Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Cinema Style - All About Costume Designer Jean Louis

UPDATE: Sometimes life just takes you in a different direction. As of July 2019, publisher GoodKnight Books invited me to write Film Noir Style: The Killer 1940s. Thankfully I was able to use all the research I did for Jean Louis' biography in this new book instead. He appears three times - for Gilda (1946), Dead Reckoning (1947), and The Lady from Shanghai (1948). I hope you'll enjoy it!


This week we celebrated the birthday of legendary costume designer Jean Louis and I am thrilled to announce that I have been invited by his family to write his authorized biography.

For the past few years, it has been my great pleasure to get to know the family of Jean and Loretta Young (they were married late in life) and am proud to now call them friends.  They respect my commitment to shining a light on the work of costume designers from the Golden Age of Hollywood and know of my deep affection for Jean.  As a result, they have asked me to preserve Jean's legacy by writing the first biography on his life and career.  I will be given their full cooperation on the project and unrestricted access to his photos, sketches, and more.  I am honored to do so as Jean is one of the greatest designers of all time and responsible for some of the most iconic costumes in film.  Countless designers--both in film and fashion--have been influenced by Jean Louis, yet far too few even know his name.  Obviously, I plan to right that wrong.

Many know that I am deep into writing my first book--THE STYLE ESSENTIALS: HISTORY OF FASHION IN FILM 1920s-1980s--and I will continue to do so.  But I began to understand the need to start Jean's biography sooner rather than later due to the number of people who are still with us that I'd like to speak to about his incredible life.  I plan to work on both books together.

If you have some connection Jean Louis and would like to share pictures, personal experiences, or know the location of his designs, please do not hesitate to contact me at Kimberly@GlamAmor.com.

It truly feels like the stars are in alignment because this month we celebrate Jean's birthday (October 5th) as well as one of his great stars Rita Hayworth (October 17th).  For those who would like to watch their films, the recently launched classic film channel getTV is putting the spotlight on Rita this month.  And, because getTV's programming comes from the Columbia library, you can always find films that feature the work of the studio's longtime costume designer.

But first, I offer you this brief illustrated introduction to the great Jean Louis.

From Paris to New York

Jean Louis Berthault was born in 1907 in the style capital of the world--Paris.  There he attended the prestigious École nationale supérieure des Arts Décoratifs (School of Decorative Arts).  After graduation, he started his career in the early 1930s as a sketch artist for the Agnes-Drecoll couturier.  In 1935, he used settlement money from an auto accident to fly to New York City.   While on holiday, he was encouraged by friends to share some of his sketches with the best fashion designers in the city.  It was Hattie Carnegie who saw the greatness of his talent and hired him.

At that time, Hattie Carnegie (real name: Henrietta Kanengeiser, below) was America's reigning fashion queen and beloved coast to coast.  She began as a couturier with hats and custom-made clothing, but in 1928 she prophetically decided to start an affordable ready-to-wear line of clothes for the masses. As a result, her business not only survived the Great Depression, but thrived throughout it.  Every woman wanted to be fashionable no matter what her budget during these challenging years and Hattie Carnegie made this possible.  She was at her height in the 1930s and by the 1940s, her store had grown and had different departments for furs, hats, handbags, jewelry, vintage furniture, china and glass, cosmetics, and perfume.  The brand became known for being able to dress women "hat to hem."  The only thing she didn't sell was shoes.

Hattie never could sew, but she was a great editor and able to spot and cultivate talent.  Many legendary designers trained under her.  Norman Norell was one of the first and became the head of her new ready-to-wear line.  Others who started their careers at Hattie Carnegie include Travis Banton, Pauline Trigere, James Galanos, and Jean Louis.  Interestingly, all of them spent time as costume designers for film.  Even with this incredible collection of talent, Jean was well known among the designers at Hattie Carnegie.  One reason for this was his design of the 'Carnegie suit' in 1937.  Hattie's slogan was that "the woman should wear the clothes, not the clothes wear the woman," and Jean's design for the 'Carnegie suit' perfectly captured this.  It worked for anyone who wore it and allowed for each woman's personal style.  It also transcended the eras--it was as popular in the 1950s as it was when it first came out in the 1930s.

Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor, in the 1930s in what looks to be a Carnegie suit (above)
and the suit still wowing women in the 1950s

At Hattie Carnegie, Jean developed a loyal clientele. This included royal style icon Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor, who frequently wore his designs.  It also included Hollywood royalty, such as Constance Bennett and Joan Crawford.  It was Irene Dunne who bought one of his first designs--a blue satin evening gown--and remained a customer the rest of her life.  Another was Joan Cohn, wife of Columbia president and production director Harry Cohn.  In 1944, she suggested that Harry put Jean under contract at Columbia as an assistant costume designer.  Jean readily accepted the position, especially because it allowed him to work again with his mentor and former Carnegie colleague Travis Banton. Banton briefly worked at Columbia after his time at 20th Century Fox, and taught Jean the distinct differences between designing for life and designing for film.  Jean's first work at Columbia would be for friend Irene Dunne in the appropriately named Together Again (1944).  The film world would never be the same.

The Columbia Years

Once Banton departed for Universal in 1945, Louis was made the head costume designer at Columbia.  He was then given the rare honor of full screen credit for his "Gowns by Jean Louis."  His overarching style was sleek and simple, but very elegant.  Superfluous details never complicated his designs.  It's for these reason that his clothes remain so timeless today.  During his career, he would help establish the style of several actresses.  One of the first at Columbia was Rita Hayworth, who he worked with in 1945's Tonight and Every Night.  But it was their next movie, the the now iconic Gilda (1946), that turned her into an international superstar. As that character and in Jean's gowns, Rita became known as the "Love Goddess" all over the world.  Her black satin strapless "Put the Blame on Mame" gown, in particular, is widely considered one of the ten best costumes of all time.  It is also one of the most influential on fashion designers--you would be hard-pressed to find an awards show red carpet today that doesn't have at least one dress that owes some of its design to Gilda.  Jean's next movie with Rita The Lady from Shanghai (1947) was another film noir with a stunning wardrobe for the screen siren.  They would go on to do 10 pictures together.

After Rita decided to depart from Columbia (and then even America so she could marry a prince), the seductive Kim Novak stepped up as the studio's new star.  Jean was with her from the very beginning, even designing a special wardrobe for her screen test at the request of head Harry Cohn.  Bell, Book and Candle (1957) and Pal Joey (1958, with Rita) are just two of the films that Jean and Kim did together, and her clothes reflect both the sweet and sultry sides of her personality.  Both movies were Oscar nominated for their chic costume design along with ones he did for Judy Holliday, who was another star at Columbia.  Louis transformed her into dancer "Billie" Dawn for the Oscar nominated Born Yesterday (1950), a particular triumph as Judy was not naturally glamorous and seemed "completely disinterested" when she was dressed for the costume tests.  Yet onscreen, in Jean's gorgeous clothes, she found the character and "even he was amazed at the changes."  Perhaps it's an especially sweet victory then, after 14 nominations, that Jean finally hit the jackpot with Judy's film Solid Gold Cadillac (1956) and won his one and only Oscar.

Iconic film noir style for Rita Hayworth in Gilda (1946)
and The Lady from Shanghai (1947)

Transforming Judy Holliday for Born Yesterday (1950)
and the Oscar-winning The Solid Gold Cadillac (1956)

Kim Novak in her favorite color purple for Pal Joey (1957)
and ever seductive in Bell, Book and Candle (1958)

The Universal Years and Beyond

In 1958, Jean followed Banton's example once again and went to head the costume design department at Universal. There he immediately met another star who he would help define her signature style--Doris Day.  Pillow Talk (1959) was the first of their films together along with her three-time co-star Rock Hudson.  This marked a turning point for her.  "He created a sophisticated allure for Doris that launched a new phase of her career," wrote journalist Tom Vallance.  With this wardrobe, Jean highlighted her phenomenal figure with colorful tailored wiggle dresses and brought out the sexuality in her virginal onscreen persona.  Friend James Garner--who starred with her in The Thrill of It All (1963, also designed by Jean Louis)--said Doris "exuded sex" while still maintaining her image of the All American Girl.  Pillow Talk is so influential that I have chosen it as one of The Style Essentials and it is one of my personal favorites as well.  It started a look she would continue in subsequent films, no matter what costume designer was assigned to the production.  Irene (Lover Come Back), Morton Haack (Please Don't Eat the Daisies), and Ray Aghayan (Glass Bottom Boat) all followed Jean's lead with her.  Jean would return to work with Doris again on her third picture with Rock Hudson Send Me No Flowers (1964).

Another actress he loved and worked with while at Universal was Lana Turner.  Next to Rita, Lana is perhaps the best example of Jean Louis style.  In an era when costumes were becoming more realistic in film, Jean continued to be known for glamour and frequently designed for Lana.  Costumes in these lavish films--particularly those by producer Ross Hunter, which included Pillow Talk--really showed Jean's gift with color.  It was one of his great talents and something that drew me personally to his designs.  "He had the most amazing discerning eye for color," recalls his daughter-in-law Linda Lewis.  "It was a 6th sense for him."  Another of my favorite movie wardrobes is Jean's colorful confections for Lana in Imitation of Life (1959).

