As I have recently returned from the La Jolla International Fashion Film Festival, thoughts of both modern and classic fashion films have filled my mind. People have continued to ask me my favorites, which of course include any number of the The Style Essentials. But though that list may seem long, it certainly does not cover every single fashion film. A great one to consider watching and adding to that elite list is Vincent Minnelli's 1957 classic Designing Woman.
Designing Woman is an Oscar-winning comedy by screenwriter George Wells and inspired by his good friend MGM head costume designer Helen Rose (below). As such, one can't properly discuss the film without first discussing the life of this great artist. Helen lived an exciting life even from an early age and there's no question in my mind that she was a genius. Her talent came by way of a mother who was a seamstress, and Helen observed her making and modifying all of their clothes with great skill and style. Helen's love for design was deep and she discovered even in grammar school that she wanted to be a great sketch artist in addition to simply being able to sew. Thus, when school let out, she leveraged her good grades with her parents in order to start attending the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. There the city's Prohibition-era club owners scouted the school for talent, and found Helen's sketches so strong that they earned her employment at some of the best dance shows in town. Perhaps most intriguing is that this was 1920s Chicago, which meant that the city and its businesses were run by the mob and Al Capone. These "gentlemen," as Helen called them, became her new bosses and hired her as a costume designer sight unseen in a blind competition. Little did they know that she was only 16 years old.
1920s Chicago (above) and
inside one of its infamous nightclubs courtesy of LIFE magazine
In 1929, after years of working in mob-run Chicago, Helen moved to sunny Los Angeles and married her sweet and supportive husband Harry Rose. Harry was never in the entertainment industry whereas Helen always was. She was constantly surrounded by artistic and often outlandish types while Harry stood quietly by her side; this is what George Wells would later witness and joke about at length in Designing Woman. The universe kept Helen connected with costume design, starting with sketching and sewing period pieces for a costume company off Hollywood Boulevard. She then had the good fortune to go on to design for Fanchon and Marco, producers of national live stage shows that played in theaters before movie screenings. These shows were important testing grounds for many talented people who went on to become stars in the movies themselves--Judy Garland, Mae West, Doris Day, and Ginger Rogers are just some of the performers who started with Fanchon and Marco. Working with the company gave Helen a platform where she continued to get noticed. An admiring assistant ultimately gave her sketches to the right people at 20th Century Fox, who hired her as a costume designer until she was stolen away by MGM. MGM head Louis B. Mayer considered Fox such a competitor that he wanted to hurt them by giving Helen an offer she couldn't refuse. Little did she know that she would be paid to do nothing for many months until the mismanaged costume department finally figured a way to utilize her talent. Ziegfeld Follies (1943) would be her first screen credit at MGM.
One of the many prologue productions of Fanchon and Marco (above) and
Helen's first movie for MGM Ziegfeld Follies
By the late 1940s, Helen became the head of costume design at MGM--after Irene and Adrian before her--and remained so until 1966. Though the talented teams at MGM allowed Helen to continue to indulge in glamour, she recognized that the midcentury was bringing about cleaner and more classic lines, and eventually took costume design in her own direction. The ways she achieved her style were her clever color combinations, luxurious fabrics, and absolute attention to fit. Working with dancers through the years gave her an incredible education in the functionality of a garment. Glamour was important, yes, but clothes also had to move well with a woman. She learned about a garment's "recovery," or how it looks when a woman's motions are completed. What really set Helen apart from other costume designers is that she applied that knowledge throughout her career on actresses whether they were dancers or not. She also established something of an everyday elegance that the average woman could aspire to. These are just some of the reasons she was able to successfully segue into a fashion line of her own in stores once she ended her career as a costume designer for MGM.
Helen's Oscar-winning wardrobes from
The Bad and the Beautiful (1952, above) and I'll Cry Tomorrow (1955)
Because she was known for always achieving Louis B. Mayer's one standing order to "just make them look beautiful" and treated everyone with great respect, Helen worked wonderfully well with all of her colleagues and clients. Many of the biggest were also personal friends--Lana Turner, Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly, and tomorrow's birthday girl Esther Williams were all considered like sisters. She was so close, in fact, that she frequently designed personal wardrobes and wedding gowns for MGM's actresses offscreen as well. She famously designed the first wedding gown for Elizabeth in 1950 and the iconic wedding gown for Grace in 1956 as well as countless others. She did it so well that Zsa Zsa Gabor once said, "A beautiful Helen Rose chiffon dress, a little Dom Perignon, some caviar, and dammit, you're married again!"
Weddings by Helen Rose--
Elizabeth Taylor and Nicky Hilton in 1950 (above) and Grace Kelly in 1956
Grace was so close with Helen that it was she who was originally cast to be the lead in Designing Woman along with her Rear Window co-star Jimmy Stewart. It was a movie that all three were really looking forward to doing together. Because of this, it was very difficult for Grace to pull Helen aside at the end of 1955...even with the news that she was newly engaged to be married and about to become the Princess of Monaco. Of course the reason it was so hard was because the good news also included the bad--that Grace would never act again once she was done with MGM's production of High Society (1956). It all had a domino effect, too; when Grace withdrew from Designing Woman, so did Jimmy, though this was a decision that he allegedly later regretted.
