The Evolution of a Screen Gown by Dolly Tree at MGM in the 1930s

In the 1930s MGM was regarded as Hollywood’s premier film production company and renowned for the excellence of its costumes and gowns from its two designers Adrian and Dolly Tree and an array of costume makers. How did this incredible team produce such wonderful visions of beauty?

Birth of a gown no1 : Dolly Tree sketching a gown for Rita Johnson in The Girl Downstairs (1938)
Birth of a gown no1 : Dolly Tree sketching  for Rita Johnson in The Girl Downstairs (1938)

The central building just inside the gates formed the massive MGM costume department which was a huge dressmaking establishment comprising executive offices, great well lit workrooms for cutters, seamstresses and fitters and vast storerooms. On the upper floors all the costumes for pictures in production were kept. One floor created modern clothes with expert seamstresses in charge. On this floor worked the beaders who mostly came from Guadalajara, Mexico and fabric painters. Another floor was devoted to period women’s costumes which were made by another team of trained workers in this particular field. There was also a store room for all the bolts of fabrics, trimmings and threads and the famous star dummies. Six other buildings housed special wardrobes for uniforms and period costumes. There was also various rooms for storing used costumes divided into categories such as street costumes, nightgowns, negligees, evening wraps and sports attire, all for re-use by extras when required.

Birth of a gown no2 : Dolly Tree and Rita Johnson discuss the gown
Birth of a gown no2 : Dolly Tree and Rita Johnson discuss the gown

The first stage in the designing of the gowns or costumes for any given film was the arrival of a costume script produced by the script department. This script would tell the story briefly, setting the mood and breaking everything down into costume changes indicating points of relevance such as circumstances, the action, locale and most importantly information about the character portrayed. Sketches were then drawn to fit the personality of the star as well as the situation (photo no.1) and sometimes several sketches were made to give choice.

Overall screen designers took the view that prevailing fashions should be largely ignored. Instead clothes must be designed to reflect predicted styles at least six months ahead, when the film was released. The designer had to have the vision to anticipate seasonal modes and have an innovative imagination to develop new styles. Each designer would also have made a point of observing styles and trends both within the Hollywood film community and in fashion circles in the USA and in Europe. Travis Banton confirmed ‘Hollywood may do more to popularise the latest ideas in dress but they are not necessarily exclusively and wholly our own ideas. We are influenced by Paris and New York just as much as they are by us.’ Thankfully unlike some of his contemporaries, Banton was honest by acknowledging that designers clearly do not work in a vaccum.

Birth of a gown no3: cutting the pattern
Birth of a gown no3: cutting the pattern

Of course some writers have refused to acknowledge this important facet of designing clothes and to give you an idea of what blatant tomfoolry has been written, take Hedda Hooper’s report about Adrian that ‘he has never sought inspiration from any source but his own imagination.’ In contrast Adrian himself pointed out ‘research is important since fashion progresses in definite cycles. Designers must have a finger on this pulse of style and give old styles that re-surface a new flair or edge.’

Margaret Bailey observed more wryly ‘imitation for lack of a better word, among the designers was rampant and expected. A designer could not afford to ignore a good neckline or sleeve treatment simply because someone else had adopted it. Few clothes were exact duplicates because the designers were more creative than that, but every conceivable style was tried and applied more than once by each designer. When Walter Plunkett was asked about plagiarism he answered ‘I’m sure we all plagiarized. If you are following a trend, even if you are not doing it, the movement is in the air, and two designers locked in separate cells can come up with almost the same thing because that is the way people do it. I remember one gal, a designer at MGM. I wanted to borrow a fashion magazine from her to see what things were in it and there was almost nothing left in it. They were all cut out. Anything that was any good was clipped for future reference.’ One wonders who the ‘gal at MGM’ was, although it was most likely Dolly Tree .

Birth of a gown no4: fitting the pattern to a dummy
Birth of a gown no4: fitting the pattern to a dummy

The art of the designer was further complicated by filming in black and white and each designer had to be aware of what happened to certain colours when filmed. Tom Tierney wrote ‘one interesting challenge that the costume designer of the early 30s faced was that most of films were in black and white. Thus the designer had to depend very heavily on the line of each garment for distinctive costuming. People like Adrian, Travis Banton, Walter Plunkett, Orry Kelly and Dolly Tree became absolute masters at this.’

The skilful blending of light and dark shading became vital in the overall look of a film and frequently the costume designer worked closely with the art director to balance the costume against the set. From 1934 there was also the added interference of the censorship code enforced by the Hays Office which began dictating rules of modesty with the result that every dress had to be tested for decency and for example, bare cleavage was strictly not allowed.

Birth of a gown no5: Working on the gown
Birth of a gown no5: Working on the gown

Period films tended to necessitate a greater deal of effort and an enormous amount of research was conducted to obtain a clear perspective of the exact fashions in the particular time frame being filmed. However, as Edward Maeder pointed out any designer re-creating historical costumes is so influenced by contemporary fashions that it was difficult to be objective and as a result period costumes tend to combine elements of the past and present and are frequently adapted to contemporary fashion tastes.

