Bloomsbury Fashion Central - Film and Television Costume Adrian


Author: Elizabeth Castaldo Lundén

Image from the 1931 film 'Mata Hari', featuring Greta Garbo and Ramon Novarro.
Figure 134.1. Mata Hari (1931). Mata Hari (Greta Garbo), Lt Alexis Rosanoff (Ramon Novarro). Costume designer: Adrian (Gowns). Director: George Fitzmaurice. (Popperphoto/Alamy) (© MGM).

Adrian Adolph Greenburg was born on March 3, 1903 in Naugatuck, Connecticut. He started painting at a young age, encouraged by his uncle, who was a theatrical designer. Adrian attended Parsons School of Fine and Applied Arts in New York City in 1921. After transferring to Parsons Paris for five months, he returned to New York and left his studies to become a costume designer for Irving Berlin’s Broadway musical, Music Box Revue. By 1923, he had established a career in theatrical costume design. His introduction to Hollywood came when his sketches captured the attention of costume designer Natacha Rambova, who offered him the opportunity to design costumes for her husband, the Silent Era super star and matinee idol, Rudolph Valentino. At the age of twenty-one, he was initially assigned as the designer for Valentino’s unmade film, The Hooded Falcon (1924). His designs finally debuted in Cobra (1925) and The Eagle (1925). Adrian’s sketches delighted producer Sid Grauman, who commissioned him to create the stage prologue of Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush (1925). With his increasing popularity in Hollywood, Adrian soon came to the attention of director Cecil B. DeMille.

With DeMille, Adrian had found a collaborator who shared his enthusiasm for visual appeal over realism. His first three films for DeMille at Paramount Studios included The Volga Boatman (1926), The King of Kings (1927), and Madam Satan (1930). Adrian designed fifty films for DeMille’s company. When DeMille moved from Paramount to MGM in 1928, Adrian was hired at the studio and began designing for MGM productions. Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM, soon elevated Adrian to chief designer.

At MGM, Adrian met one of his truest collaborators and muses, Greta Garbo, whom he costumed for A Woman of Affairs (1928). He remembered, “When I first came to the studio, Garbo was being dressed in the most fantastic, unreal manner. Standing collars more Elizabethan than modern, made her a weird, exotic personality unlike anyone genuine. I felt that her fragility was a quality that she could never be robbed of—that her elusive qualities were too definitely hers to need guiding by anyone but herself. So my first efforts were to give her genuine, real clothes—not ‘motion picture gowns.’ She was most unhappy in those gilded earlier costumes. For costumes they were more than just clothes, however decorative they may have been. She hated fittings, and dreaded clothes conferences. Simplicity is Garbo’s god—as it should be. Not only does she have it and live it herself but she responds to it in others. She is frankly delighted with clothes that have ‘line’ as their most important factor” (Jamison 1931). Under contract with MGM, he dressed Garbo for Wild Orchids (1929), The Single Standard (1929), The Kiss (1929), both of the 1930 Anna Christie films, Romance (1930), Inspiration (1932), Susan Lenox (Her Fall and Rise) (1931), Mata Hari (1931), Grand Hotel (1932), As You Desire Me (1932), Queen Christina (1933), The Painted Veil (1934), Anna Karenina (1935), Camille (1936), Conquest (1937), Ninotchka (1939), and Two-Faced Woman (1941). Through her many collaborations with Adrian, Garbo became a cinema icon synonymous with Golden Age glamour. Adrian explained, “Few people in an audience watching a great screen production realise the importance of any gown worn by the feminine star. They may notice that it is attractive, that they would like to have copied it, that it is becoming, but the fact that it was definitely planned to mirror some definite mood, to be as much a part of the play as the lines or the scenery, seldom occurs to them. But that most assuredly is true” (Adrian 1938).

Adrian combined his vision for costume design with the technology of moviemaking at MGM, learning about camera framing, lighting, and how fabrics looked best on screen. For The Wizard of Oz (1939), Dorothy’s ruby slippers sparkled against the yellow brick road made for an iconic moment of Technicolor costume design, courtesy of Adrian. Amongst his contemporaries, Adrian may have dressed more stars than any other costume designer during the Golden Age, due to the scale of operations at MGM in the 1930s. He designed drab housedresses as well as bugle beaded gowns for his actresses, who trusted his judgment on the right costume for any dramatic scene. Aside from Garbo, he dressed Joan Crawford in broad-shouldered suits, a style that soon became her signature silhouette. Commenting on the challenge, Adrian wrote that, “With Joan Crawford, our greatest difficulty is to subdue, tone down, simplify her personality” (Donnell 1964: 74). He also collaborated with Jean Harlow, Norma Shearer, and the rest of the female cast in The Women (1939). Despite being surrounded by desirable stars at MGM, Adrian found love with twentieth century Fox performer Janet Gaynor. The couple married in 1939.

