Movie Costumes of the 1930's and early 1940's

When movies added sound, the medium took off. What followed was a few decades of prolific output of all types of film. This put a huge burden on the costume and wardrobe shop, which cranked out countless styles for the next few decades. Out of this wealth, there are some memorable standouts. It tends to happen when designer, star and script are well-matched.

The first photo is a Gilbert Adrian design for Katherine Hepburn in "Philadelphia Story" (1940). Adrian achieved notice through his strong creative genius. He was able to generate originality apart from the Paris scene, an achievement that was important in establishing Hollywood glamour.

This striped top is memorable for its amazing patternmaking technique where the stripe and seamlines create a novel approach to a very simple silhouette. I have found that every patternmaker I know can remember the first time she/he saw this costume. Then of course, there is Clark Gable's costume, or lack of, to consider.

"Bringing Up Baby" (Howard Greer gowns, 1938), put Katherine Hepburn into more remarkable gowns that support her airy character.

"The Women" (Gilbert Adrian, 1938), is a huge reminder of how a costume designer can affect and reflect their time. Rosalind Russell's costumes are hilarious, yet they do depict a style trend of that day. Joan Crawford, by now an Adrian devotee, wears the sliky bias cuts that helped to make her famous. But don't miss the fashion show that is part of the plot, where surrealism takes a fashion turn on stage (in a nod to Schiaparelli).

There are many more important movies to absorb in the pre-WWII era. Not to be missed are the musicals, where Rogers and Astaire sport fabulous costumes and wonderful settings. The list below is only the tip of the iceberg. I selected easy to locate, well known movies with important gowns or costumes. I am sure that you can add to this listing, as it is short, but sweet:

It Happened One Night—1934:
Claudette Colbert, Clark Gable
Costume design: Robert Kalloch
The big fashion item here is her striped top. Try to solve how it is cut.

My Man Godfrey—1936:
Carole Lombard, William Powell
Bias cut….

Gold Diggers of 1933:
Orry-Kelly costumes
Stage and fashion costumes

Bringing Up Baby—1938:
Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant
Howard Greer costumes
Hepburn wears some nifty bias cut dresses

The Thin Man—1934:
Myrna Loy, William Powell
Dolly Tree, wardrobe
This is the beginning of a multiple movie series. Myrna Loy’s dresses are always a treat. Her character is a foil for the drama, and the costumes are dramatic and often witty.

Philadelphia Story—1940:
Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant
Glibert Adrian, costumes
The gowns reflect Greek drapery influences, with lots of bias cut crepe.
Don’t overlook Hepburn’s crazy hat she wears into town.

The Women—1938:
Glibert Adrian, costumes
Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell
This has so much fashion, it’s hard to take in one viewing.
Lots of bias cut and ‘gay nineties’ influences. Don’t miss Roz Russell’s witty bustles and hats.

Dinner at Eight—1933:
Jean Harlow
Gilbert Adrian, gowns
Bias cut

Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire
Howard Greer, gowns
Bias cut dance gowns and other fashion items for Ginger

Shall We Dance—1937:
Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire
Irene Gibbons, gowns
Ginger wears a variety of fashion outfits and dance gowns

Flying Down to Rio—1933:
Dolores Del Rio, Fred Astaire
Irene Gibbons, gowns (uncredited)
This has some ‘casual’ looks, and nightclub scenes in it.

His Girl Friday—1940:
Rosalind Russell, Cary Grant
Robert Kalloch, gowns
Suits, this is an early display of the suits that women will wear through the 40’s.

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