February 2010

Send in the Gowns

Freddie Leiba, fashion pundit, salutes 22 seminal film frocks that bewitched the world by Robin Sayers

Growing up in Trinidad, Freddie Leiba was awestruck by the 1953 Esther Williams romcom-musical Easy to Love. “I was living by the sea, and I’d never seen anything like that,” says Leiba. “Someone swimming with lipstick on, wearing diamonds, with lilies in her hair—I thought, My God! This is the way to be.” When Leiba was nine, his family relocated to London, where he eventually studied fashion design and art history. In the mid 1970s, he landed in New York. “And then I got into styling by acci­dent.”

And with the word accident, Leiba displays his trademark modesty: Long regarded as one of the most talented stylists on the planet, Leiba has worked with such renowned photographers as Irving Penn and Horst; held gigs at Harper’s Bazaar, InStyle, Allure and Interview (working in Andy Warhol’s fabled Factory); collaborated with a who’s who of designers; and dressed just about every A-lister you can name. His knowledge of the fashion industry runs wide and deep, but the things he is particularly passionate about are the most stellar dresses ever captured on Hollywood celluloid...

jean harlow, dinner at eight View Video GEORGE HURRELL

Costume Designer: Adrian

“Jean Harlow’s dress was white satin and cut on the bias. It was just a perfect look of the 1930s. They bleached her hair white to enhance this new vision of a blonde, making her into this kind of goddess. That’s when you first started seeing everything white...it actually started a trend that went into the 1950s with Marilyn Monroe and lots of other blondes. But it all started here, with Harlow.”

shanghai express

Costume Designer: Travis Banton

“This movie was lit and directed by [Josef] von Sternberg. The way tungsten lighting was used here was a technological breakthrough at the time, and all the clothes by costume designer Banton were done so that they enhanced the effect of that light. Those cock feathers bring the sensation up to her face in order to enhance its planes. Banton worked a lot with Marlene Dietrich around this time. The look is very exaggerated...theatrical.”

lady in the dark, ginger rogers

Costume Designer: Edith Head

“This was one of the most expensive gowns ever made in Hollywood. The overskirt was mink, and the inner skirt was beaded using multicolored jewels. Because it was the 1940s, you had shoulder pads and gloves. The shoes kind of disappeared into the dress—which is important, because it was all about making Ginger Rogers’ legs look longer. There was surely netting behind that deep V-neck so the dress would stay on her. This was before body tape.”

humoresque, joan crawford View Video

Costume Designer: Adrian

“This dress marks the moment where Adrian really captured the quintessential Joan Crawford look in the 1940s—a long gown, probably made, I would imagine, of a black silk crepe, because there was a bit of texture to it. It was very heavy—padded shoulders, dolman sleeves—and embellished with either beading or embroidery running down one side. Back then, no costumes were ever off the rack. Absolutely everything was custom-made for each star.”

gilda, rita hayworth View Video

GILDA, 1946
Costume Designer: Jean Louis

“What is very interesting about this is, when the film was done, Rita Hayworth was actually pregnant, so the gown was designed in such a way as to disguise that fact from moviegoers. It was made from black satin, with the slit, the bow and the gathering all helping to hide her pregnancy. Louis was one of the great designers, and he worked with Hayworth all the way into the 1950s.”

a place in the sun, elizabeth taylor View Video

Costume Designer: Edith Head

“The prototype of the perfect debutante dress, and every girl coming out or having her sweet-16 birthday party wanted this dress because they all wanted to look like Elizabeth Taylor in this movie, which was one of Taylor’s first films as an adult. It was a tribute to a typical ’50s gown: strapless top covered with silk petals, waisted in silk with a full, bold but lightweight tulle skirt with petals sprinkled all over. It was the most copied dress of its time.”

niagara, marilyn monroe View Video

Costume Designer: Dorothy Jeakins

“Marilyn Monroe plays a femme fatale in this film, and the pink taffeta dress was simply perfect for a seductress—there was both a bow and a cutout near her bosoms. They also famously cut off a little of her high heels to make her hips wobble more and pitch her walk a bit differently and make her somehow look sexier. It was a very risqué look at the time. Niagara was banned by churches when it was first released.”

gentlemen prefer blondes, marilyn monroe View Video

Costume Designer: Travilla

“Marilyn Monroe was not skinny—she had a full bust, she had hips, she had a waist. She was curvy, and she looked amazing in this hot pink taffeta column gown. There was a bustle in the back, matching gloves—and of course she was wearing diamond jewelry because here she’s singing the song ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.’ Everything Monroe did was censored by the Church, including Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. It’s so tame by today’s standards.”

some like it hot, marilyn monroe View Video

Costume Designer: Orry-Kelly

“Because it was just white-and-silver appliqués on the nude chiffon lining this knee-length dress, it was scandalous at the time. There was absolutely no bra, and although the appliqué was strategically placed, it still looked like you could see right through to Marilyn Monroe’s bosoms. Also, the back was slit almost all the way to her behind. A few years later, she wore a very similar dress when she sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to President Kennedy.”

sabrina, audrey hepburn View Video

Costume Designer: Edith Head

“Audrey Hepburn plays the daughter of a Manhattan chauffeur. She goes to Paris and returns a total fashion plate. This white gown with black embroidery was the source of some controversy. Hepburn had a relationship with Givenchy. He probably was the one who actually designed the gown, but Head ended up getting the credit. The studio had control over that. After this, Givenchy started designing on the record for many of Hepburn’s films.”

