Showing posts with label Fashion. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Fashion. Show all posts

Friday, September 15, 2023

Designing Hollywood: Studio Wardrobe in the Golden Age by Christian Esquevin

Designing Hollywood
Studio Wardrobe in the Golden Age
by Christian Esquevin
Hardcover ISBN: 9780813197913
August 2023
University Press of Kentucky
 256 pages

"Modern glamour was born in Hollywood, where the combination of beautiful stars dressed in glimmering gowns traveled in movies and photos around the world." — Christian Esquevin

Author and researcher Christian Esquevin transports readers to the world of studio-era fashion in his new book Designing Hollywood: Studio Wardrobe in the Golden Age. The book is organized into several chapters each focusing on a different movie studio: Universal, Fox, Paramount, Warner Bros., MGM, Columbia and RKO. These chapters are book-ended by an introduction and wrap-up. Each section chronicles the history of the studio, the work of their costume designers, the professional relationship between designer and star and whether or not the studio made any efforts to preserve their costume collections. The focus here is solely on women's costumes. The book contains various black-and-white publicity photos of actresses in notable costumes and a handful of photos of the designers themselves. There is also a small insert of full-color design sketches. The author also describes individual costumes to help with visualization where photos are not available. While this was not intended to be a coffee table book, the larger format and eye-catching cover design does make it a beautiful book to keep on display.

While Designing Hollywood was well-researched and informative, it suffers from an awkward format, limited context and little to no extrapolation. There is little discussion about the impact these costume designers had on the film industry and there only brief mentions of their influence on the general public and on the fashion industry as a whole. The narrative has little flow and lacked any real insight or takeaways that would have made for a richer experience for the reader. Some chapters are better than others. I preferred the Paramount, MGM, RKO and Warner Bros. chapters over those on Universal, Fox and Columbia.

In my opinion, the book should have focused on the careers of the individual costume designers rather than the studios. Chapters on Irene, Edith Head, Orry-Kelly, Adrian, Mary Ann Nyberg, Walter Plunkett, etc. would have read been more engaging and still could have maintained the studio-era theme.

Because the book chapters are organized by studio, the overall timeline feels disjointed. For example, costume designer Irene's work for Universal Studios is detailed at length in the first chapter. At one point the author quickly changes from Irene's career to her tragic death without any transition. “Irene designed Day’s costumes for this film… on November 15, 1962, Irene slit her wrist and jumped out of a window at the Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood.” In chapter six on MGM, Irene is introduced again: "Irene was born Irene Lentz on December 15, 1901, in South Dakota." It feels odd to read about her death in chapter one only to have her come to life again in chapter six. 

I did notice a few errors in the book. The author writes: “Ann Dvorak (pronounced vor-shack) had also starred in Scarface in the same year but here gave her finest performance as a woman on a downward spiral." Except that's not how its pronounced in this instance. Rather it's d-voh-rAHk. There is also a mention of the TCM Classic Film Festival but it reads that TCM sponsors the festival and not that they host it.

While Designing Hollywood has plenty of interesting information about studio-era costume design, it reads too much like a standard reference book to be engaging. 

This is my fourth and final review for the 2023 Classic Film Reading Challenge.

Thank you to University Press of Kentucky for sending me a copy of Designing Hollywood for review.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Love, Cecil

Love, Cecil poster

"I started out with very little talent but I was so tormented with ambition." 
Cecil Beaton (1904-1980)

Cecil Beaton was many things. He was a photographer, a writer, a painter, a set decorator, a costume designer and a socialite. But if we were to put him in one master category it would have to be that of artist. Beaton was an aesthete to the highest degree. Born with an appreciation for all things beautiful, Beaton was drawn to art in its many forms. His first love was the theater and he loved looking at photographic portraits of stage actresses. This led to his personal ambition to photograph them himself. He set out to learn photography but a traditional education was not for him. Beaton did poorly in school and rarely attended lectures while in college. Everything he learned about art was self-taught. He mastered techniques in photography through sheer determination. Before the word "selfies" ever became part of our daily lexicon, Beaton made taking self-portraits an almost daily practice. His two sisters were his models and with them he learned how to master the art of styling, staging, and posing.

Beaton went on to have a long and industrious career in fashion and art. He was a tireless worker, always on the go and game for anything. His work took him to Hollywood, a place that brought him an opportunity to work with some of the best subjects in the world. Beaton stylized the sets and costumes for films like Gigi (1958) and My Fair Lady (1964). He shot iconic portraits of legendary stars like Katharine Hepburn, Gary Cooper, Marilyn Monroe, Orson Welles, Sylvia Sidney, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Leslie Caron, Marlon Brando, Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier, Audrey Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman, Barbra Streisand, Merle Oberon, Lillian Gish and Grace Kelly. His favorite model was Greta Garbo. Not only was she the ideal subject for his photography, he was immensely drawn to her as a person. The two had tumultuous friendship which led to a brief affair. Beaton was a complicated fellow, never settling down and besides his relationship with Garbo, he preferred the company of men. He wasn't afraid to be a dandy in a time when homosexuality was illegal in his home country of England.

Cecil Beaton's portrait of Gary Cooper

Cecil Beaton's portrait of Greta Garbo

New from Zeitgeist Films and directed by Lisa Immordino Vreeland, Love, Cecil chronicles the life and career of the man whose style made an indelible mark on the 20th century. We learn about his often tumultuous relationships with his family growing up and with his friends, lovers and collaborators. There is even footage of George Cukor discussing how the two didn't get along while making My Fair Lady. The film includes interviews with a variety of experts including magazine editors, photographers, historians, designers, museum curators, artists and people who knew Beaton well including his biographer, a former model, his former butler and the director of the first documentary on Beaton's life entitled Beaton by Bailey. We also hear from Beaton himself through archival footage and from his journal entries, read by actor Rupert Everett.

