Fashion and Film: A Biography of MGM Designer Gilbert Adrian

Films provide escapism for those who watch them. Viewers are transported to a world of glamour, stardom, excitement and fantasy. During the ‘Golden Era’ of film, a time commonly associated with the 1930’s, cinema became an enormous industry in America. With the arrival of the talkies (sound films) during the late 1920’s, by 1930, 80 million people visited the cinema weekly (Esquevin, Monacelli Press: 2008).

Big blockbuster studios such as Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Paramount were responsible for promoting some of the most well-recognised and prestigious stars of the twentieth century. Garbo, Dietrich, Harlow, Hayworth and Hepburn, were all actresses still idolised today.

adrian 1933

Adrian gown, actress Jean Harlow starring in the film Dinner at Eight, 1933.

These women were beautiful. They appeared on screen in glittering sequin dresses, floor length bias-cut gowns, sharp suits and even more shockingly, masculine trousers. One outfit alone on the screen could produce a fashion phenomenon. America excelled in dictating the fashion industry on screen – some designs were even copied by Parisian designers.

adrian 1940

Katharine Hepburn wearing an Adrian design for the film, The Philadelphia Story (1940).

But who dressed these stars? Unbeknown to the audiences – dressing the star for their role on screen is integral to any film’s success. There is so much to consider – many films were produced in black and white for starters – therefore colours would look different when projected on the screen in comparison to their truer shades off screen.

Writer Christian Esquevin discusses just how popular film fashion became during the 1930’s in the text, Adrian: Silver Screen to Custom Label. He says, that,

American films were a fashion phenomena. Attending American movies became a pastime of Parisian society […]. Women picked up fashion ideas, and Paris designers responded. Ironically, fashion from American films was often adopted by French designers and then disseminated in American fashion magazines. (Esquevin, Monacelli Press: 2008).

adrian 1932

Adrian dress worn by Joan Crawford for the film, Letty Lynton (1932).

Props and garments have the potential to allude plot twists and developments. They help stars psychologically perform characters on screen more convincingly. Dress must be researched in order to correctly represent the time period of which the film is set. Much work is carried in the field of costume design, yet this is often overlooked and underappreciated.

One very talented, yet extremely modest gentleman was responsible for designing the costumes for MGM’s lavish films. An arbiter of style, Gilbert Adrian began working at MGM from around 1927-28, up until his departure in 1941. A promoter of American design, he was a costume designer/couturier hybrid, successfully opening his own fashion salons after his time in the cinematic industry.

He was a master of extravagance as well as simplicity. Adrian was known for his special relationship with Greta Garbo, designing costumes for films such as Mata Hari (1931).

Adrian designs for actress Greta Garbo for the film, Mata Hari (1931).

For The Great Zeigfeld (1936), Adrian produced some of the most lavish costumes which complimented the elaborate film sets. It took over six months to design and create all of the costumes used throughout the film – a visual representation of the glamourous and exciting 1920’s.

Various Adrian ensembles and head-pieces designed for the film, The Great Zeigfeld (1936).

For Madam Satan (1930), Adrian produced fancy-dress costumes for party-goer characters, with the main character dressed in a sultry dress with nude transparent materials, for the benefit of American film censors (flesh on screen was still controversial). Madam Satan’s outfit was supposed to resemble a fiery volcano. One outfit, called ‘Confusion,’ took three weeks to complete, with 30 feet, or 10 yards of material needed to create the cloud-like silhouette of the costume.

adrian madame satan

Adrian dress for the film Madame Satan (1930), worn by actress Kay Johnson.

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Adrian sketch for Kay Johnson’s outfit, created for the film Madam Satan (1930).

adrian madam satan 3

“Confusion” dress, designed by Adrian for the film Madam Satan (1930).

Adrian designed those iconic ruby-red slippers for The Wizard of Oz (1939), creating the sweet gingham ensemble Judy Garland wears as the character Dorothy.

adrian judy garland

Actress Judy Garland wearing an Adrian dress for the film The Wizard of Oz (1939).

For Marie Antoinette (1938), Adrian and his costume department produced period garments which would suit the historical context of the film.

adrian norma shearer

Actress Norma Shearer and co-stars wearing Adrian ensembles for the film Marie Antoinette (1938).

Adrian had the ability to work with the most volatile of actresses. Despite their egos, concerns about their appearances, or rivalries between each other, Adrian could work with the most difficult of any professionals. Through costume, he could transform them into femme-fatale vamps or tragic victims.

adrian joan crawford

Adrian dress worn by Joan Crawford for the film Sadie McKee (1934).

George Cukor’s ground-breaking comedy, The Women (1939), was seen as Adrian’s greatest achievement, dressing the likes of Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, and Rosalind Russell, whilst they played out contemporary issues on screen. With an all-female cast, Adrian shone – with a fashion sequence held during the film exhibiting his beautiful garments.

adrian the women

Adrian dresses worn by Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford and Rosalind Russell for the film, The Women (1939).

But Adrian’s talents were not exclusively reserved for the big screen. In fact, due to the onset of WW2, Adrian opened his own couture salon in Beverley Hills, coinciding with the popularity and demand for American fashions rather than Parisian. Designs from the fashion capital had been cut off from America, therefore home-grown designers had their opportunity to show the world what they were made of.

Adrian was known for his long evening dresses and sharp-shouldered suits. He used ingenious craft techniques to conserve the amount of fabric used in his garments, restricted due to the war effort. His tailoring was highly esteemed. He never agreed with the silhouette and excess of Dior’s ‘New Look’ released in 1947.

adrian 1948

2009.300.2421a–c. Adrian evening ensemble. Synthetic materials. c1948. The Metropiltan Museum of Art, New York.

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C.I.45.94. Adrian evening gown. c1945. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Adrian often obtained inspiration from nature surrounding his Beverly Hills studio and home.

Adrian returned to MGM one last time in 1952 to design for the film Lovely to Look At. During the same year he had a major heart attack, closing his couture house and retiring. In 1959 he was asked to design costumes for Broadway which he accepted, but he sadly died during the early stages of the project in 1959.

adrian shades of picasso

Accession number unknow. Adrian ‘Shades of Picasso’ dresses. c1945. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

During the end credits of MGM films, this legendary designer is acknowledged simply by the words, ‘Gowns by Adrian.’ A shy, hard-working gentleman who strove to dazzle audiences, Adrian’s dedicated work ethic towards his art was both inspiring and exhaustive. In his lifetime, he designed for more than 250 films. He created one of the busiest and illustrious costume departments in cinematic history.


Christian Esquevin, Adrian: Silver Screen to Custom Label (New York: Monacelli Press, 2008) 17-19.


Esquevin, Adrian: Silver Screen to Custom Label, 19.

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