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A Brief History of Film Costuming

Updated: Jan 1

Hollywood Costuming

The short history of Costume Design from the 1912-1960's

The history of film making in the U.S begins in New York in the 1890's, focused mainly on silent films. "Costume Design" was often left to the actors themselves. Applicants came dressed appropriately for an audition hoping to win a role. The fortunate actress who had an extensive wardrobe of their own, received more parts than more modestly dressed women.

Pauline Garon, Cecil B. DeMille & Clare West discussing designs for "Adams Rib",1923 (Costume Designer Clare West)

When it came to the costumes, producers in Hollywood relied on the "sources" they knew the best from New York...the actresses. Two notable film visionaries, began to explore a new approach to costuming films in the 1910's. Producer Adolph Zukor, introduced Americans to the concept of the film costume designer as a creative artist. Director D.W Griffith introduced, the practice of creating costumes specifically for American-made films.

By the late 1920's costume design had become a normal part of the filming budget and process.

What is a Costume Designer?

Costume design is the creation of clothing, for the overall appearance of a character or performer. Focusing on key periods (or moments) in time, to ensure that the garments depict an authentic representation of the period of time, the genre, or the tone of the film.

"Costume Design is not just about the clothes: in the film, it has both a narrative and visual mandate. Designers serve the script and the director by creating authentic characters and by using colour, texture and silhouette to provide balance within the composition of the frame. The costume designer must first know who the character is before approaching this challenge." - Hollywood Costume Edited by Nadoolman Landis.

The Famous Costume Designer Edith Head

Paul Poiret (the french couture designer) was one of the initial high fashion designers to partake as a costume designer, with his designs in the french film "The Loves of Queen Elizabeth", starring Sarah Bernhardt (see photo below). Following Poiret's lead, fashion designers started to design for films with some regularity. It's no surprise that this, (along with creation of the talking picture) helped usher in "The Golden Age".

The Golden Age of Hollywood Cinema

Dominating from the 1910's-1960's with its allure and glamour, it eventually became one of the most powerful and recognizable periods of cinematography.

 Veronica Lake the epitome of old Hollywood glamour in a shot from the 1941 film Sullivan's Travels.

(Above left) Marlene Dietrich, Morocco 1930, (upper right) The Devil is A Women, (lower right) Shanghai Express.

(Second page sketches, top right) for Ruby Carter (Mae West), in Belle of the Nineties 1934, Costume designer and Illustrator Travis Banton.

(Second page sketches, bottom right) for Concha Perez in The Devil is a Woman, 1935, Costume designer and Illustrator Travis Banton.

(photo on the far right) Mae West, in Belle of the Nineties 1934, Costume designer and Illustrator Travis Banton.

Fitting schedule at MGM studios,1939 (Yes, that "Miss Crawford")

Vital to the process of creating a cohesive film, both director and costume designer need to have a collaborative relationship in order to bring the vision to life. Below is a photo of two acclaimed individuals in their perspective fields. Alfred Hitchcock and Edith Head.

Key Features

Note; There is an attached illustration for your records, detailing the key features of A "Golden Age of Hollywood" starlet.

  • Pin Curls

  • Ruby Red lipstick

  • Satin, silk, sequin body con gowns

  • Diamond Pearl Jewels

  • Fur Stoles

The Icons

Here are few that dominated the big screen during the golden age. See any you recognize? Can you match the names to the photo? (leave your answers in the comments)

  1. Marilyn Monroe ____

  2. Judy Garland ____

  3. Lauren Bacall _____

  4. Jayne Mansfield ____

  5. Grace Kelly _____

  6. Jean Harlow ____

  7. Elizabeth Taylor ____








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Fashion Design Blogger
Jasmine Terry-Ankobil

Jasmine Terry-Ankobil owner and operator of LAIDIECLOTH fashion house, where I create custom designs and perform alterations for formal occasions. &Online Couture Sewing School LAIDIECLOTH U. Please feel free to share this article and/or visit my site 

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