Costuming Hollywood Movie Stars in the 1930s-1950s
|Robert Montgomery |
Magazine Photo orig
"When Astaire, Cooper and Grant were making films, Hollywood had an increasing number of make-up artists, stylists and costume designers–but even with these amenities at hand, the leading stars often dressed themselves, sometimes with their own clothes.
"This personal touch of an actor being responsible for his own wardrobe is a far cry from today, where an actor’s wardrobe is sourced for him (frequently to endorse a particular couturier or brand)."
-- Hollywood Costume by Deborah Nadoolman Landis
The costume designer who worked mainly or exclusively on women's fashion tended to receive credit on screen for an entire film. Several others did work in wardrobe and accessories. A different designer might oversee gowns, another jewelry and accessories. If a contemporary film, men's wardrobe was purchased or designed by the men's wardrobe department when need be.
When making purchase decisions, actors may have bought multiples, in the case that something had to be cleaned or something was damaged in the course of filming. I read a few times that they anticipated color film so they kept that in mind early on while still thinking how it would look in black and white.
Good to note that clothes for either gender to be intentionally damaged during production are studio property. As an example, Warner Brothers picked up the tab for "the former clothes" worn by Dick Powell and Rosemary Lane when they splash about in the lily pond in a scene in Hollywood Hotel. The 1937 film included Busby Berkeley's Hooray for Hollywood.
|Tyrone Power, Dick Powell, Charles Laughton ...|
Hard to believe that the clothes we saw old actors wearing in many of the classic movies were actually suits or tuxedos, shirts, coats, etc that the actors themselves had bought and paid for.
James Stewart needs a Tailored Bathrobe ASAP
Sometimes even when filming a 'modern' movie, what seemed like the simplest thing will need to be specially made to fit the director's vision and maybe the proportions of the actor. Quite a bit has been written about the recurring Greek motif and goddess references, including the specially designed robe made by Adrian for Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story.
Cary Grant, a costar of this film is one of the few male actors whose clothes have been analyzed with gusto. Between Grant's looks, his knowledge of dressing a character, his taste and interest in clothes he is a role model not just for actors but for men in general. Sometimes it's a character who's been played by different actors, like James Bond, who piques the public's interest.
In The Philadelphia Story, there was an unexpected poolside glitch. Neither Mr. Stewart nor anyone else had foreseen it when choosing clothes for his character.
"[James] Stewart had to have a robe for a swimming scene with Miss Hepburn. Nothing was thought about it until the day before the sequence was to be filmed, when director George Cukor requested several bathrobes to be tried on Stewart. None owned by the studio would do. They all hit the six-foot four-inch Stewart around the knees.
"The wardrobe department hastily canvassed all the stores in Hollywood and the surrounding vicinity, but there wasn't a bathrobe in Southern California to cover the actor's lanky figure. Plenty could be found to fit six-footers, but not Stewart.
"It was finally necessary to make one and three studio tailors labored all night on the job. The moment the scene was completed the wardrobe department had a man on hand to take the robe back and carefully put it away just in case Stewart ever was to wear a bathrobe on the screen again."
-- The Montreal Gazette, February 18, 1941
I can't say for sure, but my guess is that particularly if Stewart became the owner of that robe, it was well-used in later pictures when he worked with studios other than MGM.
In early 2014, The Museum at FIT had a show about fashion in the 1930s. Their video, "Elegance in an Age of Crisis" talks about the way men dressed, the importance of the suit both for the men in families and the men in society, 1930s style and beyond.
|Cary Grant occasionally wore things|
that probably weren't hanging in his closet
Knight in shining armor; Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer
Charlie Chaplin, Cary Grant, Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby were among the classic film stars who had shoes made at Henry Maxwell Shoe Makers on Savile Row in London. Once he was able to do so, Grant had his clothes custom tailored in London such as Kilgour or Norton and Sons also on Savile Row.
Some of the Savile Row shops use the names and even images of the old Hollywood stars on their web sites to this day. A few years ago, Burberry used a photo of Humphrey Bogart wearing his famous trench coat in some of its advertising. They hadn't gotten approval from Mr. Bogart's estate and there were legal ramifications.
Looking online for information about Cary Grant in Hitchcock films, there are slightly different versions of pretty much the same story. Add books and interviews and the end result was that Grant provided his own clothes most of the time. Not surprising. In a film like North by Northwest, several versions of the famous grey suit were manufactured. There were also several copies of the tie, etc.
