Historical Sew Fortnightly

The HSF/M 2015: Challenge #11: Silver Screen

I know, I’m running dreadfully behind with this challenge!  I’ve already posted my finished project, and I haven’t even done an inspiration post yet!

I’ve already mentioned that screen costumes don’t really inspire me, but there is one big exception to that: I LOVE screen costumes from pre-1945-ish.

I love the ones that were meant to represent historically periods (which they usually do with fabulous flair and utter disregard to accuracy), and I love the ones in contemporary costume.  And most of all, I love the costumes where the designer just went mad and created something entirely random.

For inspiration, here are my 10 favourite period film costumes:

1. Greta Garbo in Mata Hari.  As a designer, Adrian is definitely my favourite.  He knew how to dress his actresses, and excelled at creating totally iconic costumes.  When it comes to shear mad fabulosity, nobody can beat Adrian!    I mean, look at this:

Greta Garbo in Mata Hari, costumes by Gilbert Adrian

Greta Garbo in Mata Hari, costumes by Gilbert Adrian


Greta Garbo in Mata Hari, costumes by Gilbert Adrian

Greta Garbo in Mata Hari, costumes by Gilbert Adrian

2. Marlene Dietrich’s tuxedo from Morocco.  ADORE!

Marlene Dietrich in a tuxedo for 'Morocco' (1930)

Marlene Dietrich in a tuxedo for ‘Morocco’ (1930)

3.  Madge Bellamy in 1920s does 1670s – for Lorna Doon, and then White Zombie (because there is nothing like a good bit of costume re-use.

Madge Bellamy as Lorna Doone in 1922

Madge Bellamy as Lorna Doone in 1922

Madge Bellamy in 'White Zombie', inexplicably wearing a costume from Lorna Doon

Madge Bellamy in ‘White Zombie’, inexplicably wearing a costume from Lorna Doon

5. Claudette Colbert in Cleopatra.  How can you not love every single costume from this film!   Hyper-sexy 1930s with Egyptian accessories – they may not be remotely accurate, but they fit the film’s Cleopatra perfectly.  Literally and figuratively.

Claudette Colbert in a gown by Travis Banton for Cecil B deMille's 'Cleopatra' 1934

Claudette Colbert in a gown by Travis Banton for Cecil B deMille’s ‘Cleopatra’ 1934

Claudette Colbert in a gown by Travis Banton for Cecil B deMille's 'Cleopatra' 1934

Claudette Colbert in a gown by Travis Banton for Cecil B deMille’s ‘Cleopatra’ 1934

6. Greta Garbo in Adrian (again) for A Woman of Affairs.  Adrian’s decision to put Garbo in a trench coat (previously an exclusively male garment) only made her look even more gorgeous, and made trench coats fashionable for women (YAY!).  Plus, the plaid lining?  Tres chic!

Greta Garbo in Adrian in a Woman of Affairs (1928)

Greta Garbo in Adrian in a Woman of Affairs (1928)

7. Joan Crawford in the famous revolving door dress from 1932’s Grand Hotel, because…well…this pretty much answers it all:

Joan Crawford in revolving door (1932)

Joan Crawford in Grand Hotel  (1932)

8. 1930s Riding Outfits.  Cheating every so slightly, because I can’t find the actual image I want.  Fay Wray wears a gorgeous riding ensemble  in Mills of the Gods, but this is the best image I can find.  So here is Madge Belamy in an equally cute riding outfit, but I don’t think she ever wore it onscreen:

Madge Bellamy, 1920s

Madge Bellamy, 1920s

9. Joan Crawford in the legendary white Letty Lynton gown by Adrian.  This was the original film dress that launched a thousand copycats, but due to a copyright battle, the film was banned and the completely, fabulously, utterly, wonderfully ridiculous dress can only be seen in stills.

Joan in Adrian's legendary Letty Lynton gown (1932)

Joan in Adrian’s legendary Letty Lynton gown (1932)

10. And finally, while I have serious problems with the book and film, I still can’t help loving Vivien Leigh in the famous green picnic dress from Gone with the Wind:

Vivien Leigh in Walter Plunkett's famous picnic dress for Gone WIth the Wind (1939)

Vivien Leigh in Walter Plunkett’s famous picnic dress for Gone WIth the Wind (1939)


  1. Wow! These are gorgeous!!!
    I have to admit, I love watching old films. I find the dresses/costumes fascinating!

  2. Totally agree with about Adrian, he was amazing! I love his slinky bias cut dresses and then he did the costumes for The Wizard of Oz- so cool!

