Howard Hughes’ reputation for being a wealthy and eccentric Hollywood playboy is well documented. What is largely unknown about this aviator and film producer is that he also invented the push-up bra, or”cantilever brassiere”. His muse was the voluptuous screen legend Jane Russell, who starred in his infamous film The Outlaw.
Hughes is often credited with discovering (and dating) the most legendary actresses of his day. Scorsese’s biopic makes much of his romantic ties to Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett) and Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale), as well as his discovery of Jean Harlow (Gwen Stefani). But equally important is the film’s homage to ‘30s fashion. Sandy Powell, the movie’s costume designer, says it was a time when glamorous women were immortalized on celluloid in daring bias-cut gowns.”Madame Vinnet was the first designer to cut volumes of fabric in this extravagant way,” says Powell.”Fabric had been rationed during World War I, so these dresses were a post-war celebratory sort of thing.”
As Hollywood continued to roll out films packed with elaborate gowns, the studios’ costume designers became stars in their own right.”In those days, fashion designers did movies,” adds Powell, who has worked on such films as Shakespeare in Love, Sylvia and Hilary and Jackie, as well as the upcoming release The Black Dahlia starring Scarlett Johansson.”It’s not quite the same thing now.” (Given the prohibitive cost of hiring a Karl Lagerfeld or Valentino to create an entire wardrobe for a star, many of today’s Hollywood stylists simply shop the collections.)
Travis Banton designed clothes for Mae West, Clara Bow and Marlene Dietrich. Edith Head and Howard Greer both gained reputations for their elegant creations, but the era’s most famous designer was Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s Gilbert Adrian, says Powell. The legendary Adrian famously dressed Katharine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo and Jean Harlow, later leaving the studio to produce his own successful couture line.
While he wasn’t nearly as influential as Adrian, says Powell, Hughes’ greatest gift to fashion was discovering and casting the sultry Jean Harlow in his 1930s film Hell’s Angels. Dressed in a velvet evening gown that barely covered her breasts, Harlow purred her infamous line “Would you be shocked if I put on something more comfortable?” She then disappeared into a back room and re-emerged in a dark robe, provocatively open to the waist.”I’ll try to survive” was actor Ben Lyon’s reply.In direct contrast to the tomboy/flapper cuts of the ‘20s, Harlow’s clinging, bias-cut dresses, low-cut necklines and scooped-out backs, platinum hair, over-plucked eyebrows and wide-eyed appearance were the hallmarks of the sexually omnivorous, feminine trends of the ‘30s. “In many ways, the image of Jean Harlow is even more famous than Harlow herself,” says Powell.
When creating a character’s wardrobe, the Academy Award-winning designer says that emotional rather than historical accuracy is usually more important.”I prefer not to be too rigid about my designs if it’s fiction. But if it’s based on a true story, such as The Aviator or the Sylvia Plath film I did with Gwyneth, I do try hard to be historically accurate.”
For The Aviator, this meant hunting down original fabrics, watching innumerable films from the ‘30s and poring over many personal photographs of Katharine Hepburn. Asked if she felt the actors were a good match for their real-life characters, Powell admits it’s as much to do with the actor convincing the audience.”Physically, Cate Blanchett was a very good shape for Katharine Hepburn– very angular,” says Powell.”By the time she’s dressed and she puts on the voice, you actually think she’s Katharine.” Dressing DiCaprio offered more of a challenge.”We did our best, but obviously he isn’t the spitting image of Hughes. I mean, Leo’s tall, but Hughes was very tall and very thin.” As for Hughes, Powell believes it was his life more than his art that truly influenced fashion.”Basically, Howard Hughes slept with just about every woman in Hollywood, and he certainly mixed with a very fashionable crowd.”
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