Paramount's Opulent Style Lives On
by bronwyn cosgrave
Paramount Pictures, that most iconic of Hollywood studios, pioneered the making of films imbued with a fashion-forward flair as far back as the 1920s, when legendary costumers Travis Banton and Edith Head worked behind the scenes in the studio’s vast wardrobe department. So far reaching was the influence of these legendary talents that, close to a century after the release of classic films featuring their handiwork, their legacy remains vital even today.
Take the 2013 Spring/Summer ready-to-wear collections presented back in Fall 2012, for example, when directional designers displayed collections evoking “Paramount polish.” This catchphrase was coined during Hollywood’s Golden Era to describe the studio’s sophisticated modernity. But because Paramount’s designers, like Banton and Head, never became brand names—or launched labels that lived on like that of their contemporary, Coco Chanel—the styles they innovated as Paramount hallmarks would be lost on the average fashion professional. A film buff, however, would have had a field day in Paris this past fall, where tuxedos—similar to the one Marlene Dietrich famously wore in Morocco, her Paramount debut—“flooded” runways, according to Women’s Wear Daily.
From Céline to Christian Dior to Saint Laurent Paris, sleek black trouser suits prevailed. Yves Saint Laurent introduced the tuxedo to women’s fashion in August 1966 and those shown in Paris last year were an homage to his original, called “Le Smoking.” Yet the couturier always acknowledged that Dietrich’s Morocco tux—which Banton masterminded—originally prompted him to create it.
Paramount style was also evident during New York’s Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in September, where Marchesa presented opulent red-carpet finery featuring lavish beading similar to that which Banton conceived for the studio’s screen goddess gowns, and later, L’Wren Scott sculpted dresses with the figure-flattering, bias-cut silhouette Banton had favored for Carole Lombard.
Black and white looks, displayed at Marc Jacobs in New York, as well as on his Louis Vuitton Paris runway and at Tom Ford’s London presentation, recalled the work of Banton’s successor, Edith Head. Hollywood’s best-known costumer, Head worked in Paramount’s wardrobe department for 43 years and, for the studio’s early Technicolor films, she made the minimalist palette vibrant by using the color combination to heighten dramatic moments, such as when Grace Kelly appears in a black and white beach costume in a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief in 1955.
The revival of Paramount style, noted always for its modern, “effortless” take on opulence, is fortuitous, given that the studio has just celebrated its centennial. For close to a century, its films have perpetuated a tradition of not only impeccably dressing its A-list stars but also integrating high fashion into their screen wardrobes so that it works magic—striking a chord yet never taking over a scene. Giorgio Armani, Christian Dior, Hubert de Givenchy, Ralph Lauren, Roland Mouret, and Naeem Khan (the New York designer who often dresses First Lady Michelle Obama), among other A-list fashion greats—have all collaborated with Hollywood’s finest costume designers to shape the look of important Paramount films.
It was Adolph Zukor himself—whose Famous Players Film Company evolved into Paramount Pictures by 1936—who first established this collaborative method of costuming the players in the studio’s productions. Just as the pioneering film mogul sought out sophisticated material to craft smart scripts and encouraged Hans Dreier to create fantastical sets, high fashion, Zukor rightly concluded, would elevate the quality of motion picture production beyond early cinema’s “quickie” productions and propel Paramount to be a leader among early Hollywood’s “Big Five” film studios.
Fabulous costumes also translated to the big screen an aura of luxury and fantasy that was crucial to attracting women to the cinema back then. From the 1920s, women began to regard actresses as fashion icons. So Paramount, along with its rival MGM, pioneered the making of lavish costume pictures.
Zukor, a former Chicago furrier, “spared nothing to see that his stars were dressed in the manner the public had come to expect,” says costume designer and historian W. Robert La Vine. By 1923 two American fashion greats, Norman Norell and Howard Greer, were on his payroll. Norma Talmadge was gowned by Greer, who then established Paramount’s wardrobe department “in the tradition of a French dressmaking house.”