In addition to his time at Universal, he also started to freelance for other studios around 1960 and would continue to do so until 1973.  This included the costume design for blonde bombshell Marilyn Monroe for her last films The Misfits (1960) and the sadly unfinished Something's Got to Give (1962).  But his best known costume for Marilyn--and indeed one of the most iconic of all time--is not from film at all.

Jean Louis helps Doris Day find her signature style in Pillow Talk (1959)
and The Thrill of It All (1963)

Giving Lana Turner glamour in Ross Hunter productions
Imitation of Life (1959, above) and Madame X (1966)

With Marilyn Monroe in her last productions The Misfits (1961)
and the unfinished Something's Got to Give (1962)

Acts of Illusion

Jean was not only known for his glamorous costumes onscreen, but offscreen as well.  He was a genius for creating drama for actresses on the stage.  First, in 1950, he designed Dorothy Lamour's stage costumes at the London Pallidum where a subtle striptease revealed her signature sarong underneath.  But his most famous moment on stage came in 1962 when he literally sewed Marilyn Monroe into a flesh-colored marquisette gown covered in 2,500 graduated rhinestones.  In it she sang "Happy Birthday, Mr. President" to John F. Kennedy at Madison Square Garden in front of 15,000 people.  It is an iconic gown that everyone knows today.

Marilyn's dress was inspired by stage costumes Jean created for Marlene Dietrich and her Las Vegas cabaret act during the 1950s and 1960s.  Much like he did for Rita in the 1940s, Jean first created a body stocking for Marlene that perfected her figure underneath; it is one of the reasons she seemed so age-defying over the years.  He then slipped a gown of nude silk chiffon with strategically placed sequins over the foundation garment.  Because he matched the fabric so closely to the color of her skin, it gave the illusion of her wearing nothing at all.  Eventually, Jean designed an entire wardrobe of these 'illusion gowns' for her act in various colors with sequins or beading.  Her show became so popular that she would tour the world performing in Jean's custom-made costumes.  His gowns for both Marilyn and Marlene have had such a lasting impact that they continue to influence many designers today

Marilyn in her iconic "Happy Birthday, Mr. President" gown at Madison Square Garden 1962

Marlene Dietrich in one of her many illusion gowns for her Las Vegas cabaret act during 1950s and 1960s

Lovely Loretta

In addition to film, Jean also contributed to iconic television.  He and his wife Maggie were both great friends with Loretta Young since he designed for her on the Columbia picture Paula (1952).  She then launched The Loretta Young Show in 1953, which was groundbreaking at the time (she was both producer and star) and it became known for its fashion.  Audiences tuned in week after week to see what she was wearing in her entrance and watch her signature 'twirl.'  It is widely reported that Jean created all of her television costumes, but this is simply not true--many designers were involved, including Werlé and Travilla.  Jean would not work with her again until The New Loretta Young Show debuted in 1962, and then he designed all 26 episodes of the series until it ended in 1963 (that time period is reflected in the photo below).

Then, in the late 1960s, Jean would finally step out and design his own fabulous fashion line while continuing to do films freelance at the studios. His label was called "Jean Louis, Inc." and sold through his Beverly Hills boutique as well as better department stores across the country.  Not surprisingly, he was especially popular with sophisticated women in California and New York.   During this decade, he also was responsible for updating the United Airlines uniforms, which made all the attendants look beautiful and set that certain Modern style we still admire today.  Loretta remained one of the best models of his work, though, as you will see in the photos here.  She once said, "I love his clothes because they are understated high fashion and yet seductive at the same time." I couldn't have said it better.

After his dear wife Maggie passed away, Jean and Loretta remained very close and were married toward the end of their lives in 1993.  He was a loyal friend and Linda Lewis described him as "a soft-spoken and quiet man, but with a lovely sense of humor."  He also had great style, which was as important to him personally as it was when dressing his stars.  I frequently speak of the great partnerships between costume designers and actresses from the Golden Age of Hollywood--Adrian and Joan Crawford, Edith Head and Grace Kelly, Helen Rose and Elizabeth Taylor.  Jean Louis and Rita Hayworth should be added to that elite list.  Travis Banton is another with his strong partnership with Marlene Dietrich during her early days at Paramount.  Interestingly Jean, his good friend, would have that kind of relationship with her in the later days of her career.

