Adrian: Silver Screen to Custom Label

Another book that has taught me so many new things about fashion and costume design is Adrian: Silver Screen to Custom Label, by Christian Esquevin. But most importantly, it has helped me better understand and appreciate the American designers’ place in and profound influence on the fashion world, reconfirming my strong belief in films, and in Hollywood films of the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s and ’50s in particular, having an undeniable early fashion influence, especially so in relation to Paris. A goal Adrian fought for.

The book presents the full range of the designer’s work, from his most celebrated screen costumes to his own successful business, his couture and ready-to-wear collections and its far-reaching impact on decades of fashion design. It is very well written and lavishly illustrated with archival images from cinema and runway alike, all those creations of an intangible mix of fanciful and taste, dramatic and grace, whimsical and elegance.

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Gilbert Adrian began his designs with sketches and was one of the few who never used sketch artists (he could produce a costume sketch in 5 minutes). He was aware of the synergy of costume, character and individual star in a movie. The films bore the line “Gowns by Adrian”, because he had done the designing himself. There was no costume supervision credit for Adrian, nor would he take credit for another designer’s work. But he also loathed being copied and he had almost all his sketches destroyed after a costume or collection had been made. The fashion sketches that survived show a mastery of line and form, with Adrian’s usual creativity and panache. His designs reflected no influence other than his own originality. He always added a wit, a novel cut or a fascinating detail.
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In 1928, in A Woman of Affairs, Adrian designed his first costumes for Greta Garbo. For them both the legend had begun. Diana Vreeland said on an Adrian gown for Camille, also starring Garbo: “I was born in Paris, brought up in the world of haute couture, but I’ve never seen better craftsmanship than in this costume.” To Adrian, Greta Garbo represented the ideal woman. He saw that her radiant beauty required singular treatment and created for her a wardrobe notable for its subtlety.

He had a polarized talent. He excelled in black and white, but he was also one of the boldest fashion colorists of his day. Stripes were another Adrian favourite. He even designed and illustrated many of his own prints — animals, leaves, birds, flowers, and more. Bows, doleman sleeves, asymmetrical flourishes, slim skirts were features that he loved. He invented the wide-shouldered look, foresaw so many fashion trends and styles like the colour blocking, the military influenced clothing, the trousers. Adrian led the way foreshadowing the work of many designers. “Every Hollywood designer has had the experience of seeing one of his designs ignored when first flashed on the screen and then a season or two later becomes the vogue because it has the stamp of approval from Paris.”
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He created the most glamorous gowns in films and he was a master of designing a costume to help the actress feel the period or role she was playing. But he pleaded for dressing with simplicity and purity of line, but with flair in real life, that was his advice to movie-going women. He believed that intelligent women dressed themselves best with neither slavish imitation nor sensationalism, and really stylish women weren’t usually the most beautiful.

An entire chapter in the book is dedicated to Adrian versus Dior’s New Look. An extremely interesting subject to follow. He consistently criticized the New Look. He was a modernist and although he had designed many period costumes at MGM, many using the same silhouette as the New Look, he felt strongly that it was inappropriate for modern times. He believed that for day wear, the modern woman’s wardrobe must have strong, clean lines.

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So many fashion designers nowadays admit the influence of Adrian’s creations on their work: Donna Karan, Ralph Lauren, Giorgio Armani, Azzedine Alaïa, Tom Ford, Elie Saab, Valentino. The “Adrian look” — tall, broad-shouldered, slim-hipped, athletic — is not only the standard silhouette of the fashion model, but nearly a universal ideal. Adrian designed so many unageing looks so long ago that, when they are reused by every new generation, many fashion writers assume they are new, or at most, derive from designers like Yves Saint Laurent. Adrian’s elegance was never quite like anyone else’s.

“Like Balenciaga, he was always two years ahead of everyone else in fashion.” Joan Crawford

photos: taken by me, from the book Adrian: Silver Screen to Custom Label. Please do not use these images without linking back to Classiq. The editorial content of this article is based on the above mentioned book.


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18 Responses to Adrian: Silver Screen to Custom Label

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