Designing Hollywood: Designers


Designing Hollywood: Sketches from the Christian Esquevin Collection explores five themes: Studios, Genres, Designers, Wardrobe, and Stars. Today's post focuses on Designers, including background on how various designers got their start in the film industry. If you haven't read the other posts in this series, catch up here.

Vallery of the DollsTravilla [William Jack Travilla] (1920-1990)
Valley of the Dolls (Red Lion, 1967)
Actor: Sharon Tate (1943-1969) as “Jennifer North”
Watercolor on illustration board

Formal training was not a prerequisite to entering a studio costume workroom. Some designers had art education, such as Edith Head who attended the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles and Adrian who studied at Parsons in New York and Paris.

Others entered the industry more judiciously: Travis Banton worked for London couturière Lucile, Lady Duff-Gordon before migrating to Hollywood. Still others had little or no experience in design or garment construction, only raw talent, perseverance, and luck. Illustration skills helped many, like Renie who started as a sketch artist as the first rung up her long career ladder.

In Hollywood’s “Golden Age”—the 1920s through the 1960s—filming was an unrelenting production line; designers had to be efficient and prolific under constant stress. Sadly for some the pressures were too severe: Dolly Tree succumbed to alcoholism and Irene committed suicide. Short careers were common, like André-Ani at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, while the fortunate survived decades, such as Gwen Wakeling who designed from 1923 until 1966.

Several costume designers had auxiliary fashion careers, marketing their own clothing lines: Helen Rose and Travilla being successful examples. Once the old Studio System crumbled in the late 1960s, designers were no longer signed to exclusive, multi-year contracts. Today’s aspirants are freelancers.

Based on a the popular 1966 novel by Jacqueline Susann, Valley of the Dolls follows three young women as they pursue fame and fortune in Hollywood. With a focus on the dark side of fame, Valley of the Dolls is now considered a camp classic. Worn by Jennifer North (Sharon Tate) the green and pink ensemble pictured above appears onscreen very briefly. Despite its fleeting appearance, Travilla's sketch for the costume is fully realized and brimming with personality. It is a personal favorite of collector Christian Esquevin, who describes it as having "so much panache."

See this sketch in Designing Hollywood at the FIDM Museum Tuesday-Saturday, from 10am-5pm through November 1, 2014.

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