Unravelling the story of the costume designers who were the secret stars of Hollywood's golden age.

Marilyn Monroe, Faye Dunaway, Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly and Elizabeth Taylor gave us some of the most unforgettable moments in movie history. But behind the glamour of the big screen, it was the costume designers who shaped the style of cinema's famous names.

The naïve starlet arriving in Hollywood from small town America was transformed into an Ava Gardner, a Rita Hayworth or a Ginger Rogers with the aid of carefully constructed but dazzling gowns.

Theadora Van Runkle’s sketches for Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty in Bonnie and Clyde (1967) are works of art in themselves. Not only does she capture the perfect likeness of an aloof Faye Dunaway as gun toting Bonnie Parker, but written beside them are little character notes, such as “They have dollars for clothes at last” and “all dressed up to rob a bank”, indicating that the glamorous tailoring is what they proudly wear when they finally earn some dough from their life of crime. Even the ‘oakies’, the desperate, homeless dust bowl victims in their rags, are given the detailed attention of her sketch pad, in drawings that the V & As Hollywood Costume curator Deborah Nadoolman Landis compared to Ballet Russes designer Leon Bakst. 

Bonnie and Clyde was Theadora’s first film as costume designer, and the Bonnie look of beret, midi-skirts and tailoring became a huge trend in 1968, shaping a glamorous, nostalgic view of a pair of Midwest bank robbers in the 1930s.

Often a designer was synonymous with a particular star. Jean Louis created Rita Hayworth’s black strapless gown in Gilda as well as costumes for nine other films; Travilla created Marilyn Monroe’s most famous costumes including the pink Diamond’s Are a Girl’s Best Friend dress, the white pleated dress from the Seven Year Itch and the tight halter neck gold lame gown; and Adrian designed for the majority of Greta Garbo films throughout the 1930s.

Garbo was known to be a temperamental force resistant to the vampish costumes she was forced to wear on screen in the 1920s, but Adrian, the head costume designer at MGM, knew how to dress her in a more comfortable, androgynous style. He even compared her to “a fine strong tree with her feet planted firmly on the ground.”

The plaid lined trench coat she wore in A Woman of Affairs (1928) became a new wardrobe staple for women in the late 1920s, despite it originally being the uniform of officers in the First World War. Similarly in Queen Christina (1933), the velvet riding coats, bishop sleeves and starched white collars were said to be a surprising trend for the winter of 1933.

Adrian was not only the man behind Garbo’s screen image but he also created trendsetting costumes for Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer. Crawford played the depression era shop girl or dancer who rises up in society to find love and a beautiful wardrobe in films including Possessed (1931), the Dancing Lady (1934) and Letty Lynton (1932). It was the designs by Adrian that inspired 500,000 copies of a particular frothy puffed sleeves dress to appear in department stores across America. Vogue wrote in 1938 that every girl “felt she would die if she couldn’t have a dress like that, with the result that the country was flooded with little Joan Crawford’s.”

Adrian used versions of the  same gingham fabric he found on a trip to the Appalachia for both Dorothy’s pinafore in The Wizard Oz (1939) and Katharine Hepburn’s gingham dress in The Philadelphia Story (1940). Hepburn said of Adrian that he truly understood her style. “He and I had the same sense of smell about what clothes should do and what they should say.” Her career had taken a dive after being named ‘box office poison’ and she was considered haughty and arrogant, so Adrian softened her image in The Philadelphia Story with flowing Grecian gowns and the ruffled gingham dress.

Claudette Colbert was said to be a demanding actress who insisted on having approval of every costume sketch for her character. She drove Paramount’s head designer Travis Banton to a weekend long drinking binge in Palm Springs after demanding amendments for the sketches for Cleopatra (1934) and running a bloodied finger over them to demonstrate her dissatisfaction. The costumes created in the film were art deco inspired, sleek and bias cut, and more 1930s than ancient Egypt, and as close to naked that the strict censorship code would allow.

As well as dressing Colbert, Banton helped to shape the image of Marlene Dietrich as the sleek, exotic cabaret star as seen in her American debut, Morocco (1930). Dietrich credited her look to the drag queens of 1920s Berlin, who she said could pull off suspenders better than any woman. Director Josef Von Sternberg had seen Dietrich wearing a tuxedo and top hat at a party and it was this look he decided to go with when launching her to the American public. Banton worked with Dietrich and Von Sternberg to develop her image throughout the 1930s, from being shrouded in feathers and net in Shanghai Express (1934) to the gothic dominatrix astride a white horse in The Scarlet Empress (1934).

Grand dame of costume design Edith Head, winner of eight Academy Awards, doesn’t carry the recognition of the stars she dressed, but it was her designs that brought some of the most loved characters to life on screen. Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity (1944), Bette Davis in All About Eve (1950), Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief and Rear Window (both 1954) and Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday (1953) and Sabrina (1954). She won the Oscar for Sabrina and controversially took all the credit, despite the show stopping pieces being designed by Givenchy. But while Givenchy’s gowns were stunning pieces of couture, Edith Head’s were character driven and designed so as not to look date. When she created a strapless, full skirted Christian Dior inspired gown for Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun (1950) she said, “it was a case of taking the styles that were current in early 1949 and translating them into something timeless.” The dress caught on and 32,000 teenage girls were said to have bought a copy of the gown to wear to their high school prom.

When Cecil Beaton got the plum job of designing the costumes for the movie version of My Fair Lady (1964), his Edwardian costumes for Eliza were to convey a fish out of water. The famous black and white Ascot gown was “to work dramatically to accentuate the comic content of the scene,” said Beaton. While the elaborate hat was designed to look hazardous, as if it was about to topple over when she got excited watching the race.  

Marilyn Monroe’s pink strapless dress for the Diamond’s Are a Girl’s Best Friend number in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) was actually a second choice, dreamt up quickly by the film’s designer Travilla. The original costume, a fishnet body stocking covered in strategically placed rhinestones, had been vetoed by the censors. Nude photos of Marilyn, taken when she was a struggling starlet, had surfaced during production and threatened to create a huge scandal. Darryl Zanuck sent Travilla a memo, simply saying “Cover her Up”, and so the pink dress, as copied by Madonna in her Material Girl video, was born.

Classic Hollywood Style by Caroline Young, published by Frances Lincoln, £20.