Style in film: “The Women”

The Women was one of Adrian’s most influential films. Many present-day designers still point to the 1939 movie as an inspiration. Adapted from a satirical play by Clare Boothe Luce, with a screenplay by Anita Loos, it was directed by George Cukor and it had an amazing all-female cast led by Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Joan Fontaine and Paulette Goddard. Their wardrobes epitomized glamour, femininity and a certain grace. Adrian adopted the policy of not showing his designs for one actress to the other because of the off-screen animosity between Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford and other jealousies, too. In The Women, Adrian excelled in projecting the contrasting personalities of the female characters through costumes.

Norma Shearer, as the wronged wife Mary Haines, is dressed in attractive, but prim suits. A line in the movie, which is filled with witty dialogue, says: “She is the only woman while the others are just females.” When she finds out about her husband’s infidelity from a gossip beautician, she’s wearing a black skirt and a short jacket with a black collar and a single button closure (the stills above). There is one detail in this costume that prefigures her courage: a small military medal decoration on her chest.

In a projected film taken on a vacation, Mary wears a few lovely casual attires, one of which the one seen on the screen above: beautiful palazzo pants and striped top. How timeless that look is!

In her first scene, Rosalind Russell wears a blouse with three “seeing eyes” boldly outlined in black, a surrealist depiction that perfectly conveys the meddlesome nature of Sylvia. It was eye-catching in the black and white film, but it must have been vibrant in its natural colours: violet on fuchsia over a purple skirt. Although the audience wouldn’t see the colours, the actresses did, and Adrian exploited colour for its psychological effects. Sylvia’s subsequent costumes would range from awkward to downright silly.

Joan Crawford, playing Crystal Allen, the other woman, wears costumes that contrast with Norma Shearer’s. As a salesgirl on the make, she looks great in basic black, but when she replaces Mary as the love interest of Stephen Haines, her wardrobe is visibly transformed. Adrian liked to dress Crawford in classic lines that set off her strong features, and the wide shoulder look, his invention and one of his signature styles, makes me immediately think of her and her film characters.

The rest of the gowns in the film are beautiful too, sporting so many of Adrian’s favourite details: from military influences and stripes, to dolman sleeves and flowers.

The fabulous hats play a role of their own.

The hood, a sunning detail both for a day dress and an evening gown.

In the film’s final scene, Shearer and Crawford present a definitive contrast, a contrast made particularly piquant by the known fourteen-year rivalry between the two actresses. Mary is dressed in striking lamé, Crystal in an eye-popping sequined and jeweled halter top and long skirt with bare midriff.


Images: stills from ‘The Women’ (1939), photo credit MGM
Editorial source: the book “Adrian: Silver Screen to Custom Label, by Christian Esquevin

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