Gowns, Garbo and Glamour

Adrian: Behind the Gowns

What’s so extraordinary about blue-and-white gingham? On the surface, Dorothy Gale’s pinafore worn by Judy Garland in the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz is really quite plain. But within the context of why, how and by whom it was designed – and the mega-classic status the film has since achieved – it is an iconic piece of Hollywood history, one that last year fetched almost $500,000 at auction.

The Wizard of Oz

Scene from ‘The Wizard of Oz’

Currently on display in Hollywood Costume, the dress – and the not-so-ordinary ruby slippers that went with it – were conceived by a legendary costume designer. Having explored the career of the talented Orry-Kelly, we continue our costume designers’ spotlight with a man who was known by one name: Adrian.

Adrian’s Story

Working for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) during the 1930s and ‘40s, Adrian (born Adrian Adolph Greenberg) transformed the likes of Greta Garbo, Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford into fashion icons.

Adrian with Joan Crawford

Adrian with Joan Crawford

His work was prolific and his film credit was always simple: ‘Gowns by Adrian’.

Although his costumes were immensely popular and he was considered one of the best costume designers around, Adrian never had the chance to win an Academy Award®.

The award for Best Costume Design was first given for films made in 1948, after the height of Adrian’s work. Not even Dorothy’s gingham dress from The Wizard of Oz was recognised.

Inside Hollywood Costume. Photographer: Mark Inducil

Dorothy’s dress and ruby slippers in ‘Hollywood Costume’. Photographer: Mark Inducil

The only award Adrian did win was a Coty Award in 1945 (as Gilbert Adrian, a combination of his father’s name and his own). Running from 1943 to 1984, the Coty American Fashion Critics’ Awards celebrated American fashion. They aimed to raise the profile of American fashion during and after World War II and by the end of the awards, were successful in their mission.

Despite the lack of formal recognition, Adrian’s influence was still far spread. He dressed actress Joan Crawford in her signature padded shoulders, starting a nation-wide fashion trend.

Crawford was often Adrian’s muse and model for his more daring designs. When the Hays Code was enforced from the early 1930s deeming low-cut fronts inappropriate, Adrian responded by dressing Crawford in low-cut backs.

It was his friendship and partnership with Greta Garbo, however, that became one of the most enduring working relationships in Hollywood. From the distinctive jewelled head-pieces she wore in Mata Hari to the stunning, elaborate gowns she donned in Queen Christina (one of which can be seen in Hollywood Costume), Adrian ensured that Garbo looked the part.

Greta Garbo as 'Queen Christina'

Greta Garbo as ‘Queen Christina’

Legend has it that when Garbo walked off the MGM studio lot in protest at being forced to wear designs that didn’t suit her, Adrian walked off as well, claiming “When the glamour ends for Garbo, it also ends for me.”

Upon leaving MGM, Adrian ran his own fashion house until 1952. To maintain his exclusivity, Adrian insisted that his clothes be sold in only one store in each city. His designs were highly sought after; the copious knock-offs cheekily referred to as the ‘Adrian silhouette’. Like a true celebrity, he also released a range of perfumes named ‘Saint’ and ‘Sinner’.

Adrian returned to MGM one last time in 1952 to work on what would be his final film, Lovely to Look At. In the years that followed, the designer turned his attention to television and Broadway making costumes right up until he died in 1959. He passed away while working on costumes for the Broadway production of Camelot.


Don’t miss the last two films in our special Gowns by Adrian season, Marie Antoinette and Idiot’s Delight, screening this week.

Dorothy’s pinafore and the dress worn by Garbo in Queen Christina can be seen in Hollywood Costume, open now until Sun 18 Aug 2013.

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