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Jean Louis; Oscar Winner Known for Elegant Costume Designs

April 23, 1997|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jean Louis, Academy Award-winning costume designer whose elegant clothes graced the world stage on First Lady Nancy Reagan and scores of glamorous actresses, including his own wife, Loretta Young, has died. He was 89.

Louis, who designed costumes for more than 60 motion pictures, died Sunday at his Palm Springs home, according to a spokesman from Palm Springs Mortuaries.

The designer won the gold statuette in 1956 for "The Solid Gold Cadillac" starring Judy Holliday. A quiet and modest man, he soon donated the Oscar to a museum in his native Paris.

Louis' clients in film and in life were not the only ones to note his talent. Columbia Pictures founder Harry Cohn so appreciated Louis that he gave him full-card film credits--"Gowns by Jean Louis"--equal to that of directors and stars. Louis was the only costume designer so honored in Hollywood for several years.

For television, Louis designed gowns for Young's legendary entrances in 52 episodes of "The Loretta Young Show." Many women watched the weekly show just to see what she would be wearing as she entered through, then turned and closed, the set's stately French Regency doors.

"I learned years ago never, ever to tell him what I wanted, what color, what shape," Young told Palm Springs Life this year. "I learned to tell him only how I wanted to feel and what time of day the scene was. It always worked, both on and off screen.

"Truly, when I am wearing a Jean Louis gown, I feel feminine, attractive and above all elegant."

The stylish Reagan, who was once an actress, considered Louis among her favorite American designers along with James Galanos and Bill Blass. She wore a simple Louis black silk jacquard dress, which The Times dubbed the "landslide look," on the night her husband was first elected president in 1980. When she moved into the White House, Reagan immediately ordered three more Louis suits.

The designer was nominated 14 times for an Academy Award over two decades, often multiple times in a single year. The other nominated pictures were: "Born Yesterday," "Affair in Trinidad," "From Here to Eternity," "A Star Is Born," "It Should Happen to You," "Queen Bee," "Pal Joey," "Bell, Book and Candle," "Back Street," "Judgment at Nuremberg," "Ship of Fools," "Gambit" and "Thoroughly Modern Millie."

Louis gowned about 200 of Hollywood's most glamorous women, including Rita Hayworth, Deborah Kerr, Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, Joan Crawford, Kim Novak, Susan Hayward, Marlene Dietrich, Shirley MacLaine and Julie Andrews.

As the studio system waned and Louis began to freelance, many actresses made sure he would be the costume designer by writing him into their contracts.

Louis also designed costumes for Dietrich's Las Vegas act, including "see-through" gowns that shocked the world in the 1950s and '60s. The meticulously fitted costumes made the star appear nude, covered only in jewels and furs.

Another of Louis' most famous costumes was the strapless black satin dress worn by Hayworth when she sang "Put the Blame on Mame" in "Gilda."

Louis also designed the gown worn by Monroe during her famed rendition of "Happy Birthday" for President John F. Kennedy at a lavish Washington celebration. The heavily beaded gown--which Louis had Monroe sewn into--now hangs in the Smithsonian Institution.

The French-born Jean Louis Berthault began his design career in Paris' Agnes Drecoll Place Vendome. In 1935, he traveled to New York on vacation and casually submitted sketches to the Hattie Carnegie design firm. He was hired immediately.

His new employer suggested that Louis offer a sketch to actress Irene Dunn. She loved the blue satin evening gown and ordered more designs. She also brought him such clients as actress Merle Oberon, the duchess of Windsor and Mrs. Harry Cohn.

Cohn urged her husband to bring Louis to Hollywood in 1944 to become design chief for his studio.

Louis was a master at masking figure flaws and making all his clients look feminine and feel beautiful. Always tasteful, his designs utilized fine fabrics, timeless shapes and dramatic elements such as long trains used by most contemporary designers only on wedding gowns.

In the 1960s and into the '70s, Louis also managed his own couture house in Los Angeles called Jean Louis Inc.

Despite his European training, Louis came to epitomize the California designer, largely through Reagan's modeling of his clothes, as well as Hollywood's use of his talent.

In addition to his wife, Louis is survived by a brother, Adrian Berthault of Paris.

Rosary and Mass are scheduled for 5 p.m. today at St. Louis Catholic Church in Cathedral City.

The family has asked that memorial donations be made to that church, 37220 Glenn Ave., Cathedral City, CA 92234.

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