- Dressed – A Century of Hollywood Costume Design
- By Deborah Nadoolman Landis
- Collins (Harper Collins Publishers) 2007
From the lavish productions of Hollywood’s Golden Age through the high-tech blockbusters of today, the most memorable movies all have one thing in common: they rely on the magical transformations rendered by the costume designer. Whether spectacular or subtle, elaborate or barely there, a movie costume must be more than merely a perfect fit. Each costume speaks a language all its own, communicating mood, personality, and setting, and propelling the action of the movie as much as a scripted line or synthetic clap of thunder. More than a few acting careers have been launched on the basis of an unforgettable costume, and many an era defined by the intuition of a costume designer—think curvy Mae West in I’m No Angel (Travis Banton, costume designer), Judy Garland in A Star Is Born (Jean Louis and Irene Sharaff, costume designers), Diane Keaton in Annie Nall (Ruth Morley, costume designer), or Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark (Deborah Nadoolman Landis, costume designer). In Dressed: A Century of Hollywood Costume Design, Academy Award®-nominated costume designer Deborah Nadoolman Landis showcases one hundred years of Hollywood’s most tantalizing costumes and the characters they helped bring to life. Drawing on years of extraordinary research, Landis has uncovered both a treasure trove of costume sketches and photographs— many of them previously unpublished—and a dazzling array of first-person anecdotes that inform and enhance the images. Along the way she also provides an eye opening, behind-the-scenes look at the evolution of the costume designer’s art, from its emergence as a key element of cinematic collaboration to its limitless future in the era of CGI. A lavish tribute that mingles words and images of equal luster, Dressed is one book no film and fashion lover should be without.
We were struck by how closely the newest Hollywood anecdotes about costume design mirror the oldest. The testimony by actors and designers at the end of this volume, in the twenty-first century, echo those at the very beginning of the twentieth. Silent-film star Lillian Gish would be all too familiar with the anxieties of present-day indie actresses. Today’s compressed production schedules parallel the earliest days of shotgun moviemaking, when actresses arrived at the set dressed to impress or were clothed from secondhand (now vintage) shops or rental house hampers. It’s irrelevant whether a costume is a manufactured or found object; it need only be right for the shop girl, the princess, the gangster, or the boy next door.
Throughout the 1910s, motion picture attendance grew exponentially, with more theaters springing up around the country, creating an ever-increasing demand for more films. Studios began to standardize the way movies were made. The creation of specialized movie costume departments may be credited to D. W. Griffith, whose employment of film designers was just one of his many innovations in moviemaking. Prior to Griffith—the first filmmaker to commission costumes specifically for a single film, Judith of Bethulia—movies were costumed from a grab bag of sources. The extras in Bethulia continued to be responsible for their own costumes, wearing primitive beards created from crepe paper and cardboard. Two years later, for Griffith’s landmark The Birth of a Nation (1915), a number of the costumes were made by actress Lillian Gish’s mother. With no organized costume department yet created, there was no one to keep track of costumes. “In those days there was no one to keep track of what an actor was wearing from scene to scene,” said Gish, the film’s star. “He was obliged to remember for himself what he had worn and how his hair and makeup had looked in the previous scene. If he forgot, he was not used again.”
Even in these early, haphazard days, actors understood that the primary purpose of costume was to help tell the story. As Lillian Gish remembered, “In Birth of a Nation, during the famous cliff scene I experimented with a half dozen dresses until I hit upon one whose plainness was a guarantee that it would not divert from my expression in that which was a very vital moment.”
For Intolerance (1916), Griffith had new costumes created for not just the lead actors but also the movie’s thousands of extras—another moviemaking first. Crowd control was an issue, as actress Bessie Love recalled, and the filmmakers devised a clever strategy to keep order on the set: “Half a dozen second assistant directors were made up in costume and mingled in shot with the crowds, inciting the mob and relaying the directions of Mr. Griffith.” After Griffith’s innovations, the restricted scale of the legitimate theater could never again compete with the depth of field and spectacle on screen.
Griffith’s commitment to costuming was legendary. His wife Linda Arvidson, often told the story of his “auditioning” practices: “I have no part for you, Miss Hart, but I can use your hat. I’ll give you five dollars if you will let Miss Pickford wear your hat for this picture.” The golden-haired Mary Pickford had been acting in a theatrical troupe since she was six years old. She had already formed the essence of her “Little Mary” character, the little girl with the long golden curls, by the time she started working with D. W. Griffith at Biograph. Pickford later recalled one of her first days in the movie business. “I played a ten-year-old girl in a picture titled Her First Biscuits … and to costume me for that one day’s work had cost all of $10.59. If I had had any doubt before, I had absolutely none now that the picture industry was mad.”
Determined to have the world’s best at the studio, Mayer wasted no time looking for star power to lead his costume department. In 1924, he employed renowned French stage designer Romain de Tirtoff, known as Erte. When Erte arrived in New York on February 25, 1925, the Morning Telegraph announced that his “advent into motion pictures is of special significance to the film industry as it is the first notable recognition paid to the importance of the costuming phase in motion picture production.” Erte was brought to MGM with all the fanfare afforded the biggest stars.
Unfortunately, his tenure would not live up to the hype. Experienced with creating showy costumes for large stage revues such as the Folies Bergere, Erte brought his same sense of outsized drama to the screen. Though his fabulous showgirl costumes looked stunning from the back of a live theater, they looked awkward and ridiculous in black and white on a movie screen forty feet wide. Erte viewed actresses as mannequins for his gowns, rather than as characters in a story, and actresses in his designs appeared uncomfortable. For the tubercular seamstress played by Lillian Gish in La Boheme, Erte produced a collection of crisp calico dresses. The dresses were made of cheap fabric, and Gish argued that they would look too new on the screen. Star and designer steadfastly refused to compromise; Erte banished the star from his workshop, and Gish collaborated with Lucia Coulter, head of wardrobe at MGM, to replace Erte’s work with tattered garments of old silk that would look worn and cheap on screen. After just one year, Erte returned to Paris, brimming with nasty comments on the state of American taste.
Max Ree: “The designer of costumes should begin with a conception of the personality. He is at least as much an analyst as the actor who plays the part, for he must familiarize himself with the character so that the kind of thing the person in question would wear is immediately obvious.
“Changing an actress’s figure by means of her clothes came up when I designed the costumes for Lillian Gish in The Scarlet Letter. We wished to stress the pathos of Hester Prynne by making her small-almost immature. To give her the appearance of being shorter I broke the lines wherever possible. Across her circular skirt I put several rows of broad tucks. On her very short jacket were wide bands of black velvet edging the neck and the end. Her shoes and cap were round. All this tended to flatten her silhouette, and Miss Gish is sufficiently slender to stand the ordeal.”
THE SCARLET LETTER (1926) • MAX REE, COSTUMER DESIGNER
Lillian Gish (actress): “For Orphans Mr. Griffith had a designer do the costumes, but for my taste they were too much in the fashion of the time. I went to Herman Tappe and told him my ideas and the two of us worked out Dorothy’s and my costumes for Orphans. All the other costumes were duplicates of those worn in the Revolutionary period.”
ORPHANS OF THE STORM (1921) • HERMAN PATRICK TAPPE, COSTUME DESIGNER