Larry McQueen: Finding Carole Lombard's Gown
Discovering Carole Lombard's Beaded Gown
“My Man Godfrey” was a perfectly crafted Depression-era social commentary, showing the disparity of the haves and the have not’s and the concept that people are not always what they seem. It is considered one of the best crafted classic screwball comedies of the 1930’s. The film deals with an idol rich daughter, Irene Bullock and her eccentric out of touch socialite family. Irene finds the character of Godfrey (William Powell), who had himself been a successful businessman but had fallen on hard times due to the stock market crash, in a “hobo village” and convinces him to be her ‘forgotten man” for a scavenger hunt. She later hires him as the family’s butler and falls in love with him along with everyone learning a great deal from him.
Even though the film was produced by Universal, Carole Lombard had the “clout” to insist that her costumes be designed by the lead designer at Paramount, Travis Banton. They had worked together at Paramount where he designed her on and off screen wardrobes and helped to create the Lombard image by teaching her how to stand, move and how to wear clothing. Travis Banton would design the leading ladies wardrobe and his new assistant Edith Head would get one of the first big breaks of her career by designing the others.
Travis Banton had created his name in Hollywood in 1920, when he designed the wedding dress for Mary Pickford the Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in 1924. He became known for the “Paramount Look” which epitomized the timeless understated glamour of the 1930’s and stood apart from Adrian’s over the top, dramatic designs at MGM. Even though he was not the only designer to use these techniques, he had an innate understanding of the use of the bias cut of rich fabrics which pulled into and enhanced the body and the exquisite use of beadwork that became the fabric and played with the light. These fashions helped to create the immortal images of stars such as Jean Harlow, Mae West, Marlene Dietrich, Claudette Colbert and Carole Lombard.
Banton wanted the high fashion in the film to contrast with the world of the depression. He created indulgent but playful costumes such as a bed jacket made of curled ostrich feathers and embroidered Asian-Inspired pajamas. For the opening scenes of the film during the scavenger hunt, Lombard wears a silver/ white bias cut and scalloped chiffon gown and duster that is solidly beaded with bugle beads. The ensemble is extremely heavy and is it a testament to Lombard’s skills in her ability to handle it and make it look effortless. But, it is the combination of these two materials that often destroy these garments and one of the reason so few of them exist.
As an adornment on the gown, Lombard wore her personally owned 152 ct. star sapphire brooch surrounded with diamonds, which she would later wear in multiple fashion stills. During the investigative process of re-creating the brooch, the question came up as to what happened to Lombard’s original brooch. Gems of this caliber and size would not have just disappeared because similar ones have ended up in leading museums. Through various news accounts of the brooch it is known that she purchased the brooch in 1935, but by the end of 1936 through 1938, reports appear that she was interested in selling her sapphire collection. Was this truly because she was no longer interested in the jewels that were beginning to go out of style? Was it because she was getting tired of the competition as to who had the largest sapphire with stars like Mae West, Joan Crawford and Jean Harlow? Was it because her new love interest and later husband, Clarke Gable, disliked what they represented? Was it because she sold her sapphire collection in 1938, when she wrote a check for $50,000.00 for a ranch and began re-modeling it for her soon-to-be husband Clarke Gable, who was virtually broke at the time? Or is it because, as some believe, that they went down with her in the plane crash in 1942 which took her life.
The acquisition of the costume was one of those rare and gratifying accidents. While working with a company that had assisted the Hollywood fashion machine for years but, was going out of business and liquidating all assets, we found two falling apart boxes that hadn’t been touch in over sixty years.
I purchased both boxes, one of which contained the “My Man Godfrey” costume in almost pristine condition. The other contained an equally beautiful older gown that I have yet to identify.
Larry McQueen, The Collection of Motion Picture Costume Design