Although this view is entirely valid many contemporary designers working on period films strive for genuine historical authenticity in a way that was not considered important in the past. Certainly Hollywood in the golden years never accepted the premise of total accuracy and most period films highlighted various anachronisms.

Birth of a gown no6: Dolly Tree checks the gown on a dummy
Birth of a gown no6: Dolly Tree checks the gown on a dummy

One major problem for the designer, for example, was the difficulty in locating authentic fabrics and materials which were used in past fashions and often no longer existed. As a result the designer had to improvise and adapt available materials and techniques that frequently highlighted discrepancies.

In recreating period costumes Hollywood designers used elements from the past, combined them with contemporary fashion and introduced fashion devices that had no relevance to either the period or current styles and so developed an illusion of an earlier time and rarely replicated the exact fashions that prevailed. Adrian for example, excelled at developing this hybrid style using exaggerated forms of decoration, which bore slight resemblance to the past or present and so evinced a period feeling by using exotic and lavish effects. The result was a rather extravagant vision but one that successfully convinced the audience that they were viewing an earlier, more romantic period. Dolly Tree on the other hand, believed in preserving the spirit of the past, but not to get too stodgily stubborn about details and eskewed the use of this ‘hybrid’ technique largely because she did not work on what could be described as extravagant period pieces like Adrian. Her period films tended to be classics that could not be cluttered with fussy detail and so her costumes reflected a more restrained realism.

Birth of a gown no7: Rita Johnson's fitting
Birth of a gown no7: Rita Johnson’s fitting

Once the costume sketches were completed there was a series of meetings with the star (photo no.2) the producer and the director at which any alterations were noted before the sketches were approved and given to the wardrobe department to be created. Here, expert drafters cut out paper patterns following the sketch (photo no.3). Wardrobe workers would then cut the costume out of plain unbleached muslin. No gown was cut from costly fabrics until a complete muslin pattern had been made.

Birth of a gown no8: Rita Johnson wardrobe test shot
Birth of a gown no8: Rita Johnson wardrobe test shot

The star was fitted with these muslin patterns to make sure everything worked and any surface decoration was etched in with a pencil. Thereafter dressmakers dummy figures were used for fittings (photo no.4). Dolly Tree explained how necessary it was to constantly check minute but important changes in the weights and figures of the movie queens because ‘gowns are form fitting and the slightest inaccuracy causes a wrinkle in the fabric.’ She explained that in the wardrobe department at MGM they used dummies or figures built up of wool and canvas over a papier-mache foundation and it was necessary to recheck and redimension the forms at least every six months. There was usually two or three of each important star so that the patternmakers, cutters and tailors could all be working at the same time which saved hours of patient standing for fittings and enabled the wardrobe department to finish a gown, if necessary in a day.

Next, actual work started on the gown itself. Excellence of fabric and workmanship was necessary because of the magnifying power of the camera. Skilled hand embroiderers would execute the intricate design (photo no.5). When completed the gown was once again placed on the dummy figure of the star and checked against the original sketch to make sure all the detail was correct and the intricate hand work completed to perfection (photo no.6).

When the gown or costume was completed there was a final fitting with the actress in person to ensure everything was satisfactory (photo no.7). This was the only fitting that the actress was called upon to endure. Then the ensemble was photographed as a costume test shot to be certain of its appearance before the camera (photo no.8 and no.9).

Detail of Rita Johnson's gown in The Girl Downstairs (1938)
Detail of Rita Johnson’s gown in The Girl Downstairs (1938)

The gown was then placed in a glass case labelled with the name and number of the production and the name of the actress. Once the production was finished the gown went into the stock wardrobe but even during this process the costume was still handled with great care. Dolly Tree explained this final process in the life of a screen costume ‘when a costume is not being worn in a scene it is put away with loving care in the studio wardrobe. For instance… a beige woolen suit, banded in sable which was never hung back in the wardrobe without being given a thorough going over. It was examined for infinitesimal seam rips. The fur was brushed, the garment pressed and great care was taken when it was placed on the hanger to see that the shoulder seams fell exactly where they should. The costume would then be subsequently used in other productions for minor stars or extras.’

 

 

 

 

 

 


All images and text © copyright Gary Chapman / Jazz Age Club and must not be re-used without prior consent

Sources:

Variety, Daily Mirror (NY)., Modern Screen, New York Telegraph (Interview with Travis Banton) and Screenbook (Article Birth of a Gown featuring Rita Johnson and a gown from The Girl Downstairs, 1939)

Costumes for the Screen in The Movie Merry Go Round by John Paddy Carstairs.
Margaret Bailey Those Glorious Glamour Years
Glamorous Movie Stars of the 30’s Paper Dolls by Tom Tierney
Hollywood & History by Edward Maeder
Hollywood USA : Costume Design
Hollywood Costume. Glamour! Glitter! Romance! by Dale McConathy and Dianna Vreeland

The Press kit for the Girl Downstairs (1939)
Unpublished article by Hedda Hopper ‘The Cosmopolite of the Month’ 1939

 

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