Just Make Them Beautiful – Hollywood’s Golden Age Costume Designers

“Just make them beautiful,” Louis B. Mayer (head of MGM) said dismissively to film costume designer Helen Rose in Hollywood’s glamour heyday- implying don’t bother me with details. And she did. So did the four influential, gay designers about whom Edward Maeder regales us this evening in honor of New York Pride’s current LGBT Celebration of Diversity. Adrian, Walter Plunkett, Orry-Kelly, and Howard Greer ruled Dream Factory design for years, dressing and undressing its most famous stars. You may not know all the names, but any film buff is familiar with their extraordinary work.

“There were 510 films made in banner year 1939,” Maeder tells us, “with no costume recognition at The Academy Awards.” The Depression had ended. Hollywood pumped money into entertainment like there was no tomorrow. Not until nine years later was acknowledgment for Costume’s contribution to the medium instituted when Barbara Karinska and Dorothy Jeakens won for Joan of Arc with Ingrid Bergman.

“He never said, just make them historically accurate,” Maeder says wryly referring to Mayer’s demands. Well chosen slides show vast liberties taken with period clothes, hair and make-up in order to keep actresses looking their identifiable best.

Connecticut born Adrian Adolph Greenberg (1903-1959), Adrian, transferred to the Paris campus of New York School for Fine and Applied Arts and serendipitously met Irving Berlin garnering his first commission, costumes for Berlin’s Music Box Revue.

Back in the states, the “gay blade” (gay meaning delightfully upbeat and social) became head costume designer for Cecil B. DeMille’s independent film studio. When DeMille moved temporarily to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Adrian was hired as Chief Costume Designer at the studio staying after the director left. He was responsible for over 250 films before establishing his own atelier in 1941. Screen credits usually read “Gowns by Adrian,” but the designer was hardly confined to silk lame.

Adrian designed 1931’s Mata Hari beginning what Maeder describes as a long, contentious professional relationship with Greta Garbo who was sure he had it in for her based on what she felt were consistently unflattering costumes. Because of The Motion Picture Code, sexy couldn’t mean bare. Photos of the real Mata Hari and Garbo’s incarnation show the latter completely covered up. “All her underwear was handmade.”

Marie Antoinette with Norma Shearer was released in 1938. The film had twenty five hundred costumes and twenty-two wigs- “one weighed eighteen pounds. Fifty embroiderers were brought up from Mexico. Wardrobe later sold at auction mostly to drag queens.”

In 1987, Maeder curated HOLLYWOOD AND HISTORY: Costume Design In Film-One Million Years B.C. to Star Trek at Los Angeles County Museum of Art and is intimately conversant with some of the garments about which he speaks. One famous dress from this film was donated after 1000 hours of restoration. It had been sprayed black to be used in a television commercial.

Adrian’s work on The Women, which featured not a single male, brought out his appreciation of the female form. We’re treated to clips from the only Technicolor part of the black and white film, an elaborate fashion show.

Louis B. Mayer paid $75,000 for the rights to The Wizard of Oz– released two years later. Maeder tells us Adrian was “obsessed with the 1830s” which is reflected in the Munchkin costumes. We also learn that The Yellow Brick Road represented the Gold Standard while the originally silver slippers stood for the Silver and that monkey costumes were made from soft, wool felt.

The designer was briefly married to Janet Gaynor, “a notorious lesbian.” Evidently, he and the actress spent a night on the beach together and that was that. Maeder tells us the closeted Adrien went to friend Walter Plunkett for help, saying he didn’t know what to do (sexually.) Plunkett replied, “Just ask Janet.” (Story told to Maeder by Plunkett.)

Walter Plunkett (1902-1982) was raised in California, came to New York to be an actor (also executing a little costume and set design), then returned to his home state. The young man initially found only extra work. He can be seen dancing with Irene, another future top designer, in Erich von Stroheim’s 1925 film The Merry Widow.

Transitioning to Costume Design for RKO, Plunkett, himself a fashion plate, built a well respected department. He was nominated for an Academy Award eleven times and shared a win with Irene Scharaff for An American in Paris. When he discovered that telling actresses they HAD to wear the dresses because they were historically correct worked wonders to subdue diva behavior, he decided to specialize in period films. Plunkett designed the 1933 version of Little Women. “You can always tell the era a film was made by the hair which rarely reflects authenticity.”

The designer’s most famous work was for Gone with the Wind. Scarlett’s barbecue dress could apparently be purchased as a $1.98 Simplicity pattern at the time. Research particularly included the early American magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book 1830-1896. Diane, starring Lana Turner as French noblewoman Diane de Poitiers is, we’re told, “a terrible movie, but the clothes are wonderful.”

