Costume Designer Adrian: The Frock Flicks Guide

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Adrian Adolph Greenburg is the only costume designer of historical movies that we have, as of yet, immortalized in poetry. Maybe it’s because Adrian was never nominated for an Oscar, despite having created fabulous frocks for over 250 Hollywood films (OK, the award was created in 1948, and he’d essentially retired by then). Maybe it’s really because I’m an English lit nerd and enjoy a random biography of Victorian poets like The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934), for which Adrian totally over-designed Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s gowns. No matter the inspiration, let me share this tribute once again:

Oh Adrian, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways…
I love thee to the width and length and height
Your giant hoopskirts and gowns can reach, never out of sight
For leading ladies like Norma Shearer, full of grace.

I love thee despite thy un-corseted bodices
Most darted and princess-seamed, by 1930s patterns right.
I love thee freely, as you add ruffles left and right.
I love thee purely, tho’ your work is in black and greys.
I love thee with all the glitter, glitz, and bows
Liberally applied, and with such precision placed.

I love thee in historical flicks on Turner Movie Classics
Like this one romanticizing Victorian poets, with
’30s makeup, puppeh, hints of incest, and, more hoopskirts than
Anything set in 1845 would be historically accurate.

Adrian spent most of his career at MGM, and he designed fabulous gowns for the likes of Greta Garbo, Norma Shearer, and Jeanette MacDonald. Extravagance, fine details, and luxurious materials are the hallmarks of Adrian’s costume designs, and while his historical costumes aren’t the most accurate to their eras, they are always a delight to look at. Here are some highlights.

 

Romance (1930)

Greta Garbo, Romance (1930)

Greta Garbo wearing something kinda sorta Belle Epoche, but always faaaaabulous.

 

Mata Hari (1931)

Supposedly set in WWI. Definitely set in OMG AH-MAY-ZING.

 

Rasputin and the Empress (1932)

Rasputin and the Empress (1932)

Adrian knew how to do royalty.

Rasputin and the Empress (1932)

John Barrymore, Ethel Barrymore, and Diana Wynyard, chillaxing on the set, still regal AF.

 

Secrets (1933)

Secrets (1933)

Mary Pickford in Adrian’s ruffled extravaganza eleganza.

 

Storm at Daybreak (1933)

Storm at Daybreak (1933)

Kay Francis wears a wonderfully tailored ensemble by Adrian for this WWI drama.

 

Queen Christina (1933)

Queen Christina

Garbo’s iconic cross-dressing style as the Queen of Sweden.

Queen Christina

And her royal robes.

Queen Christina

Adrian’s gown on display.

 

The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934)

The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934)

This is incredibly ruffly for a reclusive Victorian poet.

The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934)

But it did inspire me to poetry, so thanks, Adrian!

 

The Merry Widow (1934)

The Merry Widow (1934)

A very sparkly bustle gown for Jeanette MacDonald.

The Merry Widow (1934)

I’m obsessed with the pointy ruffled collar and cuffs here! Such exquisite details are a hallmark of Adrian’s work.

 

Naughty Marietta (1935)

Naughty Marietta (1935)

It’s an 18th-century French / Davy Crockett mashup with singing. Seriously!

Naughty Marietta (1935)

Gotta love those stripes.

 

Anna Karenina (1935)

Garbo. In ruffles. Adrian knew no bounds.

 

San Francisco (1936)

San Francisco (1936)

Supposedly set in the Barbary Coast around the time of the 1906 earthquake. That’s Spencer Tracy and Jeanette MacDonald.

San Francisco (1936)

Take note of this ballgown … it’ll show up again…

 

Romeo and Juliet (1936)

Romeo and Juliet (1936)

Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer as the star-crossed lovers in Adrian’s version of 15th-century costumes.

 

The Gorgeous Hussy (1936)

The Gorgeous Hussy (1936)

A rare Joan Crawford historical flick about a scandalous affair of President Andrew Jackson’s.

