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THE KID HAS GOOD TASTE, I’ll say that for her. Daughter Suz gave me a wish list of possible Christmas and Birthday gifts (her middle name is Noelle), and one of them is so good that I kept it around before she took it home.

Dressed: A Century of Hollywood Costume Design, By Deborah Nadoolman Landis, Collins, 2007.

Deborah Nadoolman Landis is a scholar of Hollywood costume design, but more than this. She’s a designer herself, Oscar-nominated for costumes in Coming to America. Other examples of her talents have appeared in Animal House, The Blues Brothers, Raiders of the Last Ark, Three Amigos, and Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Landis has a Ph.D. in the history of design from the Royal College of Art; she lectures at the American Film Institute and the USC school of Cinematic Arts, and is a professor at the University of the Arts London.

Dressed is a 9 1/4 x 12-inch, 6 1/4-lb., 566-page delight of commentary and photography, decade by decade, from the early years to the 2000s. For each era, Landis offers her curatorial insights accompanied by period photography with original-source captions sharing facts, opinions, and insider details. I immediately opened Dressed to my favorite era, the 1930s, and came away with a wealth of tidbits arranged here in Parts 1 and 2 today and tomorrow.

“Quiet on the Set!” “For costume designs,” Landis says, “sound created unanticipated technical complications. Suddenly every ruffle’s rustle, every bead’s clack, every heel’s click was an unwelcome interloper on the set, a distraction from the story on the screen.”

I recall that early “talkies” used soggy (or even rubber sheets of faux) paper to eliminate the rustle.

A Lean-to Break. Landis observes, “Jean Harlow’s slinky, body-hugging, bias-cut silk charmeuse gowns wrinkled so easily that she couldn’t sit down between takes—so prop men and costume designers developed the ‘slant board,’ which tilted at a 45-degree angle (complete with arm rests), allowing the actress to rest her legs and refresh her makeup without taking the time to remove the dress for steaming between takes.”

Jean Harlow on the set with director George Cukor. Dinner at Eight (1933). Adrian, costume designer. This and following images from Dressed.

A Three-tiered System. “It was customary,” Landis describes, “for designers to collaborate on each production. The chief designer worked with the star, the second designer designed the other female roles, a third designer took care of the men’s costumes.” 

“Yet leading men,” Landis says, “were still expected to look to their own closets for contemporary roles. As Ray Milland informed Picture Play fans in 1938: ‘I must have between thirty and forty suits…. If I wore the same suits in every picture, audiences would soon spot them. I always let at least a couple of pictures elapse between screen appearances of any one suit.”

A Game of Style. In The Women, 1939, lead Norma Shearer has busybody friend Rosalind Russell who’s supposed to “get into her ear, and if she turns away, get into her other ear.”

This closeness apparently got on Shearer’s nerves, and she came up with a costuming solution: “In the midst of my buzzing,” Rosalind recalled, “Norma left the set. When she came back she was wearing a dress left over from Marie Antoinette. It had never been worn; it was black and it had an enormous hoop skirt.”

Rosalind Russell, left, gets into Norma Shearer’s ear, sorta. The Women (1939). Adrian, costume designer.

“I just hated that other dress,” Norma told director George Cukor. And through clever camera angles, full-length mirrors, and a platform for Russell, Cukor got his ear-buzzing shots.

Gone With The Wind. “In the end,” Landis writes, “the film’s costumes had less to do with the antebellum South than with David O. Selznick’s romanticized vision of Scarlett O’Hara.”

Hattie McDaniel: “I’d rather play a maid and make $700 a week than be a maid for $7.” Gone With The Wind (1939). Walter Plunkett, costume designer.

“History wasn’t completely forsaken, though,” Landis says. “During the shooting, Plunkett telegraphed with an urgent request: ‘Margaret Mitchell was startled to receive a wire from Hollywood demanding to know how Mammy (Hattie McDaniel) should tie her kerchief!’ ”

Tomorrow in Part 2, we’ll continue with Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, Johnny Weissmuller, Maureen O’Sullivan, and a variety of minimal, maximal, and next to no costuming. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2023

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