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

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.