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Thursday, April 22, 2010

Gilbert Adrian - Master Fashion Designer

Is there a sewer alive who hasn't occasionally longed for a perfect 'movie star' figure, one that would render alterations unnecessary and make every garment look great? Broad shoulders, flat chests, non existent waists, large hips, and heavy calves all seem to be flaws unheard of on the silver screen. But look closely, and you'd see that these figure realities are as familiar to many cinema greats as to the rest of us. Joan Crawford was only 5 ft, 4 in tall, yet had 40 inch shoulders and size 12 hips. Norma Shearer was 5 ft. 2 inches tall, extremely long waisted, and had piano leg calves. Greta Garbo was flat chested and scarcely had a waistline. What all these and many other imperfect screen icons did enjoy however, was a master illusionist: costume designer Gilbert Adrian, better known as simply Adrian.

As head fashion designer for Metro Goldwyn Mayer from 1928 to 1941, Adrian created pure magic with his innovative, luxurious, and cleverly camouflaging garments. From 1941 until a heart attack curtailed his activities in 1951, he extended his magic to consumers by offering ready-to-wear garments under his own label.

A Prodigy

Gilbert Adrian was born Adrian Adolph Greenburg in Naugatuck, Conn. in 1903. An artistic child, he enrolled in New York parsons School of Fine and Applied Art in 1921 but quickly became bored. In an attempt to salvage his academic career, he was sent to Paris the following year, Where a chance meeting with Irving Berlin sent him back to New York to design for a series of musical reviews. his sketches were seen by Rudolph Valentino's wife, and, as a result, Adrian was hired to design the costumes for Valentino's next movie.

Adrian designed for only two of Valentino's films, but he stayed in Hollywood, having caught the attention of Cecil B. DeMille. When DeMille joined MGM in 1928, Adrian became the head costume designer. Adrian was 25 years old.

Hollywood Heyday

Designing costumes for more than 200 films, Adrian worked with numerous film stars. But his association with Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, Judy Garland and Greta Garbo helped transform all their names into Hollywood legends.

The cope of Adrian's talent for MGM was impressive. Greta Garbo's wardrobe for Single Standard (1929) capitalized on her relatively androgynous figure and her affection for men's clothes. Suddenly women wearing pants, trench coats and men's silk pajamas was the height of fashion. Joan Crawford's shoulders became, in his hands, one of her most recognizable traits. As Marsha Hunt recalls in her 1993 book The Way We Wore, in doing so, he changed women's silhouettes throughout the Western world.

Adrian was equally comfortable with period films, capturing the essence of any era, while retaining a modern sensibility. Norma Shearer's gowns ford (1938) were among the most elaborate and expensive ever produced by Hollywood, many built around authentic period textiles; in all, Adrian designed 5,000 garments for this film. Nor was fantasy beyond him. HI s Munchkins, wicked witches, flying monkeys, and other characters of The Wizard of Oz (1939) were pure surrealism,, while Judy Garlands blue gingham dress defined American wholesomeness.

But as the 1930s came to a close, it became clear to Adrian that the big-budget films of the decade were being restyled to befit a nation soon to go to war. The film The Two Faced Woman (1941) was the pivotal event; it cost MGM two of their most valuable assets: Adrian designed 14 evening gowns for Greta Garbo, but the studio refused to use them.

Instead, they insisted on low cut gowns that she loathed and permed hair that looked ridiculous. Time magazine responded to Garbo's "new" image by saying it was "almost as shocking as seeing your mother drunk." Garbo's performance was flat, and she walked away from Hollywood, never to make a movie again. Adrian's response was equally unequivocal: "When the glamour ends for Garbo, it also ends for me." Gilbert Adrian quit the studio at the age of 38.

Going Retail

With the opening of Adrian, Ltd., in the fall of 1941, a new chapter started in Adrian's life. Cut off from their usual Parisian sources of inspiration and forced to observe fabric restrictions by World War II, American designers such as Adrian, Normal Norell, and Pauline Trigere were beginning to define the "American Look." Adrian offered a full line of clothing: his ready to wear line carrying the "Adrian Original" label and his couture clothing, "Adrian Custom," sold through his Beverly Hills salon. But it was his imaginative suits that really captured the spirit of the times.

