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Legendary Costume Designer Adrian Created Glamour Onscreen and Off

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Greta Garbo, Jean Harlow, Joan Crawford, and Katharine Hepburn were just a few of the stars outfitted by the legendary costume designer Adrian between the 1930s and the 1950s. Adrian became known for his glamorous gowns and ensembles, and eventually had a successful foray into the American fashion industry. With lush photographs and swoon-worthy designs, Adrian: A Lifetime of Movie Glamour, Art, and High Fashion by Leonard Stanley revisits the designer’s work, giving his craft new life.

Throughout the writing process, Stanley recalled his own nostalgia for the designer. He had loved Adrian’s work from a young age, and when he was nine, the author began to collect any Adrian memorabilia—like black and white stills from movie sets—he could find. In Adrian, Stanley even remembers meeting the famed designer for the first time while working at a Los Angeles interior design studio in the 1950s, having tea with Adrian and his wife, actress Janet Gaynor. He had become enamored with Adrian’s designs and the multiplicity of the designer’s expression.

With his new book, Stanley salutes all the strands of Adrian’s creativity. “I want people to know about the other facets of Adrian that include not only his costume and clothing design work,” he tells CR. “Adrian also had an interior design shop and had exhibitions of his African paintings. I wanted to show Adrian was a Renaissance man.” Stanley’s book is divided into sections that offer insight into the many dimensions of Adrian’s life, from his creative youth, to his time in Hollywood, in the fashion industry, in the art world, and in the theatre, among others.

Adrian designed for theatre and film in New York from the age of 19, eventually moving out to Hollywood to work with Natacha Rambova and Rudolph Valentino, then with Cecil B. DeMille. When DeMille joined Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, he brought Adrian, and it was there that the designer worked with some of the brightest stars in Hollywood. Adrian’s larger-than-life constructions were perfect for epics like Camille and Mata Hari, The Women (which featured a nearly six-minute-long Technicolor fashion show of his own designs) and The Great Ziegfeld. He could make costumes for showgirls as easily as Marie Antoinette (he made 34 costumes for Norma Shearer to wear throughout the film, unprecedented in film by that time) with their layers of beads and satins. As Stanley quotes the designer in Adrian, “I went after perfection, especially in detail, since I had to satisfy the discerning eye of the camera, which magnifies everything eight times.” Adrian’s gowns onscreen caused a stir offscreen as well, with audiences clamoring for the white silk crepe evening gown he had designed for Joan Crawford in 1932’s Letty Lynton, not to mention the ongoing influence of his costume designs for 1939’s The Wizard of Oz.

Adrian left MGM in 1941 to start his own fashion house, Adrian, Ltd., in Beverly Hills. Throughout the decade, he would popularize the trim yet broad-shouldered silhouette for which the decade would become known and revisited years following, and was beloved by the fashion press for his inventive, distinctive, refined, and elegantly tailored ensembles. Stanley shares in Adrian a quote from one fashion magazine in 1942: “Adrian understands the role of his off-screen heroine, and the clothes to fit that role. They now fit the setting of real life, and they are made to give performances 365 days a year. They represent quiet distinction, wonderful fabrics, and excellent workmanship.” In the following years, he’d be recognized by the fashion industry for his work, receiving both 1943’s Neiman Marcus Award for Distinguished Service in the Field of Fashion and 1945’s American Fashion Critics’ Award, also known as the Coty Award, from New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia.

While Adrian would transition out of the fashion industry and periodically return to costume design in the following years, also developing a career as an artist, his influence in design is indelible. “People tried to copy Adrian, but they never succeeded,” says Stanley. “As Coco Chanel said, let them copy, they will never get it right.”

Adrian: A Lifetime of Movie Glamour, Art, and High Fashion is now available online and in bookstores.

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