Greer had worked in New York and Paris for couturiers Lucile, Edward Molyneux, and Paul Poiret. Though he “insisted on perfection” at Paramount he also reveled in the relaxed energy of the studio during the Silent Era. “There were no elaborate or guarded entrance gates through which town cars were driven by liveried chauffeurs,” he recalled. “Through the same swinging doors milled stars, extras, aspirants, sightseers, [and] executives.”
Greer launched Edith Head’s career, hiring the former schoolteacher to be a sketch artist, and then promoted her to assistant for both himself and Banton. He “taught her how to draw,” notes her biographer, David Chierichetti. By 1925 Greer and Head formed part of a legendary design trio after Banton—a New York designer favored by high society—was hired to costume The Dressmaker from Paris. “We got along famously,” recalled Greer. By 1927 Greer left to establish his own custom dress salon on a patch of Sunset Boulevard that now houses the Cat & Fiddle restaurant. Banton became Paramount’s chief costume designer. “He was a god there—the greatest,” recalled Head. “Travis knew how to talk to the stars, how to make them feel absolutely beautiful in his clothes. I learned everything from him.”
Over his decade-long reign at Paramount—working on 160 films—Banton crystallized what became known as the “Paramount look.” It could be opulent and effortless, depending on the star and mood of a production. It was typically inspired by haute couture. Banton made trips to Paris to source textiles and glean inspiration. Ultimately, he became revered for creating the outlandish costumes that Marlene Dietrich flaunted in six Paramount films directed by Josef von Sternberg. “Day in, day out they worked sometimes for 12-hour stretches,” wrote Maria Riva, Dietrich’s daughter about her mother’s fittings.
Rather than resent Zukor’s “directives” to lavishly apply fur to costumes (to bolster its trade during the Great Depression), Banton reveled in the opportunity, using “yards of mink, sable, ermine, and chinchilla to romanticize Dietrich, and draped the plump shoulders of Mae West with triple-skin scarves of white fox.”
When Banton discovered couturier Elsa Schiaparelli’s displeasure that he had acquired an entire stock of beads and sequins from her preferred source, he shipped a supply to her Paris atelier. After the fleet of costumes Schiaparelli produced for Mae West arrived at Paramount and proved too tight, Banton swiftly altered the dresses so the actress could comfortably strut her stuff in Every Day’s a Holiday.
Yet two decades later, when Edith Head ruled at Paramount as chief costumer, she balked at the prospect of engaging in a similar joint venture for the Billy Wilder romance Sabrina. Head was “furious” and “almost quit” Sabrina when she was informed that Audrey Hepburn, the studio’s new mega-star, would appear in a couture wardrobe by Hubert de Givenchy. Schiaparelli’s former assistant, Givenchy, was the hot new fashion name and became fast friends with Hepburn when she visited his atelier to pull couture for the film.
Appointed chief costumer at Paramount in 1938, after Banton went freelance, Head had worked hard to get to the top. She had overcome obstacles, like Claudette Colbert dismissing her as an “art student” and Hedda Hopper placing her on her column’s Worst Dressed List. But by the 1950s, Head was considered a “grande dame,” controlling a staff of 50 from her “big, beautiful, super-elegant office,” known around Paramount as “Edie’s room.” In it she displayed the Oscars she earned after the Academy introduced the costume design category in 1948. “Edith would have all her Oscars out in a circle on a round table in her office,” wrote Jay Jorgensen in Edith Head: The Fifty-Year Career of Hollywood’s Greatest Costume Designer. “All the people that came to see her were so intimidated.”
Head eventually accumulated eight costume-design Oscars, including those for cinematic landmarks like All About Eve. Many believe the refined Oscar-winning costumes she conceived for Elizabeth Taylor’s role as society girl Angela Vickers in A Place in the Sun prompted Paramount to launch a teenage fashion line. With Head’s direction, it was a best seller at department stores.