Fortunately, another star who was considered like a sister to Helen was Lauren Bacall. The fact that Grace was suddenly dropping out of the project was only good news to Bacall, who was immediately interested in the lead in Designing Woman. The movie came along when she had not been working for some time; unfortunately, her husband Humphrey Bogart was very ill, and she had devoted herself entirely and selflessly to his care. But now she had come to a point where she really needed to take care of herself as well and this meant wanting to work. She begged producer Dore Schary for the opportunity in Designing Woman...even offering to cut her salary in half to do it. "I fought for that part; I wanted it badly," she later said. "I did everything." Of course she would win over Schary and the rest is history.
Despite the challenging time in her life, Designing Woman actually turned out to be one of Lauren's happiest film experiences ever. It really was perfect for her. For one, the character of Marilla Brown was spot on. "Betty" Bacall had started her career in fashion--even discovered by Howard Hawks' wife, Slim, on the cover of Harper's Bazaar before being cast in his To Have and Have Not. Lauren was a high fashion model and still knew how to show off clothes to their best advantage. She ultimately was so good in the role that even Grace Kelly was envious, insisting (perhaps half jokingly) that she'd never forgive Lauren for doing what had originally been written for her. Another reason that Designing Woman was so perfect was that Lauren was surrounded by people on the production who loved her. The new lead was longtime friend Gregory Peck (Mike Hagen), who she knew when she was still a teenager back in New York. The friendly but combative nature of their characters also turned out to be a "god send" that offered her an "emotional and physical release to compensate for keeping everything inside at home." Bogart was even able to visit the set multiple times--bringing their children to the Beverly Hills Hotel and sailing their boat the Santana to the marina on those respective shooting days--so it was a relatively happy time for the family as a whole.
Then, of course, is the fact that Designing Woman is based on the life of her good friend Helen Rose with a cavalcade of extraordinary costumes designed by her as well. You get to see quite a bit of Helen's design process in this film, such as her sketches and stages of her work on models in the showroom. You also get to experience her range as a designer. The high fashion gowns in a show for buyers. Costumes on dancers such as co-star Dolores Gray (Lori Shannon) for a Broadway-type show. The contrast of clothes worn by Marilla's polished friends against those worn by Mike's. Extreme outfits like a mink dress worn for a boxing match, which is one of the most expensive costumes ever created for film. But funny enough, it's her most casual clothes that open the movie and lure you in--a sunny one-piece bathing suit and simple pink blouse and jeans--just like they do for the character of Mike. In every instance, you are wowed by the beauty of the clothes, the vast talent of Helen Rose, and walk away understanding what made her, in addition to stylish friend Lauren Bacall, such a star.
For a sampling of the design genius of Helen Rose, you can find articles on The Swan, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, BUtterfield 8, and The Courtship of Eddie's Father and more here on GlamAmor.
The start of the story of Marilla (Lauren Bacall) and Mike (Gregory Peck)
begins poolside at The Beverly Hills Hotel, which is one of my favorite places in LA...
Bogart even brought their kids by to watch filming
Love seeing Lauren in this sunny yellow bathing suit complete with swim cap
Charming to see the chemistry between these two longtime friends
Many things in the movie speak to Lauren personally as much as Helen--
Bacall and Bogart spent a lot of their lives on a sailboat called the Santana
and all of them even had lunch on it during filming Designing Woman
Transitional moment in the movie when Mike starts to seriously question what Marilla does for a living-
"The first one in a series of wardrobe changes that never failed to amaze me," he says.
Sophisticated navy wiggle dress with matching hat, mink stole, brown leather gloves, and white luggage
Note how the production design from Henry Grace and Edwin B. Willis
offers a pale backdrop for her (and others') colorful outfits
One of my favorite outfits from the film--
red coat and wiggle dress with bateau neckline, v-back, and 3/4 sleeves
Sage green dress with subtle draping for work at her salon...
we get to look at Helen Rose's work on the model in the back as well
What's got to be one of the most expensive outfits in film--
belted mink dress over black broadcloth and taffeta bell-shaped petticoat
What a hostess dress--
volume in the sheer sleeves, volume in a striped lavender skirt, and somehow Helen and Lauren pull it off
A peek at some of Helen's sketch work on the desk
I love Marilla's simple suiting as she faces her over-the-top nemesis Lori Shannon (Dolores Gray)
There are many fashion shows in classic cinema and
Designing Woman hosts one with designs by Helen Rose
Love how the lining of the coat matches this red strapless gown
Helen's color combinations dazzle me and
Helen was equally good at subtle glamour
as this gown shows well
More stunning gowns in both patterns and solid colors
"Have you ever been to a fashion show? It's sort of a pagan ritual...a ceremonial dance where the faithful
sit around sipping tea and worshiping clothes. There is a sacrifice, too: $1500 for a dress, $350 for a nightie.
So help me...the high priestess of this slaughter was my Marilla," says Mike in seeing his first show.
Marilla--orange with envy--in still dealing with the fact that Lori Shannon was Mike's ex
Both ladies look very prim and proper
even while fighting for the same man
Subtle glamour for Lauren in a taupe taffeta skirt with chiffon shoulders
A fight at the end between exes and gangsters ends in happily ever after all
Rose, Helen. Just Make Them Beautiful. Santa Monica: Dennis Landman, 1976.
Bacall, Lauren. By Myself. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979.
This article is part of the
and connected to
Christian Esquevin's Silver Screen Modes
article on Lust for Life
by director Vincent Minnelli