Early Hollywood Costume Design: A Brief Overview

In the early days of the film industry, the fledgling production studios had not yet established the massive industrial complex of Hollywood movie-making. Films were created almost piecemeal, thrown together in a matter of days in order to keep fresh material in front of fickle audiences. There was little room in the budget for an on-site costume designer to provide ensembles for the films, so actors generally raided their personal wardrobes to create a “look” for their onscreen counterparts. In fact, actors played a large part in deciding what their characters would ultimately look like onscreen. The silent-film era saw the first “costume departments” being put together in the form of a communal dressing room, of sorts, from which actors could pick and choose what they wished to wear for particular scenes. Astute modern viewers may notice that certain costumes–or pieces of costumes–are used in multiple films. Not only was this a cost-saving measure for early studios, but it also allowed for some creativity on the parts of performers looking to make an impression. And in the case of one notable star, it enabled the development of an iconic symbol of silent cinema.

The “Little Tramp” character debuted onscreen in 1914 in a Mack Sennett (Keystone) short, Kid Auto Races at Venice. The Tramp quickly became one of the most popular figures in silent films, and has endured as an idol of the period. The character was the brainchild of actor Charlie Chaplin, but the creation of the Tramp was almost organic in its last-minute development. When Sennett told Chaplin to go make himself up for a role just before shooting, inspiration struck and the Tramp was born. In his 1964 autobiography, Chaplin writes:

“On the way to the wardrobe I thought I would dress in baggy pants, big shoes, a cane and a derby hat. I wanted everything to be a contradiction: the pants baggy, the coat tight, the hat small and the shoes large. I was undecided whether to look old or young, but remembering Sennett had expected me to be a much older man, I added a small moustache, which I reasoned, would add age without hiding my expression. I had no idea of the character. But the moment I was dressed, the clothes and the makeup made me feel the person he was. I began to know him, and by the time I walked on stage he was fully born.”

In Dressed: A Century of Hollywood Costume Design (2007), Deborah Nadoolman Landis (noted costume designer and wife of director John Landis) further relates the details of the Tramp’s creation:

“It was from … [a Keystone] dressing room closet … that Charlie Chaplin gathered what became the trademark clothing of the ‘Little Tramp’ … Biographer David Robinson recounts, ‘The legend is that it was concocted one rainy afternoon in the communal male dressing room at Keystone, when Chaplin borrowed Fatty Arbuckle’s voluminous trousers, tiny Charles Avery’s jacket, Ford Sterling’s size fourteen shoes which we was obliged to wear on the wrong feet to keep them from falling off, a too-small derby belonging to Arbuckle’s father-in-law, and a moustache intended for Mack Swain’s use, which he trimmed to toothbrush size.’ Whatever the origin, this unlikely outfit transformed Chaplin into the Little Tramp.”

Indeed, few can argue that the Tramp’s clothing defines his character. The Tramp appears to be an underdog, a symbol of humanity’s struggle to endure the trials of everyday life, and because of this, he elicits our laughter, and our sympathy, from the start. The Tramp costume is essential in creating this camaraderie. When Chaplin walks onscreen, tilting back and forth and supporting himself with an ever-present cane, the audience immediately gets an impression about him–an almost clownish figure, though somehow dignified, not at all self-conscious about his ill-fitting clothes. The concept was a masterstroke on the part of Chaplin, who instinctively understood the importance of costume in defining a character.

Around the same time that Chaplin was crafting the character that would define his career, filmmaker D.W. Griffith was forming the precursor to the modern film costume department. In his final film for the Biograph studio, Judith of Bethulia (1914), Griffith had the costumes for the leading characters specifically designed and created by an outside source (which may have contributed to the movie’s bloated budget).

The conflict that arose in the wake of Judith’s filming–Biograph was displeased with the costs and with the idea of creating feature-length films instead of shorts–led Griffith to leave the studio and form his own production company. It was a wise move for the director; his desire to create longer films and experiment with new technology and modes of filmmaking led to the biggest success of his career only a year later. For the costumes in that controversial opus, The Birth of a Nation (1915), Griffith turned to the mother of his star, Lillian Gish, who designed and created the outfits for the leading characters. Gish herself had a hand in the costumes for her character, Elsie: as recounted by Landis, Gish would later recall, “[D]uring the famous cliff scene I experimented with a half dozen dresses until I hit upon one whose plainness was a guarantee that it would not divert from my expression in that which was a very vital moment.” A year later, during the filming of Intolerance, Griffith took his attention to costuming detail one step further, hiring Clare West, the first “studio designer,” to craft costumes for not only the leads, but for all of the extras, too. Whether he intended to or not, Griffith built the template for the costume departments that would become a vital part of the studio system in later years.

West was hired by Cecil B. DeMille in 1918, where she designed extravagant costumes for almost a dozen DeMille pictures. West’s designs were extremely popular with the public. She dressed Gloria Swanson in Why Change Your Wife? and Something to Think About (both 1920), Norma Talmadge (pictured below in one of West’s designs) in Ashes of Vengeance, The Song of Love (both 1923), and Secrets (1924), and was the uncredited costumer for Buster Keaton’s

Norma Talmadge

Sherlock Jr. (1924). West was the first designer to have this kind of sartorial partnership with a filmmaker, an arrangement that eventually gave rise to the development of studio costume departments headed by famed designers–among them such notable names as Adrian (MGM 1928-1941); Helen Rose (MGM 1943-1960s); Edith Head (Paramount 1938-1967, Universal 1967-1981); Orry-Kelly (Warner Bros. 1932-1944); and Walter Plunkett (RKO 1929-1940, MGM 1946-1966).