In the 1980s Cary Grant gave a series of talks across the country, conversations with audiences where he answered questions with fans. This is an audio recording where he talks about working with Hitchcock and specifically discusses the suit he wore in North by Northwest.
Actors had to know their audiences, the characters they were playing. Cary Grant knew what he wore impacted the character, the picture and his fan base. Grant not only wore the clothes, he spent time figuring out timing, just how he would adjust his tie for the best comic effect. How would he put on or take off a jacket. Was the scene seductive, suspenseful, silly?
The actor inhabiting the suit understands the importance of a cuff being precise down to the eighth of an inch. The placement of an object on a table means the choreography and performance of the scene will work well. This can include the choreography involved with dressing, undressing and adjusting what you're wearing.
Back in the 1930s, when Peter Lorre complained on the set of The Man Who Knew Too Much, that a suit had been ruined, Hitchcock, a lover of practical jokes, had another one sent to him, beautifully tailored in the same material but cut to infant size.
Adolphe Menjou wore 16 suits in The Goldwyn Follies. But that did not represent his entire wardrobe. For special accessories, including top coats, shirts and ties, all designed with the garish demands of the color camera in mind. Menjou's bill ran well over $5,000. And most of it was a total loss because the suits and accessories were so glaring he wouldn't dare ware them, except to a masquerade.
In 1947, Robert Montgomery starred in and directed the film noir Lady in the Lake. the film is shot from the viewpoint of the central character, Marlowe. You hear him, but he's rarely seen. Still he's dressed as the character.
"Robert Montgomery, in Wooden Wedding now in production is wearing six new business suits, two sport outfits a full dress and a dinner suit. His tailor bill for that film will stand him more than 2,000. And Wooden Wedding didn't spot Montgomery into an especially well-dressed part. For many of his society playboy roles he spends even more.
|Ann Blyth "Killer" Robert Montgomery|
Once More My Darling b&w 8x10 1949
"When a scenario demands the male lead wear half a dozen or more snappy outfits it is reasonable to assume the studio should pay the costs, said Montgomery. It is true the actor retains title to his clothes and possibly can wear some of them in future pictures. And on top of that there's a huge pile of tricky outfits we'd never think of wearing outside the backyard. It's all pretty much of a loss." Wooden Wedding became The First Hundred Years (1938)
|Clark Gable Boom Town Photo with Spencer Tracy|
Where oh where has his undershirt gone?
Bob Cummings couldn't have been the only one his undershirts and shorts tailor made to wear in movies. Other actors' underclothes, or lack of them, have been making news from the beginning.
What men wore in films, particularly those set in the present day, just didn't get anything close to the attention the women's clothes got unless the film was a period piece. Maybe if the movie took place in space or some other unusual locale. Sometimes the actor got to don an interesting sweater or leather jacket.
Once in a while a t-shirt or lack of one made a huge statement. It's what Clark Gable didn't wear in It Happened One Night in 1934, his appearing on screen without an undershirt that they say caused a significant drop in the sale of undershirts. In a later film his character would appear wearing an undershirt. Marlon Brando would again cause a rise in sales when he wore a T-Shirt type undershirt in A Streetcar Named Desire in 1951. Brando, too had a very popular leather jacket in The Wild One, 1953. Did he have to buy these for himself?
These stories may be somewhat apocryphal. They have been well repeated. I haven't seen any sales figures from these years and don't know if we can attribute sales directly to what we saw in the movies, let alone to one movie. But sales and fashion trends do seem to have been happening around the times of these films.
Marlon Brando talked about how he was perceived partly based on what he wore. "The closer you come to the successful portrayal of a character, the more people mythologize about you in that role. Perception is everything. I didn't wear jeans as a badge of anything, they were just comfortable.
"But because I wore blue jeans and a T-shirt in Streetcar and rode a motorcycle in The Wild One, I was considered a rebel. It's true that I always hated conforming because it breeds mediocrity, but the real source of my reputation as a rebel was my refusal to follow some of the normal Hollywood rules."
-- Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me by Marlon Brando
Brando talks about how he didn't like to give interviews. In the years before
|Marlon Brando Vivien Leigh|
8x10 glossy Photo
In Marlon Brando by Patricia Bosworth there is a story of choosing and styling the T-shirt and jeans Brando would wear in A Streetcar Named Desire. Costume designer Lucinda Ballard took him for a fitting at Eaves Costume Company for role as Stanley Kowalski. The story also appears in Brando: the Biography by Peter Manso.
"She dyed a couple of T-shirts red and washed them over and over again until they shrunk Then she tore the right shoulder to suggest that Stella might have scratched Stanley.
