Gilbert Adrian — Gowns by Adrian (1935) 🇺🇸
Under the guidance of Adrian, such stars as Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer, have emerged as definite personalities. When you read how this ace designer creates such individual styles, no doubt you, too, will wish to follow his formula and thereby perhaps improve your appearance.
by Dena Reed
I bet there’s still a Letty Lynton dress or coat or pajama set in your wardrobe, and that you’ve implored your milliner to copy the funny little hats that Jeanette MacDonald wears in The Merry Widow. If you have, let me beg you before I go any further, not to do it. If there’s one thing Adrian, great designer of Hollywood, deplores more than anything else, it’s the way clothes are copied by girls whom they do not suit.
But supposing you’re the image of Crawford or Garbo or MacDonald? Still, it won’t do. Not unless you think like her. For Adrian’s clothes are designed primarily to suit the innermost thoughts of the star, not her looks. It is true that body lines cannot be ignored, but they are secondary in Adrian’s “formula.”
It was hard for this slim, dark young man with sympathetic eyes to give me a formula, for as any artist will tell you, it is next to impossible to explain how he gets ideas. But Adrian is so anxious for us all to look our best that he refused to give up until he had managed to convey abstract thoughts that could be written about.
Born in Naugatuck, Connecticut, thirty-one years ago, he dresses like any young man in the bond business. It is only his long artistic bands, understanding eyes, and the difficulty of expressing his ideas in words rather than drawing them, that tells you at first glance that he is not in the bond business.
At the age of three, Adrian began to spoil all his books by drawing in them. Both bis mother and father had an interest in art but never took it up actively, so they looked favorably on the artistic inclinations of their son. When he was seven, bis mother took him to an old artist so that he might prove bis talent and begin drawing lessons. The old man took out two stuffed sparrows and bade the youngster convey them to paper.
To his mother’s horror, Adrian looked at the birds in disgust, grabbed bis hat and coat and ran out. Even now he cannot copy anything. When he attended the New York School of Fine and Applied Arts, the life classes did not interest him, yet he did such original and imaginative work that he made his teachers gasp. It was at the zoo, watching the animals, that Adrian absorbed a knowledge of muscle in play. With it was a riot of color not to be found on the human body but which he could apply to it.
While Adrian was attending the Paris branch of this school, he took a girl to the Grand Prix Ball. He had designed a Persian costume for her to wear and he was surprised to find that it stood out with entries from the greatest dress houses in Paris. At the ball was Irving Berlin, who was so impressed with the young student’s work that he engaged him to design the costumes for the first “Music Box Revue.”
So Adrian left school, returned to America, and designed the clothes for the two “Music Box Revues,” the “Greenwich Village Follies” and George White’s “Scandals.”
Like so many others, he became associated with pictures quite by accident. One day he left some of his sketches on the reception-room table of a costume house and Natacha Rambova, Valentino’s wife, found them. She showed them to her husband who immediately sent for Adrian and took him to Hollywood to do costumes for “Cobra,” “Son of the Sheik,” “The Eagle,” etc.
Sid Grauman wanted a spectacular prologue for Charlie Chaplin’s, “The Gold Rush.” One day after the picture opened at the Egyptian Theater with Adrian’s prologue, he had six contracts to choose from. Adrian went with Cecil DeMille because he felt that DeMille was more interested in the spectacular than any one else. For three years, he worked with DeMille at the Pathe studio and when he went to Metro, Adrian went with him. Under his guidance, Garbo, Crawford, Shearer, and many others emerged as definite personalities.
But now to get back to his methods. Suppose you, like Constance Bennett when she did “Outcast Lady,” were a new subject for Adrian. What would he do? Bring out the tape measure or begin sketching right away? Not at all.