 

Camille (1936)

Garbo swathed in tulle!

Garbo in velvet and tassels! Oh Adrian, those were the days.

 

Maytime (1937)

Maytime (1937)

Jeanette MacDonald as an opera singer in Napoleon III’s Paris. So, bustles!

 

Parnell (1937)

Parnell (1937)

Clark Gable as Irish politician Charles Stewart Parnell in the 1880s, with Myra Loy. So, more bustles!

 

The Emperor’s Candlesticks (1937)

The Emperor's Candlesticks (1937)

I just love how crazy-weird OTT this gown is. Adrian, you do you!

 

The Firefly (1937)

The Firefly (1937)

It’s Spanish! It’s sparkly!

 

Conquest (1937)

Making Empire style look over-the-top.

 

Marie Antoinette (1938)

Marie Antoinette (1938)

So.Much.Pretty!

Marie Antoinette (1938)

The level of detail is amazing in black and white.

Marie Antoinette (1938)

And then you see it in color, and OMG.

Marie Antoinette (1938)

Truly a work of art!

 

The Great Waltz (1938)

The Great Waltz (1938)

Even in a relatively minor film about Johann Strauss II in 1845 Vienna with actress Miliza Korjus, the simple costumes show fine details.

The Great Waltz (1938)

 

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Wizard of Oz

Not exactly a historical movie, but did you know that Glinda the Good Witch’s pink sparkly gown was recycled? Yep, Adrian took that ballgown first designed for Jeanette MacDonald in San Francisco (above) and made it over for this movie!

 

New Moon (1940)

New Moon (1940)

18th-century by way of the 1940s, and I don’t have a problem with that.

 

Pride and Prejudice (1940)

Pride and Prejudice (1940)

Yeah, it’s set in the 1830s, which is wrong. But Adrian really went to town with the 1830s look, in his own special way.

Pride and Prejudice (1940)

Greer Garson werks those polka-dots, gurl.

 

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941)

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941)

Lana Turner and Ingrid Bergman in some of Adrian’s last historical frocks — just as frothy and fabulous as his first.

 

 

What’s your favorite of Adrian’s historical movie costumes?

14 Responses

  1. MoHub

    Not a film, but Adrian also worked on the original Broadway production of Camelot.

    Reply
  2. Susan Pola Staples

    I just love his Garbo costumes and Marie Antoinette. Another favourite is Rasputin and the Empress.
    Somehow he made his silhouettes look right sans corsetry and nonperiod seems.
    Your colour pics are amazing. The Marie Antoinette Gown looks very like the coronation Gown of Luisa Ulrika of Sweden.

    Reply
  3. CTrent29

    If setting P&P in the 1830s is wrong, then so was setting it in the 1810s. The story is supposed to be set around the end of the 1790s.

    I’m not that much of fan of Adrian’s period costumes. I think most of them are too over-the-top for my tastes.

    Reply
  4. Nzie

    These are all just… fun. :-) But I am super puzzled by him getting 1880s silhouettes basically right, and 1890s and 1906 very, very wrong considering it was within living memory, and even young audiences would’ve probably been familiar via family photos.

    Reply
  5. Mary

    My mother adored Jeanette MacDonald and Greta Garbo, so I learned early on about “Gowns by Adrian.” His dresses for contemporary films are also gorgeous.

    Reply
  6. Donnalee

    I can find the makings of a gorgeous goth wardrobe right on that page–if only I still had the gorgeous skin and profile that Garbo and others have…

    Reply
  7. hsc

    “Not exactly a historical movie, but did you know that Glinda the Good Witch’s pink sparkly gown was recycled? Yep, Adrian took that ballgown first designed for Jeanette MacDonald in San Francisco (above) and made it over for this movie!”

    This claim has been going around various blogs, websites (and even a book IIRC) for about a decade, but I’m calling total BS on it.

    First of all, why the hell would it have been desirable or even necessary to recycle this costume?