Head’s unparalleled success notwithstanding, by 1956, a clause in Hepburn’s contract stated that Givenchy could produce the wardrobe for her movies featuring a contemporary setting, and the couturier went on to assist in creating costumes for four Paramount productions, including Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Never before had a Paris designer worked as consistently with a Hollywood studio. The publicity Givenchy gleaned from his work with Hepburn at Paramount—as well as her appearances representing the studio at the Oscars modeling his couture—catapulted him to international fame and fortune.
Hermès, too, can trace a pivotal moment of its success gaining worldwide brand recognition to a Paramount production—namely Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief. During pre-production, Hitchcock dispatched Head and the film’s star, Grace Kelly, to the luxury brand’s Paris flagship to source accessories for the film. Over the course of the shopping trip, Head discovered a modelperfect muse. So did Hermès. Two years after Thief’s release, a boxy Hermès handbag, known as Haut à Courroies, became the “Kelly” after the actress became the Princess of Monaco and appeared in Life magazine toting one.
By 1967, a year after Gulf & Western acquired Paramount, Head heard they might be laying off anyone over 60. She beat them to the punch and left for Universal. The task of costuming Paramount’s films fell to a force of freelance designers. The end of the era marked the beginning of cultural change. Robert Evans became Paramount’s vice president of production and the flamboyant former actor instigated cutting-edge motion pictures notable for their renegade spirit, visionary directors, and directional style. “Paramount produced more films notable for their costumes than any other studio,” observed David Chierichetti of the time.
Like Zukor, Evans authorized the production of more realistic costumes for major productions beginning with Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby. Like Hitchcock, Polanski had an “acute visual sense” and was “insistent that the smallest details” evoked the film’s 1965 New York setting. To reflect the consistent heightening of hemlines that year, costumer Anthea Sylbert meticulously assembled a wardrobe for Mia Farrow’s title character featuring miniskirts that gradually got shorter as the film progressed. Polanski’s friend Vidal Sassoon received $5,000 to shape Farrow’s hair into a pixie cut that became iconic upon the film’s release. For Lady Sings the Blues in 1972, Bob Mackie and Ray Aghayan—then “Hollywood’s fastest-rising design team”—conceived 43 elaborate costumes in which Diana Ross immortalized Billie Holiday in the musical biopic. “Anything she wanted she could have,” recalls Mackie.
Incredibly, three out of the four films nominated for the 47th costume design Academy Award for 1974 were produced by Paramount, including the winner, The Great Gatsby. Receiving the prize, the costume designer, the late Theoni V. Aldredge, never thanked Ralph Lauren, who also worked on the film. She was miffed that the press “turned the spotlight on Lauren” upon the release of the epic adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel. Aldredge always “insisted” that Lauren “had merely executed” designs for Robert Redford to “her specifications.”
As films assumed a more realistic edge through the recessionary 1970s, Paramount made the grittier tone glamorous with Saturday Night Fever. Portraying Brooklyn hardware store salesman Tony Manero, John Travolta exhibited flair on the dance that floor rivaled Fred Astaire’s balletic moves. Yet while Astaire cut a dashing figure on-screen in bespoke Savile Row attire, Travolta’s iconic white polyester suit was purchased at a Brooklyn men’s clothing store by the film’s costumer, Patrizia von Brandenstein. The move was deliberate. After scouring Brooklyn discos for research, von Brandenstein concluded that Manero was a “kid who could barely afford to go out on a Saturday night.” The rest is history. Decades later, Christie’s auction house sold the three-piece ensemble to an anonymous bidder for close to $150,000.
