Domestic Affairs: Friday Night Spotlight on Hollywood Costume

I do not know much about the golden age of Hollywood. I know names when they are written or said, and I have seen plenty of classic Hollywood films provided they star Myrna Loy and William Powell, or Hepburn and Tracy, among a very few others. So it was not until Turner Classic Movies asked Deborah Nadoolman Landis to host their Friday Night Spotlight all this month focusing on Hollywood Costume that I finally saw such legendary performers as Marlene Dietrich and Claudette Colbert.

The Spotlight comes at an apropos time, with Ms Nadoolman Landis’s book, Hollywood Costume having just been published by Abrams (as many of you know, we gave away a copy two weeks ago), and the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Hollywood exhibition on display in Virginia until February.

HC book cover

Due to a family medical emergency and an error on my part setting up the DVR, I missed the second week of Ms Nadoolman Landis’s choices and introductions, and I must say I feel the loss. I watched and thoroughly enjoyed the first week more than I anticipated I would – I have even forbidden my family from removing any of the films from the DVR, not because I don’t already own Casablanca, but because watching it with Nadoolman Landis’s commentary is better.

I felt that Blonde Venus, while a not particularly good story or venue for Marlene Dietrich’s obvious talent, was an excellent introduction choice by Ms Nadoolman Landis to acquaint audiences with the work of Travis Banton. Banton’s designs were amazing in the way they were not obvious. Minor things, such as small tears in Dietrich’s clothes when her character had descended into destitution, enhanced the character, rather than distracted from it. However, I confess that for me the weak script made this film was a waste of both Banton’s and Dietrich’s talents.

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Costume for Cleopatra, Cleopatra, 1934. Costume designer Travis Banton. The Collection of Motion. Picture Costume Design Larry McQueen.
Copyright: Victoria and Albert Museum

Far better was the second film, Cecil B. deMille’s Cleopatra of 1934. As Ms Nadoolman Landis pointed out in her introduction to the film, historic costumes always look like the time in which the film was made; hence the clear evidence to our eyes of the influence of 1930s, bias-cut evening gowns on Banton’s designs for Claudette Colbert as Cleopatra, as well as her attendants, and the women of Rome. And yet, in several places it was very clear that both Banton and deMille had done their research, as it takes great skill and artistry to transform historic images and garments into something that will appeal to a contemporary audience, immersing them in the world without distracting from the story. I did at some points wonder whether Colbert had to be carried on and off the set, the cut of many of the gowns was so severe, but it emphasized Colbert’s portrayal of the original femme fatale, rather than distracted.

It was also fascinating to see such a juxtaposition of Banton’s talents: contemporary and historical epic. The showing of both films emphasized Nadoolman Landis’s discussion of Travis Banton’s ability to create unique costumes not only for the actress – emphasizing her attributes and enhancing them – but subtley enhancing the story and the film’s general artistic aesthetic.

Deborah Nadoolman Landis’s next two choices also showcased the range and mastery of her second highlighted designer: Orry-Kelly. Her introduction to Casablanca allowed me to watch the film with new eyes. She discussed Kelly’s restrictions working during the fabric and clothing rationing of World War II, and the rejection by the director of some of Kelly’s initial designs because they were “too glamorous” for refugees on the run from the Gestapo. The next film, Auntie Mame, has become a new favourite of mine, largely because of the wonderful performance given by Rosalind Russell as the title character. And yet, and yet… without Deborah Nadoolman Landis’s introduction and discussion of the film, while I would have loved the costumes, I’m not sure I would have known to pay attention to the subtle ways in which they emphasized the character – or seen that Rosalind Russell was, as Nadoolman Landis said, in on the joke. I shall forever be enamoured of Auntie Mame’s blue turban with the blue feathers erupting from the top in the elevator. The contrast between the cotton creations Orry-Kelly made under wartime restrictions for Casablanca and the extravagant, beaded, jewel-toned masterpieces he made in 1958 for Auntie Mame were a wonderful way to showcase what a good designer can do both when he is working under strict rules, and the restraint he can show when the sky is the limit.

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Costume for Irene Bullock, My Man Godfrey, 1936. Costume designers Travis Banton and Brymer. Gown and duster jacket designed by Travis Banton. The Collection of Motion Picture Costume Design Larry McQueen.
Copyright: Victoria and Albert Museum

The value of Nadoolman Landis as a guide was felt when TCM then showed an additional two films – The Women and Anna Karenina, both costumed by Adrian – but not chosen by or discussed by her. I actually found myself disappointed because I know Adrian’s work well, and I had enjoyed seeing the work of designers who had previously been unknown to me. I also have a prejudice towards Dinner at Eight and the ‘goddess gown’ that made Adrian famous, but mostly it was the lack of knowledge behind the designer’s process that I had missed.

My only criticism was the lack of discussion of what the men wore. Humphrey Bogart’s trench coat and snap-brimmed fedora were mentioned briefly, but that was it. What about the suits for the young Patrick in Auntie Mame? I am aware that in the thirties, the male actors were left to purchase their own suits for their roles, but did they collaborate with the designers at all about what suits to wear in which scenes? And also, how long did this practice go on? There is also the fact that the absence of suits in Cleopatra means that Travis Banton designed all of the costumes in the film, why was there no discussion of their clothing in addition to the gowns Banton created for Claudette Colbert?

Overall, though, as someone with very little knowledge of the history of Hollywood costuming, the Friday Night Spotlight is almost like a mini-course in the subject. And a wonderful opportunity to expand my classic film repertoire.

Please share your thoughts below, and be sure to email me any events for the new year you would like to highlight!

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Costume for Elizabeth I (Cate Blanchett), Elizabeth: The Golden Age, 2007. Costume designer Alexandra Bryne.
Copyright: Victoria and Albert Museum

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