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Costume Design and Fashion: A Multi-Million Dollar Industry

In light of Prada, Tiffany & Co., and Brooks Brothers, all producing Great Gatsby inspired lines and the much publicised drama between fashion and costume designers, we should consider the influence that costume has over fashion. The alliance between costume and fashion designers has been both beneficial and contentious. Fashion does have a much longer history than film costume design, but since the beginning of moving pictures, both industries have nurtured an intimate relationship.

In the advent of cinema, fashion was placed centre stage in filmed fashion shows. These fashion shorts slowly evolved from runway shows via the introduction of a stories surrounding the garments (Bruzzi, 4). Early costume design was influenced by current runway fashions, such as Vionnet’s signature bias cut gowns hugging actress’ bodies on the big screen. Starting in the 1930s, costume design and current fashion slowly began to pull away from each other. This changed when MGM brought on board Gilbert Adrian and Howard Greer for a Cecil B. DeMille film. The introduction of these two men into this industry was a turning point in the history of costume design (Bruzzi, 4).

Letty Lyton_Joan Crawford dress full_Image credit MGM

The white organdy gown designed by Adrian and worn by Joan Crawford in Letty Lynton (1932). This gown prompted a rush of copies by fashion retailers in the early 1930s.

Adrian worked as the head of the MGM costume department from 1928-1942. During this time he transformed Greta Garbo into a fashion icon. Joan Crawford too; Adrian’s ruffled organdy gown for Letty Lynton, a soft and glamorous dress, captured fantasy within the ruffles and was widely copied by retailers. Crawford and Adrian swept fashion with wide shoulder suits and beautiful simplicity. Adrian’s designs excited moviegoers – the allure of Garbo or Crawford wearing a design that is a little bit outrageous but intensely exciting on screen, spoke to them. There was and still is a need to recapture this glamour as retailers scramble to get their own similar versions onto racks (LaVine, 166). Adrian moved on to fashion design and today is celebrated in both worlds.

Fashion designers have also been commissioned by studios, greats like Coco Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli and Hubert de Givenchy. In more modern times designers such as Giorgio Armani, Ralph Lauren, Jean-Paul Gaultier, and Vivienne Westwood have worked as costume designers (Bruzzi , 8). There have been occasions when the costume process did not agree with these designers and some did not last beyond a few projects. Chanel struggled when working with Gloria Swanson and refused to compromise her vision for the benefit of the film’s story (Bruzzi , 3). Even with such wrangles, there have been a few wonderful exceptions; Givenchy and Audrey Hepburn, for example, was a successful match that began on Sabrina. Edith Head and Givenchy both worked on this movie, but Givenchy designed Sabrina’s Parisian wardrobe, all fantasy and beauty, which caused animosity with Head. Arguments over who designed what lasted for far too long (Bruzzi , 6). Fashion designers have also been able to enjoy both professions, though not many fashion designers stay in costume. The job descriptions differ but both can create a wearable dream. It is this dream that speaks to the heart of the moviegoer or fashion lover.


Audrey Hepburn wearing a striking bateau neckline dress. It is still contested whether Sabrina’s costume designer Edith Head or contributing fashion designer Hubert de Givenchy created this look for the film.

A film can be watched by millions, reaching out and transforming our reality for a short time. Doesn’t fashion do the same when we see that mesmerising dress or perfectly tailored suit in a shop window? The viewer is transformed for a moment, and who wouldn’t want to keep that moment, pulling it out again and again to relive the fantasy? When the fashion world finds its cue in costume design we are given the opportunity to take this fantasy home. This has been happening for decades, notably when Edith Head’s designs for Zaza influenced a resurgence of early 1900 inspired fashion on the Paris runways (Maeder, 80). More contemporarily, a popular television show like Mad Men sports a style that is so glamorous and nostalgic it fits comfortably with the right retailer. Costume designer Janie Bryant and Banana Republic came together to create a line that translated the 1960s look for the store’s target market.

With influence that is on record since the early days of the film industry, costume design speaks to the masses in a way that runway high fashion can never reach. Movies are accessible; they take the viewer into a world dictated by creative forces that are strongly persuasive. Businesses have appreciated the media’s influences on consumers for years, and it is no surprise that retailers are working with costume designers. Companies similar to Banana Republic that have created collections with costume designers include H&M for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Trish Summerville) and Neiman Marcus, Bloomingdales and Macy’s who all carried a line inspired by Oz The Great and Powerful (Sue Wong, based on Gary Jones’ work on the film).

Mad Men_season 6_John Hamm, Jessica Paré shimmer mid_Image credit AMC

Jon Hamm as Don Draper and Jessica Paré as Megan Draper on the TV series Mad Men. Costume designer Janie Bryant worked with high street brand Banana Republic to create a tie-in line for the show.

This is not a relationship that can be glossed over as coincidence; costume excite the moviegoer and fashion reacts with inspired designs. This partnership, whether acknowledged or not, is strongly beneficial. From Adrian to Prada, costume designers and fashion designers will always find themselves closely aligned, business will benefit and consumers can own a piece of fantasy.

By Kristin Koga.

Kristin holds a BA in Textiles and Clothing from California State University, Long Beach. She aspires to be a costume designer and is the creator of Fashioned for the Geek, a blog that explores costume design in television.


Bruzzi, S. Undressing cinema, clothing and identity in the movies. Taylor & Francis, 1997. Print.

LaVine, W. Robert. In a glamorous fashion: The fabulous years of Hollywood costume design . New York: Charles Scribner Sons, 1980. Print.

Maeder, Edward. Hollywood & History. Los Angeles: Lucasfilm Ltd., 1887. Print.

© 2013 – 2014, Contributor.


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