But obviously, we can't stop there as countless others owe something to Jean.  As we discussed, Kim Novak, Doris Day, Lana Turner, Judy Holliday, and Marilyn Monroe are all examples of his design genius.  We should also include Irene Dunne, Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford, Judy Garland, Katharine Hepburn, Deborah Kerr, Julie Andrews, Shirley MacLaine, Shirley Jones, Ann-Margret, Gloria Grahame, and Lizabeth Scott.  Just to name a few.  Carol Channing, who he designed for in Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967) said, "Jean loved each one of us....He saw us as perfect as the way God made us."

Though he passed away in 1997, the legacy of Jean Louis lives on and on.  His impact can be found in film as well as fashion--Jean is responsible for multiple examples of iconic costume design and it continues to influence many artists today.  As I share in my Cinema Connection series, fashion designers frequently take inspiration from his work.  Michael Kors, Vera Wang, Zuhair Murad, Giorgio Armani, Georgina Chapman (Marchesa), Sarah Burton (Alexander McQueen), and Zac Posen are some who have paid homage to Jean in their collections.  Another is my friend Ali Rahimi, designer for the Mon Atelier couturier, who cites Jean Louis as a major influence.  Jean's vision has been personally meaningful to me as well.  And, to be sure, many more are inspired by his designs likely without even knowing his name.

I know that this is but a brief introduction to the greatness of Jean Louis and his vast talent, but I look forward to sharing much more with you later when I finish writing the book.

I cannot wait.

Loretta Young in Jean Louis

Jean and Loretta happily married in the 1990s

Many thanks to

Chris and Linda Lewis

Other Sources





Hattie Carnegie--FashionEncyclopedia.com

Hattie Carnegie--OnThisDayinFashion.com


Holtzman, Will.  Judy Holliday.  New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1982.



Leese, Elizabeth. Costume Design in the Movies.  New York: Dover Publications, 1991.



Shipman, David.  Judy Garland: The Secret Life of an American Legend.  New York: Hyperion, 1992.




Images as noted ©GlamAmor and thanks to Linda Lewis


Unknown said...

Loretta & Jean make a LOVELY couple
Loretta stated "my years with Jean were among my happiest". The pool photo projects their content.
Although they had only 3+1/2 years together on earth.
I am sure that they are enjoying each others company(in heaven) as we speak!

Kimberly Truhler said...

Thank you for your comment, James. I completely agree with you--they are wonderful together!

DorianTB said...

Kimberly, I remember how my dear late mom, ever the clothe horse, loved Jean Louis; my first look of his work was from Jean Louis was from when I watched the Gregory Peck thriller MIRAGE, on location in NYC. Loretta and Jean were clearly lucky and happy, including finding love for many more years to come! I very much enjoyed your post, as your posts always are! Good luck with your work on the bio -- it'll be great, for sure! :-D

The Lady Eve said...

I'm looking forward to you bio of Jean Louis, Kimberly, and congratulations on being chosen to write it. His designs are spectacular and I've always had a special love for those incredible illusion gowns. Coincidentally, "Pal Joey" is airing on GetTV as I read/write this.

Kimberly Truhler said...

Thanks Dorian! I LOVE hearing that your mom loved Jean Louis. She clearly had amazing taste. I'll bet her closet was something special. :) Glad you enjoyed the article and thanks for your well wishes on the book!

Kimberly Truhler said...

Thanks Patty! I love that you were watching PAL JOEY as you read the article on Jean Louis. Both Kim and Rita in one movie, oh my! I so appreciate your kudos on doing the book. It will obviously take some time, especially with one book already in the works, but know it will be worth it. :)

Anonymous said...

Kimberly - what a great article and preview of the upcoming Jean Louis biography! You've captured his spirit & the glamour he created around the stars he dressed... there's much more to share! The family is honored that you are working with us to share his story! We know JL is in good hands! Thanks for this exciting preview of coming attractions! <3 Linda Lewis

Kimberly Truhler said...

Thank you so much, Linda! You know I love you and have already experienced such joy working on this project. Looking forward to many more discoveries with you! xoxo

Silver Screenings said...

Whee! So excited to hear you're writing a biography of the fab Jean Louis! Honestly, I can't think of a better person to do this, and I can't wait to read it. I know it will be terrific. Congrats on embarking this amazing project. We, your fans, are rooting for you!

Kimberly Truhler said...

Thank you SO MUCH, Ruth! I can't tell you what your words mean to me. I'm excited that you're excited! I really appreciate your support and enthusiasm for what I do and am about to do. xoxo

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