Saturday, September 22, 2012

Classic Movie Costume Designers

For many film fans, the gorgeous costumes and gowns of the stars make up a big part of the appeal of classic movies. That was true during Hollywood's early days, too, when audiences flocked to the cinema for a look at life on the greener side of the hill. Actresses like Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Katharine Hepburn, and Gene Tierney were expected to look ravishing in gowns created by the most talented costume designers in the business; the stars' reputations for glamour were on the line every time they appeared on the screen or strolled across the red carpet, and a talented designer could make the difference in a performer's rise from actress to icon. Here is an introduction to a handful of classic Hollywood's greatest costume designers, along with some suggestions about where to see their best creations on film.


Adrian Adolph Greenburg (1903-1959) was the gifted designer who created the fantastic costumes of The Wizard of Oz (1939) for MGM, but he also styled the gowns for many other memorable classics, including The Philadelphia Story (1940), A Woman's Face (1941), and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941). Some of his best work sprang from his association with Joan Crawford, one of the great style icons of the period. Although Adrian designed many gorgeous gowns for the queens of the silver screen, his most enduring creations must be Dorothy's ruby red slippers, changed from novelist L. Frank Baum's original silver shoes in order to capitalize on the lavish hues of the Technicolor production.

Oleg Cassini

Born in Paris, Oleg Cassini Loiewski (1919-2006) was romantically linked to many Hollywood actresses, but his most important relationship was with the ethereal Gene Tierney, who was both his wife and his muse as a costume designer. Cassini created the gowns wore by Tierney in The Razor's Edge (1946), The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), and Night and the City (1950). Although their union ended in divorce (twice), film fans can still appreciate the beautiful partnership that made Tierney look so lovely in many of her best pictures. Having dressed both Jackie Kennedy and Grace Kelly, Cassini remains one of the most renowned designers in the world, and his design house still turns out haute couture for fashion conscious consumers who long for their own chance at classic Hollywood style.

Edith Head

No classic film designer was more prolific or better known than Edith Head (1897-1981), who won eight Academy Awards over the course of her long career. Her work included costumes for stars like Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve (1941) and Ball of Fire (1941), Veronica Lake in Sullivan's Travels (1941), Ginger Rogers in The Major and the Minor (1944), and Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard (1950). She created holiday cheer for the outfits worn in White Christmas (1954) and medieval fantasies for The Court Jester (1955). From Westerns and screwball comedies to period dramas and musicals, Edith Head did it all, which helps to explain why Edna Mode, the superhero costume designer in Pixar's The Incredibles (2004), is both parody of and homage to her legendary status.


Originally from Australia, Orry George Kelly won three Oscars for his costume designs. His winning work came with An American in Paris (1951), Les Girls (1957), and Some Like It Hot (1959), but he also designed costumes and gowns for Bette Davis in many of her best pictures, including Jezebel (1938), Dark Victory (1939), The Old Maid (1939), and Now, Voyager (1941). His career started in 1932, and by the time of his death in 1964 he had worked on nearly 300 films. Today, his most recognizable work is almost certainly his costuming for Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca (1942).

Walter Plunkett

If you can picture Scarlett O'Hara from Gone with the Wind (1939), you can picture the work of Walter Plunkett. He was the costume designer responsible for that famous green curtain dress, as well as the many other gorgeous period costumes featured in the film. Plunkett's ability to create memorable and historically accurate period costumes led to his involvement in many of the more colorful classic films, including both the 1933 and 1949 versions of Little Women, Stagecoach (1939), Duel in the Sun (1946), and Kiss Me Kate (1953). Aside from Gone with the Wind, however, his most memorable work came with Singin' in the Rain (1951), in which he recalled the Hollywood styles of the 1920s for Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, and Donald O'Connor with the perfect combination of grace and humor that the film required.


William Travilla (1920-1990) won an Oscar for his work on The Adventures of Don Juan (1948), but he is best remembered as the designer who dressed Marilyn Monroe in eight films: Monkey Business (1952), Don't Bother to Knock (1952), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), There's No Business Like Show Business (1954), River of No Return (1954), The Seven Year Itch (1955), and Bus Stop (1956). His work with Marilyn produced some of the most famous images in Hollywood history, including the blonde bombshell dressed in white above a ventilation shaft in The Seven Year Itch (1955). 

An earlier version of this article originally appeared on The author retains all rights to this content.

1 comment:

  1. My favorites are Adrian (because her was at MGM) Edith Head (because she's just basically awesome), and Walter Plunkett. I just wish I could wear some of those clothes!