From the debut of the first feature film in 1906 to the current box office hits, American society has been strongly influenced by not only the plot and actors in the films, but by the costumes that they wear. Costumes play a role in bringing the stories and plot-lines to life. From their debut in 1914, costume designers and their designs have evolved a great deal; yet the one thing that the passage of time has not altered is the incredible effect that the designs have on the world of film, the fashion industry, and most importantly, on the audience.

Origin and Development of Costume Design in Film
Costumes were first used in theatrical performances dating as far back as Ancient Greece. To this day costumes are still used as a “storytelling tool, communicating subtle details of each character’s personality and history quickly and economically to the audience” (Nusim).

The first motion pictures were silent films. Costumers were not yet in use as the budgets of the first films were small. It was the actors themselves who “played a large part in deciding what their characters would ultimately look like onscreen” (true classics) by pulling together various articles of clothing from their personal wardrobes. It was during the silent movie era that communal dressing rooms came about, where actors were able to choose what they wished to wear for their scenes. A very well known silent-movie star, Charlie Chaplin, was interviewed on his clothing choice for his very well known role as the Tramp and stated,

Charlie Chaplin as The Tramp
Charlie Chaplin as The Tramp

On 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 (Frayling).

The importance of costuming was not as appreciated in the early days of film as it is at present. Costumes were viewed as minor accessories, not as factors which added depth to the characters and storyline. Sue Harper states,

...the whole field of costume discourse has, until recently, had rather a low status. Nips and tucks in an ensemble, or the genital symbolism
in certain costume items, have often been downgraded as of lesser significance in a whole film than (say) the script or the cinematography (Harper).

For some time costuming was overlooked by both the filmmakers and audiences, and was not seen as playing a role in the success of a film. In 1914 D.W. Griffith was the first filmmaker to stray from this pattern by having “the costumes for the leading characters specifically designed and created by an outside source” (True Classics). This outside source was Clare West, who later became known as the first studio designer. Clare West moved on to become the “chief costume designer for De Mille in the 1920's,” and the “first to be signed by Paramount” (Dirks).

The 1930’s and 1940’s, which have been “nostalgically labeled ‘The Golden Age of Hollywood’” (Dirks), were a time of great technological changes and advancements which led to the end of the silent movie period. With developments such as these, as well as the introduction of color, the audiences were able to better appreciate the costumes that the actors were wearing. Costume design “is one of the primary keys to a film's success” (Benesh). It is through the use of costumes that audiences are transported to a different world—a different time, a different place, a new reality. Scenery also contributes to the overall effect that a film has on its audiences, however, it is the costumes that illustrate the real story behind the characters, letting audiences in on some of the details of their lives.

First Academy Awards for Best Costume Design

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences brought to light the importance of costume design during the 21st Academy Awards in 1948 where “Costume Design was added to the ballots” (Academy). It was through this change that an even greater appreciation for costume design was developed. Roger K. Furse won the Academy Award for Best Costume for the black and white film Hamlet. Dorothy Jeakins and Madame Karinska won the award for Best Costume for the color film Joan of Arc. The award for Best Costume has been included in all 85 subsequent Academy Award ceremonies. The award for black and white films went away in 1966.

Academy Awards for Best Costume Design:

1948(21st): Hamlet -- Roger K. Furse (Black-and-White)
Joan of Ark -- Dorothy Jeakins, Karinska (Color)

1949: The Heiress -- Edith Head, Gile Steele (Black-and-White)
The Adventures of Don Juan-- Leah Rhodes, Travilla, Marjorie Best (Color)

1950: All About Eve -- Edith Head, Charles LeMarie (Black-and-White)
Samson and Delilah -- Edith Head, Dorothy Jeakins, Elois Jenssen, Gile Steele, Gwen Wakeling (Color)

1951: A Place in the Sun -- Edith Head (Black-and-White)
An American in Paris -- Orry-Kelly, Walter Plunkett, Irene Sharaff (Color)

1952: The Bad and the Beautiful -- Helen Rose (Black-and-White)
Moulin Rouge -- Marcel Vertes (Color)

1953: Roman Holiday -- Edith Head (Black-and-White)
The Robe -- Charles LeMaire, Emile Santiago (Color)

1954: Sabrina -- Edith Head (Black-and-White)
Gate of Hell -- Sanzo Wada (Color)

1955: I'll Cry Tomorrow -- Helen Rose (Black-and-White)
Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing -- Charles LeMaire (Color)

1956: The Solid Gold Cadillac -- Jean Louis (Black-and-White)
The King and I -- Irene Sharaff (Color)