First he would talk with you and find out what you think about life; in other words, he would get the key to your real personality. Miss Bennett, Adrian decided, was fundamentally American in spite of the years she had spent abroad. But during her years on the Continent, she had seeped in European ideas and conventions. So in “Outcast Lady” Constance wears clothes that Adrian thinks are American yet with daring touches that suggest the Continental atmosphere that has become a part of the star.
Of course, for the screen, Adrian has to blend a star’s personality with the personality of the character she is portraying. If the star is well cast, Adrian’s job is that much easier.
Garbo has the old-world repose and maturity as a basis for her clothes, but because she is a great artist her clothes, no matter what they are, must express the originality of the creative force.
To Adrian, Norma Shearer is the typical American woman — a conservative at heart with the longing to do something daring. Adrian satisfies that longing by letting Norma wear daring evening gowns. But, remember, she wears them only on the screen. In private life even her evening dresses are conservative.
Joan Crawford spells “action” to Adrian. Not even for a fitting can she stand still, so all her clothes are designed to express action at the least movement. The Letty Lynton style came into being solely to express this quality in Joan, so if you are not animated, always on your toes, vitally interested in something, these clothes are not for you.
If you are a demure ingenue who can turn into a purposeful woman when the occasion arises, you may wear the sort of clothes Elizabeth Allan does. But if you are an ingénue like Marion Davies, Maureen O’Sullivan, or the hundreds of girls everywhere who are spoken of as “charming,” do not try exotic or action clothes.
Stick to simple things that become charming because of the prominence of one note, be it color, cut of sleeves, a sash or accessories. If you are in doubt as to what group you belong, Adrian still advises simple things with a flair and suggests that you wear sport clothes whenever possible.
But your personality ought to be so well-defined that you will not belong to the “in-betweens.” Even if you are young and your life is not fully developed, there can still be one characteristic that expresses you and which your clothes express. Many young girls make the mistake of trying to change their type every now and then. It is a waste of valuable time that can be saved by analyzing yourself and sticking to the truth.
Adrian thinks Katharine Hepburn is a perfect example of a young girl whose personality is not blurred. You must agree that the quality which stands out most in her is her definiteness.
“All her clothes should and do express this very quality,” he said; and went on to confide, “She’s the one young girl of the screen for whom I do not design and for whom I should like to, because she so thoroughly expresses in her personality and acting the tone of her mind.”
There you have Adrian’s first point in a nutshell!
As to body lines, Adrian, contrary to other designers, emphasizes bad features for purposes of camouflage. This may seem like a paradox until you see how it works out.
You probably remember that before Adrian costumed Garbo, one always noticed that her shoulders were too broad. Now your attention is called to some other feature. Adrian, instead of putting narrow things on her, added shoulder width to her clothes until now her shoulders seem so wide that they have become unnoticeable.
Her long arms are usually covered by longer sleeves of wide and interesting cut, so we notice the sleeve and forget about the arm.
“I always emphasize the bad features of a woman to the point where they seemingly disappear,” Adrian said. “It is foolish for a little woman to wear broad-shouldered effects for it merely calls attention to her narrowness. Show the public your bad points and they won’t notice them, particularly if another part of your dress holds the attention.”
Before I left, Adrian said, “I’d like to stress the point that what I do in my designs is to try to bring common sense to clothes. I admit that some of my creations may have seemed mad at first, but they all had a definite idea of personality behind them.
“It is the mind of a woman that counts. If that is dull, the most exotic frock as well as the most simple will somehow look ridiculous. An active mind develops a definite personality with one character trait that a woman must dress for. If she expresses it, she cannot help but be smartly gowned whether she wear gingham or velvet.”
With clothes, says Adrian, it is the mind of a woman that counts. If that is dull, the most exotic frock or the most simple will somehow look ridiculous.
Photo by: Virgil Apger (1903–1994)
Source: Picture Play Magazine, January 1935
Vintage Advertisements for Skinner's Silks, featuring Adrian and Joan Crawford.
Source: Photoplay Magazine, April 1931
More about Adrian on Wikipedia.