The MGM publicity department made certain that Adrian was a regular contributor to Screenland, a magazine that ran between 1920 and 1952. The studio heavily promoted their contract actors and their designers with the purpose of selling tickets to the movies. His designs also appeared in other publications such as Photoplay, Hollywood, Silver Screen, and The New Movie Magazine. During the 1930s, with the studio’s leverage, Adrian emerged as a prominent figure in the fashion press, and he was one of the first Hollywood costume designers to write an editorial in Vogue. Even Edith Head, his Paramount competitor, took note of his supremacy: “Adrian had worked with virtually no budgetary limitations at MGM. His extravagant costumes for the studio’s lavish musicals were the reason he was drawing $75,000 a year, the same as the President of the United States was making in 1940” (Head 1983: 41).

With Garbo’s retirement in 1941, Adrian’s era at MGM was coming to an end. Times were changing and the American participation in the war brought austerity, even in Hollywood. Allegedly, Louis B. Mayer asked Adrian to cut corners to reduce costs (Vanity Fair 2000). Adrian left MGM in August 1941 to inaugurate Adrian Ltd., his couture salon, which opened in Beverly Hills in 1942. The elegant store was located on Beverly Drive, near the corner of Wilshire Boulevard. The headline in Vogue read: “The New Hand in American Couture” (1942: 62).

But Adrian’s couture ambitions soon encountered the reality of war. The rationing of fabrics, Order L-85, limited color choices, restricted skirt length, and discouraged new trends that triggered consumption. During the war, Adrian adapted his creativity to restrictions, eliminating cuffs and lapels, and reducing the size and number of pockets. Far from discouraging him, wartime restrictions put a new creative imprint in his designs. Adrian adapted to keep his business running. Away from his career as a costume designer, recognition from the fashion industry arrived in 1945 when he won a Coty American Fashion Critics Award. In 1929, Photoplay’s Lois Shirley observed, “Adrian may not be as well-known to you as the Paris authorities. But the clothes he designs for the stars are the ones you envy—and copy” (Shirley 1929: 71). It took the American fashion industry just sixteen years to honor him.

In 1952, Adrian closed his atelier after having his first heart attack. He purchased a farm in Goiás, Brazil, and spent up to eight months a year on partial retirement to lower his stress in an effort to rest his heart. In 1959, he returned to Hollywood to design the costumes for the blockbuster Broadway musical Camelot, starring Julie Andrews and Richard Burton. Posthumously, he won the Tony Award for Best Musical. Adrian died of a fatal heart attack on September 13, 1959, at the age of fifty-six. Asked about his career in 1938, Adrian said, “In conclusion, let me go on record as saying that the story of any gown worn before the cameras is a history of untiring work, skilled technicians, expert planning, and flawless execution” (Adrian 1938).

References and Further Reading

Adrian. 1936. “Garbo as Camille”. Vogue, November 15.

Adrian. 1938. “Clothes.” In Behind The Screen: How Films Are Made, edited by Stephen Watts. New York: Dodge Publishing Company.

Castaldo Lundén Elizabeth. 2018. “Oscar Night in Hollywood: Fashioning the Red Carpet from the Roosevelt Hotel to Internatonal Media.” PhD dissertation. Stockholm University.

Donnell Dorothy. “Sex Appeal: And the Clothes you Wear.” Motion Picture, April 1934.

Head Edith, and Paddy Calistro. 1983. Edith Head’s Hollywood. New York: E.P. Dutton, Inc.

Jamison Jack. 1931. “How Clothes Made Garbo.” Hollywood 20 (8).

Shirley Lois. 1929. “Your Clothes Come from Hollywood.” Photoplay, February.

Swenson Karen. 1997. Greta Garbo: a life apart. London: Scribner.

Vanity Fair. 2000. “Man about Gown.” June.

Vogue. 1942. “A New Hand in American Couture.” March 15.

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