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:

“[O]n 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.”

With Jackie Coogan in The Kid (1921)

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 film-making 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 above 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 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.

This post is my contribution to the Fashion in Film blogathon hosted by Angela at The Hollywood Revue. Head on over to THR to see the other entries that have been submitted for this event!

5 thoughts on “Early Hollywood Costume Design: A Brief Overview

  1. Pingback: Fashion in Film Blogathon: The Contributions | The Hollywood Revue

  2. Wonderful post! Lately, I’ve been (slowly) reading Gloria Swanson’s autobiography and she talks a lot about how she would often pick her own costumes. Right now I’m at a point where she’s just recently started working with Cecil B. DeMille and she talks about how impressed she was that he would have all sorts of jewelry brought in for her to choose what she would wear on screen. According to her, DeMille liked to let his actors do that because it gave the actors a sense of ownership over their look and they’d feel more natural in it. Before that, when she was doing extra work, she mentioned how studios would call her up and ask her to come in the next day wearing a certain dress they’d seen her in before.

    Thank you so much for contributing such a great post for the blogathon!

  3. A great post on a subject that seems not as well covered as the 1930s/40s/50s in Hollywood film fashion history. The information on Griffith and his contribution is fascinating; he really seems to have been a pioneer in many more ways than just in cinema technique and narrative. Thanks for your excellent and informative review!

  4. This was very interesting! I had no idea that early film stars had the freedom to create their own costumes. Chaplin’s costume decision further cements his genius. Seems like he pulled it all together in a short amount of time and created an iconic costume!

    I’m glad you wrote this. I’ve been learning so much from everyone’s posts! 🙂

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