1957: Les Girls -- Orry-Kelly

1958: Gigi -- Cecil Beaton

1959: Some Like It Hot -- Orry-Kelly (Black-and-White)
Ben-Hur -- Elizabeth Haffenden (Color)

1960: The Facts of Life -- Edith Head, Edward Stevenson (Black-and-White)
Spartacus -- Valles, Bill Thomas (Color)

1961: La Dolce Vita -- Piero Gherardi (Black-and-White)
West Side Story -- Irene Sharaff (Color)

1962: What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? -- Norma Koch (Black-and-White)
The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm -- Mary Wills (Color)

1963: Federico Fellini's 8-1/2 -- Piero Gherardi (Black-and-White)
Cleopatra -- Irene Sharaff, Vittorio Nino Novarese, Renie (Color)

1964: The Night of the Iguana -- Dorothy Jeakins (Black-and-White)
My Fair Lady -- Cecil Beaton (Color)

1965: Darling -- Julie Harris (Black-and-White)
Doctor Zhivago -- Phyllis Dalton (Color)

1966: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? -- Irene Sharaff (Black-and-White)
A Man for All Seasons -- Elizabeth Haffenden, Joan Bridge (Color)

1967: Camelot -- John Truscott

1968: Romeo and Juliet -- Danilo Donati

1969: Anne of the Thousand Days -- Margaret Furse

1970: Cromwell -- Nino Novarese

1971: Nicholas and Alexandra -- Yvonne Blake, Antonio Castillo

1972: Travels with My Aunt -- Anthony Powell

1973: The Sting -- Edith Head

1974: The Great Gatsby -- Theoni V. Aldredge

1975: Barry Lyndon -- Ulla-Britt Soderlund, Milena Canonero

1976: Fellini's Casanova -- Danilo Donati

1977: Star Wars -- John Mollo

1978: Death on the Nile -- Anthony Powell

1979: All That Jazz -- Albert Wolsky

1980: Tess -- Anthony Powell

1981: Chariots of Fire -- Milena Canonero

1982: Gandhi -- John Mollo, Bhanu Athaiya

1983: Fanny & Alexander -- Marik Vos

1984: Amadeus -- Theodor Pistek

1985: Ran -- Emi Wada

1986: A Room with a View -- Jenny Beavan, John Bright

1987: The Last Emperor -- James Acheson

1988: Dangerous Liaisons -- James Acheson

1989: Henry V -- Phyllis Dalton

1990: Cyrano de Bergerac -- Franca Squarciapino

1991: Bugsy -- Albert Wolsky

1992: Bram Stoker's Dracula -- Eiko Ishioka

1993: The Age of Innocence -- Gabriella Pescucci

1994: The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert -- Lizzy Gardiner, Tim Chappel

1995: Restoration -- James Acheson

1996: The English Patient -- Ann Roth

1997: Titanic -- Deborah L. Scott

1998: Shakespeare in Love -- Sandy Powell

1999: Topsy-Turvy -- Lindy Hemming

2000: Gladiator -- Janty Yates

2001: Moulin Rouge -- Catherine Martin, Angus Strathie

2002: Chicago -- Colleen Atwood

2003: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King -- Ngila Dickson and Richard Taylor

2004: The Aviator -- Sandy Powell

2005: Memoirs of a Geisha -- Colleen Atwood

2006: Marie Antoinette -- Milena Canonero

2007: Elizabeth: The Golden Age -- Alexandra Byrne

2008: The Duchess -- Michael O'Connor

2009: The Young Victoria -- Sandy Powell

2010: Alice in Wonderland -- Colleen Atwood

2011: The Artist -- Mark Bridges

2012 (85th): Anna Karenina -- Jacqueline Durran

Costume Design in Epic Films

As costume design gained more recognition over the years, the designers were given more freedom in their creations. Epic films specifically gave the designers an outlet to show their imagination and creative skills. Epics “often take a historical or imagined event, mythic, legendary, or heroic figure, and add an extravagant setting and lavish costumes, accompanied by grandeur and spectacle and a sweeping musical score” (Dirks). Epics are also referred to as “costume dramas, since they emphasize the trappings of a period setting: historical pageantry, costuming and wardrobes, locale, spectacle, decor and a sweeping visual style. They often transport viewers to other worlds or eras: ancient times, biblical times, the Middle Ages, the Victorian era, or turn-of-the-century America” (Dirks). Epic film categories may combine with other genres. An example of an epic in the historical/western genre would be Dances With Wolves (1990). The very popular Star Wars films are an example of science-fiction epics. Cleopatra (1934) and The Ten Commandments (1956) are epics that fall under the Biblical/Roman Empire genre. Other very well known epics include Gone With the Wind (1939), Patton (1970), Schindler's List (1993), and Ben-Hur (1959). These are not your run of the mill films, they tell the stories of fallen nations, important historical figures, wars, etc. While these films feature a gripping plot line, it is the costumes which allow for the audiences to be transported to a different time, whether it be the past or the future. The costumes bring the events and stories in the films to life right before the audience’s eyes, making the films memorable, colorful, and for lack of a better word, epic.