This is a multi-faceted look at an artist who had the capacity to delight and to shock. He was opinionated, disapproving and sometimes rude. As a contributor to Vogue, he once made the mistake of incorporating an anti-Semitic slur into one of his article sketches. The issue had to be scrapped. To make up for his grievous error, Beaton contributed to the WWII effort as a war photographer. He traveled all over the world, working tirelessly and was even in a serious airplane crash. Beaton's work was published in many outlets including one on the cover of LIFE magazine.

Classic film enthusiasts will be interested to learn about Beaton's contributions to the visual spectacle of two very important mid-century films: My Fair Lady and Gigi. Beaton worked on others but these are the two focused on in this documentary. I was particularly taken with the beautiful portraits Beaton shot of many of my favorite actors and actresses.

Love, Cecil is a dynamic exploration of an artistic genius whose passion for beauty influenced everything he did. Highly recommended.

Love, Cecil recently opened at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York City. It will be playing in Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, Atlanta and many other cities across the country through July and August and into the fall. Visit Zeitgeist Films' official website for dates and locations.

Recommended viewing: Pair Love, Cecil with another Zeitgest Film documentary Bill Cunningham: New York (2010). I found these two figures, both fashion photographers, both complicated individuals, to be very similar in many ways.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Classic Hollywood Style by Caroline Young

Classic Hollywood Style
by Caroline Young
October 2012
224 pages
Hardcover ISBN 9780711233751
Frances Lincoln

I cannot tell you how many times someone has come up to me to tell me that my outfit looks like something from an old movie. Or they point out something I would like because it's old Hollywood style. I just really love the fashion (as well as the design) of classic movies. So, a book like Caroline Young's Classic Hollywood Style is right up my alley.

Caroline Young's background is in Literature, Film and Journalism but her love and appreciation of classic Hollywood fashion is quite evident in this book. She takes a look at 34 films starting with Camille (1921) and ending with The Thomas Crown Affair (1968). Other notable films include Gone With the Wind (1939), Casablanca (1942),  Gilda (1946), The Seven Year Itch (1955) and Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961). There is a nice mix of popular films as well as some lesser known ones. There are 3 films from the 1920s, 7 films from the 1930s, 8 films from the 1940s, 11 films from the 1950s and 4 films from the 1960s. Each movie gets 3 spreads, 6 pages total with a couple movies getting an extra spread, 2 pages. There are many full page images but the focus really is on the text. Young explores the decision making of the fashion, the relationship between designer and star, the cultural influence of the film's fashion as well as the role the fashion plays in each film.

This book is nice and compact and is beautiful enough to serve as a small coffee table book but can easily be shelved as well. Basically, you want to read the book, not just look at the pretty pictures. The book is chockfull of great anecdotes and trivia bits. It's a really good choice for someone who is either into fashion or into classic films or both. There are no spoilers so if you haven't watched one of the films discussed then the movie won't be ruined for you. There were only a couple films I wasn't interested in but for the most part each film was a delight to read about. I hadn't realized how iconic certain outfits really are and how we identify certain films by those very outfits. The wife-beater on Marlon Brando, the white negligee on Elizabeth Taylor, the red windbreaker on James Dean, the white flowing dress on Marilyn Monroe, the green curtain dress on Vivien Leigh, etc. I don't even need to mention which outfit went with what film. You automatically know what it was just by the image.

I thought it was interesting that Young decided to end the list with 1968 when the Hays Code was put to an end. Young claims that with the end of the Hays Code there was a more towards realism because now filmmakers had more freedom to show what they wanted on screen. So the lack of realism in designer fashioned masterpieces didn't fit the new era of film. Designers became more like shoppers rather than artists. This is why fashion in film these days isn't as important as it was back then and why so many of us mourn for the style of old Hollywood.

My biggest issue with the book was a glaring error found in the section about The Dancing Lady (1933) with Joan Crawford. Young says "... in the 1930s she was the reigning queen of MGM." Oh hell no! You did NOT just diss the real 1930s Queen of MGM who was...

Norma Shearer!

Norma Shearer WAS the Queen of MGM. That was her actual title. Movie stars were often given titles or tag lines that were used in the promotion of their movies. Norma Shearer was Queen of MGM, Clark Gable was King of Hollywood, Sterling Hayden was "The Most Beautiful Man in Movies", etc. Norma Shearer was the Queen of MGM and no matter how much this author loves Joan Crawford it's not going to change the fact that Joan Crawford hated Norma Shearer because Shearer was the Queen and Crawford wanted the title for herself. The author tends to favor Joan Crawford featuring her more times in the book than any other actress. Joan Crawford was very influential to fashion with the clothes she wore on film. It was quite common for stores to start carrying Joan Crawford inspired pieces for the masses.  However, NORMA SHEARER WAS STILL THE QUEEN OF MGM!

There were a couple other instances of the author making similar statements but the others seemed more based on fact rather than this Joan Crawford one. There were no Norma Shearer movies in the book. While Norma Shearer wore amazing clothes I don't think she was as influential in fashion as Joan Crawford so I understand her absence. But I'm still offended by the statement.

However, the book is very well-researched with an appendix full of sources including interviews, newspaper articles, press releases, biographies, production notes, etc. Let's just hope that the author and publisher can fix that Joan Crawford line to read "in the 1930s she was one of the biggest stars of MGM" which would have been more accurate.

If you love Classic Hollywood fashion and are willing to overlook the Norma Shearer-Joan Crawford gaffe, then pick up this book! It's quite a treat.

Disclosure: Thank you to Frances Lincoln Limited Publishers for a review copy of the book

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