Hollywood's Adrian fashion retrospective

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  July 3, 2002 at 12:40 PM
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NEW YORK, July 3 (UPI) -- Only one Hollywood costume designer went into the business of women's ready-to-wear fashion design and made a success of it, if only for 10 years beginning when the American garment industry was cut off from Paris by World War II. .

His designing name was Adrian, but he had a first name -- Gilbert (his birth name was actually Adrian Adolph Greenburg). When he married movie star Janet Gaynor in 1938, Mr. and Mrs. Gilbert Adrian became synonymous with Silver Screen Society in gossip columns and they were one of the golden couples whose names were household words.

Emboldened by his success, particularly as costumer for MGM spectaculars, Adrian launched his commercial fashion design business in 1942, only three months after Pearl Harbor, with a custom salon in Beverly Hills and a ready-to-wear line sold in the nation's most exclusive specialty stores, notably Bonwit Teller in New York.

He retired from business in 1952 after a heart attack but lived on for seven more years, dying at 56.

A summer exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum, running through Aug. 18, focuses on Adrian's influence on American fashion at a time when French fashion reigned supreme. Titled "Adrian: American Glamour" the Met's Fashion Institute show includes more than 100 of Adrian's designs both for films and for the fashion market.

It is the first Costume Institute show curated by Jane Trapnell Marino, wife of leading international architect-designer Peter Marino who became interested in Adrian's commercial career when she was designing costumes for soap operas and dramatic series on television.

"It was the extremes of what he did from the movies to his own line that fascinated me," Marino told United Press International. "I wanted to find out what made him so good. I was going to write a book about Adrian but the offer to guest curate this show came along and I took it on instead."

Marino's efforts have paid off in one of the most beautiful shows mounted by the Costume Institute in recent years.

The Institute's galleries have been opened up to provide a spacious overview of the special glamour Adrian brought to garment design for such Hollywood stars as Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, Norma Shearer, Jean Harlow, Katharine Hepburn and Judy Garland as well as for any woman who could afford his salon prices.

For those who couldn't, Sears, Roebuck offered a gingham knockoff for $1.29 of Adrian's frilly white organza dress designed for Crawford in her ill-fated film; "Letty Lynton." It sold by 500,000 copies -- including a prom dress displayed in the show -- although the film had to be withdrawn shortly after it opened because of a copyright suit. It was nearly outsold by a copy of Adrian's crepe dress for Carole Landis with a bias-cut bodice.

His greatest contribution to fashion was the inverted pyramid look, created by emphasizing broad shoulders above a narrow waist and wedge-shaped hips, and his strategic use of large, single buttons to tack one design element to another. He was the first to absorb the military look into his designs and had a tailor in his workshop that had made Polish army uniforms.

He was also a genius in working out the problems of fabric cuts, especially in woolen suits, to form neckline and pocket designs out of pinstripes and plaids, and he took figural prints by famous artists such as Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso and applied them to the overall flow of his strapless and halter-neck evening gowns. He even used ordinary cotton seersucker to create a down-home red, white and blue dress with a faux apron to celebrate the end of World War II.

Adrian's influence continues to this day and can be seen in the collections of American designer Geoffrey Beene, Paris designer Azzedine Alaia, and others coming on the scene such as Stella McCartney and Marc Jacobs. Alaia has he largest private collection of Adrians, some loaned to the exhibition.

"I love what Adrian did in Hollywood in more than 200 movies, but I also loved what he did for just ordinary women," Alaia said in an interview.

Visitors to the show are likely, however, to linger over Adrian's romantic, scene-stealing costume designs, such as the white jersey evening dress trimmed with gold braid for Hepburn in "The Philadelphia Story," the silver-embroidered velveteen gown designed for Garbo in "Queen Christina" along with Garbo's quirkily tilted hats for "Ninotchka," and his full skirted "Marie Antoinette" costumes for Shearer.

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