Designing Hollywood: Stars


This post is the last in a series exploring the five themes of Designing Hollywood: Sketches from the Christian Esquevin Collection. So far, we've looked at Studios, Genres, Designers, and Wardrobe. Today's post examines the interaction between film stars, studios, and costume designers. To catch up on the series, read all of the previous posts here

Though today's post wraps up this series, Designing Hollywood will be on view at the FIDM Museum until November 1, 2014.

RaintreeElizabeth Taylor (1932-2011) as “Susanna Drake Shawnessy”
Raintree County (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1957)
Designer: Walter Plunkett (1902-1982)
Watercolor on illustration board

The face belonged to the star, but their figure was created by the costume designer; flawless perfection was the goal, whether in black and white melodramas or Technicolor epics. And while a script might call for prairie dresses or space suits, the carefully crafted image of the star had to be maintained at all times: vixen or ingénue, rogue or everyman.

Stars animated the work of designers, borrowing sartorial guises that allowed them to inhabit characters outside of the everyday, but also adding the “It” factor—that indescribable onscreen allure—to the designers’ visions.

Stars under long-term contracts were at the command of the studio chiefs: what films they appeared in, if they were loaned to other studios, what they wore, even whom they dated was dictated. Designers were also under contract and there was little choice in whom one was to dress.

Onscreen roles were not the only reason designers’ talents were called upon: movie premieres and award presentations were high octane events teeming with image hungry news reporters. Thus, consistency of appearance was maintained from film to photo-op, and instant star recognition achieved for the cavalcade of “types” each studio desired to promote.

Walter Plunkett considered Raintree County more ambitious in its costuming than his previous Civil War-era film Gone with the Wind (1939). Like Gone With the Wind, Raintree County is a dramatic epic set before, and during, the Civil War. In the film, Elizabeth Taylor plays an unbalanced young woman who tricks John Wickliff Shawnessy (Montgomery Clift) into marriage. Taylor received her first Academy Award nomination for her performance in the film, though she didn't win this coveted award until her 1960 role in BUtterfield 8


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