Felix In Hollywood

A Blog for the Smart Set

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Gowns By...

Gilbert Adrian 1903-1959

You all know his name and his work.  If by some chance you don't, than I'm guessing you mistakenly stumbled onto this blog in a failed Google attempt to find a Felix The Cat emblazoned lug wrench.

It's funny, I'm so used to associating Adrian with dazzling confections like this....

...that it often escapes my mind that he's responsible for probably the most iconic piece of movie wardrobe in history:

I guess I'm so used to thinking, 'Ruby Slippers-Judy Garland' instead.  But it was Adrian who sent the red faille pump by Innes Shoe Co. to Western Costume Co. with the order that they be covered in 1/16" red sequins sewn onto red/orange silk Georgette.  They were then to be topped with a 2" bow encrusted with 46 rhinestones, 42 bugle beads and 3 jewels all red.  When he added the magic, I'm not sure.

Adrian Adolph Greenberg was born in Connecticut in 1903.  It was evident to his immigrant parents from early on that he was a very talented boy.  Determined that he would have the best in opportunity they sent their 18 year old to the New York School for Fine and Applied Arts (known now as Parsons) and at 19 in 1922 he transferred to the school's Paris campus.  He had barely sampled the quiche when Irving Berlin spotted one of  Adrian's costumes on a model while attending the Beaux Arts, and back to New York he went to do the costumes for Berlin's Music Box Revue.  He was now doing shows for Berlin, George White and Billy Rose.  Here are sketches from "Cinderella" for the Greenwich Village Follies:

You can already see the not so embryonic beginnings of the Marie Antoinette costumes.

It was around this time he is rumored to have had an affair with Valentino, and whether true or not, it is at this time that we, Enter The Crazy Lady.  Natacha Rambova, (Mrs. Valentino) brought Adrian to Hollywood to create for her husband's films, and fortunately for Gilbert as Valentino didn't have many movies left in him, he was able to catch the eye of others.  He did a Connie Thalmadge/Ronald Colman picture for Joe Schenck.  Then Mr. DeMille grabbed him.  He became, for his next 25 pictures, part of the DeMille Pictures Corporation in house design team which also included (before he became a director) another of Adrian's lovers, Mitchell Leisen.

Adrian found his permanent home at MGM when the DeMille operations moved there in late '28.  In 1929 he signed a contract with LB Mayer at $500 a week that included the sumptuous credit line:  Gowns by Adrian.  Whole encyclopedias could be written about Adrian's MGM years.  And they already have.  So let's just have a look at a few iconic pieces that influenced the fashion buying public and carved the legacy of the Adrian name.

The Garbo Slouch Hat

Harlow in bias cut silk satin.

And if you think I'm gonna bring up Harlow without including this, well then, you just don't know me, now do you.

This one is so famous in both the worlds of film and fashion history
that it's simply known as "The Letty Lynton Dress".
Macy's carried a knock-off of it and reportedly sold
a half million copies--In the middle of the depression!
(I've never liked this dress. Sorry.)

Though this one is from his work for Crawford on "Humoresque", it is the sort of end-game of the 
'Crawford Shoulders Project' that the two of them undertook years earlier.

Norma Shearer as Marie Antoinette.

I can't imagine that he ever had more fun than doing the
Sylvia Fowler character in "The Women".

Stop me if you've seen this one.

The wonderful Kate in "The Philadelphia Story".

Hedy Lamarr in "Ziegfeld Girl"

Now in all fairness,  it was Madame Vionnet who began the bias cut and Schiaparelli who started padding shoulders, but it was Gilbert Adrian who, personalizing those looks, stuffed 'em with the Garbos, Crawfords, Harlows and Shearers and made the real-life shop girls pry open their meager purses.

"It was because of Garbo that I left MGM. In her last picture they wanted to make her a sweater girl, a real American type. I said, 'When the glamor ends for Garbo, it also ends for me. She has created a type. If you destroy that illusion, you destroy her.' When Garbo walked out of the studio, glamor went with her, and so did I."  

Now don't think that Adrian spent his retirement from the studio on booze, boys and debauchery.  For starters, he walked out of the MGM gates on Washington Blvd. as a husband and father!  In 1939 he married semi retired actress Janet Gaynor and within short order, she produced their son, Robin.  While this was, no doubt, a lavender marriage (Bob Cummings famously quipped, "Janet Gaynor's husband was Adrian, but her wife was Mary Martin.), the child was apparently created in the 'conventional' manor.  The story is told that when Gaynor was going through a brutal and difficult labor and delivery, a doctor told Adrian that she might very well lose the child.  A nurse overheard him whining, "Oh no, I'll have to go through that again."

The opening of Adrian Ltd. on Wilshire Blvd. in Beverly Hills couldn't have happened at a better time.

The Nazi occupation of Paris in 1940 had effectively cut all information of what was happening in French fashion off, and American designers suddenly had the uninterrupted attention of a captive audience.  Adrian stepped up to the plate to deal with severe fabric rationing and a mood of patriotic sacrifice by producing simple, elegant suits that utilize a genius of piece work cutting and detail.  He also selected one store in every major city that carried his collection.

And when the war ended and materials were once again available, he let loose.

He created two perfumes in '46:  Saint and Sinner.
In 1948 he opened a boutique in Manhattan.

I am fascinated by this Penn portrait of 
Adrian backed into a corner.

In 1951 they redecorated the house:


All was well until 1952 when he suffered a heart attack.  Just like that, he quit designing and the family moved to a coffee plantation in Brazil.  Mary Martin and her husband Richard Halliday (who did the decorating and cooking) lived across the road. Hmm.

In 1959 while back in the states to do the costumes for the Broadway play "Camelot" Gilbert Adrian died.  The news said heart attack, others say his death was later ruled a suicide.

The big, fat surprise of this wonderful man's wonderful work, is that since the Academy didn't begin awarding Costume Design until 1948, Adrian never received an Oscar.


jason said...

The dresses are fabulous...of course, but I really love that house of his! Especially the cowhide chair.

FelixInHollywood said...

Yeah, some joint, huh? I looks so modern, like it could be in the next Architectural Digest. If that magazine hasn't gone under yet.

mrpeenee said...

Thanks for this, I had never seen anything abut his house. It IS pretty fabulous.

savannah said...

thank you, sugar! what a lovely way to start my week. i adore the cowhide chair... xoxox

normadesmond said...

well done darling. very nice.

Donna Lethal said...

He never got an Oscar? What a shame. When you said you were doing a blog on Adrian I was so excited! Oh, that bias cut satin is just one of my very favorite things. I have a great chapter on him in one of my movie books. What a genius. I didn't know about the Brazil bit - very interesting. Great piece, doll. xoxo

Jon said...

I simply MUST have an outfit in bias cut silk satin now! Swine.

MJ said...

I like to wear Saint and Sinner at the same time and let them battle it out.

Stephen said...

Fab post!
I did a post on Janet Gaynor & enjoyed the research I did an Adrian... but you covered a lot of ground. Great reading. I think I love you!

FelixInHollywood said...


TJB said...

Bravo, darling! A lot of stuff that I didn't know about Adrian before.

Of course, the rumor was that Mary and Janet were more than friends, and Adrian and Dick Halliday had a "special friendship"...hmmmm.

FelixInHollywood said...

Funny isn't it. I guess that means that way back then, there were two LEGAL gay marriages. sort of.

Katie said...

I had no idea about the ruby slippers! Amazing. Adrian is a genious.

esme and the lane way said...

Such a wonderful post!


Beautiful post! I adore those Antoinette gowns and the bias gown for Harlow... exquisite!! Just followed you!