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.
Mata Hari (1931)
Rasputin and the Empress (1932)
Storm at Daybreak (1933)
Queen Christina (1933)
The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934)
The Merry Widow (1934)
Naughty Marietta (1935)
Anna Karenina (1935)
San Francisco (1936)
Romeo and Juliet (1936)
The Gorgeous Hussy (1936)
The Emperor’s Candlesticks (1937)
The Firefly (1937)
Marie Antoinette (1938)
The Great Waltz (1938)
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
New Moon (1940)
Pride and Prejudice (1940)
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941)
What’s your favorite of Adrian’s historical movie costumes?
Not a film, but Adrian also worked on the original Broadway production of Camelot.
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.
Excess never looked so good! I’m so glad you featured Adrian and I love your poem!
All the ruffles! all the tassels! all the glitz and bling! Gimme gimme gimme!
And Garbo looks good always.
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.
In San Francisco, she’s performing in La traviata, which is set in the mid-19th century.
Ah, that makes a lot more sense. Thanks!
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.
Fabulous! I slithered on my seat at the sight of Garbo’s tassels, and need to tip that velvet. Ahem.
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…
“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:
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:
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:
This large photo gives a good view of the construction of this motif:
These motifs are completely absent from Burke’s dress:
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.
I was just noticing the skirt in Camille (tulle with stars) looks very similar as well. Couldn’t tell about the bodice and sleeves.
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!
Loved it almost never historical, ALWAYS AMAZING! Rest in peace Adrian
P.s. Just one thing the photo you got for the Emperor’s Candlesticks is of Pierre Fresnay and Yvonne Printemps in La Valse de Paris (1949/50) is a nice period drama but has nothing to do with Adrian
And that pic on Ethel Barrymore made me think you should do a WCW or at least a flick on Empress Alexandra it would probably have FABULOUS costumes