These partnerships gave each studio’s films a distinctive look, and the designers’ works influenced American fashion in innumerable ways. As performers took their personal wardrobe cues from the designs they sported onscreen, the star-worshiping public became enamored with the stars’ style and sought to emulate it. And audiences still seek to recreate the fashions worn by current-day stars. Though modern costumers don’t typically enjoy the same name recognition as their predecessors, the links between fashion and film remain undeniable, and undeniably important.

Brandie Ashe is a writer and recent escapee from graduate school. She is now in hiding on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Brandie and her blog co-authors Carrie and Nikki recently celebrated their 100th post on their blog True Classics: The ABCs of Classic Film, where they share their love of Alfred Hitchcock, screwball comedies, Katharine Hepburn, and all things old-school Disney. Visit their Facebook page here.

  • sugarpussoshea

    Most of us know that the clothes tell much about the character the actor is playing. Who was is – Victor Fleming that wanted real parisian lace on the “bloomers” of the O’Hara sisters?? or was that Pride and Prejudice?? Seems a waste to me – but they understood their parts much better becuz of this costly idea.
    But, what I have found fascinating is the dresses Kay Francis almost wore. How did some of those clothes stay on?? The velvet robe in “Jewel Robbery” has me totally flumaxed. It duzn’t look glued on – and she has nothing on top to keep it up. Anybody got any ideas???
    Anyone enjoying all the animal prints available today??? I am – but am enjoying seeing all the animal print styles from Marilyn Monroe, Ester Williams, and many others in the 30’s & 40’s. I don’t know that they have come back with as much glamour as they had in the past.
    Another dress that is such a big part of the movie is that gorgeous white dress Elizabeth Taylor wore in A Place in the Sun – she was literally breath-taking. And not too shabby in the other white dress Edith Head made for her in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. It was very similar to one she wore in Elephant Walk, too. She wore dresses and slips that will continue to be talked about for a long time to come. So will Marilyn Monroe dresses. It was said she demanded 1 outstanding dress for each picture that wud also cause a big bang – I think she got it in most of her movies.
    Even in the horrid new movie “the Help” – someone did a better job with the late 50’s/early 60’s clothes that anyone living during that time actually wore – except maybe those being dressed by Oleg Casini – Szhak-lene Kennedy, Grace Kelly, Gene Tierny, and Audrey hepburn.
    Duke Wayne with his characteric shirts with buttons up and down the left and right sides, scarf, hats made his statement. And Clark Gable with the waist band on the back of his jackets – too broaden his shoulders??? or just make them fit right?? – all have been a very important part in the enjoyment of these motion pictures. And, believe me – I cud go on with the peacock outfit Hedy Lamarr wore in Samson and Delilah, etc. etc., etc.

  • Barbara Atkinson

    As one who is very uninformed about this aspect of film appreciation, many thanks to the author for submitting this article. Appreciate the sharing of your knowledge and the effort involved in getting this out for us to share. Thanks!

  • Christine Harrison

    I really enjoyed reading this article on a lesser-known aspect of cinema. We tend to take the work of the costume designer for granted now, but it’s interesting to see how the idea of the appropriate clothes for the actors in film came to evolve as it did. Something that always intrigued me was the coiled snake bra worn by Theda Bara in the silent version of “Cleopatra” – according to the sources I’ve read, the designer was not credited in the film, which is a shame. I would have loved to have known who was responsible for such an iconic look. The costumes she wore in that film looked really outrageous (and had nothing to do with Ancient Egypt) and I can’t help but think whoever created them was really enjoying themselves in a big way!

    • http://www.facebook.com/richard.adkins.1422 Richard Adkins

      Actually Bara’s designer for “Cleopatra” was a man named George “Neje” Hopkins, a stage designer who occasionally did film, art director Paul Iribe for “The Ten Commandments” in 1923, architect Mitchell Leisen, later to be a noted director, for “Male and Female” (in combination with Clare West) and Natacha Rambova for “Saturday Night.”

      • http://www.facebook.com/richard.adkins.1422 Richard Adkins

        also it was DeMille’s studio – Paramount – which had the first designer as head of wardroobe, before then, wardrobe was generally headed by women such as Lucia Coulter or Sophie Wachner. Clare West was never given her just due, and after work for DeMille at his new studio in 1925, she then went to work for Norma Talmadge, then as a designer for a downtown Los Angeles department store, and later retired to Reno, Nevada.

  • Neal Tim

    Many 20’s contemporary costumes in films used the leopard or animal prints, including many of Gloria Swansons films. I have photos of my grandmother in the 1940’s with the animal prints, so that look has never really been out of style.
    From what I understand about Theda Bara is that she actually designed and made some of her costumes. Her costumes in du Barry, Marie Antoinette and especially Cleopatra must have set a standard for film costume design. The peacock gown in Cleopatra is extraordinary also. It is interesting to me that the cut of evening gowns from the 20’s films is almost exactly what the style is today in red carpet gowns. And I am glad because the costumes from silent films, such as Ben Hur and many mentioned here are exquisite.