irving just prior to his death.

Originally slated to be shot in technicolor, Adrian traveled to France and Austria throughout 1937, buying fabric, researching the period and the doomed queen in extreme detail. Under garments, dress frames, wigs and jewelry were meticulously copied. The gowns were so heavy that special steel racks and hangers had to be built in order to hang them. The wedding dress Norma wears reportedly weighted 108 lbs. The  pre-production costs on the film became so high that MGM decided not to shoot the film in technicolor. This is such a disappointment  as the film cries for color. Adrian designed all the costumes for color. A floor length cape was trimmed with fur, dyed blue to match the exact color of Norma’s eyes. The costumes are some of the most spectacular ever created for a single film and the most extravagant  of Adrian’s career. Many of these costumes would be reused for later MGM period films and still exist today.



Dramatically, the film is a wonderful turn for Norma. Surrounded by all the spectacle of the production she believably moves from naive teenager to a woman for whom life has lost all meaning. The last scenes of the film where Marie Antoinette’s children are taken from her are heart wrenching  and the death scene is superbly underplayed by Norma. Adrian studied the sketches which exist of MA headed to the guillotine to provide an accurate recreation.


Norma would make a return to modern times with Idiots Delight and The Women both 1939. In Idiot’s Delight 1939,  a anti-war propaganda comedy set in an Alpine ski resort in an unnamed country (most likely Switzerland), Norma plays an over the top fake Russian Aristocrat who is actually a trapeze artist from Omaha, Nebraska. Adrian’s wardrobe for the character is over the top as well and supports the narrative. Adrian’s design’s make Norma appear tall and regal, yet at the same time provide a sense of tongue and cheek with a bit of camp. An elaborate blonde wig (evidently copied from one worn by Lynn Fontanne in the stage version) adds to the effect.


As the noble and kind socialite  Mary Haines, The Women 1939 would be Norma’s best remembered  film and her only film to enter “pop culture” status, particularly within the gay community.  The number of queens who have shouted “Jungle Red!” is immeasurable. Several Broadway revivals and film remakes would further interest in the original  film.


Adrian’s costumes for Norma are very on trend and anticipate the next decade with shorter skirts, broader shoulders and elaborate hats.

Now near 40 and the world going to war, Norma needed a change in image. However, without Irving to guide her career, she made some unfortunate choices in roles for her next few films. In We Were Dancing 1942, with a new feathered hairstyle and Adrian providing full on 1940’s fashion, Norma physically steps into the decade fashion wise. However, at 40 and still very beautiful and well photographed, Norma is simply miscast as a young bride. The story and the characters seem more early 30’s, than early 40’s romantic comedy. In other words, the film seems behind the times and it lost money.



Norma’s last film at the age of 41, Her Cardboard Lover 1942 , a light comedy, seemed out of date with the times.

Norma turned down the lead female role Now Voyager 1942, a huge success for Bette Davis. However, Norma did not believe her audience would accept her as an ugly duckling transforming  to a swan. In addition, Norma turned down Mrs. Miniver 1942, for which she was ideally suited being the right age, very attractive and a highly sympathetic character. Norma’s reasoning was she did not think she should play the Mother of an 18 year old son.

However, a few poorly received films and some misses on choosing the right roles probably did not end her career. Sources seem to indicate that Norma lost interest in acting, did not need the money and was ready to leave her audience while still looking good. Norma did not become a hermit like Garbo, she stayed very much on the social scene in Hollywood through the 1940s and 50’s and married again to a younger man. However, by the early 1960’s Norma preferred to remain private and pretty much withdrew from public life. Norma passed away in June 1983.

The First Lady of MGM



Adrian and Garbo

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.

The gown below from Woman of Affairs 1928 is a good example of Adrian abilities. Here he manages to make Garbo’s boyish and athletic figure, appear feminine and curved. At the same time he adheres to Garbo’s personal preference for modest garments with simple lines while delivering what MGM Corp. requires – GLAMOUR.
Garbo’s film’s over the next few years would be “period” pieces. Queen Christina – 1933, Anna Karenina – 1935, Camille – 1936 (Academy Award Nomination Best Actress) and Conquest – 1937.  These films gave Adrian the opportunity to work in “period” while still giving filmgoers Garbo at her most “Divine”. These films did influence beauty and fashion indirectly. Ushering in softer, more feminine clothing in the mid to late 30’s, soft waved hairstyles and larger hats.

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.