Friday, July 29, 2016

Stop the Presses for these Adrian Dresses (1940s Novelty Glamour at the Met)

Hi-ya, folks!!

When's the last time you saw a dress that made your heart skip a beat? I was minding my own business. prowling through the Met Museum's fashion textile collection (like you do), when I came across this knock-your-eye-out novelty print and about lost it. 

Where did you come from, you little piece of heaven right here on Earth? Where are you going so I can follow you there? This dress was a gift to the museum from Patricia Pastor, a former designer for Perry Ellis (!!), and Barry Friedman, an art dealer. When I traipsed over to the search bar and typed in their names, the Met yielded up fifty other charitable donations, including around 20 other Adrian designs! Somebody had an eye for the designer. What did I start doing but googling all the Adrian dresses I could get my hands on.

The artist at work

Adrian (real name Adrian Greenburg, b. 1903) wasn't unknown to me before I espied the dress of my dreams on the Met website-- he was the preferred costume designer for none other than The Bird's patron saint, Joan Crawford, in the 30's and 40's, at the height of her trendsetting starlet days. It was Adrian who dreamed up accentuating JC's wide, wide shoulders with yet wider shoulderpads, and created the eyepopping designs for 1932's Letty Lynton, including the famous dress from that film, for which a glamour-starved Depression era moviegoing audience lost its ever-loving mind. Department stores were flooded with knockoff "ruffle dresses" for quite a while after, as prom-goers and debutantes across the country struggled to fit the voluminous gown into their beaux's Studebakers. Oh, and the ruby slippers, a little piece of iconic costuming in a minor movie called The Wizard of Oz ? ALSO Adrian (he did all the wonderful and memorable clothes in that movie). He married winsome, petite Janet Gaynor (the wronged wife in Murnau's Sunrise) in 1939 and, two years later, quit MGM to run his own boutique. It was on the sales floor of this boutique that he suffered a heart attack in 1959, cutting short at 56 the life of one America's most inventive apparel designers.

What SHOULDER RUFFLES you have, my dear. The Letty Lynton dress.
I'd give my eyeteeth for a movie-quality pair of these in a 11...thanks...

I thought of Adrian through the lens of those Crawford designs and similarly sleek dresses he conjured up for other preternaturally beautiful screen stars, including Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich. This "Adrian type" dress involves a lot of bias cut, slinky, femme fatale type designs that ran more refined than rococo-- what the shopgirl in your 1930's movie would wear after she was plucked from obscurity to be a rich man's mistress and society hostess. However! I was so surprised to see a number of whimsical and downright outrĂ© gowns in the Met's holdings, and more so to read that they were the backbone of his apparel collections. While a number of somber and sedate black frocks, always elegantly cut, always sharply executed, are present among the pieces (showcased in an exhibition in 2002 called "Adrian: American Glamour"), the real show stoppers are these crazy, GORGEOUS novelty print items.

Let's take a look, shall we?

If you're an art nerd like me, you might have immediately been struck, in the closeup of this black, white, and pink print, by the similarity between this print and the work of Salvador Dali. I love the frisson of indignation I felt for a moment thinking the good surrealist had been ripped off by some 1940's admirer of far-out art. Turns out, there's a good reason for you thinking this print designer owes a debt to Dali-- as the design was created by DALI HIMSELF. Could you die? Note the linebacker shoulder pads, accentuating the tiny, tiny waist of this dress, and the drama of the single patch of darkness on the left shoulder across an otherwise white-background textile. What "oomph!" this dress had!

Looking at this and the rest of the dresses in the collection, only makes me wonder why so many women's 80's and early 90's shirts/dresses/jackets go for the wrong kind of silhouette with this padding. There's nothing particularly butch or even oversized about this dress, save that lovely, clothes-hanger shoulder line. Most times when I try on clothes from the shoulderpad revival era, they're so billowy and just "bulked up" in the shoulders that it feels like I'm wearing a padded bra cup on either shoulder-- and it has that oddly humped look, too! Le sigh. 

This next dress is called the "Roan Stallion" dress-- can you figure out why?

I loooooove the starkness of the all-black background against the large scale of the horse. The columnar-shape of the dress and again that draped, feminine bodice with shoulderpads in a straight line... this is such a "dress as art" garment. Imagine walking into a crowded New York social event circa 1945 with just a chic chignon and a big gold cuff as dream life is so active, you guys.

Continuing the equine theme:

How gallant is the French chevalier on his mount? This is another of the Pastor/Fielding Met gifts. I wondering idly while pawing through these listings if they were the result of years of collecting or one lucky swipe-- I've definitely been in estate sale situations before where someone really liked a thing that it turns out YOU really like, and voilĂ . an instant collection is born. Imagine a closet in North Hollywood of some rich studio exec's wife who was just the bee's KNEES in 1945 and needed a wardrobe to match...all these dresses packed in tissue in boxes marked in a distinctive "A"...carefully put away the last time they were worn for the next time that became years and years later, and then finally not at all! I can't decide, as an incorrigible hoarder, whether it's better or worse for items like this to be in a museum-- while I appreciate them being protected for generations to come, isn't it a little sad they won't make a splash at any more ladies' luncheons or draw an audible gasp at a pre-theater cocktail party?

The pink and black motif here reminds me of Schiaparelli (shocking!) :
I can't quite tell what this would look like off a mannequin and on a real human form-- it looks like there's a scalloped sort of edge in the back, and that the skirt's draping gathers into a kind of mushroom shape? Which is interesting with the little swag over the right shoulder... and, goody! This one came with an Adrian label for us to ooh and aw over. Go ahead, I don't mind:

This item looks a little worse for wear for fading or dinginess in the bodice, but it's still a humdinger-- a field of daisies overrun by lambs! Nice work if you can get it, lambs.


I AM SO DISAPPOINTED ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHS OF THIS DRESS. Look at what it obviously is-- a five foot swag printed with a Prussian uniformed officer...and yet we can't SEE the officer because of the way the item is hanging! I wonder if it was originally pressed in a way that you could get a better look at the main attraction of the dress, or if it looks better in person. Love the idea, hate that I can't see it better. How about that beautiful collar though? The draping and that red highlight is sick-en-ing.
Lastly, if you have around thirteen grand lying around that you're not doing anything with you can snatch up an Adrian of your very own! Check out this "The Egg and I" print from 1st dibs. I don't usually go for barnyard, golf, or hunting themes (three of the very rare exceptions from my buy-everything-and-conquer approach to vintage collecting, haha), but this is a very definite exception I would make. The colors!! 

Hope I'll be seeing you in some forgotten trunk at an estate sale or flea market some day, Adrian dresses! You are deeply loved by me!

What do you think? Which dress is your favorite? Are you a novelty print wearer or do you keep your clothes sedate? Seen any designer dresses that have knocked your eye out lately? Let's talk!!

I gotta get going, but have a WONDERFUL weekend and we'll talk again soon! Til then. :)

1 comment:

  1. I love the Adrian costumes in THE WOMEN (the color sequence with the disembodied hands is particularly stunning). Joan looked great but I think Roz Russell made out the best in that one. I don't think there are many costumiers left who could influence mainstream fashion the way Adrian did.



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