"She had the tailor cut and taper the jeans to fit the countours of Brando's body like a second skin; they were tight as a glove, and Brando didn't wear any underpants when they were fitted. When he saw his reflection in the mirror, he saw how the jeans outlined every muscle in his thighs.
"He 'almost went crazy' Ballard told Peter Manso. 'He wa dancing between the gold cases leaping off the ground.' Brando said, 'This is it! This is what I've always wanted!'"
-- Marlon Brando
Style from Robin and the 7 Hoods
Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Bing Crosby 1964
Let's visit (and inventory) the clothes in a couple of actors' closets. Follow me and bring your calculators ...
Robert Cummings appeared in two Alfred Hitchcock films Saboteur (1942) and Dial M for Murder (1954) alongside Grace Kelly. His character's clothes won't ever get any notice there! His other movies include Three Smart Girls Grow Up (1939) with Deanna Durbin, The Devil and Miss Jones (1941) with Jean Arthur, and The Bride Wore Boots (1946) with Barbara Stanwyck and Moon Over Miami (1941). 1955 through 1959 he starred on TV in The Bob Cummings Show. Mr. Cummings is letting us peek into his closet first, he could use a custom closet organizer. The year is 1950.
"Tools of the trade is what Bob Cummings and other male stars call their expensive duds. Bob reckons he has invested $30,000 or more in his wardrobe, part of which he keeps in a room at home and part in a storage company warehouse.
"In his early screen days Bob would try to get by with a comparatively cheap suit though it was the best he could afford. During shooting it would become shapeless and ruined, he said, and 'just didn't pay.' Now he pays $200 to $250 per tailored suit. He owns 60 virtually all bought for screen roles.
"He estimated other items: 15 sport coats at about $190 each; slacks about 30 pairs ($40-$60); shoes, 15 pairs ($15-$30); hats ($20), including gray, brown, panama, opera and character toppers. His 100 assorted white shirts ($20 each) are dyed faintly grayish, like all movie leading men's, to prevent glare into the camera. His 100 ties must knot as neatly at the end of two months' shooting as they did at the start. He orders them in pairs. If one is lost or damaged, shooting isn't interrupted.
"He has about six full dress suits ($500 each), 10 full dress shirts ($30), 10 overcoats ($150-$300), and 10 pairs of gloves (gray, black, white, pigskin at $7.50-$10). Cummings may take 40 suits to a studio when outfitting himself for a role. If the girl wears light clothes in a particular scene, he probably wears dark for contrast.
"A suit may be cleaned and pressed 20 times on a picture. A studio tailor makes a replica of the leading man's suit of a cheaper material, for him to wear when thrown into the mud or tattered in a fight. Four or five duplicates may be damaged in action sequences. Are Bob's clothes luxuries? 'In this business,' he says, 'they're a necessity.'"
Maybe this would have been a good time for a actor to start his own clothing design line? Maybe do some modeling? Something to make a little extra money.
This wasn't just limited to the gentlemen who were known for wearing suits and tuxedos, the ones sometimes called the glamor boys of Hollywood. John Wayne's had to buy at least some of his own clothes. If in the contract any performer may have to supply his own clothing, a featured performer, an extra.
1930s Fans chimed in, sort of...
Too much nudism. "Have you noticed the insane mania of late to show men as well as women in bathroom scenes displaying every part of the anatomy they can get away with? .... He now seems to conduct most of his work showing his naked body or consuming enormous quantities of liquor -- much of the picture was taken of him in the bath, scrubbing and soaping his hulk. He is so darned conceited. ... Now he simply seems to want to display his manly form." This is the gist of a 1936 Modern Screen Magazine received a letter from, if you're interested, a male film fan.
What star do you think they're talking about, flaunting his manly nakedness and liquor drinking? Why it's William Powell in one of The Thin Man films. (In the movie magazines of the 1930s-1950s I've looked through only about about a third of the fan letters had anything negative to say about the stars or the films. And this topic is sort of the antithesis of costume.)
The Public and Private sides of William Powell
|Promo shot for Reckless|
Powell with Jean Harlow
So of course, we're on to the home of William Powell. We've gone back in time. The year is 1935. Maybe Jean Harlow will be visiting? Unlike the suave detective characters he plays on screen in real life, if Powell loses his shirt studs, he says rather than look for them it's easier to buy another set. Bill's valet's biggest job is to keep him dressed up to the public's demand. ...
