During the Golden Days of Hollywood, the movie business was a beehive of fashion activity, with seamstresses, designers and photographers working to feed the public’s appetite for glamorous bugle-beaded gowns and jaw-dropping historical costumes. There’s nothing that rivals it to this day! Studio budgets seemed virtually endless, and many of the gowns worn on screen made their way into shops around the country. Something as simple as unique cuff or a collar could cause a huge stir in the fashion world.
Here’s a list my daughter and I compiled of our favorite classic movies that also happen to feature fabulous costumes. Many of these iconic creations can still be seen in Tinseltown museums. Designers I look out for the most? Edith Head and Walter Plunkett!
Gone with the Wind (1939) Plunket was an authority on period costumes, so being tasked with costumes for David O. Selznick’s long-awaited Southern epic was not surprising. He did not disappoint, creating such iconic pieces as the green velvet “curtain dress” and the daring crimson evening gown for Scarlet’s edgy appearance at Ashley’s birthday party.
The Foxes of Harrow (1947) If Antebellum fashions paired with two feisty stars like Maureen O’Hara and Rex Harrison sounds like a winning combo, this film is for you! It’s a little known but highly rated movie and O’Hara’s costumes are stunning, like the white scalloped lace wedding dress pictured below.
Dragonwyck (1946) Here’s another little-known but beautifully filmed and designed feature. Gene Tierney plays a simple farm girl who rises from governess at mysterious Dragonwyck to its mistress. Here we are treated to the exquisite work of Rene Hubert, Swiss designer of Jane Eyre and That Hamilton Woman fame.
The 10 Commandments (1956) Guys and gals alike command the screen with gorgeous attire in Cecille B. DeMille’s unrivaled biblical epic. Everyone will want to “walk like an Egyptian” after enjoying this one!
The Story of Ruth (1960) One of the bible’s most beloved stories, about Ruth’s loyalty and faithfulness, comes to life in a skilled adaptation with strong characters, lush scenery and an engaging storyline. Follow Ruth’s transformation from a Moabite priestess to the future wife of a powerful Hebrew landowner, Boaz.
Samson & Delilah (1949) I wish they would have chosen Steve Reeves (who played Hercules) to be Samson, but there’s no doubt that dark-haired vixen Hedy Lamarr was the perfect Delilah. We certainly can’t trust her, but we can definitely enjoy her stunning costumes, which garnered an Academy Award.
The Crusades (1935) This is where art deco meets Medieval Europe. The lighting, the draping, and the elegant simplicity of the costumes really stand out in a movie that’s also quite compelling and inspiring. Stars Loretta Young and Henry Wilcoxon.
Ivanhoe (1952) Robert Taylor plays a knight who seeks to free the captive King Richard and put him back on the throne. Joan Fontaine plays Rowena, his childhood love. With the addition of a Hebrew character (Elizabeth Taylor), you have an interesting and beautiful mix of costumes.
Quo Vadis (1951) – Costumes from the ancient Roman and Greek days are some of my favorites. The heroine Lygia (Deborah Kerr) wears many beautiful designs in this film, but Nero (Peter Ustinov) and his cohorts steal plenty of screen time with their opulent Roman get-ups, played up considerably to underscore their devious personalities. “Quo Vadis, Domine,” Latin for “Where are you going, Lord?” weaves the story of St. Peter’s encounter of Christ on the way to Rome with a tale of two lovers, one a new convert to the faith.
Marie Antoinette (1938) The headpices are over the top, but hey, it’s the lady of “Let them eat cake” fame, so we expect it. Norma Shearer plays the role with great spirit, and manages the decadent, unwieldy costumes beautifully.
Madame du Barry (1934) Just a few years earlier, Dolores del Rio had just as much fun playing the love interest of French King Louis XV. This film features antiques and jewelry from the days when du Barry actually lived. Modern audiences may not be as familiar with her, but this lovely Mexican actress worked in the film industry for over 50 years.
You Were Never Lovelier (1942) The title obviously references star Rita Hayworth, but applies to her gorgeous gowns as well. Although Fred Astaire was most often paired with Ginger Rogers, I much prefer his dances with Hayworth, who moved with such feminine grace and joy. They seemed to have so much fun together!
Grand Hotel (1936) How can we talk about fashion without featuring style icon Greta Garbo? Although reclusive by nature, Garbo was a household name in America, and with the help of her determination and dramatic looks had the panache to pull off anything the designers wanted to put on her. That ranged from the ultra elegant to the just plain weird (Google the Ninotchka hat). One film that will give you a good taste of her more glamorous looks is Grand Hotel, with designs by Adrian, and a very touching human interest story. It’s also full of lovely deco architecture and interior design.
Rear Window (1954) It’s and tense and scary classic, but did you also know that Rear Window is famous for it’s svelte 1950’s fashion tour-de-force? And Hitchcock chose cool, elegant Grace Kelly to be the lucky lady. Designer Edith Head worked in two classic 1950’s “fit and flare” dresses, a celery green skirt ensemble, and even a frothy nightgown and robe.
To Have and To Have Not (1944) Edgy, suspenseful film noir is one of our favorite genres, and you can still get your fashion fix in between daring escapes and shootouts with the police. Young Lauren Bacall is slim and svelte in her tailored suits, the perfect foil to cool, commanding Humphrey Bogart.
