Scholars’ Spotlight: Costume Designer Gilbert Adrian

Early Years

Adrian Adolph Greenburg was born on March 3, 1903, in Naugatuck, Connecticut. His parents owned a millinery business in town which made an impression on Adrian at a young age.
After graduating from Naugatuck High School in 1920, at the age of 17, Adrian enrolled in the New York School for Fine and Applied Arts (NYSFAA). The following year he adopted the single name “Adrian” without a designated first name. He eventually decided to adopt his father’s given name “Gilbert” as his own. He would eventually drop it going back to simply “Adrian.” In 1922 he transferred to the Paris campus of NYSFAA.

Broadway and Early Hollywood

While in Paris, Adrian’s work was noticed by the legendary Irving Berlin. The famed composer contacted the designer with a job offer to design sets and costumes for Berlin’s Music Box Revue of 1922–23 on Broadway. Adrian couldn’t refuse the offer, and he immediately returned back to New York.

“I just want to knock the audience’s eyes out.”

– Adrian

Rudolph Valentino’s wife and fellow costume designer, Natacha Rambova, encouraged Adrian to leave New York behind to design costumes for Valentino’s movie The Hooded Falcon (1924). However, Valentino’s company was insolvent, and Adrian’s first screen credit was for the comedy Her Sister from Paris (1925). He followed this up with his first credit for MGM, The Merry Widow (1925).
Adrian was then hired by Cecil B. DeMille to work at his studio. In 1928, DeMille moved over to MGM, bringing Adrian with him. In a few short months, Adrian would sign a contract with the studio to be their head designer.

MGM Career

Adrian would stay with the studio until 1941. During this time, he garnished over two hundred and fifty credits with the studio. On a typical day, he would generate between fifty to seventy-five sketches and would design every costume appearing in a picture he worked on. In a December 1932 interview with Fortune magazine Irving Thalberg would state that MGM’s success was primarily due to art director Cedric Gibbons and costume designer Gilbert Adrian.
During his time at MGM, Adrian designed every costume Garbo wore during their years together at the studio. He would also create costumes for other female stars including Katharine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, and Norma Shearer. His most iconic designs were his work on The Wizard of Oz (1939) in which Adrian designed everything from the ruby slippers to the look of the Wicked Witch of the West.
Another of Adrian’s career highlights was the costumes produced for George Cukor’s film, The Women (1939). Although the film was shot in black and white, it included a 10-minute fashion parade in Technicolor, which featured Adrian’s elaborate designs.
As Adrian’s career with MGM continued the designer experienced more and more friction with the studio’s leadership, especially head honcho Louis B. Mayer. One of the biggest issues was the preverbal elephant in the room of Adrian’s openly gay lifestyle. Studio executives despised this, and none loathed it more than Mayer.
To appease the powers that be, Adrian entered a “lavender” marriage with Academy Award-winning actress Janet Gaynor, who was herself rumored to be bi-sexual. The couple was married on August 14, 1939, in Yuma, Arizona. The marriage produced one son, Robin Gaynor Adrian, born in 1940.
Gilbert Adrian
Other issues that arose at MGM that culminated in Adrian’s departure were budgetary restrictions caused by the Great Depression, as well as opinions by studio brass about what types of costumes audiences wanted to see.
The final straw came in April 1941, when Adrian had a serious argument with director George Cukor, producer Bernard Hyman, and Mayer about Garbo’s wardrobe in Two-Faced Woman (1941). Adrian resolved to leave the studio after this row and officially parted ways on August 15, 1941. Mayer was stunned by this and kept him on the payroll until his contract expired on September 5th of that year.

“When the glamour goes for Garbo, it goes for me as well.”

– Adrian

Adrian Ltd.

When Adrian left MGM, he made the decision to open his own clothing store, and thus Adrian Ltd. was born. This was not however Adrian’s first foray into selling clothing to the public. In 1932, the white mousseline de soie dress worn by Joan Crawford in Letty Linton (1932) was mass-produced (with MGM’s approval) by Macy’s Department Store, selling over 500,000 units nationwide.
The building, which housed Adrian Ltd., was located at 233 North Beverly Drive and opened in 1942. This location previously held the Victor Hugo Restaurant.
One of the factors that contributed to Adrian’s success was directly related to events half a world away. Because of the Nazi occupation of France, the Parisian high fashion industry was brought to a grinding halt. Prior to this, American fashion was looked down upon by the fashion world as a whole. However, the lack of European products, and the quality of Adrian’s designs, helped to legitimize the American fashion industry.
In 1948, Adrian planned to move into a larger space across the street, but when he learned that the JW Robinson department store was going to take over his original location, he decided to join forces with them, cutting a deal to have his clothing sold at their store.

Final Years

Adrian suffered a heart attack in 1952. Since he liked to do nearly all of the design work himself, eschewing assistants, he went into retirement. He and Janet decided to move to Brazil where they lived for six years.
Adrian came out of retirement in 1958 to design costumes for At the Grand, a musical play based on the Academy Award-winning Best Picture Grand Hotel (1932). In 1959, he designed the costumes for the Broadway musical Camelot. While working on the costumes for the play, Adrian suffered another, fatal, heart attack. Adrian passed away on September 13, 1959. He was posthumously awarded the Tony Award for Best Costume Design in a Musical, as was Tony Duquette, who finished Adrian’s work after he died.
Because the Costume category did not exist until after he had left MGM behind, Adrian was never nominated for an Academy Award.

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