Suit Sorcery

Working often with NY textile designer Pola Stout, Adrian designed many suits that capitalized on the subtle stripes and tiny geometric figures she wove into her wool fabrics (two examples of which are shown in the above images. Adrian's manipulation of stripes, often intricately pieced and always beautifully matched, was legendary.

Such intricate cutting has always has a purpose. The most visually exciting geometric effects often occur when two or more lines intersect at different points. Depending on the position and direction - horizontal, vertical or diagonal - the figure as a whole or certain targeted areas can be lengthened, shortened, made to recede, or appear to be larger.

More Jacket Magic

The brown checked jacket positively vibrates with energy. Technically, the perceived movement created by the checks is called 'autokinetic' or self moving. Four different sizes of the same check are combined in the jacket. The smallest check is reserved for the upper yoke, minimizing broad shoulders. A medium sized check is used for the next level, with a larger check occupying the next two sections. The same fabric stacking is used down the right sleeve. The real pizzazz comes from the giant-sized checked material of the jacket and sleeve. The dramatic slashes move the eye across the body, never allowing it to settle on one particular spot. They pierce the visual lane with staccato gestures. Any figure faults become secondary to the movement created by these inserts.

The Barnyard Dress

Adrian's famous Barnyard Dress plays optical tricks of a different, but related, sort. Rather than relying on stripes or plaids to create visual illusions, the printed pattern itself is the camouflage. This dress would have been perfect for Greta Garbo's square shoulders, flat chest, and poorly defined waistline. The shoulder line is fairly square, but effectively softened with drapery. The broad shoulders help to balance the effects of a thick waistline. One central motif across the entire chest - the farm shed- makes the upper bodice work like a flat canvas. It neither accentuates a big bust nor minimizes a small bust. Rather, the motif draws attention to itself instead of the body.

The hens-and-roosters print on the skirt progresses from tightly packed lines at the waistline to gigantic loose motifs at the hemline. This graduation of size makes the waistline appear smaller. The gigantic print at the hemline balances the width at the shoulder, further emphasizing the waist.


Sadly, Adrian was only able to stay in the retail business for 10 short years. His first heart attack forced him to abandon the frantic pace that the fashion industry demanded. Janey Gaynor, built a luxurious plantation in Brazil, where he was able to recuperate and rest. Lured out of retirement by the chance to design the stage costumes for Camelot, Adrian suffered a fatal heart attack on Sept, 13, 1959.

The optical illusions Adrian created are only a portion of all that distinguishes the work of this designer, who as much as anyone, created and gloried in the spectacular visual excesses of Hollywood's Golden Era. Like all studio designers of that era, Adrian was under explicit directions to create dazzling garments that would give each star as much presence, power, and physical perfections as possible. Translating his discoveries and innovations from film to the real world, Adrian persisted in offering garments that drew attention away from the everyday realities of the human figure, and toward the excitement of the garment itself. Having been intoxicated with such garments on screen for more than a decade, it's no wonder that women welcomed this flamboyance as it became available to them. But in so doing, they allowed Adrian to prove for us all that style, grace and fashion aren't dependent on a 'perfect' body.

Jennifer recently acquired the checked suit shown in our article, send her some vintage love ♥!

Reprinted from May 2001 Threads Magazine by Mary Elliott.

More about Pola Stout

From NY Times obituary 1984:
Mrs. Stout was born in Stry, Poland, and studied fabric design in Vienna.

From 1940 to 1945, she designed for Botany Mills, and in 1946, underwritten by eight manufacturers, she set up her own textile mill in North Philadelphia.

She created fabrics for Edith Head, Dior, Norell and Jo Copeland, among others. Exhibits of her textiles were held at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Fashion Institute of Technology.
"Little is known of the fabric designer Pola Stout except that she made exclusive fabrics for Adrian in several collaborations. The process was a combination of either Stout's fabric coming first and a jacket designed to fit the fabric or Stout working out a pattern to fit into the confines of Adrian's idea of a garment. Pola Stout would create the first sample fabric by hand and are primarily but not always monochromatic in subtle color families. The horizontal and vertical lines of Stout's work melded wonderfully to Adrian's simple yet chic design sensibility."

Some of her and Adrian's collaborations are located here.


thespectrum said...

This is a fantastic article, thanks so much!

puddin said...

Thanks, Glamoursplash for this article. A sideline is I remember Adrian sewed his labels(maybe not all) on the side seam of the dresses.