Wednesday, November 27, 2013

History Lessons: Fashion in Film and the Hollywood Costume

Clockwise from top left: Clara Bow, Joan Crawford, Gloria Swanson and Louise Brooks

Fashion in Film

Film and costume design history expert Kimberly Truhler, one of the presenting hosts at TCM’s 2013 Classic Film Festival, launched her new webinar series The History of Fashion in Film with The 1920s - The Jazz Age on November 17 - and I was there!

Kimberly certainly knows her stuff - she’s an adjunct professor at L.A.’s Woodbury University where she teaches a course on the history of fashion in film, she serves as a film and costume design historian for Christies of London, curates a private vintage fashion collection, manages her own website, GlamAmor (dedicated to preserving and sharing the history and legacy of fashion in film), and much more. Her impressive experience and knowledge were clearly evident throughout the nearly two-hour inaugural webinar session. And what an education I got…

Kimberly touched on the history of American film itself, from its invention to the advent of the studio system, from its beginnings on the East Coast to its move to the West Coast, from the age of the nickelodeon to the production of full-length feature films, from the silent era to the dawn of sound and from a time when costumes were often homemade to the use of European couture to the emergence of American couture.

Kimberly narrowed her focus to four films of the ‘20s that she considers essential to film fashion history because of their immediate as well as long-lasting impact on style on and offscreen. Here is a snapshot of just some of what we learned:

Cecil B. DeMille’s Why Change Your Wife? (1920), starring Gloria Swanson with costumes by Clare West
Clare West, as was the practice of the time, did not actually design costumes but traveled to Europe where she spent lavishly on clothing from couture houses. Swanson’s opulent wardrobe and signature style was created out of West’s selections – and DeMille spared no expense to dress his great star.

It (1927), from Paramount, starring Clara Bow with costumes by Travis Banton
Banton made a daring decision when he chose to showcase the “little black dress” look on Clara Bow in It only a few months after Coco Chanel unveiled her “Ford dress,” the first lbd designed for conventional wear. Until then, women wore black only at funerals - but the look was popularized with It.

MGM’s Our Dancing Daughters (1928), starring Joan Crawford with costumes credited to David Cox (though Kimberly suggests that Adrian may well have been involved)
This film made a star of Joan Crawford and popularized the Art Deco look. The movie also promoted “women wearing pants” (a huge taboo at the time) with an equestrian look that was famously mirrored decades later in Diane Keaton’s legendary Annie Hall style.

G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1929), a German silent film starring American actress Louise Brooks with costumes by French designer Jean Patou
Would anyone remember Louise Brooks if not for this film? Her pared-down, low-cut, back-revealing wardrobe by French fashion icon Jean Patou signaled the direction style would take in the 1930s. And Brooks’ iconic “bob” became a haircut du jour that never went out of style.

Clockwise from top left: Clare West, Jean Patou, Adrian and Travis Banton
I have barely scratched the surface of Kimberly‘s fascinating webinar but a recording of the session is now available online. Click here for information on access to the recording and for more on the remaining History of Fashion in Film webinars:

Sun., December 15: The 1930s – Art Deco Elegance
Sun., Janaury 19: The 1940s – Film Noir Style
Sun., February 16: The 1950s – Opposites Attract
Sun., March 16: The 1960s – Revolution
Sun., April 20: The 1970s – Everybody’s All American
Cary Grant and Marlene Dietrich in Blonde Venus (1932), costume design by Travis Banton
The Hollywood Costume

Deborah Nadoolman-Landis
Meanwhile, beginning on the 6th of December, Turner Classic Movies will shine its Friday Night Spotlight on The Hollywood Costume all through the month. Costume designer (Animal House, The Blues Brothers, Raiders of the Lost Ark) and author Deborah Nadoolman Landis will host, and every Friday evening viewers will be treated to three double features, each showcasing the work of a different top Hollywood costume designer. Here’s what we can look forward to:

December 6
Designer: Travis Banton
Films: Blonde Venus (1932), starring Marlene Dietrich and Cary Grant, and Cleopatra (1934), starring Claudette Colbert
Designer: Orry-Kelly
Films: Casablanca (1942), starring Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart, and Auntie Mame (1958), starring Rosalind Russell
Designer: Adrian
Films: The Women (1939), starring Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford, and Anna Karenina (1935), starring Greta Garbo

December 13
Designer: Irene Sharaff
Films: Funny Girl (1968), starring Barbra Streisand, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton
Designer: Anthea Sylbert
Films: Chinatown (1974), starring Faye Dunaway and Jack Nicholson, and Carnal Knowledge (1971), starring Jack Nicholson and Ann-Margret
Designer: Walter Plunkett
Films: Adam’s Rib (1949), starring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, and Forbidden Planet (1956), starring Walter Pidgeon and Anne Francis

December 20
Designer: Jean Louis
Films: Send Me No Flowers (1964), starring Doris Day and Rock Hudson, and The Big Heat (1953), starring Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame
Designer: Anna Hill Johnstone
Films: Dog Day Afternoon (1975), starring Al Pacino, and The Stepford Wives (1975), starring Katharine Ross, Paula Prentiss and Tina Louise
Designer: Edith Head
Films: Sullivan’s Travels (1941), starring Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake, and The Seven Little Foys (1955), starring Bob Hope

December 27
Designer: Edward Stevenson
Films: The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), starring Joseph Cotten and Tim Holt, and Out of the Past (1947), starring Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer
Designer: Ann Roth
Films: Silkwood (1983), starring Meryl Streep, and Klute (1971), starring Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland
Designer: Helen Rose
Films: The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), starring Lana Turner and Kirk Douglas, and Annie Get Your Gun (1950), starring Betty Hutton.

(check your local TV listings for times)

Faye Dunaway in Chinatown (1974), costume design by Anthea Sylbert


  1. Wow! Sounds like a great series. So much of 20th-century fashion is directly linked to film; it's as if two art forms developed together.

    1. Very true. I was amazed, really, to see (many photos were shown) how these particular looks have stayed with us, evolving over time. By the way, Kimberly had much to say about the uneasy relationship between the separate worlds of costume and fashion design.

  2. Lady Eve - that's great that you followed Kimberly's webinar. She's fabulous and a great teacher on the subject of fashion and film The TCM series should be wonderful too as its a great line-up and not just the usual sispects of "costume" films, and featuring another great teacher on the subject.

    1. Christian, You are so right, Kimberly knows so much and teaches it well - and I'll be there for the remaining webinars. The TCM spotlight really dovetails nicely with her series. And kudos to you for your blog, an incredible resource on Hollywood costume design - I always have an eye out for your latest post.

  3. OMG, I can barely contain myself. I have learned so much about film fashion from a few very brilliant online friends and this has really whet my appetite to know more.

    1. I recommend Kimberly's webinar series highly - even if you're unable to attend, you can register and watch later. The TCM spotlight will, no doubt, be fabulous.

  4. This sounds like an excellent series. I was sorry I couldn't participate in the live webinar, but it appears Kimberly will post them online.

    Thanks for sharing all this great info!

    1. If you sign up for a webinar, you have access to the video afterward. Much of this information is posted on GlamAmor, but the webinar provides the opportunity for interactive Q&A. Fascinating stuff, however you access it!