  3. Barbara Stevens says

    Those certainly were the days. I look with astonished horror at some of the things (and I use the word things deliberately, because what is being worn sure isn’t a gown, frock, dress by any measure of those words) by those claiming fame today and wonder where their sense of self-respect has gone. Old time stars were out to impress and did they what! And all without showing excessive cleavage above or below, with much more gown than skin showing. These costumes/gowns are fantastic.
    As for the Lorna Doone/White Zombie double up – maybe money was tight right then? Or the actress just really loved that dress? I bet most people wouldn’t have even noticed. Takes a costume perfectionist to see those things!

  4. Deanna says

    Love this post! Classic films are one of my long-time loves. And I love Adrian! Besides the fabulous film costumes, I really love his 40s suits, especially those wonderful stripes-in-all-directions ones.

    I thought the number 7 photo (that is a knockout gown!) was from Grand Hotel. Is that an alternate title?

    I love that you showed really interesting costumes from Cleopatra, and not just the so-much-gold-it’ll-knock-your-eye-out ensemble. 🙂

    I wonder if the old story I heard about Joan Crawford being self conscious about her hips was true – the Letty Lynton gown succeeded in just about obliterating them. Do you know if all those sleeve ruffles are actually self-supporting? I can’t remember the little bit I read about the gown’s structure years and years ago.

    If you fancy a bit of costume re-use fun, I can recommend the recycled movie costume site.

    • Deanna says

      P.S. Wow! That Mata Hari costume! It is fabulous on Greta Garbo. Have to think it would be ridiculous on just about anyone else. How great must it have been to have Adrian designing just to suit you (and your character)?!

    • Oh goodness, you are right, thank you! It’s the revolving door dress from Grand Hotel, but I left out the last bits.

      The Recycled Movie Costume site has actually credited me for identifying the re-use of that Lorna Doon gown, and couple of others 😉

      • Deanna says

        You’re welcome! I saw bits of the movie many years ago. I have it on DVD now, I need to sit down and actually watch it.

        I should have known you were already aware of (and contributing to) Recycled Movie Costume! I want to track down that Lorna Doone to watch now. I saw one from the 2000s that was fun, but kind of off, for me. It seemed to miss the atmosphere of the book. And there weren’t enough Scotsmen. 😀

  5. Ann Seabolt says

    Loved looking at the old costumes. Had never really heard of the actress Madge Bellamy so looked her up and discovered she was from Hillsboro, Texas. That’s only about 35 miles south of us.

  6. Andre Thomson says

    The Travis Banton Cleopatra costume is now owned by Nicholas Inglas and was on display in Brisbane recently. The conservator who looks after his collection gave a museum lecture, and spoke about the amount of stabilising such a delicate bodice required. It was fascinating to go back to the exhibition and review her work after the lecture. It is an amazing (and very tiny) gown.

  7. Hello lovely lady!
    I just wanted to let you know I did a little review of your blog on the Kindred Spirits Club website!
    Here is the link to the post: https://kindredspiritsclub.wordpress.com/2015/11/08/anne-of-green-gables-fashion-from-the-dreamstress/
    I double checked all the links I included in the post & they do lead back to you, so I hope you do not mind me sharing about your lovely site! 🙂
    I have been a reader for a long time, I just rarely ever comment!

  8. Hollywood in that time was far crazier, clothes-wise, than Czechoslovak cinema of the time. I’m not sure which I prefer; some of these are way too over the top for my Czech sensibilities, but on the other hand, you can’t deny they do create an iconic look…
    And I think I can understand your tweaker attitude, as described in the previous post. There are few costumes I want to go all out and recreate myself, too – there’s always something I would tweak, even when my heart goes pitter-patter. Plus my problem with this sort of thing is that when my heart does go pitter-patter, it’s often for a dress in a Czech fairy tale TV film that’s not even available on DVD yet, or something along those lines. 😀 (If I had the time and money for fabric and opportunity to wear it, there’s this yellow Baroque dress from a Czech TV fairy tale that’s not even out on DVD yet, sort of a mantua that I would recreate in a heartbeat… alas for lack of time and money and opportunities to wear. It also appears to be reused from an earlier film.)
    When it comes to Old Hollywood, I have a thing for the softer drapery 1930s bias dresses. So that Grand Hotel dress looks best to me.

  9. I adore the lady’s facial expression in White Zombie – I have not the slightest idea what the movie or that scene are about, but if I were treated to that facial expression as the lady’s date, I would be quite sure that she’d never want tosee me again.
    That dress…is it just me or does it have a 17th century-ish vibe?

    • I’m sorry, it was late yesterday, and making the screen shots had driven me mad … it’s a blouse from Downton Abbey, worn by Isobel Crawley.

  10. sewhistorically.comhttp://www.sewhistorically.com/edwardian-lace-combing-jacket-historical-sew-monthly/

    An Edwardian lace combing jacket from ‘A Room with a View’. I’ve used nearly 15m of cotton Mechlin lace for it! 😀

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