Glamour from a ‘Gilda’ age

When British costume designer Joanna Johnston, nominated for an Academy Award for best costume design for Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, worked on her first big film, Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), she turned for inspiration to the Parisian couturier-turned-Hollywood costume designer Jean Louis, and the dresses he designed for Rita Hayworth in Gilda (1946).

Rita Hayworth in ‘Gilda', dressed by Jean Louis

Anyone curious why Johnston and many of her peers should still cite Louis as an influence should visit the exhibition at the Hollywood Museum, across the street from the Oscars theatre. The show highlights both Louis’s designs and the wardrobe and career of his late wife, Loretta Young, who was dubbed the best-dressed actress in America, and the best-dressed woman in 1948 by the Fashion Academy of New York.

Though entitled Loretta Young: Hollywood Legend, the show also features Louis’s Gilda dress, photos of Marlene Dietrich’s age-defying body stocking, and the sheer, sparkling gown Marilyn Monroe wore when she sang “Happy Birthday, Mr President” to John F Kennedy in 1962.

Mark Bridges, costume designer for the Oscar-nominated Silver Linings Playbook, says: “Jean Louis’s glamour is always inspiring but he was also a master at costumes as camouflage – Rita Hayworth’s Gilda gown was brilliantly designed to disguise the fact that she was pregnant when that scene was filmed. He also did wonders for Judy Garland’s weight fluctuations during the filming of A Star Is Born, very cleverly leading the eye to the best assets and away from problem areas. Many lessons are to be learnt looking at that man’s work.”

Louis got into Hollywood costume design after working in New York for fashion entrepreneur Hattie Carnegie, attracting high-profile customers, including Joan Cohn, the wife of Columbia chief Harry Cohn. He then began designing for the studio and once The Loretta Young Show launched in 1953, gave that show its signature style, to the extent that women would tune in to see what the star was wearing each week. “Jean would design the dresses at the beginning and the end of The Loretta Young Show,” says Young’s son, Christopher Lewis. “He designed other things for Loretta too, including the dress she wore to the White House. What he designed looked great on her. It also looked great on everybody else.”

Since Louis’ day, costume design has become even more broadly influential.

“I did Out of Africa (1985) and then there was a huge fashion trend that followed,” says Johnston. “When I finished Lincoln I was so obsessed with the style that I talked to my tailor about bringing out a line.”

Bridges, who won an Oscar for The Artist last year, adds: “I sometimes wonder if some of my work might have influenced trends. Maybe Boogie Nights (1997) helped the enthusiasm for 1970s-inspired clothes in the late 1990s. I think it was a happy accident that Gucci and Ralph Lauren were doing 1920s-inspired looks when The Artist came out.”

Interest in the subject is certainly growing. The recent Hollywood Costume exhibition at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum was seen by 250,000 visitors – the museum’s second-most popular exhibition in the past 20 years.

‘Loretta Young: Hollywood Legend’ runs until April 28,

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