For 1980’s American Gigolo, writer/director Paul Schrader integrated a superlative wardrobe Giorgio Armani had produced for Richard Gere’s Hollywood hustler character, Julian Kay, so the fleet of suits seductively resonated on screen. The cult-hit status of the stylish melodrama resulted in Armani being the first fashion designer to grace the cover of Time since Christian Dior’s appearance in 1957. His tailoring also became the uniform of Hollywood power brokers, while his women’s eveningwear dominated the Oscars red carpet for decades to come. Gigolo also launched Armani’s sideline as a costumer.
Then along came Clueless. With its cast of fashion-obsessed Beverly Hills teenage girls, and a script laden with style references, the 1995 comedy arrived at a time when—aside from Pretty Woman—high fashion had been absent from the screen for about a decade. Its groundbreaking status made Amy Heckerling’s coming-of-age tale the forerunner of a wave of female-driven stylish films and TV shows, from Sex and the City and Mean Girls to Gossip Girl and Girls. Mona May, the film’s costumer followed von Brandenstein’s example on Fever and embarked on grass-roots research at high schools and luxury shopping malls. She also looked to fashion runways for inspiration and, despite budget constraints, sourced authentic pieces by designers like Azzedine Alaïa and Calvin Klein, whose names were featured in the script. “I studied fashion,” May says. But she carefully selected fashion that, above all, conjured the “sweet” nature of the Clueless clique: Cher, Dionne, and Tai. “With fashion for a film, it is so easy to get lost in trends,” reflects May. “But you can never be ‘too right on’ or it looks pastiche. You have to find something that is right for the character and you can never spin a trend too far.”
For pivotal moments of another Paramount smash, Dreamgirls, its costumer, Sharen Davis, went massive. For the 2006 musical’s showstopping farewell performance—by Beyoncé Knowles as Deena Jones backed up by Jennifer Hudson and Anika Noni Rose as “The Dreams”—Davis commissioned Naeem Khan to craft a trio of pewter and gold gowns. Embellished with titanium, each one weighed about 12 pounds and would sell for approximately $10,000. Upon Dreamgirls release, four pieces designed by Khan counted among 120 custom-made gowns by Davis. Yet, when she garnered an Oscar nomination, she magnanimously shared the publicity with Khan. And while Vogue’s contributing editor André Leon Talley recently described Davis as the “African-American answer to Edith Head” after she earned Critics Choice and Costume Designers Guild Awards nominations for The Help—Khan went on to dress First Lady Michelle Obama.
Four years later in 2010, working with Gwyneth Paltrow, as she reprised her role as Virginia “Pepper” Potts, and Scarlett Johansson, who assumed the part of femme fatale Russian spy Natasha Romanoff, in Iron Man 2, Mary Zophres lent an edge to the big-budget action adventure by engaging top-notch designers who had relationships with the film’s stars. So Dior—which Paltrow represented for many years, fronting its accessory advertising campaigns—along with Gucci, Prada, and Balenciaga predominated in the sophisticated, executive-style wardrobe of slimline dresses Zophres assembled to reflect Pepper’s transition from the girl Friday of billionaire industrialist Tony Stark to CEO of his company, Stark Industries. Meanwhile, Johansson wore form-fitting frocks by Dolce & Gabbana and Roland Mouret.
Zophres admits acquiring a silk robe by Tom Ford for Robert Downey Jr. that was “hugely expensive” and proved a tad controversial. “I nearly got fired,” she jokes of justifying the expense. But the robe typified Stark’s billionaire style, and at Paramount, fashion—lavish fashion—is still paramount, even today. Zukor would have been proud.
photography by ernest bachrach/john kobal foundation/getty images (swanson); jack birns/time + Life pictures/getty images (gates); courtesy of paramount (sabrina, sunset Boulevard, lady sings the blues, clueless, gatsby, saturday night fever, dreamgirls); eugene robert richee/getty images (dietrich); hulton archive/getty images (taylor, head); af archive/alamy (flashdance, iron man)
Fashion shoot: December 2013 issue of Los Angeles Confidential magazine.