Analysis and characterization of “Gowns by Adrian”: the costume design aesthetic and philosophy of Gilbert Adrian, 1928-1941.

Hall, Martha
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University of Delaware
Gilbert Adrian was a well-known and highly publicized costume designer in Hollywood, California working for MGM Studios from 1928-1941. Through film costume, he created the signature styles for several famous film stars, including Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Jean Harlow, Norma Shearer, and Katharine Hepburn. The costumes of Gilbert Adrian are cited in secondary sources as setting trends for contemporary American women’s fashion. As a ready-to-wear designer during World War II, Gilbert Adrian designed womenswear often referred to in the contemporary media as “The American Look.” This look was based on a broad-shouldered silhouette often employed by the designer. He is credited with originating and popularizing this broad-shouldered silhouette, a look synonymous with American women’s dress during World War II. Discrepancies in secondary sources as to the exact origin of this masculine silhouette provided a point of comparison for the study. The purpose of the research was to establish Gilbert Adrian’s design aesthetic, based on his costume design work at MGM Studios. The study included documenting the visual characterizations of Adrian's design aesthetic, examining the origins and development of said aesthetic, and contextualizing the findings within the pertinent Zeitgeist. The methodology for the study consisted of visual and content analysis. Visual analysis was based on previous historical dress scholarship and adaptation of visual analysis instruments. Visual analysis included contemporary dress costumes designed by Gilbert Adrian in films dating from 1928-1941, that starred Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Jean Harlow, Norma Shearer, and Katharine Hepburn. A total of fifty-four films were reviewed and four-hundred and fifty-eight costumes were recorded for visual analysis. In addition, content analysis of contemporary periodicals was used as evidence of Gilbert Adrian’s design philosophy, of the popularity and influence of the study subjects, and of dissemination of his costume design work to American audiences. The predominant visual characterizations of the recorded costumes were silhouettes featuring a broad-shoulder line, exaggerated garment features, and masculine style features, high contrast value differences and motif repetition. The broad-shouldered silhouette originated with a costume for Greta Garbo in 1928, and was later widely disseminated to the contemporary American public with a costume for Joan Crawford in 1932. The findings were contextualized within the Zeitgeist of American culture during the 1930s to early 1940s. The costumes of Gilbert Adrian were interpreted as cultural forms signifying American women during this time period. Suggestions for future research were outlined, such as extending the present study to include material culture research of ready-to-wear clothing designed by Gilbert Adrian during WWII. Keywords: Film, Costume, Aesthetic, Zeitgeist