This Gun for Hire (1942) Veronica Lake epitomized the 1940’s femme fatale, and was paired with rising star Alan Ladd, who plays a hitman. The film features a range of classy ensembles from her nightclub wardrobe to chic street clothes.
The Lady Eve (1941) Poor Henry Fonda, heir to a fortune, is the victim of a con artist, played by the plucky Barbara Stanwyck. As she pursues (and falls in love with) her hapless prey, Stanwyck models an assortment of gorgeous outfits designed by the master, Edith Head.
The Princess and the Pirate (1944) When we think Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour usually come to mind, but one of his funniest films (we think) is this pirate parody with Virginia Mayo. Every reel is crammed with Hope’s corny jokes and Virginia Mayo’s beautiful blonde curls, as the two are accidentally thrown together at sea. Mary Grant’s playful costumes are a welcome surprise.
Secret Life Walter Mitty (1947) Besides Virginia Mayo’s stylish, upscale 1940’s street attire, you will also be treated to whimsical costumes in Walter’s many dream sequences. Funnyman Danny Kaye plays a shy daydreamer who longs to be a hero, free of his mother and overbearing girlfriend. Virginia Mayo is the dream girl that turns out to be real, and in glorious Technicolor no less!
The Spanish Main (1945) The proud Irish beauty, Maureen O’Hara, is paired with Paul Henreid in this full-color swashbuckling adventure about a Dutch captain who adopts the pirate life after being treated unjustly by the authorities. O’Hara’s lavish 18th century gowns are meticulously crafted and compliment her famous red hair perfectly.
The Black Swan (1942) Here’s another swashbuckler featuring two Irish favorites: Maureen O’Hara and wickedly handsome Tyrone Power as a rascally pirate. Both of their wardrobes, designed by lesser known artist Earl Luick, are truly unique. His bold, memorable designs are easily carried off by the strong leading lady and man.
Sinbad the Sailor (1947) Have you noticed that Maureen O’Hara got to play in a lot of fabulous period dramas? You will not be disappointed by the lush, colorful costumes she dons along with her mustached co-star Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. Credits go to designer Edward Stevenson of It’s a Wonderful Life and Citizen Kane fame.
Dinner at Eight (1932) As far as platinum blonde Jean Harlow was concerned, there was no limit to the sequins, fur or beads you could sew on a gown, and eccentric designer, Adrian, obliged. Depression-era ladies, pinching pennies and wearing flour sack towel frocks, reveled in the luxury they viewed on screen, and Harlow was a decided favorite. Beneath the glitz was a down-to-earth wisecracker with a heart of gold.
My Fair Lady (1964) This is a musical about transformation, and halfway through we’re dying for that metamorphosis to take place as Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn) to ditches her rags and dresses up for high society. Cecil Beaton had a lot of fun with Audrey’s wardrobe, and made a huge splash in the design world with his bold designs for the Ascot horse races. Can you imagine being actually able to squeeze into that costume?? But I digress…
Showboat (1951) If you’re already familiar with the costumes in Gone With the Wind, you’ll recognize some of Walter Plunkett’s signature touches in this lively musical comedy-drama starring Ava Gardner, Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel. Includes memorable numbers like Ol’ Man River and Can’t Help Lovin’
Somewhere in Time (1980) The Titanic buff in me loves the time period which is captured in this dreamy romantic flick. Imagine being able to meet the woman you’ve fallen in love with merely from a photograph! Delicate beauty Jane Seymour was perfectly cast in this role and looks flawless in every gown. Note: There is one (tame by today’s standards) bedroom scene in this film which you might want to fast-forward if watching with teens.
Zeigfeld Girl (1941) One of the earlier lavish 1940’s productions featuring stage performances and musical revues, Zeigfield Girl has a lot of star power including Lana Turner, Hedy Lamarr and Judy Garland. You’ll find stylish war-era outfits (with plenty of shoulder pads and heels), and an array of Adrian’s imaginative stage costumes, including Hedy’s famous “star gown.”
The Philadelphia Story (1940) Katherine Hepburn’s pristine, stately wardrobe (by Adrian) highlights her onscreen persona as the untouchable, goddess-like woman who falls from her pedestal in this popular social romp with Carey Grant and Jimmy Stewart.
Mannequin (1937) Oh those Crawford eyes! They always drew you in, along with her stylish wardrobe, of course. To get those nice clothes, however, Jessie Cassidy (played by Joan Crawford) unwisely marries a second time to escape poverty and her idling husband. Co-stars a young Spencer Tracy and Alan Curtis.
Cover Girl (1944) Although not as well known as other big-budget musical, Cover Girl (starring Rita Hayworth and Gene Kelly) is one of our favorites and has not only a wonderful rags to riches storyline, but lovely costumes and stage numbers as well, including flashbacks to the Victoria era. There’s even a little bit of humor thrown in, courtesy of co-star Phil Silvers.
To close, some words from Edith Head, one of Hollywood’s most prolific designers for over 40 years, who won 8 Academy Awards and was able to masterfully paired her flair for the dramatic within the confines of fashion truisms.
“Your dresses should be tight enough to show you’re a woman
and loose enough to show you’re a lady.” – Edith Head
And a book I’ve read from cover to cover, many times over: Those Glorious Glamour Years.