He had to have a special closet built off his bedroom for all of his suits. This wardrobe is not his personal private clothes closet. It's his stock in trade, the tools of his profession, it's the stuff he has to wear on the screen to keep his spot.
Full dress suits 5; dinner jackets (tux to you) 6; street clothes, business suits and so on - 44; overcoats 14 (and one all white one he has never worn); gloves 39 pairs; sports trousers 25 but not one pair of knickers or plus fours, he hates 'em); hats 54 (including toppers and the opera-hat things you can pop); neckties 167; turtleneck sweaters a la Gable 6, sox [sic] 175 pairs shirts 63 and one white beret. What did his personal clothes closet contain?
In 1936, Clark Gable was number one when newspapers polled chorus girls asking who they thought was the Best Dressed Men in Pictures. Number two was William Powell. In 1937, Hollywood outfitters released a list of the Best Dressed Movie Star. Gable and Powell tied for first place. Gable for sports clothes, Powell for business suits.
William Powell was known to be somewhat fastidious about his clothing when working. In the privacy of his home, he was said to be more interested in comfort. Beyond that, he had the reputation for wearing little to nothing at all when possible. "He doesn't care for clothes and doesn't know much about fashions. He prefers not to wear clothes. At home he generally walks around completely naked, except when it is necessary to wear a dressing gown."
-- Pittsburgh Press, October 30, 1936
"This best-dressed man reputation he's got, that gives Bill a laugh, too. Because the fact that there isn't a sloppier dresser in all Hollywood than Bill Powell, when he can do it."
At home, in the privacy of his house and with his intimate friends about, Bill loves to wander about with a somewhat neglected stubble of whisker, his hair tousled, his legs encased in in an ancient and streaked pair of unpressed slacks or old pants, a well-seasoned sweatshirt or polo shirt on and a pair of comfortably aged slippers on his feet. Or if the weather's warm, give him a breech-clout* and a drink on the patio and he's contented.
|Your own |
*I'd read in a couple places how Mr. Powell enjoyed walking around his home au naturel. After consulting different sources for the definition of breech-clout the best I can come up with is that today or in 1935 it is something of a loincloth. Comanche warriors normally went about in only a breech clout and moccasins. Movie stars, too?
How to make your own breech-clout:
"The width of the Breech Clout is determined by the size of your hands. Place hands, palm down, thumbs bent out in almost a right angle, thumb tips touching. Width of the cloth is distance between the outside edges of hands." You might like to decorate yours with paint or beads. You might recall seeing Rudolph Valentino wearing one of these in a movie poster??
"For general use, most Indians wore breech clout and moccasins solely. But for ceremonies and special occasions they got into more elaborate fineries."
-- Rough idea and image example from 1941 Boys' Life
In some cases, it would work a little differently. Again, it all depended on how you drew up your contract. Here's how Lew Ayres acquired some of his suits. Aside from starring in the series of Dr. Kildare movies alongside Lionel Barrymore, Ayres was in All Quiet on the Western Front, Holiday with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, He was nominated for an Academy Award for his work in Johnny Belinda. Co-star Jane Wyman won in 1948.
"Lew, whose taste tended towards elegance, had a noticeably large and full closet of tailored suits. He had accumulated them through the years by purchasing them from the studios for half the cost after making his films. While at Universal, he paid $200 for a suit and at Warners he purchased each $600 suit for $300 after wearing them during filming."
-- Lew Ayres: Hollywood's Conscientious Objector
Boom Town Costume & Spencer Tracy's Big Idea
|Boom Town Lobby Card|
Wardrobe, contractually the responsibility of the actor on a modern-dress picture, became a matter of swapping out clothes with genuine laborers.
When making Boom Town, "Larry Keethe, our wardrobe man, thought I was crazy when we bought a bunch of new work clothes and went down to a building project around here, looking for a couple of workmen who were about my size.
"We traded the new outfits for those a couple of guys were wearing. They thought I was crazy, too. But you can't look like a worker in the oil fields walking into a picture in brand-new dungarees. They must be baggy and faded from sweat and dirt and many washings."
-- Spencer Tracy: A Biography
There were many famous Robert Mitchum movies including Night of the Hunter, The Sundowners and Cape Fear. He was nominated for an Oscar for his work in The Story of G.I. Joe. He was in Scrooged with Bill Murray in 1988. In his autobiography, Mitchum said, "I kept the same suit for six years - and the same dialog. We just changed the title of the picture and the leading lady. ....
"RKO made the same film with me for ten years. They were so alike I wore the same suit in six of them and the same Burberry trench coat. They made a male Jane Russell out of me. I was the staff hero."
