It’s 1935. A slender, handsome man, impeccably dressed in a fashionable tailored suit, with slicked hair unperturbed by the pacific winds, rushes headlong down a street in Beverly Hills. Gilbert Adrian has an appointment at MGM studios to dress the moony-eyed mega-star, Joan Crawford. Her body is the perfect canvas for his latest design- later named the Adrian Suit or Adrian Silhouette.
Fast forward 12 years. Juli Lynne Charlot, a young dancer, sits in anguish at her kitchen table. There’s a Christmas party in a few hours. She has nothing to wear. Suddenly, her eye travels to a roll of felt propped in the corner of her family’s living room. In a stroke of inspiration, she grabs the roll, snips here, snips there, and voila! A full-bodied A-line skirt appears. She goes to the party and is elated to find her skirt the center of much attention- and thus, the poodle skirt is born.
Why do we bring up these two seemingly different snapshots in history? Well here at DFW Style Daily, we love to honor Dallas’ local creatives- the folks who think outside the box, and bring innovation in the fields of Art, Design, Food, you name it (features here, here, and here).
However, in this newly minted Fashion History Series, we would like to pay homage to the standouts in Fashion History who pioneered the path before us. Those, who, with their vision, have completely altered not only the fashion landscape but the way we, as the American public relate to fashion.
In this first installment of the Fashion History Series, the spotlight is on Gilbert Adrian- Hollywood’s premier costume designer turned World War II’s most iconic working fashion powerhouse. And the spotlight is shared with Poodle Skirt creator, Juli Lynne Charlot, who was the epitome of #GirlBoss, waaaay back before hashtags were a thing.
Gilbert Adrian, named at birth as Adrian Adolph Greenburg, was born on March 3 1903 in Naugatuck, Conn. His parents were hat makers and shop owners. There, Adrian would work after school, surrounded by textiles and fashion sensibility.
Though his parents dreamed he would take a straight path to an Ivy League Law School, the highly imaginative child was more interested in design and illustration (raise your hands, creatives, if this sounds familiar!).
It was a chance encounter in Paris that jump started his career. He was commissioned to costume design for The Music Box Review, and later transitioned to Hollywood designing for the most beautiful ladies of that time.
Hollywoodland, a historical account of old Hollywood, had this to say about Gilbert Adrian:
“Not only was MGM’s legendary designer Adrian responsible for creating Greta Garbo’s ‘look,’ he also created the broad-shouldered, narrow-hipped style that is inseparable from our images of Joan Crawford. And, while he was at it, he also created the legendary ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland in the Wizard of Oz.”
Hit after hit after hit, Adrian became the hollywood hotshot but was also renowned with the American public. According to Hollywood and History,
“In 1940, one thousand American buyers voted on their favorite designers. Three of the top nine names were designers from motion pictures; Adrian, Travis Banton, and Howard Greer. Adrian had that kind of recognition.”
After a decade and a half in Hollywood, Adrian’s heartstrings began to pull him in a different direction. His recognition by the general public was mirrored by his new-found desire to design for a wholly different demographic: the working class woman.
In 1942, Adrian opened his own salon in Beverly Hills. This is where Adrian’s lasting impact as a fashion innovator begins to shine. This is when, he, as a designer was inducted into the hallowed halls of Americana, and it all began with the Adrian suit.
This was the standard Adrian envisioned for the average American woman. He believed beautiful design was possible even during the L-85 fabric restrictions of World War II. Adrian became notorious for his ingenuity in maneuvering around wartime fabric restrictions in order to uphold his high standards for womenswear.
These high standards were met by the Adrian Suit. The suit used the Adrian silhouette but also was subject to a special technique innovated by Adrian,
“In Adrian’s hands, a restrained suiting fabric could become a bold and unique garment often by means of mitering, the cutting and piecing together of fabric at an angle...designers who were trying to meet wartime fabric restrictions adopted the distinctive triangular silhouette- square, padded shoulders narrowing into a slim-hipped skirt that Adrian already perfected…” (FITNYC.edu).
In fact, he led the impending change in fashion, and held a place as a top innovator in fashion until the debut of Dior’s 1947 ‘New Look’ collection.
Adrian was an innovator, a master of ingenuity and crafting in a time where sustainability was not merely a trend but a rule of law. He partnered with Pola Stout fabrics and thereby ensured his clientele access to quality American fabrics. His use of striped and checkered wools bypassed the dour expectations for women’s suits, and allowed him to create striking glamorous looks for the average work woman.
Enough about Adrian though. The pioneer had his counterpart in fashion innovation in the human form of Ms. Juli Lynne Charlot. So, let’s turn the spotlight to the OG #GirlBoss, Poodle Skirt creator, decade mover and shaker, and a harbinger of customizable fashion as the world had not seen up till yet.
Young, broke, and beautiful, Charlot took the fashion world by a storm. She had no training, didn’t know how to sew, was a natural on stage but didn’t know squat about business. None of this stopped her. At the age of 25, she created the first poodle skirt for the infamous Christmas party. The second and third were created for a Beverly Hills Boutique. They sold within minutes. Soon she had orders from Stanley Marcus at Neiman Marcus in Dallas (shout-out!), and Andrew Goodman at Bergdorf Goodman.
Born Shirley Ann Agin on October 26, 1922 in the Bronx, New York, Charlot began performing at an early age. She sung, she danced, and she acted. In fact, her performance on stage was so lauded, she was even invited to join the Marx Brothers as they toured the country. However, after her move to Los Angeles, and at her prime while the country was undergoing a still tumultuous post-war economy she found herself in dire financial straits.
Her street-savvy eye turned to the felt poodle skirt, and soon her business was booming. The whimsical designs which showcased a wide range of appliqués were popular with the general public who craved color, fantasy and joy in their clothes after decades of war restrictions.
However, it was her appeal to a new market demographic that really cemented her place in fashion history. The poodle skirt found mass popularity with teenage girls. Easily customizable skirts which often came in bright pastel colors, were a way for girls to showcase their budding personalities.
The A-line skirts, just in time to line up with Dior’s 1947 "New Look", were not only of the vogue silhouette of the time, but were also a hallmark of Diner Culture Fashion. This newly burgeoning diner culture was symbolic of America’s reputation as a melting pot. The diner was where people from all walks of life could come together in peace and unity. So, in this context the poodle skirt fit right in.
The poodle skirt, the first item of fashion which propelled teenage girls as an important market demographic, was also incredibly inclusive. This new relationship to fashion, where personality and customization was showcased, allowed the consumer to have a more intimate regard for what they wore. It paved the way for freedom of thought and whimsy for American design.
It is this salute to the consumer that made Charlot’s innovative design so appealing, and cemented it as an icon of the 1950s. Charlot, the OG #GirlBoss, found herself the accidental leader of a fashion movement towards more individualized design at a friendly price.
These fashion icons, the standouts of Fashion History, are those who irreparably changed the landscape of American fashion. They were brave enough to take a chance on their creativity, their innovations, and their products. Just like the Dallas Creatives we love to feature on DFW Style Daily, these pioneers forged ahead with new ideas in times that were heavy with tumult.
We pay homage to these iconic creatives because we know they helped us ride the winds of change with honor and integrity. While this installment focuses on Gilbert Adrian and Juli Lynne Charlot, really we write in respect to those who push the boundaries, and keep us, as humanity moving forward into the light.
Until next time guys!Image 1 courtesy of Reddit. Image 2 courtesy of Pinterest. Image 3 courtesy of The Texas Fashion Collection. Image 4 courtesy of The Vintage Traveler. Image 5 courtesy of Pinterest.