A ludicrously lavish ocean liner is steaming from Montevideo to the port of New York. Joan Crawford, playing an heiress named Letty Lynton, is being proposed to by an aristocrat she met a couple of days ago on board. Letty can’t exactly say yes, since up until the day she got on the boat she’d been living in sin with a South American playboy. Letty turns out to be more than just a pretty girl you meet on a cruise ship—before the movie is over, she’ll have committed murder and perjury and gotten away with both.
Letty may not be virginal, but her costume certainly is: It’s a confection of starched and ruffled white chiffon with enormous puffy sleeves sitting like balloons on the top of Crawford’s arms. This dress, created by the Hollywood costume designer Adrian, caused a national sensation when Letty Lynton was released in 1932. “Every little girl, all over the country, within two weeks of the release of Joan Crawford’s picture, felt she would die if she couldn’t have a dress like that,” Vogue wrote at the time. “With the result that the country was flooded with little Joan Crawfords.”
The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute exhibit, “Adrian: American Glamour” (through August 18), doesn’t have the original Letty Lynton gown, but it does include one of the millions of copies that were sold in 1932. (Macy’s, which offered clothes inspired by films in a department called the Cinema Shop, claimed to have sold a half-million Letty dresses; Sears offered a version in gingham for $1.29.) Apparently, even the worst economic depression in American history wasn’t enough to thwart a young girl in pursuit of a dress.
The man behind Letty’s gown, along with clothes for virtually every screen goddess from Garbo to Garland, Harlow to Hepburn, was born Adrian Adolf Greenburg in 1903. After designing costumes for Broadway, he went Hollywood in 1923, becoming the head of MGM’s famed costume department when he was just 25. (In 1939, Adrian astonished everyone in Hollywood by marrying actress Janet Gaynor amid speculation that at least one of the spouses, if not both, was gay.) Adrian began manufacturing ready-to-wear clothing in 1941; for the next 10 years, it was sold in upscale stores all over the country.
At the entrance to the Met show are huge blowup photographs of actresses wearing some of Adrian’s most famous designs: a slinky Jean Harlow in that white satin bias-cut gown from Dinner at Eight; Katharine Hepburn in a Philadelphia Story gown; even Judy Garland done up in her Wizard of Oz checked pinafore. On a recent weekend afternoon, the crowd at the Met, wearing khakis and denim and sneakers and with nary a puffed sleeve in sight—although one young woman, in a shimmery long skirt, was keeping the spirit of Letty alive—seemed enthralled by these movie star portraits.
Unfortunately, the photos whet an appetite for glitter and glamour that the exhibit, which focuses mainly on Adrian’s ready-to-wear line, only partially satisfies. Still, it’s fun to see how someone who made his reputation with spectacular costumes translated cinematic ideas into clothes meant to be worn by regular people. Adrian not only designed Burt Lahr’s Cowardly Lion suit and pinned the wings on flying monkeys, he made dresses printed with big cats and stallions; a fervently patriotic apron dress in red, white, and blue from 1946 looks uncannily like Garland’s Oz outfit.
It’s true that Adrian’s off-the-rack clothes suffer in comparison with, say, the velvet dress he designed for Garbo’s Queen Christina (Louella Parsons reported that it took 15 women to sew on the embroidery, which alone cost $2000 in Depression dollars). Be that as it may, his gabardine suits and evening ensembles, meant to be worn by ordinary people, seem incredibly swank today. We may be comfy in our sweatpants and sneaks, but we have surely lost something when it is inconceivable that we should ever wear something like Adrian’s ivory evening gown embroidered with glass beads and transparent sequins—a garment that, though dazzling, somehow managed to conform to the War Production Board’s rules about the amount of fabric a dress could legally use during World War II.
Projected on a screen at the exhibit is a film loop of Adrian confections, including a fashion show from the movie Lovely to Look At featuring outfits ridiculous and sublime. One ensemble from Lovely to Look At is at the Met: It’s called the Warrior Goddess cape and dress, and despite being festooned with gold embroidery and sequins, it has a no-nonsense air, summed up by the museum as follows: “Thus equipped, the modish Amazon is ready to defend herself at the most treacherous restaurant or cocktail party.”
The museum visitors crammed on the bench in front of the screen can’t take their eyes off the parade of voluptuaries in gowns descending the runway. All around them are Adrian clothes in showcases, but their gazes don’t lift from the screen. Sometimes it takes a two-dimensional screen to bring three-dimensional clothes to life.
On the assumption that people who visit costume exhibits also like to shop, we took a flying visit to the Met Store. Considerable real estate has been given over to shopping at the museum, and though they have more than their quota of tea towels and baseball caps, there are a few things that transcend mere souvenir status. In this particularly patriotic season, the Met has a variety of items decorated with an image of the Statue of Liberty lifted from an old French print. The picture is lovely, even if the merchandise it embellishes—T-shirts ($20), mugs ($12), and tote bags ($9.95)—is less than scintillating. Those miniature shoes the museum introduced a few years ago are here in abundance, though besides hanging from a Christmas tree limb they have little practical application. Beaded pumps and embroidered ruby slippers are $15; on a sale table, less-favored footwear, including a pair of oxblood maryjanes that Dorothy might have worn in her Kansas days, are only $4.95. The sad visage of the World Trade Center shows up on a night-light but is absent from the sterling silver Empire City charm bracelet ($150), which contains, among other architectural treasures, a miniature Brooklyn Bridge, Washington Square Arch, and of course the Met itself. (Before the tragedy, lots of people didn’t think of the trade center as one of New York’s shining stars.) And William, the museum’s famous 12th-dynasty Egyptian hippo, graces tons of merch, not least of which is a plush turquoise backpack ($29.95). Though there’s no reason to believe he will make a young owner more sensitive to art appreciation, he’s certainly cute.