He put Greta Garbo in a slouch hat and trench coat, Jean Harlow in a slinky bias dress and gave Joan Crawfrd her padded-shoulder suits - all once indispensable to Hollywood's glamor look and a pre-television model of chic to millions of American women.
His name was Adrian, or really Adrian Adolph Greenburg, and his designs for the stars and the styles he created later for stores made him one of the most limitated and admired designers of his time.
Last night, a retrospective fashion show of Adrian designs, expanded with film clips and mannequin displays, was held as a black-tie benefit for the Smithsonian Institution's costume collection. Appropriately, the party was held at Garfinckel's, one of the few stores in the country that carried Adrian designs.
Many of the garments shown were from the private collection of a Wyncote, Pa., history teacher named Joseph Sims. Others belong to women who live in the Washington area. (Several costumes will remain on view at Garfinckel's through next week.)
Jermaine Magnuson, wife of Sen. Warren Magnuson (D-Wash.) and a former Adrian model, lent the blacklace cocktail dress sent to her by Adrian after he closed shop in 1952. She had once owned a considerable number of his clothes, but there were stolent when someone broke into her convertible on a trip in the early '50s. Adrian heard about the theft and sent her one design from his "Diamonds are a girl's best friend" series.
Magnuson's dress, in black lace with a panel of nude crepe at the center of the skirt, was a particularly daring Adrian design. "It looked like you were wearing only half a dress," she says.
As an Adrian model, Manguson recalls, you walked in an erect, quiet manner. "Nothing was to detract from the clothes being shown. The clothes were to do all the speaking." To underscore that, models wore very simple hairdow, and shoes were always plain black Delman pumps. "It's quite a contrast to today's models, who are entertainers and salesmen for the clothes as well," she says.
Adrian was 19 and studying art in Paris when he was tapped by Irving Berlin to do the costumes for the Music Box Revue in New York. He went to Hollywood to design Rudolph Valetino's costumes and by 1925 and linked up with MGM where he stayed until 1942 as chief costume designer. His extraordinary range of film costumes included those for "Camille," "Mata Hari," "The Ziegfeld Follies," "Private Lives" and "The Wizard of Oz."
In 1942 he took up designing for store customers. Though business was good, he resented the fact that his designs never got the fanfare that the press accorded Paris designers. He returned to film costumes from "Lovely to Look At" before retiring to Brazil with his wife, actress Janet Gaynor, in 1952. He was working on the costumes for "Camelot" when he died in 1960.
His clothes, for both his leading ladies and his store customers, were always distinctive, rarely trendy.He made broad-shoulder, because they made the waistline appear small. He raised the waistline on dresses for Norma Shearer because it made her look taller. Greta Garbo got close-fitting hats or beaded caps to draw attention to her facial features.
For his wife he designed what may have been the first maternity skirt with a cut-out center, worn with a tunic top in place of the typical black maternity dress of the day.
In the 1930s and '40s, the movies were the trai ing ground for a lot of people who would take cues from the way the film stars walked, sat, entertained and, of course, dressed. "the way they dressed told the rest of use what chic really was," says Julian Tomchin, artistic director for Wamsutta Mills, who was at Garfinckel's yesterday.
"He used fabric in the most flattering way possible. When you lifted you arm in an Adrian dress, it was an elegant gesture because of the cut of the dress. Because of the clothes, you always made a beautiful entrance on any scene."
The clothes were a success with both buyers and customers. Style 346, for example, a surplice-neckline black dress similar to one he made for Carole Landis, who so popular that Adrian, tried of it, did not want it photographed and is said to have refused to let his wife wear it. Marshall Field, the Chicago department store, sold over 1,000 copies of the style in three months. He repeated versions of its for several years.
Eileen Dodd, a former Mary Washington College teacher who bought the dress at Garfinckel's in the late 1940's, remembers wearing the dress often to college teas and musicales. She recently donated it to the Smithsonian's costume collection.
She doesn't remember the prce, but recalls a cleak saying, "it was a good investment," Dodd agrees.
Any chance tha the Adrian style will return? "Absolutely, insists Mimi Liebeskind, co-owner with her husband of the Ann Taylor chain of boutiques.
But California designer Harrie Sellwyn, whose firm, Fragments, makes unlined, lightweight layers of clothing, isn't so sure. "At least no until someone figures out a way to make machine-washable shoulder pads," she says.