The Women (1939 and 2008)



The remake of the classic 1939 flick, The Women will officially opening on September 12. The new version will star Meg Ryan, Annette Bening, Eva Mendes, Debra Messing, Jada Pinkett Smith, Bette Midler, Candice Bergen and Carrie Fischer with costumes by John A. Dunn (who previously designed Pineapple Express and won an Emmy for his work on Mad Men).


Here is the trailer for the new version:

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Why, you might ask, should an historian of dress care? Well, anyone familiar with the original version of The Women (1939), which starred Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Paulette Goddard and Joan Fontaine will have noticed the costumes. Noted designer Gilbert Adrian created the costumes for this film, and in doing so needed to imitate some of the best fashion designers to suit the needs of the characters. Some of the most interesting, and my personal favorites, are his re-imagined Schiaparelli-esque designs for Rosalind Russell’s character Syliva (played in the new version by Annette Benning). Adrian’s comical and surrealist designs inform Sylvia’s sense of (devious) playfulness.



Some wonderful clips, which show both the snappy one-liners and the amazing costume design by Adrian, is available here

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In her auto-biography, Rosalind Russell describes the details of one of the films best scenes:


“After the knitting scene Norma and I had a scene in a dressing room, and all the time she’s being fitted in a dress, I’m talking a mile a minute. There’s a woman down on the floor fiddling with a hem, mostly out of camera range, once they’ve established what she’s doing, and then, as Norma turns around, there I am buzzing, buzzing, buzzing. ‘Just think of it like a bee,’ Cukor had told me. ‘Get into her ear, and if she turns away, get into her other ear.


In the midst of my buzzing, Norma [Shearer] left the set for half an hour. When she came back she was wearing a dress left over from Marie Antoinette. It had never been worn; it was black velvet and it had an enormous hoop skirt. ‘I hated that other dress, George,’ she said, ‘so I put this one on.’ He studied her, he studied the dress, then he said, ‘Take a few minutes,’ and told his crew he was going to change the scene.

Now, bear in mind that the set was a tiny dressing room with a platform, and that once Norma was in the gown with the hoops, I wasn’t going to be able to get anywhere near her ears. ‘Rosalind,’ Cukor said, ‘I want you to stand on that platform.’ I stood on that platform. ‘Now pull those four full-length mirrors around her,’ he told the prop men. They pulled the four full-length mirrors around me. ‘Now, Norma,’ he said, ‘you go stand next to her as close as you can get.’ Norma came up beside me, and Cukor surveyed his handiwork. ‘Light that, fellows,’ he said.

It took some time to get the shot lit, with the reflections from the mirrors flaring into the camera, but when it was done, Cukor turned to Norma. ‘Now, instead of one Sylvia, you’ve got four,’ he said. It was tremendously effective, four people buzzing at her. Poor Norma, she was a terribly nice woman and a very pretty woman and a good actress, but what could she do?”



The 1939 version of The Women was an influential film that many present day designers turn to for inspiration and historical reference. Not only did each character have a well-tailored and distinct look (these women were, primarily, among the social elite) but they also attended a fashion show – and Adrian pulled out all the stops. Much excitement was made over the contemporary design seen in The Women – and Adrian was indeed celebrated for it.

Gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (who also had a small role in the film as a journalist), described the designs she saw on set:


“There was Roz Rusell in a white-and-black taffeta bustled dress with a tight, old-fashioned basque. And three spears on her head, hoping to stab every member of the cast at the same time, watching Norma Shearer in black velvet wearing a crystal boutonniere, a miniature of the chandelier hanging over her head, which came from an Austrian palace. . . . If Adrian wasn’t our greatest designer, he’d earn that title for his clothes in ‘The Women.’ He’s done 150 dresses – 50 for the fashion show. . . . (Hopper, Heda, “Screen,” Los Angeles Times; May 29, 1939, pg. A15).

Here is the fashion show (the only part of the film in color):

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All that said, I can’t help but wonder what, if any, iconic images will come from this new version of the film. The film industry has changed so tremendously since the 1939 film, and costume design and designers are no longer promoted as stars in their own right (as was the practice during the studio system). The perception of conteporary film is often that there is no costume design – because the designers, in effect, have done their jobs well (creating costumes that the audience doesn’t notice, because they are so realistic is essential in many films). More often than not, when we notice film design ( Sex and The City anyone?) it is because the choices seem unrealistic or aren’t right for the character or situation.

Once the movie is released, I may have more to say (but given what I’ve seen in trailers and ‘sneak peaks,’ I doesn’t look nearly as good as the original). I would certainly recommend that you watch the 1939 version in its entirety before seeing the remake.


Until Next Time,





Adrian: Silver Screen to Custom Label By Christian Esquivin

Life Is A Banquet By Rosalind Russell

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  • Lizzie September 05, 2008 01.11 pm

    Great post; great movie! The Women is such a fashion classic. The sportswear in the fashion show segment always blows me away. Lizzie

  • Natasha January 09, 2009 05.41 pm

    Great post, Heather!


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