The big problem in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Plunkett confided to Maeder, was that, as scripted, the girls were kept in the mountains for months and needed alternate dresses. His clever solution was to make these out of patchwork quilts and tablecloths.

Plunkett retired in 1966, after having worked in films, on Broadway and for the Metropolitan Opera.

At 20, Howard Greer (1896-1974), sent sketches to Lady Duff-Gordon whose Lucille line of “fancy clothes” was internationally known. She made an appointment for him as if down the block and Greer hopped a train from Los Angeles to Chicago. After a stint in the service, the designer apprenticed to Poiret and then Molyneux, both of whom became iconic. Back home, he designed for Famous-Players-Lasky studios, which later emerged as Paramount Pictures.

Settling in Hollywood, Greer invited his mother to live with him. One day, Maeder relates, anticipating being late to lunch, the designer requested she entertain his guest. “You’re so attractive,” mom told the actress, “Have you ever thought of a career in film?” The guest was Greta Garbo.

Greer dressed Irene Dunne in My Favorite Wife and Love Affair. Maeder shares a photo of her in the latter “at her very best and does she look good in gold lame?!” Greer also costumed Katherine Hepburn in several films including Christopher Strong and Bringing Up Baby.

Opening his own couture salon in 1927, the designer continued to dress Hollywood’s elite. He’s plausibly credited with focusing interest on “above the table dresses”, those gowns with elaborate top halves and understated waists. Greer called them “tits on the half shell.”

Orry George Kelly, aka Orry-Kelly (1897-1964), was an Australian American costume designer. As a young man, he moved to New York in hopes of becoming an actor. He roomed with aspiring peer Archie Leach (Cary Grant.) The men decorated neck ties for a time. Kelly painted murals, illustrated movie titles, and designed costumes and sets for Broadway’s Shubert Revues and George White’s Scandals.

In 1932, he moved to Los Angeles and was hired by Warner Brothers as their Chief Costume Designer remaining there until 1944. Later, his designs were seen in films at numerous other studios. Orry-Kelly won three Oscars and was nominated for a fourth, working on 300 films.

Maeder points out that in Jezebel with Bette Davis, though the film is in black and white, we’re convinced Julie Marsden vengefully wears a red gown to the traditionally all white Olympus Ball. He calls out Orry-Kelly’s wonderfully imaginative work in Auntie Mame and 42nd Street.  The designer called Dolores del Rio “a Greek goddess” in white and excelled in understated elegance for Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca.

Orry-Kellywas known for effectively dealing with problem figures. He had his greatest challenge when Tony Curtis (as Josephine) and Jack Lemon (as Daphne) needed to be transformed into women for Some Like It Hot. (Because of this and suggested homosexuality, the film was produced without approval from the Motion Picture Production Code.)

We hear some priceless dialogue  including Sweet Sue’s (Joan Shawlee) comment that the troop had to be careful of their language since two real ladies had joined her all female Society Syncopators. Orry-Kelly not only won an Academy Award for the production, but both actors managed to use the ladies’ room at the studio commissary without being questioned.

The audience and cast Maeder quips, clearly suffered from AAD = Adam’s apple denial and Marilyn Monroe was upset at having her rear compared to that of Tony Curtis. “You don’t understand,” Josephine protests to film beau Osgood Fielding III    (Joe E. Brown), “I’m a MAN!” The response? “Nobody’s perfect.”

Kelly also write the column “Hollywood Fashion Parade” and designed for the community after film work.

The only disappointing element of Edward Maeder’s entertaining and informative talk was its brevity which for some curious reason included no time for questions. Clearly the charming Maeder knows his stuff and could have gone on to illuminate his subjects further.

All uncredited quotes are Edward Maeder.

The New York Historical Society offers a wide roster of lectures, films, and events as well as exhibitions.

Edward Maeder has held curatorial positions at the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. He was the Director of Exhibitions and the Curator of Textiles at Historic Deerfield, the founding director of the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto. Maeder is a skilled textile conservator, pattern-maker and artist. He is currently the Curator/Conservator of the Roddis Dress Collection, co-author of the forth-coming book, American Style and Spirit: Fashions and Lives of the Roddis Family 1850-1995, published by the V & A Press/Harry N. Abrams and a Research Associate in the Theatre Department at Smith College. Maeder is also consulting curator for The New York Historical Society’s exhibition Walk This Way: Footwear from the Stuart Weitzman Collection of Historic Shoes through October 8, 2018. See my article on the exhibition.

Just Make Them Beautiful
Edward Maeder
The New-York Historical Society
June 1, 2018
Venue Exhibitions and Events

About Alix Cohen (539 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of eight New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.