Adrian: The Costume Designer Who Made Hollywood High Fashion

On the late costume designer's birthday, L'OFFICIEL looks at Adrian's impact on fashion, both on and off the screen.
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We often look to television and Hollywood stars to define the style of the times. Famed American costume designer Adrian Adolph Greenburg, known as Gilbert Adrian or most often simply Adrian, didn't just design the costumes for hundreds of the most legendary films and actresses—he transformed the world of film and fashion both on and off screen.

After getting his start at New York City's Parson's School of Design, Adrian moved to Hollywood at the height of the Golden Age. He briefly worked for film director Cecil B. DeMille's independent film studio before signing on as chief costume designer at MGM, the most powerful motion picture studio in the world. From 1928 to 1941, Adrian designed costumes for over 250 films, collaborating with some of the biggest Hollywood icons of the time, such as Greta Garbo, Jean Harlow, Joan Crawford, Katharine Hepburn, and many more.

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Clockwise from top left: Katharine Hepburn in Adrian's designs. A portrait of Adrian. Hedy Lamarr in "Ziegfeld Girl" (1941). Joan Crawford in the 1932 film "Letty Lynton."

Adrian transformed these actresses into glamorous movie stars through his designs that revolutionized the traditional studio wardrobe department.

His screen credits usually read as "Gowns by Adrian," because he didn't make traditional costumes—he made high fashion gowns. Before Adrian, Hollywood costumes and high fashion designs were two separate things. For his designs, Adrian used luxury materials and high fashion manufacturing from Europe and New York. His designs may have been for the screen, but they could have just as well been worn on red carpets or runways.

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Clockwise from top left: Adrian's design for Greta Garbo's gown in "Inspiration" (1931). Joan Crawford in "Sadie McKee" (1934). Joan Crawford in "Dancing Lady" (1933). Norma Shearer in "Riptide" (1934).

In 1939, Adrian accomplished his most widely known work: the costumes for the 1939 motion picture The Wizard of Oz. The film's wardrobe showed how versatile and unique Adrian's designs were, and the cultural impact costumes could have. In addition to all the whimsical outfits of the various characters, Adrian designed Dorothy's iconic sequined ruby slippers, worn by Judy Garland in the movie.

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The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Adrian not only changed the face of costume design in Hollywood, merging high fashion with studio wardrobe—he also ignited style trends off screen. He's responsible for emphasizing Joan Crawford's frame with shoulder pads in the 1939 film The Women, which became her signature silhouette and prompted generations of women to adopt the style.

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Left: Joan Crawford showed off her signature emphasized shoulders in Adrian's designs for "The Women" (1939). Right: In the '80s, the style re-emerged in movies like "Working Girl" (1988).

Adrian left MGM in 1941 to open his fashion house of ready-to-wear and custom pieces in Los Angeles. From his Beverly Hills-based atelier, the designer faced the challenge of adapting his on-screen style for the everyday woman, on top of the limitations presented by World War II fabric rations. Nevertheless, Adrian persisted and continued innovating silhouettes and giving women glamour. Although the designer retired in 1952 and passed away from a heart attack in 1959, Adrian continues to capture the attention of audiences with his 20-year career of iconic designs that were so much more than costumes.

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