Adrian: A Study in Silver Screen Style

Adrian and Garbo - two one-name legends - dressed for The Single Standard, 1929

Do you ever fantasize about what it would have been like to go through the Hollywood studio system? With an army of businessmen, stylists and cosmeticians deciding whether you'll be a wife or a mistress, blonde or brunette, and even what your new name will be, you would soon be pummeled, bobbed, and straightened into a screen-ready siren.

One of these Pygmalions was Gilbert Adrian, MGM's in-house dress designer. Discovered by Irving Berlin while studying at Parson's in Paris, Adrian dropped out and within a few years, found himself traveling to La La Land by train with Valentino and a monkey.

the diamond necklace did double duty as straps on this early design by Adrian for Mae Murray in The Merry Widow (1925)- Diana Vreeland thought the scene which this backless dress figured, the most exciting she'd ever seen

Adrian was one of the first original American designers. Although historians always say that Hollywood popularized high fashion trends, according to Christian Esquevin's Adrian: Silver Screen to Custom Label, there are clear instances when Adrian led Paris. His silhouette was slim-hipped and strong-shouldered in line with the sporty elegance we still identify as characteristically all-American. Think Katherine Hepburn - another one of Adrian's ladies.

Katherine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story, 1940

The padded shoulder is probably what Adrian is most identified with. By making the shoulders strong, he could make even pear-shaped figures like Norma Shearer look sleek. It is interesting to think about the new active roles women were taking on during WWII, and compare it to the 80s when this style was revived and women were climbing the corporate ladder to new heights.

Joan sporting the coat-hanger (satin-padded of course!) look

Another favorite device of Adrian's was dolman sleeves. The loose armhole leading to the tightly wrapped arm served to elongate and draw attention to the wearer's hands, which, for any actress, were a pivotal tool for emoting.
Garbo as Mata Hari (1931) in a dolman-sleeved tunic and a face-framing skull-cap....

An actress' greatest asset was her face. Adrian used all sorts of collars to frame and highlight it.

The power of color - even though most of Adrian's work was captured on screen in black and white, he knew the emotional power of color and dressed his ladies in their favorite hues. Crawford had a preference for blues while Garbo liked olive and burgandy... That said, he was a master at the dramatic use of black and white....

Joan in a dress from Letty Lynton, 1932 on the set of Grand Hotel

And no less an important ingredient in the Adrian cocktail was his wit. Note the three eyes on the blouse of Rosalind Russell in The Women, which perfectly plays up her character Sylvia's meddlesome ways. He also gave his creations the most terrific names - the evening is already a success as soon as you've put on "To Enchant Him" or "Doctor I see Spots", and even more so if it features one of Adrian's amusing signature prints, such as "Queen Bee" or "Fish and Chips".

"Spring Glory after Dark", c. 1945-46

The advent of Dior's New Look - the antithesis of the Adrian look with rounded shoulders, hand span waist, and full-skirts - in 1947 along with health problems hastened the gradual fall from favor of the House of Adrian.

"It was because of Garbo that I left M-G-M. In her last picture [Two-Faced Woman] they wanted to make her a sweater girl, a real American type. I said, 'When the glamour 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, glamour went with her, and so did I."

Yet it is Adrian's legacy that continues to define Hollywood glamour to this day.