2009 marked the 50th anniversary of the death of the remarkable Adrian Adolph Greenburg. Who I hear you say? Well think of some of your favourite celluloid moments from the Thirties and Forties and you can bet your Balenciagas that Adrian was the man behind the glamorous costumes. Katerina Vasiliou salutes this icon and his gorgeous gowns, and takes a look at some of his finest cinematic costume moments.

Born in Connecticut in 1903, Adrian quickly rose through the ranks of the costume wardrobe, being hand-picked by Irving Berlin in 1922, and then hired by Rudolph Valentino’s wife Natacha Rambova in 1924 to design costumes for the movie A Sainted Devil. So impressive were his designs that he was quickly spotted by Cecil B. DeMille and taken to MGM Studios where he would go on to become chief costume designer.

As his career took off, he dispensed with his second and surname, simply to become known as Adrian. With all the top actresses clamouring to be dressed by him, Adrian fast became an ambassador for style and elegance, and is famously quoted as saying: “When Garbo walked out of the studio, glamour went with her, and so did I.”

The Wizard of Oz, 1939

Adrian’s wardrobe for Judy Garland in this beloved iconic film is perhaps his most remembered and revered work.

Garland was still a very young star, so Adrian reinforced her youth and innocence in a demure gingham frock which very much characterised the ‘Dorothy’ look. Giving her ribbons and a basket rather than a handbag, Garland’s Dorothy came to symbolise the simple wholesomeness of the Midwest.

As one of the first films to be made in Technicolor, the studio was desperate for the film to ooze paintbox brightness. In the original novel the slippers had been described as silver but Adrian felt that they were such an important tool in the story and must stand out.

In silver they would be to reminiscent of the lack of white films the studio was trying to depart from, and so in a stroke of genius he made them ruby red. He teamed them with cornflower blue ankle socks et voila!: an iconic image of the 20th century was born.


The Women, 1939

“I’ve had two years to grow claws Mother, and they’re jungle red!” shouts Norma Shearer as she runs off to reclaim her husband from Joan Crawford.

These words just about sum up The Women. Set in the penthouses and beauty parlours of Manhattan this is a film with 135 female characters and not a single male – totally revolutionary in 1939! The film is basically one long cat fight between several beautiful, rich women. Adrian defines their opulence and glamour, by dressing them in sharp suits, luxurious corsages and an array of geometric hats like you’ve never seen before. And each headstrong lady continually tries to upstage the rest with bigger and better head attire.

Adrian was Joan Crawford’s favourite designer, and he worked with her on no less than 28th of her films. It was Adrian who created her trademark killer shoulder pads, inspiring the original power-dressing fashion trend.

Joan Crawford is not so fondly remembered now, mostly because of Faye Dunaway’s portrayal of her as a psychopathic mother in the 1981 film Mommy Dearest, but in her youth, Crawford was a fantastically gifted actress, adding many dimensions to her characters.

In The Women she plays Crystal Allen, a shop girl scheming to bag herself another lady’s rich husband. To underline her brazen behaviour, Adrian gave her some of the film’s most outrageous outfits, including a loose fitting lamé coat with an outsize pussybow and matching lamé turban.

Pure theatrical flair, Adrian’s costumes made cinematic history, and enveloped Crawford in an exclusive and enigmatic style.

A woeful remake was made of The Women in 2008. Give us the elegance of a 1939 cat fight any day!



 Grand Hotel, 1932

“Grand Hotel. People come and go. Nothing ever happens” – says the rather unassuming Lewis Stone. Little does he know what’s in store in the Grand Hotel…

A lesser-known gem, but hugely popular and influential at the time of its release, Grand Hotel was an ensemble piece with cast of stars including John Barrymore, Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford. Set in Berlin in 1932 it follows the fortunes of guests of the city’s most exclusive hotel. Adrian created beautiful outfits for the starlets that contrasted their different characters.

Garbo plays depressed Prima ballerina, Grusinskaya – a woman who has everything, but is made happy by nothing. Adrian dressed her in sweeping chiffon gowns with long floaty sleeves, which allowed her to waft around her hotel suite, making grand gestures of dissatisfaction. The lighting used on Garbo was soft and hazy, and combined with her beautiful pale outfits she seems dreamlike and otherworldly.

Crawford plays a character much more grounded in the contemporary world. Flaemmchen, is a plucky stenographer and exemplifies the modern young woman determined to get ahead. Adrian created a chic black day dress for her, topped with an asymmetrical white chiffon collar. Watching the film you get the feeling that Flaemmchen owns only one outfit which she always dons to make a show stopping impression on her clients.

After the film’s warm reception at the box office, the popular department store, Macys copied the Adrian’s day dress and it was an instant sell-out success, proving that he really knew how to dress young women of the time. He showed that you didn’t need to wear a ball gown to make a statement, and that elegance was accessible to all in the form of a little black number – now known as the LBD.

The Philadelphia Story, 1940

This film from 1940 was the fourth and final time Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn were paired together and this time with electric consequences. They play an acid-spitting divorced couple on the eve of Hepburn’s second marriage to the lovely John Howard, trading barbed comments and witty one-liners. Throw in the gorgeous James Stewart to add even more comedy twists to the plot, and you have a total box office smash. The script was adapted from a stage play written especially for Hepburn, as the character of Tracy Lord contains all of Hepburn’s trademark headstrong ferocity.

To match her domineering qualities and to illustrate who wears the trousers in the Lord household, Adrian designed a series of wide leg, higher waisted trouser suits for the fiery starlet, and they soon became her signature style.

As much of the action is centred around the family swimming pool, Adrian gave Hepburn a cute little one piece with matching swimming cap, and a buckled white dressing gown that is almost an evening gown in itself. All eyes are certainly on her as she effortlessly dives into the water!

For the climactic wedding scene Hepburn wears a gorgeous, wide shouldered organza dress, which emphasises her femininity at she softens towards one of her leading men. Talk about clothing as symbols, Adrian’s magnificent skill at drawing out personality through style strikes again!

4 Responses

  1. Tara

    Very interesting, Hollywood history would not be nearly as rich without designers like Adrian, Edith Head, Travilla…

  2. Tonia

    Fantastic women being dressed to their strengths in fantastic films – simply not being done the same way any more! Loved Hepburn’s dressing gown especially.

  3. Rocketblast

    When I’m in my dressing gown I like to imagine I’m sophisticated and willowy like Katharine Hepburn. Unfortunately I’m more like Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, shuffling along in my slippers ;0)

  4. Danette Stuckey

    LOVE all of those movies! Nothing can match the glamour of those days…..sigh.