cat on a hot tin roof, elizabeth taylor View Video

Costume Designer: Helen Rose

“This white silk, knee-length cocktail dress really stood out in this movie, because before this scene, we’d only seen the character in day clothes or a slip. It had an extraordinary cut just perfect for Elizabeth Taylor’s figure: She was very round and womanly, and it’s quite clear from the neckline that the eye was meant to go toward her cleavage. Also, the jewelry here is very simple, so nothing distracts from the purity of the dress.”

breakfast at tiffany's, audrey hepburn View Video

Costume Designer: Givenchy

“This is probably film’s most iconic dress—fashion designers still copy the look today. It’s black crepe, and that massive pearl necklace she was wearing cascades down the back, which was very low cut. And that wasn’t a tiara but rather a piece of diamond jewelry used as a hair ornament. You had the best of everything in this movie—Audrey Hepburn, Givenchy, New York City, Tiffany’s in the ’60s, a score by Henry Mancini...and this one look. Monumental.”

two for the road, audrey hepburn View Video

Costume Designer: Paco Rabanne

“This was the first time Audrey Hepburn cut her hair—she had a kind of Vidal Sassoon style. Paco Rabanne was pivotal in the evolution of the miniskirt. This dress fell above the knee, so it was more of a mid-length mini, not like the micro­minis that girls wear today. But at the time, it was considered very short. The large metal paillettes on top of the light lining made this dress look futuristic. This started a whole movement. It was like modern art.”

the thomas crown affair, faye dunaway View Video

Costume Designer: Theadora Van Runkle

“This long white chemise gown looks quite contemporary, like a Lanvin dress from today. Faye Dunaway was totally covered, and yet it was still very sensual and looked so effortless. Few women can wear this type of dress. It might seem like a shroud or a nightgown on another woman, but somehow, with the combination of Dunaway’s sexy face, that very elegant updo hairstyle and the way the dress hung so easily on her, it was all just perfect.”

the woman in red, kelly lebrock View Video

Costume Designer: Ruth Myers

“This belted, red silk dress is a bit of an homage to Marilyn Monroe’s famous white dress in 1955’s The Seven Year Itch, but it also typified the period in which this movie was made. This was the Flashdance era, and here in a similar fashion, you also had a neckline pulled over and off one shoulder. Then there was Kelly LeBrock’s big, curly, probably permed hair and that bold makeup. Everything about this look, the whole gesture, was very ’80s.”

pretty in pink, molly ringwald View Video

Costume Designer: Marilyn Vance

“The shift dress Molly Ringwald wore here isn’t fabulous, but it was memorable because of the film’s title. This movie was made as the studio system was changing, and they were losing some creative control. Most costumers became freelancers instead of being contracted to specific studios or stars. Wardrobes were starting to be store bought, which was totally different. Now in movies, you can often see a piece of clothing and easily identify the brand.”

pretty woman, julia roberts View Video

Costume Designer: Marilyn Vance

“This was a whole different kind of film fashion. Julia Roberts was playing a Beverly Hills hooker. That short, skintight dress, those thigh-high patent- leather boots, the silver bracelets, the wig—a perfect late-’80s, early-’90s version of what a prostitute in Los Angeles might wear. The costume revealed her profession, but there was also a bit of hope—like any girl could marry a prince—because in the end, it’s really a Cinderella story.”

basic instinct, sharon stone View Video

Costume Designers: Nino Cerruti and Ellen Mirojnick

“In modern films, it’s about the scene, and maybe the clothes become relevant—or maybe not. This movie is not like Breakfast at Tiffany’s, where every costume is breathtaking. Sharon Stone plays a crime writer, so the character naturally isn’t all about clothes. This costume was designed for that one bit of seduction. She looked ladylike, but she was so naughty. As for the film’s fashions...what happened after the ’60s was movies became less fantasy, more realistic.”

indecent proposal, demi moore View Video

Costume Designers: Beatrix Aruna Pasztor, Bernie Pollack and Bobbie Read

“What’s happening around this time in the movies is that instead of many scenes featuring fabulous, outstanding dresses, there was just one situation in the script where we got that kind of memorable-dress moment. In Indecent Proposal, this was that scene, this was that one perfect dress—and Demi Moore was at the height of her popularity at the time. With all the open cutouts and the straps, this black crepe gown seemed almost architectural.”

moulin rouge, nicole kidman View Video

Costume Designers: Catherine Martin and Angus Strathie

“The movie was loosely based on the Moulin Rouge in 1899, during the Belle Epoque period, but because it was also a nod to Hollywood musicals, it had a 1930s glamour as well. Then there’s the rock music, which made it very modern. Nicole Kidman’s beaded bustier has a skirt made just of long fringe, then there’s her black silk top hat with jeweled band. Martin is a great designer. She’s married to the movie’s director, Baz Luhrmann, and works on all his films.”

atonement, keira knightley View Video

Costume Designer: Jacqueline Durran

“Green is a color that tends not to be used a lot for movie dresses, and out of all the ones you see in this film, this really stood out. It looked like the kind of gown you might see on an actress going down the red carpet. It’s backless, with thin spaghetti straps, beautifully draped, probably made from charmeuse silk. Chanel did all of the jewelry in the film, including this bracelet, because Keira Knightley had, and still has, a contract with them.”

a single man, julianne moore View Video

Costume Designer: Arianne Phillips

“Phillips started off as a great stylist and has now become a great costume designer. The look of this movie is so perfectly 1962, and Julianne Moore’s character is seen wearing a hostess gown. During the ’50s and ’60s, when women entertained at home, that’s just what they wore—a type of dress donned when expecting guests. This was a black silk dress, basically a long black panel lined in white from front to back, all the way down.”