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BY DESIGN : A Lavish Show : The guy who gave Garbo her look also made extraordinary clothes for ordinary women. Now, they're museum pieces.

August 17, 1995|MAUREEN SAJBEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Greta Garbo would not have been the same without Gilbert Adrian. Joan Crawford owes her shoulder pads to him. Dorothy's blue gingham pinafore, practically an American icon, came from his drawing board.

As the head of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer costume department, Adrian was one of Hollywood's greatest and most prolific designers, with more than 200 films to his credit, including "The Wizard of Oz," "Queen Christina," "Camille," "Pride and Prejudice" and the all-female cat fight "The Women." His clothes, full of high glamour, frothy fantasy and femininity, defined the '30s.

But Adrian left Hollywood in a huff when the studio asked him to "dress down" the great Garbo for what would be her last film, the disastrous "Two-Faced Woman." He became a made-to-order dress designer, setting up shop on Beverly Drive in Beverly Hills.

A sampling of what followed appears in "Adrian: The Couture Years, 1942-52," which opens today at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Co-curators Cara Varnell and Kaye Spilker show only a few of the late designer's film costumes amid more than 40 dresses, gowns and suits meant for everyday women. The clothes bear the Adrian signatures familiar to his film-going fans: extraordinary tailoring, beautiful beading and an enduring love for the most American of fabrics, gingham. Also evident are his humor--dinner dresses printed with farm animals, for example--and his love of lavish gowns modeled after historical costumes.

His most enduring creation, the mitered stripe suit, was a reaction to the times, Spilker says.

"During the war years, there were restrictions on fabrics. That led him to do ingenious things like piecing, which was labor-intensive but didn't use a lot of fabric."

Adds Varnell: "He dressed strong women who don't crumble at the end when the man walks out. He gave them tailored suits and strong shoulders. They're not fragile. They were women who could take care of themselves. The '90s woman can relate to this."

But the fashion Establishment at the time didn't relate to it at all.

"Paris had been the center of fashion and this upstart came from California," Varnell says. "The French looked down on him for being too flamboyant, too theatrical."

But women loved him and he clearly loved them back. Actresses whom he had dressed for the screen were among the loyal couture clients. Greer Garson owned the black crepe entrance-making dress with a removable cape seen in the exhibition, which runs through Jan. 7, 1996. A Greek motif evening dress, also donated by Garson, is shown on both a mannequin and in a photograph of Marlene Dietrich. Others belonged to Adrian's wife, actress Janet Gaynor.

For those who would like a crash course in the designer's film work, the museum has scheduled an eight-week series of Adrian's movies, starting with Garbo in "Mata Hari" on Sept. 6. For more information, call (213) 857-6000.

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