Dances With Wolves
Dances With Wolves

Star Wars
Star Wars


Gone With the Wind
Gone With the Wind

Schindler's List
Schindler's List

Ben Hur
Ben Hur

Changes in Costume Design and its Effect on Audiences

The world of fashion is always changing and modernizing; these developments are then mirrored in the costumes worn by actors. Through the years, it has become clear that the public will do almost anything to emulate an actor. These actors sport a variety of looks onscreen, all designed by the costume designers. The changing trends in the fashion world imitate the changing trends that occur onscreen. From the beginning of costume design, there has always been a link between costumes in films and the fashion world. A great many costume designers and even actors have extended their talent for design into the fashion world, thus making their incredibly coveted and popular styles available to the public, for a high price, of course.

Most Celebrated Costume Designers—Adrian Adolph Greenberg and Edith Head

Adrian Greenberg
Adrian Greenberg

Over the years, a great many costume designers have graced the world of film with their talents. Two costume designers in particular, Adrian Adolph Greenberg and Edith Head,
have left behind a legacy unlike any other. Adrian’s designs “epitomized the silver screen's larger-than-life glamour” (White).

Adrian’s Hollywood designs were also "hugely influential on mainstream fashion” (White). The clothing that the actors of Hollywood wore become a topic of great interest to the
American public. An example of this would be how the "broad-shouldered suits and coats for Joan Crawford became very popular and widely copied" (History Wired).
Furthermore, "the huge puffed sleeves for the dress Joan Crawford wore in the 1933 movie "Letty Lyndon" caused American women from coast to coast to buy puffed-sleeve
dresses" (History Wired).

Adrian was the creative director for “MGM's Wizard of Oz (1939), one of his most acclaimed productions” (Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia).

Greta Garbo wore a gown designed by Adrian in the 1930 film Inspiration. Pictured below is the design sketch for this dress as well as the gown itself. These two items are located in The Drexel Digital Museum.

Adrian Greenberg Design
Adrian Greenberg Design
Original Dress by Adrian Greenberg
Original Dress by Adrian Greenberg

Edith Head
Edith Head

Edith Head, another American costume designer, began working for the “motion pictures in the early 1930s, working at Paramount for most of her
career and moving to Universal in 1967” (Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia). Head won a total of eight Academy Awards for films such as The Heiress (1949),
All About Eve (1950), Samson and Delilah (1951), etc. Head “was responsible for such classic bits of costumery as Mae West's ostrich feathers,
Dorothy Lamour's sarongs, and Audrey Hepburn's Sabrina necklines” (Encyclopedia). Head made sure that “the costumes showcased the star’s
personality as well as the character of the particular film” (Schemering).

Pictured below is the sketch of a costume worn by Jeanmarie in the 1956 film Anything Goes

Edith Head Design
Edith Head Design


Benesh, Carolyn L.E. “Hollywood and History: Costume Design in Film” Ornament; Summer 88, Vol. 11 Issue 4, p36. Web. 2013 <>

Dirks, Tim, ed. “Filmsite Movie Review” AMC: American Movie Classics, LLC, 2010. Web. 2013. <>.

"Edith Head." Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6Th Edition (2013): 1. Academic Search Complete. Web. 2 Apr. 2013

Frayling, Christopher. “Charlie Chaplin: how he turned into the Tramp.” 2013. Web. Tramp.html

"Gilbert Adrian." Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6Th Edition (2013): 1. Academic Search Complete. Web. 2 Apr. 2013.

Grier, Katherine C. "Men And Women: A History Of Costume, Gender, And Power." Journal Of American History 78.3 (1991): 988-993. Academic Search Complete. Web. 2 Apr. 2013.

Harper, Sue. "Hollywood Catwalk: Exploring Costume And Transformation In American Film." Historical Journal Of Film, Radio & Television 31.2 (2011): 286-288. Academic Search Complete. Web. 2 Apr. 2013.

Nusim, Roberta. “Character by Design.” The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, 2013. Web. 2013 <>

Schemering, Christopher. "Edith Head's Hollywood (Book)." Library Journal 108.16 (1983): 1806. Academic Search Complete. Web. 2 Apr. 2013

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, 2013. Web. 2013. <>

White, Renee Minus. "Costume Institute spotlights American glamour in Hollywood." New York Amsterdam News 23 May 2002: 17. Academic Search Complete. Web. 2 Apr. 2013.

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