Glamor Boy, Errol Flynn
In the 1930s and 40s, there were sometimes gender inequities in dressing rooms. It could, and still may to this day, work either way. In Errol Flynn's case, while working on location on the movie, working on location shooting Objective Burma, he saw female stars such as Bette Davis receive trucks to dress in.
On the other hand Flynn was given what amounted to a tent. It had holes in the canvas walls and a dirt floor. Locals would drop by and peer through the holes, watching as he changed clothes.
One day in 1944, he returned to the tent to find his clothes and other belongings had been stolen. He wrote a scathing letter to Warner Brothers. "Some things happen to actors that shouldn't happen to a dog."
|Errol Flynn 1940|
Such a suave and charming epithet can work against you. In early 1943 when Flynn was on trial for statutory rape, there was worry that some female jury members would be lenient.
The prosecutor calling him 'the great glamor boy' in final argument to jury in day-long plea, asked that Mr. Flynn be sent to prison. He asked that same punishment that would be accorded an ordinary citizen. Deputy District Attorney Thomas Cochran had referred to him earlier as "the glamor man of all glamor men."
Women didn't always wear beautiful clothes created by studio costume designers. It all depended on the situation and the film. More clothes than just those worn making the film were needed for actors, there would be time spent promoting the movie.
Dressing an actress from "the basement store"
Providing your own clothing and wearing clothes other than the top of the line designer outfits wasn't something that happened exclusively to men. Alfred Hitchcock's The Wrong Man was a true life story. The director wanted realism, the main characters to dress like the real people dressed. When making the docudrama The Wrong Man with Henry Fonda and Vera Miles in 1956 Alfred Hitchcock dressed even his leading lady in attire purchased in stores where the woman Miles was playing would have shopped.
The real woman had done her fashion shopping in a local basement store so they didn't need Edith Head,' he'd said. They'd just buy the actors' clothes there. "So Miss Miles didn't feel too deprived, we had Edith create a wardrobe for her to use on her promotional tour."
Joan Crawford's Studio Wardrobe
When a magazine toured Joan Crawford's closets in 1935, it is ambiguous. Does she, too have some clothes she's bought only to wear on screen. Could well be. I know that she, like some other actresses had some outfits worn in films remade by designers for her personal use.
"She keeps not only one but four closets opening off the large white mirrored dressing room of her Westwood home. One contains studio wardrobe, another street things, number three holds all the evening frocks and number four, her pajamas and negligees. Then there are her shoe cabinets. .... Her hats are sorted by color and then by shade."
** This is part of a short series. When other parts are posted links will be provided here.
Sources and Resources:
Many of the books have hardcover, paperback and Digital/eReader/Kindle versions available. Sometimes digital versions don't include photos, etc. Editions can be slightly different, too.
Evenings With Cary Grant: Recollections in His Own Words and by Those Who Knew Him Best by Nancy Nelson
Spencer Tracy: A Biography by James Curtis
Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me by Marlon Brando and Robert Lindsey
Lew Ayres: Hollywood's Conscientious Objector by Lesley L. Coffin
Marlon Brando by Patricia Bosworth
Brando: the Biography by Peter Manso
Comanches The History of a People by T.R. Fehrenbach
Hitchcock On the Half Shell: Time Magazine, May 9, 1983
Motion Picture Magazine November 1936
Silver Screen June 1935
The Victoria and Albert Museum in London will host an exhibition, Hollywood Costume, October 2, 2014, through March 2, 2015. The exhibition is curated by Deborah Nadoolman Landis. It is presented by The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and sponsored by Swarovski.
Related Pages of Interest:
Dressing Male Stars in Old Hollywood; Provide Your Own Clothes Hollywood male film stars rebel against high wardrobe costs, The Internal Revenue Service, Tricky Tax Deductions in the 1930s ...
Dressing Gable, Rathbone, Robert Montgomery, Marlene Dietrich
It's 1930, Sherlock Holmes, Cary Grant's Stand-In talks about his duties
The Philadelphia Story, Features of Romantic Comedy
Blue Food Dinner Parties, The Practical Joke so nice Alfred Hitchcock played it twice
Hey Stella! Streetcar Named Desire, Barbara Stanwyck Stella Dallas, Kay Francis
Errol Flynn 1942 Birthday party ends in a brawl
Famous TV Dads, Movie character costumes
Men in the Bath: Have a personal film festival at your place, choose your own theme
Sources listed may be used for any of the posts in the series. Major updates and corrections if necessary will be noted with a date.