    We’re talking about a production where they’re hand-striping socks for Munchkins– most of whom were basically extras– and one of the main characters has to make do with a made-over costume for her scenes where she’s supposed to be a major part of the “wow” factor in the film?

    Secondly, according to Margaret Hamilton in interviews she did in the ’70s for Aljean Harmetz’s “Making of” Oz book, Billie Burke was treated royally on the “Oz” set, with a special pink and blue dressing room. (Burke was The Widow Ziegfeld, y’know, and her okay had given MGM an Oscar-winning Ziegfeld biopic just a couple of years earlier.)

    Making over an old costume doesn’t jibe with the way Burke was treated on the set.

    Thirdly, Adrian used that basic shape in a number of his costumes from that period, and layers of tulle spangled with starbursts was pretty much a signature thing with him.

    And finally, if you really examine the two costumes side by side, they’re clearly not the same dress made over.

    The top of the MacDonald dress is off-shoulder and low-cut in the back as well as the front, and the waistline is a straight waistline:

    https://1.bp.blogspot.com/-EM-YMLNMDkk/Vwh38gTu6tI/AAAAAAAAKPw/lp0fgA5ZW6kSlmrOQVvVRQjxln4Z6rB8w/s400/jeanette-frenchie-805×1024.jpg

    https://3.bp.blogspot.com/-n64kMp8eMP0/Vwh6EuugVQI/AAAAAAAAKQE/qBUmktimXwUxKyQXI8vzAFWImcrkn1utg/s1600/cap003.jpg

    The top of the Burke dress is cut differently, with gigot sleeves (the Wicked Witch has a similar, but less exaggeratedly “poufed” sleeve shape), visible boning in the bodice, and a waistline that goes down into a clear center front point:

    https://1.bp.blogspot.com/-U-r8PeHayzY/Vwh6E2prvDI/AAAAAAAAKQI/Vgio-FVGtacYPvBsC3r13mYSrRoDcn2Cg/s1600/Billie_Burke_and_Judy_Garland_The_Wizard_of_Oz_%25281939%2529.jpg

    https://i.imgur.com/E0k7Xas.jpg

    https://media.giphy.com/media/l46CwNmalDZUHJE5y/giphy.gif

    Most importantly, the patterns of beading/sequins/sparkly stuff on the dresses are completely different.

    The MacDonald dress has regularly spaced motifs that are a large solid five-point star with a full-circle sunburst radiating out behind it. You see this all over the skirt, all the way up to the waistline, and one of these motifs is visible on the top between MacDonald’s left breast and the waistline:

    https://3.bp.blogspot.com/-n64kMp8eMP0/Vwh6EuugVQI/AAAAAAAAKQE/qBUmktimXwUxKyQXI8vzAFWImcrkn1utg/s1600/cap003.jpg

    This large photo gives a good view of the construction of this motif:

    https://78.media.tumblr.com/650848a3ebcb2b245ac67430165b35b4/tumblr_p3uywxwMtT1uwp6gyo1_1280.jpg

    These motifs are completely absent from Burke’s dress:

    https://i.imgur.com/E0k7Xas.jpg

    https://1.bp.blogspot.com/-U-r8PeHayzY/Vwh6E2prvDI/AAAAAAAAKQI/Vgio-FVGtacYPvBsC3r13mYSrRoDcn2Cg/s1600/Billie_Burke_and_Judy_Garland_The_Wizard_of_Oz_%25281939%2529.jpg

    There’s just no way this is the same dress made over. To take one to the other would require about as much work as simply making a new costume from scratch.

    Reply
    • Dawn

      I was just noticing the skirt in Camille (tulle with stars) looks very similar as well. Couldn’t tell about the bodice and sleeves.

      Reply
  8. florenceandtheai

    The “Garbo in ruffles” caption is my favorite ever on this site. It made me wheeze, to the point my boss looked over the cube wall. Thank you!

    Reply

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