You may not know the name Gilbert Adrian, but it’s almost a guarantee you’ve seen his work.
As a costume designer at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, he was the vision behind The Wizard of Oz’s ruby red slippers, he created iconic looks for Joan Crawford and Katharine Hepburn and worked on over 250 films. His work was inspiring, to say the least. It lead to innovations in retail, with Macy’s and other retailers opening small boutiques within department stores across the country — “cinema shops,” featuring ensembles based on costumes seen in Hollywood films. And even prompted MGM to release a short film in 1940 entitled “Hollywood: Style Center of the World.” Eventually, Adrian left MGM and opened a fashion house in 1942 and began to create looks that appealed to his new leading lady: the American woman.
Now, Adrian and his legacy is being honored in a new exhibition at The Museum at FIT. Adrian: Hollywood and Beyond, highlights both Adrian’s ready-to-wear and his costumes, while focusing on his innovative use of textiles. Beginning during his Hollywood days, fabric was central to Adrian’s aesthetic. He employed an arsenal of techniques — such as appliqué, piecing, mitering, pleating, and draping — to build dynamic garments in which the materials are as celebrated as they are integral to the design. Adrian worked with and endorsed different textile manufacturers throughout his career. Indeed, his final collection in 1952 was dedicated to the “beauty” and “integrity of fabric.”
He worked frequently with organzas, taffetas, and mousselines from Bianchini-Férier, a French silk mill that has produced fabric for couturiers since the nineteenth century. He was introduced to rayons by Wesley Simpson, a New York textile converter, and made several evening gowns from the fabric. Adrian also collaborated with woven textile designer Pola Stout throughout the 1940s. She sent striped and checkered wools to Adrian, who sketched garments inspired by her work and then returned the samples to be rewoven to his specifications. His collaborations with Stout resulted in some of his most celebrated suits, described by Vogue as “never melodramatic, never dull.”
As for silhouettes, Adrian is best remembered for his tailored daytime looks, but was also a skillful and inventive draper. He used this technique in both his film and fashion work to create glamorous evening gowns. In a stunning example from his last film, Lovely to Look At, Adrian draped a continuous length of fabric from the waist to a billowing sleeve, encircling the wearer to create a dramatic hood. In the exhibition, the costume is paired alongside a deceptively simple black dress from one of his earliest ready-to-wear collections. In both, Adrian’s unconventional and refined use of silk jersey is a highlight.
His artistry comes through with looks inspired by artists, like a rayon evening gown based on an illustration by Surrealist artist Salvador Dalí (himself a frequent contributor to the fashion and textile worlds). And drawing inspiration from Africa, choosing textiles that ranged from a lamé snakeskin to a warp-printed silk tiger stripe for his fall 1949 collection.
Adrian: Hollywood and Beyond has been organized by the graduate students in the Fashion Institute of Technology’s MA program in Fashion and Textile Studies: History, Theory, Museum Practice, with the support of Sarah Byrd, Ariele Elia, and Emma McClendon.
Showing now through April 1, 2017 at The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology:
Seventh Avenue at 27 Street
New York City 10001-5992
New York City 10001-5992